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The Mark of Zorro

The Mark of Zorro(1920)

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The image of Douglas Fairbanks that springs to mind to even the most dedicated silent movie fan is that of the grinning swashbuckling hero. From The Mark of Zorro in 1920 to The Iron Mask in 1929, Fairbanks was the dashing leading man of dynamic costume epics defined by his verve and acrobatic energy. But before he leapt into the public's imagination in those flamboyant action epics, Douglas Fairbanks was a charismatic and decidedly contemporary leading man of light romantic comedies, a rambunctious urbanite facing the adventures of modern life and modern love with comic grace and athletic flair. Flicker Alley's magnificent box set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer is not just a survey of Fairbanks' career leading up to The Mark of Zorro. In the words of Fairbanks biographers Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, who write the essay in the accompanying booklet, "this set charts his evolution from screen satirist to swashbuckler."

Broadway leading man Fairbanks arrived in Hollywood in 1915 under contract to the Triangle Films Corporation, where his initial films were overseen by supervising producer D.W. Griffith. "D.W. didn't like my athletic tendencies," Fairbanks recalled in later years. "Or my spontaneous habit of jumping a fence or scaling a church at unexpected moments that were not in the script." That didn't stop Fairbanks from incorporating his gymnastic talents in his productions, however, and audiences loved it. His screen debut, The Lamb, is absent from the collection, but his third feature, His Picture in the Papers (1916), is quintessential Fairbanks from his Triangle period. He plays Pete Prindle, the black sheep son of a health food magnate (Pete uses his family products only to disguise the liquor hidden around his office) who vows to become a success to win his father's approval and his sweetheart's hand. Less a story than a succession of comic set pieces defined by Fairbanks' athleticism and unbridled joie de vivre, it was Fairbanks' first collaboration with writer Anita Loos and director John Emerson. Loos had a gift for satirical scenarios and tartly witty intertitles (a truly underappreciated art practically forgotten in the age of sound) and Emerson had a knack for snappy pacing that matched the energy Fairbanks brought to the screen. Together they molded the material to bring out Fairbanks' unique talents and buoyant screen charisma.

Fairbanks collaborated with Emerson and Loos on nine films altogether, including the sole short subject of the set, the surreal detective movie spoof The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916). Fairbanks stars as a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth named Coke Ennyday, who juices himself with a syringe of cocaine to jolt himself upright, gulps mouthfuls of opium and blows fistfuls of cocaine into the faces of attackers in the course of his investigation. Those wild drug gags would not have passed studio's own internal censors even a few years later. Tod Browning collaborated on the wickedly perverse scenario.

Fairbanks made twelve features (plus the above-mentioned two-reeler) in eighteen months at Triangle, including Flirting With Fate, a dark comedy directed by William Christy Cabanne, and The Matrimaniac, scripted by Anita Loos and directed by Paul Powell (with cinematography by future director Victor Fleming), both included in this set. These are more comedies than adventures and Fairbanks is a romantic comic lead whose athletic talents are an extension of his gags, much like Chaplin's slapstick grace, Keaton's daring play with massive mechanical props (like a moving steam engine) or Harold Lloyd's thrill stunts. They defined the Fairbanks screen persona as the all-American urban man with a chivalrous streak and an enthusiasm that bursts out of him in feats of gymnastic joy. Whether he was the working stiff with big dreams or the foppish scion of a business magnate who transforms into the man of action, he was always "Doug," onscreen and off. When he left Triangle to produce his own pictures through Artcraft (which also distributed Mary Pickford's productions), he was one of the highest-paid films stars in Hollywood, earning a reported $15,000 a week.

Fairbanks proved to be a savvy producer and a smart scenarist - he was an uncredited contributor to many of his early films and wrote many of his later films under the pseudonym Elton Thomas - and he continued to refine the screen persona he had established at Triangle with the help of collaborators John Emerson and Anita Loos, who came along with Fairbanks. Wild and Woolly (1917) is the liveliest of their collaborations, a high-energy comic adventure starring Fairbanks as Jeff, a cowboy-crazy New Yorker playing old west dress-up in his Park Avenue apartment. The son of a railway magnate, Jeff is sent to Arizona to look into building a spur to a growing mining town and the locals conspire to give the Eastern greenhorn an old west pageant to help swing the deal. They dress up their modern burg as lawless frontier town, complete with a population packing six-guns (loaded with blanks, of course), swaggering villains and even a train hold-up. It's a signature character for Fairbanks, the immature dreamer whose inherent chivalrous nature and acrobatic energy makes him a hero when real trouble arises and he rides to the rescue, and the film manages to both spoof and celebrate the gullible Eastern goof. It also, unfortunately, features some of the most offensive stereotypes of reservations Indians ever seen in the movies. The corrupt Indian agent rouses the local tribe to attack the town by plying them with liquor and live ammunition and Jeff doesn't think twice about grabbing his own bullets and shooting them dead. When he remarks "no harm done and I've learned my lesson," he apparently meant that no white folks got hurt. Apart from these reservations, it's one of the most enjoyable films in the set and remained one of Fairbanks' personal favorites.

Reaching for the Moon and A Modern Musketeer (both 1917) are modern comic adventures with fantasy excursion that look ahead to the costume pictures of the twenties. Reaching for the Moon, Fairbanks' final collaboration with Emerson and Loos, is the a rags to riches fantasy of a spunky orphan (Fairbanks) who is embraced as the lost crown prince of the kingdom of Vulgaria. Swept away from the streets of New York to the splendor of old Europe, he lands in a cauldron of royal cloak-and-dagger intrigue and faces it like a two-fisted American increasingly exasperated by the assassination attempts. The fantasy also lampoons self-help books that promote the power of positive thinking, which is a bit ironic as Fairbanks himself published a series of such books (written by a ghostwriter but signed by Fairbanks). A Modern Musketeer, directed by Allan Dwan, opens with Fairbanks in long, curly hair and the flouncy, flamboyant costume of D'Artagnon. He winks the audience, as if to let us know that we're all in on the joke, but when he leaps into an acrobatic swordfight his smile is no longer one of knowing parody, but of athletic joy. The brief prologue gives way to the modern musketeer incarnation, a hearty Kansas boy raised on tales of chivalry who heads off to find his fortune and takes a detour to a Grand Canyon vacation lodge to woo a society girl. Fairbanks is as charming as can be with a smile as big as all outdoors and a can-do spirit that springs to action when his sweetheart is kidnapped by a renegade Indian. He's perfectly at home scaling the canyon cliffs and slugging it out in front of the magnificent Arizona landscape. The film was long thought to exist only in a fragment, but the missing reels were recently discovered and the complete film restored in 2006. The print comes from the Danish Film Institute and this release marks the film's home video debut.

In 1919, Douglas Fairbanks joined forces with three fellow independent-minded artist-producers - Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and D.W. Griffith - to form United Artists, less a full-fledged studio than a distribution company for their independently-produced films. The final four films in the collection were all produced and released through United Artists, beginning with When the Clouds Roll By (1919), one of the more unusual comedies of the set. Fairbanks is a superstitious young swell who is the unwitting victim of a decidedly sadistic psychological experiment: a doctor of dubious moral character divines to drive him to suicide, with the all-too-willing help of the man's butler and building super (they both get far too much pleasure out of the misery they inflict on this sunny young man). Based on a scenario written by Fairbanks himself, it's a strange and surreal comedy with one scene that takes place within his stomach (his dinner, looking very much like a primeval version of the Fruit of the Loom guys, acts up as he tries to digest a late meal) and a dream sequence that sends Fairbanks walking up the walls and on the ceiling of room (decades before Fred Astaire used the same technique to dance on the ceiling of Royal Wedding) and turns his acrobatic feats into a deliriously lovely slow-motion ballet. Former cinematographer Victor Fleming makes his directorial debut with the film. Its success led to a second collaboration, The Mollycoddle (1920), starring Fairbanks as a cultured fop in an Arizona adventure, where the strapping hero emerges from under the European manner and aristocratic affectation.

For all intents and purposes, Fairbanks' dashing 1920 costume adventure The Mark of Zorro bookends the collection with the first incarnation of the new Fairbanks, but in fact he made one more modern comedy before leaving them behind for good. The Nut (1921) is another eccentric society man lost in his own world of obsession, specifically goofy inventions and party gags, until he's inevitably roused to heroism to save his society sweetheart from the clutches of a notorious gambler operating under the pose of a society gentleman. The film opens on a delightful series of contraptions that don't merely wake up our hero, but dump him into the bath, wash, dry and even dress him. The subsequent gags are hit and miss and the film itself decidedly episodic. Fairbanks produced the film as a kind of insurance, in case the Zorro experiment failed. As it happened, The Mark of Zorro was a big hit and The Nut a relative failure. Fairbanks had seen the future and he eagerly embraced it, becoming Hollywood's first genuine action hero.

The Flicker Alley set Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer is produced by David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino, in collaboration with Blackhawk Films, Lobster Films and the Danish Film Institute. The ten features (and one two-reel short) are collected on five discs in a box set of five thin-pack cases. The print quality varies through the collection, from the scuffed print of the His Picture in the Papers to the crisp new restoration of A Modern Musketeer and the excellent The Mark of Zorro. All feature original music scores and A Modern Musketeer features commentary by Fairbanks biographers Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta (their voices separated on the stereo soundtrack). Each disc features a gallery of stills and reproductions of ad art and other items (including Fairbanks' contract with Triangle-Fine Arts) and an accompanying 32-page booklet features an essay by Fairbanks biographers Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta with chapters on each film in the set.

To order Douglas Fairbanks: The Modern Musketeer, click here. Explore more Douglas Fairbanks titles here.

by Sean Axmaker