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Mont Alto Private Reserve presents
"I ask you--how can I fight him when he will not stand still?"
DVD ReviewSince Douglas Fairbanks Sr. is today associated almost entirely with the string of costume dramas he filmed in the 1920s, it's hard to believe that he was already well-established as a comic actor. Indeed, his popularity in 1918 from his light comedy shorts rivaled even that of Charlie Chaplin. It was highly fortuitous that he turned his athletic talents to the adventure story. The first of these was the enormously influential The Mark of Zorro (1920). It not only served as the first of a series of films running 80 years and a television series, but its influence upon the comic book characters of Batman and Superman, not to mention nearly every other costumed hero, is obvious.
In old California, the governor (George Periolat) brings oppression upon the populace, seizing property at will and allowing his soldiers, led by Captain Juan Ramon (Robert McKim), to terrorize the countryside. Only one man, the mysterious masked man known as Zorro (Fairbanks), dares stand up to them. By day, Zorro is Don Diego Vega (also Fairbanks), a simpering fop given to parlor tricks and doing finger shadows. While Don Diego is unsuccessful in courting Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte), whose father is a target of Captain Ramon, she promptly falls for the dashing Zorro. Unfortunately, Captain Ramon also has his eyes on her.
This first of the Fairbanks costume dramas is a highly enjoyable romp with plenty of action and romance to please nearly any crowd. Fairbanks' comic skills serve him well in his role as the ineffective Don Diego, while his athleticism and brashness make Zorro highly appealing. Not only does he carve his trademark Z into the villains' faces with his sword, but more to the point he dares to laugh in their faces, inspiring the other caballeros to resist oppression. The swordfighting is excellent and copious, with the standouts being the duel with the hulking Sgt. Gonzales (Noah Beery) in the beginning and the final climactic fight with Capt. Ramon. Fairbanks astonishes with his physicality, fighting while seated on a table, lying on a floor, walking across furniture, and leaping from high walls. There's never a dull moment to be had, with even the minor cast members, such as Snitz Edwards as a terrified innkeeper, being highly entertaining.
Revisiting this costume drama, one is struck by how thoroughly enjoyable it is from start to finish. Fairbanks and director Fred Niblo expertly combine action, adventure, suspense, and comic relief, with none of the elements overwhelming the others. The first fight with Sgt. Gonzales is an excellent example. Gonzales is at first a serious threat, then increasingly it becomes clear he's only a blowhard. When a knock is heard at the door, he immediately falls into terror himself, only to learn it is someone with a reward poster for Zorro. Jumping back into his bravado, he is a more than deserving target when Fairbanks slips into the scene in costume, giving a broad grin, as if he knows we're all in on the joke. The combat combines amazing stunts and stunning dexterity, with a dollop of humor throughout. Fairbanks' Zorro is a laughing hero, understanding that mocking those with power is just as important as defeating them in combat.
This new edition is based on the elements held by David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates; it appears to be a new transfer. The frame rate seems right—it's neither comically fast nor drearily slow. Those who are interested will only be able to find this disc at the Mont Alto website. The limited distribution is a little unfortunate as this is probably the best presentation of this classic to date.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame presentation is a revelation. According to Mont Alto, the new transfer has no digital noise reduction applied, and it looks like it. While there's mild speckling and dust as one would expect, the fine grain of the positive print is beautifully rendered, with fine detail that's frequently exquisite. The toning is rather subtler than found on most prior discs, and it doesn't interfere with the clarity of the film proper.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: Most discs that feature Mont Alto scores have excellent recording quality, and this compilation score is no exception. The music is firmly placed in the soundstage, with vivid immediacy. The trumpet in particular comes across beautifully here, though the violin is also frequently striking. No noise or hiss interferes. Although there are a few moments that get a shade repetitive, on the whole the compilation is very effective indeed and supports the action very well; more than once I forgot that I was listening to a score and had become totally absorbed in the film. A wonderful sonic experience that should serve as a model.
Audio Transfer Grade: A+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Music cues with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The General
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Rodney Sauer, Denise Morrisson and John Tibbetts
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
For those interested in such compilation scores, there's a handy subtitle feature that tells what all of the various pieces being played are. Sauer also hosts a featurette, A Practical Guide to Film Scoring (3m:58s), which gives a look at the process. It's only regrettable in its brevity.
A gallery offers a look at various pieces of striking period-style Fairbanks artwork by Tibbetts, and there's a trailer for Mont Alto's release of The General (which I don't believe is an original trailer, but a selection of scenes in support of the DVD), a similarly excellent release.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsAn attractive look at the origins of the modern superhero, with Fairbanks' trademark acrobatics and swordplay already fully developed. The transfer is excellent, and the disc supplies some first-rate extras.
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