Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mark of Zorro (1940): Robin Hood, Spanish Style

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 fa├žade 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.


  1. One of my all time faves-swashbucking at its best! Rupert, you hit on a key point- Power may have been more proficient in wielding his sword, but Flynn seemed to take great joy in all his antics-not so Power-but he was fun when portraying a scented fop!The lovely Linda Darnell-perfectly cast-as are the entire supporting cast. Movie holds up well and is enjoyable for young and old alike. Great review as always.

  2. Another cracking good review, Rupert! You are very right RE: the difference between Power & Flynn. And, alas, it's that difference that has always kept this film down a notch in my eyes. Power just doesn't have the cockiness or bravado that I've always felt was needed as Zorro. But, since I haven't seen it in a long, LONG time, I willo check it out again, with an open mind.

    Besides, any excuse to watch Linda Darnell is okay in my book.

  3. Great review of a great movie! Our whole family watched this one several times.

  4. One of the great adventure films. I think it's a perfect film, and I don't feel that way about that many.

  5. Wonder how Flynn would have faired in this film? Hmmmm....

  6. Wonderful review again Rupert! I had made a comment about this film somewhere else where you talked about it and didn't see your review so I deleted it because I didn't know if You had already put what I said lol. I love the part about Power getting zanuck back for turning the heat off on the pool which Power liked and of course Power didn't like this trick too much so He got his revenge. Zanuck watched the dailies every day so the cast and crew collaborated to film a spoof version of the hold-up scene where Zorro(Power) robs a coach carrying the Governor and his wife. When Zorro is supposed to slash his Z into the vehicle's upholstery, the camera reveals he has slashed "DZ". "Oh my God, it's Zanuck" his victims gasp and then Power said something else which I can't remember if it is said in the extra's on the dvd but you can find it on imdb trivia but since I am a lady I won't say it here. lol. I love Tyrone in this film. I do love Errol more though. ah I thought my favorite Tyrone was Razors Edge but it might be The Rains Came. Sucker for that movie. :)Oh and I never knew Darnell was so young in this movie. you always tell me so many new things.

  7. I have, sadly, never seen a Tyrone Power film. But after reading this post, I'm convinced that I absolutely must - and especially this one. Great post! Will definitely add this to my to-see list!

  8. The Mark of Zorro is one of my favourite swashbucklers of all time. Indeed, I think this film is the quintessential portrayal of the Masked Avenger on screen.

  9. Great review! I completely adore this movie! And, I NEVER get tired of it, no matter how many times I see it!

    Interesting thoughts about the differences between Errol and Tyrone. Personally, I don't think that Tyrone brought less to the role than Errol would have. I just think they were different. And, I really think that Tyrone was perfect in this film. I somehow can't see Errol playing the "obnoxious" character as well as Tyrone did. But, that's just my opinion. And, I DO adore Tyrone Power, so my opinion is SLIGHTLY biased! ;-D

    Anyway, a REALLY good review!

  10. I like Errol Flynn just fine, but I think Tyrone Power is the definitive Zorro. Power and Flynn are both remembered for swashbuckling films, but in truth, Power was so much more than a swashbuckler. Errol did excel at adventure films, but give me Power in Zorro, Nightmare Alley, the Black Swan, The Razor's Edge, The Rains Came, This Above All - he had a boyishness and an honesty that always came through.

    To me, Flynn was charming but superficial. For the real thing I always turn to Tyrone.

  11. Great review. Its is one of the great adventure films. It's a perfect film and I really liked it. The characters are so perfectly chosen that had made it a huge success.

  12. I just saw this film recently and loved it. This was an interesting article and I enjoyed learning some of the background of the film.



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