“Suddenly he whirled the captain forward, darted into the darkness, and started toward his horse with the whole pack at his heels and pistol flashes splitting the blackness of night …. His laughter came back to them on the stiffening breeze that blew in from the distant sea.” This description of the daring adventures of Señor Zorro in the 1919 magazine story “The Curse of Capistrano” must have captivated Douglas Fairbanks, because less than a year later production was underway on the film The Mark of Zorro.
By 1919, Fairbanks had established his dashing and athletic persona on the Broadway stage and in films. The teetotaling son of an absent, alcoholic father, Fairbanks showed an early interest in the theater and filled his time, when not rehearsing or performing, exercising at local gymnasiums. According to Jeffrey Vance’s 2008 biography of Fairbanks, the young actor goofed around backstage during the run of 1906’s Clothes by repeatedly climbing a set of stairs on his hands and the producer worked the bit into the play.
He began his career on the Broadway stage in 1902. Four years later, he was a featured player in The Man of the Hour, which premiered in late 1906 and ran longer than a year. During the run, Fairbanks took a break from the theater at the insistence of his disapproving father-in-law, and, when he returned to Broadway, in the same play, he quickly regained his popularity. His energetic personality was a draw. In its review of All for a Girl (1908), the New York Times singled Fairbanks out as “breezy,” “attractive,” “appealing,” and an “up-to-date type.”
His movie career began after he made the acquaintance of film producers Harry and Roy Aitken of the Triangle Film Corporation. Fairbanks was reluctant to work in an industry that offered neither the prestige nor the salary he earned on the Broadway stage, and he was concerned that his reputation as a stage actor would be harmed by work in pictures. Because of his financial success with The Birth of a Nation, Harry Aitken was able to pay competitive salaries to Broadway actors and offered Fairbanks $2,000 a week and a contract proviso that famed director D.W. Griffith supervise his productions.
For the next four years, Fairbanks worked in films filled with characters that triumphed over adversity with physical energy and humor. His first onscreen outing, The Lamb, was directed by William Christy Cabanne, under Griffith’s supervision. The film premiered September 23, 1915, and was well received. “The movies were made for the great outdoors; so was Fairbanks. The four walls of a studio cramp the cinematograph; the four walls of a theatre cut into Mr. Fairbanks’s activities,” observed the New York Times on October 10, 1915. Two years later, another New York Times article noted that “Charles Chaplin receives $620,000 for a year’s work, so why shouldn’t Fairbanks get a million … he has become one of the big screen favorites. He can take a wisp of a plot, mix it with smiles and athletic stunts, and stretch it through five most amusing reels.”
On April 17, 1919, Fairbanks, along with Griffith, Mary Pickford (who married Fairbanks the following year), and Charles Chaplin established United Artists Corporation. This merger of the movies’ four biggest names was a reaction to Paramount Pictures and Famous Players-Lasky combining production and distribution under one studio. Despite the move to United Artists and Fairbanks’s popularity, by 1919, the always striving actor felt his staple comic characters were becoming stale. The Mark of Zorro, his fourth film for United Artists, changed the course of his career.
When The Mark of Zorro premiered on November 29, 1920, Fairbanks feared audiences might not accept him in a costume adventure film. Combat in the Great War had ended two years earlier and the Spanish Flu pandemic, which claimed millions more lives worldwide, was just petering out. Exhausted by tragedy, audiences were ready for a full dose of romance and the triumph of social justice, delivered by the smiling Douglas Fairbanks. The New York Capitol Theatre took in almost $12,000 the first day (the biggest opening day for a film up to that time) and $48,000 in one week. The daring and mischievous Zorro turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Fairbanks’s familiar style of athletic, joyful exuberance, and comedy. The costume choice, all-black clothing, including mask and cape, defined Zorro’s look from then on.
Johnston McCulley’s original story, “The Curse of Capistrano,” is set in California during the Spanish mission period, which spanned from 1769 to 1821. Spain constructed a series of 21 missions along the coast of California, from San Diego to Sonoma, strategically placed 30 miles apart, close enough to travel from one to another in one day. Intended to convert the local indigenous peoples, the Franciscan-run missions also kept control over the valuable lands desired by Spain. The original plan was to hand over a portion of power to the Indians and establish California as a colony. Spain, however, never fulfilled its promise, keeping the land under the control of corrupt colonial officials and one all-powerful governor. There were few ranchos in California like the one owned by Fairbanks’s character Don Diego Vega during the mission period. The king of Spain had deeded 30 private land grants to families, five in the Los Angeles area.
A prolific writer, McCulley contributed hundreds of stories and 50 novels to the adventure, western, and mystery genres. Many of them were adapted for films. His first Zorro story, “The Curse of Capistrano,” was serialized in All-Story Weekly from August 9 to September 6, 1919. For Zorro, McCulley drew on the history and legends of 18th and 19th century California, although the character was a product of the 20th century. Historian Sandra Curtis believes one of the enduring qualities of Don Diego and his avenging alter ego is that he represents a member of a privileged class who cares about the underclass. She points out that today’s grade-school children, too young to have grown up with the hero, still recognize his iconic three-slashed “Z.”
The son of a wealthy landowner, Don Diego Vega is passionately opposed to the injustices inflicted by the Governor Alvarado and his minions, Captain Juan Ramon and Sergeant Pedro. In his fight for justice, Vega creates the cunning Zorro, the Spanish word for fox. He deters suspicion by playing a lazy fool, sacrificing his reputation in the eyes of his father and the other nobles. Under this guise, Vega fraternizes directly with his enemies, enabling his alter ego to keep steps ahead of the bad guys.
As Zorro, Fairbanks had the opportunity to go on location, ride horses, and fight with a sword. The athletic actor then went on to make his best-known adventure films: The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Black Pirate, as well as the 1925 Zorro sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro. The character Zorro went on to a long, fruitful career of his own, spawning at least 12 other films, a comic book, a radio program, a television show, and five video games, in addition to providing a model for an entire genre of masked avengers.
Aimee Pavy has written for the Silent Film Festival for the past ten years. She also has contributed film notes to Noir City’s program book and articles to Moholy Ground magazine.
Presented at SFSFF 2012 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer