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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Zorro Movies (originally published 7/98)

Back in the twenties and thirties one of the most popular forms of entertainment was pulp fiction. The stories published in the pulp magazines were calculated to maximize circulation, not to win literary awards. Consequently, they tended to center around the kind of subject matter that has boosted sales since time immemorial: sex and violence. In short, it was the television of its day. Like television, the pulps, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, got no respect. They were regarded, and still are, as a repository for literary hack work.

What this attitude of condescension overlooks is the fact that the pulps gave American literature some of its most enduring characters, from The Shadow to Tarzan. Although much of the fiction published by the pulp magazines was indeed poor quality, the best of it has passed the most stringent test of all - the test of time.

One of the most perennially popular characters ever to have come from the pages of the pulps originated with a story in "All-Story Weekly" by Johnston McCulley called "The Curse of Capistrano." Set in 19th Century California, the story recounts the exploits of a masked hero who redresses the injustices inflicted by corrupt Spanish governors on their citizenry. Since he manages to elude capture as much through craftiness as through his prowess with a sword, our hero calls himself "The Fox," or, in Spanish, "Zorro." This year's version of the story, "The Mask of Zorro," is the latest in a long line of movie and television adaptations. If you want to compare the swashbuckling skills of Antonio Banderas with those of his predecessors, look for these titles on video.

"The Mark of Zorro" (1920). The movies wasted no time in snapping up McCulley's story, which appeared in print in 1919. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. had established himself in silent films as a light comedy star with a flair for athletic stunts, but was looking to add more romance to his films. In bringing Zorro to the screen he retained the sense of fun from his earlier films while adding substantially more action and a strong love interest. The formula was so successful that Fairbanks stuck with the action-adventure romance genre for the remainder of his career. Zorro's dual identity, the model for such later heroes as Batman, lent itself perfectly to Fairbanks's gifts as a performer. As the foppish and effete Don Diego Vega, Fairbanks could indulge his comic talents. Then, as the dashing Zorro, his athletic abilities could be showcased.

"The Bold Caballero" (1936). The first Zorro in a talking picture was played by Robert Livingstone, a B-Western star best known as Stony Brooke in the "Three Mesquiteers" films. This picture departs in significant ways from the characterization developed by Fairbanks. For example, the story opens with Zorro in custody, having been captured by the authorities - an unthinkable predicament for Fairbanks's wily Fox. Still, the film was sufficiently well received to keep the franchise going.

"Zorro's Fighting Legion" (1939). Republic studios featured Zorro in a number of serials from the late thirties to the early fifties, but the best of the lot is this twelve chapter production with Reed Hadley in the title role. The story is set against a backdrop of political upheaval as Mexico, newly independent from Spain, seeks to establish a republic under Benito Juarez. As with all serials, however, the cliffhanging action is the real point of the picture.

"The Mark of Zorro" (1940). It is perhaps appropriate that the remake of the Fairbanks classic was done by the Fox studio. Tyrone Power, one of the studios favorite leading men, was cast as Zorro. Power lacks Fairbanks's broad sense of fun, but his swordsmanship is excellent, especially in his duel with Basil Rathbone as Esteban, the villain of the piece.

To a whole generation of kids now grown to adulthood, the one and only real Zorro is Guy Williams, star of Walt Disney's Zorro television series during the late fifties. Happily, these episodes are also beginning to turn up on home video. I think you'll find that they are every bit as good as you remember them being, but keep in mind that they didn't come out of nowhere, any more than the current Banderas/Hopkins version. Anyone who picks up the sword of Zorro for the cameras must acknowledge a primary debt to Fairbanks, the progenitor of the genre.

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