Monday, April 26, 2010
Picking up where Warner Brothers left off in the swashbuckling department with The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), 20th Century-Fox produced the extremely popular The Mark of Zorro in 1940, casting its biggest male star at the time, Tyrone Power in the lead. The top rate production was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, a visual and stylistic master of his craft. His images of Old California, though sparse are still romantic and visually decadent. The story, originally published in 1919, as The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley, had been filmed to much fanfare in 1920 with the infamous silent film adventurer, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Power, although not as naturally athletic in the role of the masked avenger, was much younger than Fairbanks and with his matinee idol looks, made a more romantic lead.
Taking a page from the Robin Hood legend and even mixing in a dash of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the film begins in Madrid, Spain, where the daring and physically accomplished Don Diego Vega, a young aristocrat who is skilled with both a horse and a sword, is called home to California by his father, Alcalde (Governor) Don Alejandro Vega. The elder Vega has been replaced as leader of the region by a fat, conniving new Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), and his sinister henchman, Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Also in the new Alcalde’s household is his shallow and vain wife Inez (Gale Sondergaard) and his beautiful and innocent niece, Lolita (Linda Darnell).
When young Vega arrives home, he is confused at the frightened way he is greeted, being the son of the Alcalde, and when he realizes the tyranny and cruelty going on with the new regime, he hides behind the façade of a pompous fop, so as to do the real work that needs to be done in order to clean up the corruption. For this he takes on the persona of Zorro, the masked avenger, who rides through the shadows, dressed in black, robbing from the rich and callous to dispense to the poor and oppressed.
Fox head Darryl Zanuck began developing the Zorro film in the late 1930’s. According to Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox by Rudy Behlmer, instead of having just the standard love interest, which he felt was too static, he reworked the romance angle to have two females interested in Power’s character(s). Lolita, played by Darnell, would be the Alcalde’s niece and the new story addition would be his daughter (in the end, the flirtatious character would be the Alcalde’s wife, played by Gale Sondergaard).
In a December 1940 edition of “Hollywood” magazine, it was reported that over $7,000 was spent to create in Darnell, a Spanish senorita for the film, with 38 tests for hairstyle, make up and wardrobe combined. This also included Spanish lessons, to ensure correct pronunciation of the Spanish words, which cost $400 alone. Also included in the cost was $1,200 for her Spanish dances with Power. Darnell had many gorgeous close up shots and her fresh, virginal beauty was taken at its full advantage. Being a part of such an extravagant film directed by the prestigious Mamoulian only enhanced the starlet’s standing both at Fox and in Hollywood The pretty youngster, only sixteen at the time of filming, had made her film debut the previous year, as well as the first of her many movies with Ty Power. In his biography of Darnell, Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, Ronald L. Davis relates Linda’s feelings on being so young, even still attending school classes on the Fox lot while filming romantic scenes. “I would be kissing Tyrone Power and the school teacher would come and tell me it was time for my history lesson. I never before or since have been so embarrassed”
Apparently, Tyrone Power could buckle the swash as adroitly as his cinematic rival over at Warners, Errol Flynn. According to the incomparable Basil Rathbone, who was a skilled swordsman in his own right, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before the camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat.” Fred Cavens, master fencer supreme, choreographed the sword fighting segments to a tee, and with such specimens as Power and Rathbone to bring the action to life, his work was a pleasure to watch. However, it could be argued that as appealing as Power was onscreen, he was no match for Flynn’s devil may care personality in such a similar role. Flynn wore his sarcasm and mischievous grin as a second skin, on Power it looked slightly smug.
Composer Alfred Newman’s zealous score was nominated for an Academy Award, and Arthur Miller’s black and white cinematography was fantastic. It is also worthy to note the performance of Gale Sondergaard. Always fun to watch, Sondergaard, never a raving beauty, has striking and interesting features and as she usually does, slinks and slithers in a most glamorously sinister way. Eugene Pallette basically reprises his Friar Tuck role from Robin Hood, as Frey Filipe, the padre with the pot belly.