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Kino on Video presents
"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 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 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 makes Zorro highly appealing. Not only does he carve his trademark Z into their 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 here, with even the minor cast members, such as Snitz Edwards as a terrified innkeeper, being highly entertaining.
The double feature continues with the 1925 sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro. Fairbanks returns as Don Diego, and also his whip-wielding son, Don Cesar, as does his mute servant Bernardo (Tote Du Crow). This time, thirty years later, the adventure is set in Spain. Don Cesar runs afoul of Don Sebastian (director Donald Crisp) of the Captain's Guard, who incidentally loves the same woman as Don Cesar: Dolores de Muro (Mary Astor, best known for The Maltese Falcon). At a fancy dress ball, Don Sebastian kills Austro-Hungarian Archduke Paul (Warner Oland, who went on to win fame as Charlie Chan), and frames Don Cesar for the murder. Don Cesar responds by faking his death in a most flashy manner and then returns as Don Q, attempting to clear his name.
There are some positive aspects to Don Q, notably Fairbanks' dual role. He believably carries himself like two different men, and his Don Diego is aided by quite effective age makeup. The whip provides a slightly kinky edge and a slightly different take from the original that is put to good use. However, this film doesn't have the perkiness or vigor of the original by a longshot. Far too much time is spent with courtly doings and setting up the situation and too little in swashbuckling adventure. Crisp is okay as a villain, but he doesn't have the flair or sliminess of Beery or McKim. The climactic fights are acceptable, though really only a pale shadow of the predecessor.
Nonetheless, pairing the two films together in this way provides a ready comparison that is certainly worthwhile. Since Image has already released The Mark of Zorro as a barebones disc, one can buy this version and feel as if the second film is being thrown in for free.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame presentation is quite attractive. In comparison to Image's disc, the tinting on Mark is much more subtle and, to my mind, more attractive, producing a sepiatone that doesn't obliterate much of the detail. The details are finely captured and quite attractive here. The source print appears to be marginallly better than that used for the Image DVD, though some sequences appear to be framed slightly tighter on this disc. This generally doesn't harm the compositions, although the decorative "Z" on some of the intertitles is partially cut off here while it is not on the Image version.
The source print for Don Q is in noticeably worse condition, with a number of scenes that are like a hailstorm of scratches. Putting that aside, it offers a good deal of attractive detail and depth. There is an unfortunate misregistration near the end where the bottom of the shot appears in the top of the frame. Overall, quite acceptable for a 75-year-old pair of films, though the misregistration could and should have been fixed readily in the digital medium.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Each film features a new piano score composed and performed by Jon C. Mirsalis. Both have a slightly Spanish tinge at times, without going overboard. Mirsalis' style is quite lush, with ample, voluminous chords throughout. The fight scenes are scored in an admirably vigorous manner. The sound is full and rich, with excellent frequency range and no audible distortion, noise or hiss. It truly felt like having a pianist in the room with me.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
In the 1970s, a syndicated program of silents from the Paul Killiam collection featured, among others, The Mark of Zorro. Presented here are the intro and outro from Orson Welles. These are fairly loose, conversational affairs, and Welles keeps visibly looking down at his notes—but even that's not quite enough to keep him on track. More valuable in these sections are clips from two of Fairbanks early short comedies, Wild and Woolly and The Americano, plus a lengthy excerpt from his sound romantic comedy Reaching for the Moon.
Also included is a Pathé newsreel gag of Fairbanks taking on heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who has a good 8 inches and 80 pounds on the diminuitive Fairbanks. Nonetheless, for the cameras, Fairbanks gets the better of the champ. Wrapping things up are three text chapters from a 1918 inspirational humor book supposedly written by Fairbanks, Making Life Worth While. The first two chapters provide a sense of breezy style, and the last contains a brief autobiographical sketch that will be of interest to Fairbanks fans. This is all welcome material, but it doesn't feel like enough for a film of Mark's importance. Even a substantial text essay on the influence and importance of the picture would have helped make this a more essential acquisition.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsAn attractive look at the origins of the modern superhero, with Fairbanks' trademark acrobatics and swordplay already fully developed. The transfer is quite attractive, and some unusual extras make it worth considering.
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