I had the pleasure of watching the silent film The Mark of Zorro at the Dryden Theater last night. I have not seen many silent films, and never any feature-length ones accompanied by live piano. What a treat! I will admit that, having been coddled by modern filmmaking, I had developed a bias against anything made pre-1960's-- an unfortunate misconception that I am working to overcome. I made exceptions for Bergman and a few others, but didn't spend a lot of time watching anything in black and white, really.
So one can imagine how much more biased I might be against films without SOUND! Imagine how limiting that must have been! Well, I have to admit, and not even reluctantly, that The Mark of Zorro holds up reMARKably well almost a hundred years later. It is funny and action-packed and plot-driven to boot. And, dang it, when I found out Fairbanks did almost all of his own stunts, I was flabbergasted. He is, after all, what makes the film what it is-- almost exclusively. Noah Beery as Sgt. Gonzalez definitely steals the scenes he is in, and De La Motte (as Lolita Pulido) plays capably the intelligent and (mostly) discerning heroine; but almost all the rest of the film is a showcase for Fairbanks's talents. And rather than being limiting, the silent format makes the visuals so much more powerful, an incredible testimony to what makes film so unique as a storytelling medium (a testimony I'm sure many other silent films corroborate). Watching it made me wish I could travel back in time to the days when 5,000 people would flock to see a film on opening night, all dressed in their formal best.
I was amused at my reaction as the film was ending and Don Diego was revealed to be Zorro and all the loose ends were neatly tied up. I thought almost immediately- Why did they do that? Now how will they be able to make a sequel? But, of course, things back then were not as they were today, when in so many cases a picture's financial viability depends on its potential for a sequel. It was refreshing to think that there was a time when a film was made as an end to itself and not a means to something else. I'm sure I'm simplifying it too much-- certainly by the 1920's film's moneymaking potential was well known-- but there is a cynicism and lack of respect for the audience in today's mainstream movies that was clearly not present when The Mark of Zorro made its debut.