Silver Screen Standards: The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Twenty years after the silent hit with Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power donned the iconic mask for The Mark of Zorro (1940), a truly delightful swashbuckler packed with action, comedy, and romance that still enchants new audiences today.
The Zorro movies are, in many ways, the direct forebears of the superhero blockbusters of our modern age, a heady mix of popular culture in both their history and their influence, and as such ought to be watched by anyone with an interest in comic books, action movies, superheroes, and American movie culture. You don’t, however, need to be obsessed with the cultural origins of Batman (as relevant as he is) to love The Mark of Zorro. It’s a grand romp with a cast of favorite stars that perfectly demonstrates the appeal of the swashbuckler genre and the dashing Tyrone Power, with lively direction from Rouben Mamoulian and a rousing, Oscar-nominated score from Alfred Newman.
I’ve always loved swashbuckling action heroes, and Power’s Zorro – along with Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood – is one of the best for introducing older kids and teenagers to some classic movie magic. Power is utterly charming as the duplicitous Don Diego, who assumes the manner of a fop on his return to California in order to keep the corrupt rulers from suspecting his escapades as the masked vigilante. As thrilling as he is when playing the hero, Power really shines with the comedy and romance, especially when confronted by the irresistible Linda Darnell as Lolita. At every moment Power’s Diego hides a smile at his own audacious deception, even when his father (Montagu Love) despises his seemingly useless son. We often talk about how the classic film camera loves iconic actresses, but the camera loves Tyrone Power just as much. He’s absolutely captivating, the embodiment of roguish masculine sex appeal poured into very tight pants. Whether he’s dancing with Lolita, fending off the advances of her aunt, Inez (Gale Sondergaard), or fencing with the villainous Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone), Power is a delight to behold.
It helps tremendously, of course, that Power enjoys the support of an amazing cast, especially Darnell as his lady love and the elegantly menacing Rathbone as his nemesis. As one of the great heavies of classic movie history, Rathbone is very much in his element and at home with the swordplay, having been the British Army Fencing Champ twice during his military career. Rathbone is one of those truly brilliant actors who makes every role memorable, but the jealous, violent Captain Esteban ranks high among his most thrilling characters. Other cast members highlight the comedic elements of the story, especially J. Edward Bromberg as the craven Quintero and Gale Sondergaard as his scheming, preening wife.
Eugene Pallette is also great fun as the feisty friar, Felipe, who encourages Diego to fight for the people. For Pallette, it’s almost the exact same role he had already played as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) just two years earlier, in which Rathbone and Montagu Love had also appeared. They overlap in so many fascinating ways that I tend to think of The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro as the perfect swashbuckling double feature, although you could make a whole film festival out of it by adding The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Captain Blood (1935), The Black Swan (1942), and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). As a collection, the films reveal the genre’s most enduring conventions and character types, from heroes and heavies to ladies and lackeys.
While Fairbanks returned to the character for Don Q, Son of Zorro in 1925, Power only played the role of Zorro once, but both of them helped to create a character who has endured in many different forms. Like modern superhero movies, swashbucklers make for great escapes from a troubled world; they give us heroes to believe in and cheer for as well as villains to hiss. Zorro occupies a special place because of his role as a particularly American hero after the continental adventures of Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel. (It helped, too, that Hollywood could make Southern California represent itself for a change, instead of pretending to be Sherwood Forest or some other faraway location.)
After Fairbanks and Power, other actors would go on to play the heroic outlaw; Robert Livingston took the part for The Bold Caballero (1936), and Guy Williams became Zorro for a generation of viewers in the Disney television series that ran from 1957 to 1959. More recently, Antonio Banderas donned the costume as Zorro’s successor in The Mask of Zorro (1998) and The Legend of Zorro (2005). Each version has its appeal, but the 1940 film is still a quintessential example of the swashbuckler genre and a great place to start an exploration of the connections between classic movie heroes and modern ones.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for Tyrone Power’s dark-eyed charms, be sure to see him in Blood and Sand (1941) and Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) as well as The Black Swan (1942). For a shocking change of pace, catch him in the fascinatingly gritty circus noir, Nightmare Alley (1947), or see his last great performance in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) before his death in 1958 of a heart attack at the age of 44. To get back to the original story of Zorro, read Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel, The Curse of Capistrano, which was originally released as a serial and then appeared as a book in 1924 with the title, The Mark of Zorro.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.