Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Mark of Douglas Fairbanks

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.


  1. "Have you seen this one?"

    I'm glad you finally got over that bias against black and white films, because it was annoying.

  2. Was there a pianist in the theatre? I really want to get to the Dryden. I have heard great things about the films. This seems to be the difficult part about moving here with kids rather than prior to kids. I have yet to really fully experience Rochester. Also, interesting bit about sequels.