Fox // 1940 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jeff Andreasen (Retired) // January 24th, 2006
Defacing public property. Inciting rebellion.
Your honor, this vandalism cannot be dismissed with a flimsy "It's art!" assertion. There's no inherent value in a simple letter carved into a wall, a cloth, or a butt. In fact, this sort of pee-on-a-fire-hydrant scrawling only encourages gang activity and --
Yeah, yeah, yeah, counselor, we'll go to trial. What do you have for me?
Your honor, we have before the court an example of idle hands being the Devil's workshop. Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power, The Black Swan, Captain from Castille), recalled to California from Spain at his father's behest, arrives at the Los Angeles colony to find it a repressed and woeful slum. The harried citizenry gripe about overtaxation and brutal treatment by the greedy Alcalde, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg, Phantom of the Opera, Jesse James, also with Tyrone Power) and his saber-rattling goon, Capitan Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Robin Hood, a bunch of Sherlock Holmes films), who, it is claimed, soak the peasantry for all they're worth. As it happens, Quintero displaced Diego's father, Don Alejandro (Montagu Love The Mysterious Island, Gunga Din) as the official government of the territory, and the elder Vega called his son back as murmurs of rebellion whispered in the antechambers of Los Angeles'power elite.
Appalled by what he perceives as the vicious treatment of the lazy, simpleminded, and hard-scrabbling migrant workers, and apparently bored with the idleness that comes with his aristocratic station, Don Diego Vega decides to abuse the superior training provided him in the Spanish academies by becoming a masked rabble rouser assaulting the established authority. Along the way he adopts a foppish personality to allay suspicion; endears himself to Quintero's wife, Inez (Gale Sondergaard, The Strange Death of Adolph Hitler, Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman), in order to foment discontent within the Alcalde's hierarchy; and flirts with statutory rape charges with Quintero's absolutely fabulous niece, Lolita (the exquisite Linda Darnell, Forever Amber, The 13th Letter). He also faces off with Capitan Pasquale in one of the best sword fights in cinematic history. I guess we should add murder to the charge, Your Honor.
Then let's get on with it, counselor.
Your Honor, the prosecution calls some nameless cinema geek to the stand. Geek, how would you describe the defendant?
As a lean, sharp, and engaging adventure that can't really be called a drama, because there's little dramatic suspense, and can't really be called a comedy, though there's plenty of fun to be had throughout. Basically, this is a glorious Golden Age romp that brings a smile to your face and cheer to your heart...unless you're Mexican (or devoutly PC), in which case the rather negative portrayal of the lazy, simpleminded, and hard-scrabbling migrant workers might be somewhat offputting (in the same way the portrayal of the relentlessly bloodthirsty and pagan Thuggees and the hapless and groveling Bhisti soldiery in Gunga Din put off the Royal Indian Raj in 1939).
As with Gunga Din, any peril the protagonist finds himself in is breezily handled, with Zorro dispensing justice with a smile on his face and an effortless flick of his wrist. Our Hero is never in any real danger, and there is no doubt as to how the proceedings will resolve. And, save for a brutal (though offscreen) beating administered to one ofPasquale's storm troopers by our hero, there isn't any genuine meanspiritedness to be found.
Director Rouben Mamoulian gets outstanding performances from everyone with speaking lines, especially the leads, and backup players Gale Sondegaard and J. Edward Bromberg, who is absolutely hilarious as the sniveling and greedy Alcalde. Eugene Pallette, practically reprising his Friar Tuck role from 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, once again delivers the goods as the gruff yet wise and worldly Fray Felipe. The bad guys are appropriately nasty, the good guys are upstanding pillars of the community, and everything works out exactly as it should. There's enough innuendo and snarky dialogue (especially from Montagu Love's Don Alejandro Vega) to keep adults amused, and Zorro's swashbuckling heroics will keep the kids coming back for more. But I have to disagree with your assessment that murder charges should be leveled against...
Of course, Geek. This witness is excused, Your Honor. Next up, the prosecution calls some stodgy, bespectacled know-it-all in psychobabble. Psychobabbler, is there any credence to the theories floated around of homosexuality and sadism permeating this feature?
I think it's always difficult to distinguish an actor's role from the actor himself, and certainly there were suspicions, though never outright allegations, of...ambiguity in Mr. Power's lifestyle. However, those allegations came to light long after this movie was released, if I recall correctly, and, while it's conceivable to consider those allegations retroactively in the context of Mr. Power's performance in The Mark of Zorro, I think one must consider the role itself as the primary evidence of this charge. If one does so, the only possible conclusion is that Don Diego Vega's orientation is in no way ambiguous. The man's trying to hide his identity! True, he's eminently convincing in his portrayal of an effeminate wastrel, but did anyone think Brad Pitt or Antonio Banderas were gay after watching Interview With A Vampire? And plus he totally fell for Linda Darnell. Case closed.
As for the charges of sadism, I think there might be some who would consider there to be a basis for those allegations. However, if one considers The Mark of Zorro to be sadistic, then one must also reconsider one's views regarding Looney Tunes. The only sadism that occurs in the movie is cartoonish and performed so as to magnify the audience's glee in the sadist's downfall at the movie's climax. Think Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, or Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride. Just because a presentation is live action and not animated doesn't mean the violence is any less absurd. No, I do not think there is anything in this movie that is particularly offensive in either category.
Uh, thank you, Psychobabbler. You've been very enlightening. Dammit.
Any more witnesses, Counselor?
Your Honor, the prosecution calls a spindly information nerd to the stand. Infonerd, surely there is fault to be found with the presentation of at least half of this feature.
You know, like many other film aficionados, I watched in horror as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, King Kong, and other classic films were thrown into the Ted Turner romper room to be mutilated by color blind toddler piranhas armed with great big nasty Crayola teeth. The Maltese Falcon, in particular, was embarrassing to watch colorized. But I have to say, the process applied to The Mark of Zorro stands up. I really got the feeling that I was watching an old color movie. The colors are not applied too brightly and the contrast is low key. It has very much the feel of a color movie washed out over time and restored to a certain degree in sharpness and tone. I felt the colorized version was actually a good watch. Plus, there is more depth to the picture, whereas some scenes in the original black and white version sort of blend the fore- and backgrounds together. And anyway, if purists revile the colorized version, this new release of the movie also contains the original black and white release, so there's really no reason to gripe.
As for the extras, yeah, I have to find fault with them. Basically, all that's here is the original 2003 Fox DVD release with the colorized version thrown in for good measure. The A&E Biography presentation on Tyrone Power is an interesting sit, and there's actually some amusing anecdotes (and blooper reels) from The Mark of Zorro. That, at least, was worth the inclusion.
Not worth the inclusion is Richard Schickel's soporific commentary. As an observer, like the rest of us, and having had exactly nothing whatsoever to do with the production (being all of 7 years old when it was released), Schickel has little to bring to the table here. His observations (when he has something to say) are primarily biographical, annotative, or opinionated, and, except for the latter, available in more rewarding detail elsewhere. If you're a fan of Schickel's columns in Time Magazine, this commentary track might be useful to you. I'm not, so, in my opinion, it's a waste.
To be honest, this film is one of Fox Studio's all-time gems, and it deserves something akin to the Criterion treatment -- with some effort to dig up excised footage and long lost interviews and other extensive supplemental material, as well as a comprehensive remastering of the original black-and-white print itself -- not this sort of half-assed double-dip with only the colorized version to recommend it.
Thank you, Infonerd. You've been a great help. You may step down.
Am I to gather that's it?
Yes, Your Honor. The prosecution rests.
Well, counselor, I'll tell you how I see it: as a waste of the court's time. Sure, Fox is guilty of a scurrilous malfeasance in the paucity of its efforts to make this double-dip a worthwhile expenditure, but there's no malicious intent on the part of the defendant himself, no dereliction in execution, and there is evidence of an attempt to placate an even wider audience with the inclusion of an alternate, colorized, version of the film. While it's clear that there was no effort to go above and beyond, with a lack of new supplemental material and a lazy reliance on previously offered elements, this neglect is not sufficient cause to condemn the defendant. Therefore, I declare The Mark of Zorro to be not guilty on all charges, and the court further acknowledges that, though underage, Linda Darnell is gorgeous and that 15 years of age is close enough if you're a studly vigilante and can stab this judge through the heart if he irritates you.
Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2006 Jeff Andreasen; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Colorized Version of the Feature
* Restored Black-and-White Version of the Feature
* Commentary by Film Critic Richard Schickel
* Tyrone Power: The Last Idol
* Official Zorro Site
* Zorro: The Legend Through the Years