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Amongst the most enduring and familiar figures of American heroic fiction, Johnston McCulley's Zorro slashed his initial into the national consciousness when Douglas Fairbanks first embodied the avenging swordsman of Old California onscreen over eighty years ago. Playing no small part in sustaining the character's popularity has been 20th Century Fox's lush remake of The Mark of Zorro (1940), in which Tyrone Power assumed the ebony mask and mantle.
The narrative doesn't hew as faithfully to McCulley's initial Zorro pulp tale, The Curse of Capistrano, as does the 1920 Fairbanks silent, but the core remains intact. The story opens in the early 19th century at Madrid's military academy, where Don Diego de Vega (Power) is determinedly excelling at his training. Reluctantly heeding a summons home to California by his father (Montagu Love), a nobleman who serves as mayor of Los Angeles, Don Diego is appalled by the community conditions he finds upon his arrival. His father has been supplanted as alcalde by Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), a fatuous oaf who has ratcheted up the taxation of the local peasantry beyond their ability to pay. The dunning of the locals is callously carried out by Pasquale (Basil Rathbone), Quintero's unctuously sinister captain of the guard. The elder Vega, as do the other caballeros of the region, despises the present regime but has been rendered powerless to act. Don Diego's first response is to affect the public pose of a pampered, indolent fop, which draws the contempt of those that have known him best, but causes Quintero and his lackeys to erroneously regard him as harmless.
Over the ensuing weeks, Quintero's soldiers find themselves routinely routed on their rounds by a masked swordsman in black, who returns the peons' money and daringly demands that the alcalde step down or face his wrath. Among those intrigued by this immediate folk hero is Quintero's beautiful niece (Linda Darnell), who is as compelled by this mysterious and charming "fox" as she is dismayed by her uncle's entreaties to enter a political marriage with the shallow Don Diego.
Surprisingly, a great deal of the thrust of The Mark of Zorro is spent on the hero's dilemma of being his own romantic rival, with comparatively little screen time devoted to out-and-out action. Rouben Mamoulian, the stylish maverick whose relatively spare but impressive directing resume includes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Becky Sharp (1935), Golden Boy (1939), and Silk Stockings (1957), took a minimalist approach to depicting his protagonist's derring-do.
In his retrospective Rouben Mamoulian (Thames & Hudson), Tom Milne revisited the sequence where Zorro effortlessly invades the alcalde's mansion to intimidate Quintero, and just as cleanly escapes. "The first thing one notices about this sequence is how little [Zorro] actually does, his menace being suggested by a sword-point, his actions by sudden camera movements in the semi-obscurity of the garden," he wrote. "The second thing is that, although the whole sequence gives the impression of being one continuous movement, it is in fact - even the final flight over the wall-composed of a series of brief shots. Here Mamoulian is able to make full and free use of his technique of cutting on movement without interrupting the flow of action".
Rathbone performs to excellent effect in one of the premiere efforts in his extensive portfolio of screen villainy. As he did in so many set pieces from acknowledged swashbuckling classics, Rathbone displayed his gifts with the sword in the exceptional showdown choreographed by fencing master Fred Cavens. Power wouldn't and couldn't bring the sheer physicality to the hero that Fairbanks did, and in point of fact was doubled in the long shots by Cavens' son Albert. Still, he did cut a handsome figure in face and form as the defiant daredevil, and he took obvious relish in playing Don Diego's fey posture to the hilt.
The entire ensemble turned in uniformly fine work, with a scene-stealing performance by Gale Sondergaard as Quintero's grasping, ambitious wife. Eugene Pallette, like Rathbone and Love an alumnus of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), once again donned a friar's robe as a brave padre who agrees to filter Zorro's plunder back to the poor. Complemented by Alfred Newman's rousing, Oscar-nominated score, The Mark of Zorro sealed Power's status as an adventure star, and raised the bar for the many subsequent incarnations of its masked hero.
Producer: Raymond Griffith, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: John Taintor Foote, Garrett Elsden Fort , based on the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
Art Direction: Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Editing: Robert Bischoff
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Tyrone Power (Zorro), Linda Darnell (Lolita Quintero), Basil Rathbone (Captain Estaban Pasquale), Gale Sondergaard (Inez Quintero), Eugene Pallette (Fray Felipe), J. Edward Bromberg (Don Luis Quintero), Montagu Love (Don Alejandro Vega), Janet Beecher (Senora Isabella Vega).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg