The Mark of Zorro (1940) is one of my all-time favorite films, which I return to on a regular basis. I never tire of watching this marvelous filming of dueling and romance in Old California; it’s a movie which makes me happy each time I see it again.
It’s a curious thing, but I’ve never written here on my blog about some of my most favorite films. I almost feel too close to them to manage writing about them, particularly The Sound of Music (1965); like other top favorite films, The Sound of Music is threaded through my life in such a way that I find it hard to simply write about it as a film.
I did finally post in the past year about White Christmas (1954) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and I’ve written on a number of films a little lower down on my favorites list, but have still not tackled: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), You Were Never Lovlier (1942), or Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which I saw at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. That said, I’d like to share more about the films which are so special to me, especially in the hope that those who’ve not yet seen them will discover and enjoy them as well.
And so we come to The Mark of Zorro, which I first met as a young child and just revisited again this week. When I saw Zorro as a child, its magic was initially enhanced as my mother used to tell me about Johnston McCulley, author of the original story The Curse of Capistrano, having a cabin near her family’s weekend cabin in Twin Peaks, California, when she was growing up.
The Mark of Zorro must also be the first film in which I ever saw my favorite actor, Tyrone Power, and I’ve loved both the movie and Power ever since.
Power plays aristocratic Diego Vega, who returns home to California after spending time at a military academy in Spain. Diego’s father (Montagu Love) has been replaced as the alcalde by Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), who is the buffoonish puppet of Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Together the two men have launched a cruel reign and are taxing the local citizenry to the point of starvation.
Diego quickly assesses the situation and — to his father’s despair — he appears to be a weary, bored fop in public, dwelling on things such as fashion and the temperature of his bath. In reality, however, Diego is a dashing masked Robin Hood who calls himself Zorro; Zorro helps the peasants and makes life miserable for Quintero and Pasquale.
Diego’s life is further complicated by his instant adoration of young Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell), the alcalde’s niece; not only does Lolita have an odious uncle, but she is annoyed by the silly public Diego, while being thrilled by tales of Zorro. She has no idea, of course, that they are the same man.
Every aspect of the film works; it has a great cast, action, humor, and romance, not to mention some superb fencing, all in service of a terrific story. Everyone in the film is marvelous, with Rathbone and Eugene Pallette outstanding while essentially repeating their Adventures of Robin Hood roles as villain and man of the cloth. The key to it all, however, is Tyrone Power, who is by turns dashing, romantic, and terribly funny. The movie is a great exemplar of why he was loved by so many film fans.
It’s impossible to believe, but Linda Darnell was just 16 when she starred in this as Power’s leading lady. Like Joan Leslie in the same era, Darnell looked older than her years and starred in adult roles from a young age. The biography Hollywood Beauty recounts her embarrassment at being called away from a love scene with Power to do her school lessons! Darnell’s impressive list of credits are a testament to her being far more than just a beautiful face, and she plays her role here with great charm.
The central love scene in Lolita’s bedroom, like the presence of Rathbone and Pallette, rather calls to mind Robin Hood, with the same blissfully swooning sense of romance. Despite the easy comparisons with that film, however, make no mistake that Zorro stands on its own as a beautifully made four-star classic.
Gale Sondergaard is amusing as Lolita’s aunt, and the cast also includes Janet Beecher, George Regas, Chris-Pin Martin, and Robert Lowery.
The Mark of Zorro was made by top craftsmen all the way, starting with director Rouben Mamoulian, who would later direct Power and Darnell in Blood and Sand (1941). Zorro was beautifully filmed in black and white by Arthur Miller. The costumes were designed by Travis Banton, while Alfred Newman wrote the musical score. The screenplay of this 94-minute film was by John Taintor Foote, from an adaptation of the McCulley story by Bess Meredyth and Garrett Fort. The film is available on DVD in a very nice edition from the Fox Studio Classics series. (A word of caution, however, I listened to the Richard Schickel commentary some years ago and found it quite poor.) Avoid the colorized edition!
The Mark of Zorro is most highly recommended.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films and Disney can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005. Follow Laura on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LaurasMiscMovie.
For a look at Laura’s special photo gallery from The Mark of Zorro, click here.