The Mark of Zorro (1920)

With a grin and athletic exuberance that Gene Kelly learned from, and a perennially adolescent cockiness that Clark Gable later claimed for himself, Douglas Fairbanks, in the 1920’s, sweepingly established the romantic, slapstick swashbuckler as a hero and genre equal to any in world-wide popularity. Whether as Zorro, Robin Hood or D’Artagnan, the role Fairbanks played was always the same one: it was Douglas Fairbanks himself, as distinctively as Chaplin was Chaplin, Garbo was Garbo, and Cary Grant was Cary Grant in movie after movie.

The best Fairbanks classics all had the same satisfying qualities, pace and wit, that sent viewers home with grins on their faces and a lightness in their step. The stories and action were clear and the tone was invariably self-mocking, yet triumphant.The villains were often Dickensian bumblers and the hero always saved the day thrillingly, with self-assured, devil-may-care humour.

Fairbanks made his last movies in the early thirties (in sound), but his influence has resonated for decades hence in Burt Lancaster’s high-wire comedies (The Crimson Pirate, Trapeze), in the early “operatic” Mighty Mouse cartoons, Toshiro Mifune’s famous all-purpose samurai, right up to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones. (Today’s nearest equivalent is Jackie Chan — much more comic , of course, than romantic).

Whether a Fairbanks adventure is set in Richard the Lionheart’s England or in pre-revolutionary France, the theme is always the same too : good old Yankee feistiness defeats all the odds — one of the most endurable of all movie fantasies. In The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks found his niche as the irrepressible rebel who laughs his way out trouble and into the hearts of women, and into the trust and loyalty of the oppressed, as well as of the gratefully entertained movie audiences. His acting skills were limited, but his spirit seemed boundless. It was to carry him, and us, through further memorable adventures in The Thief of Baghdad (as the thief), The Three Musketeers (as D’Artagnan), Robin Hood, The Iron Mask (D’Artagnan again), and The Black Pirate among others.

The Mark of Zorro is zippily directed by Fred Niblo (Ben Hur); it’s well produced and acted by a variety of game cast members including Noah Beery, and Margarite De La Motte (as Zorro’s amusingly confused love interest). But, enjoyable as it is, it’s not likely you’ll remember much from it outside of Douglas Fairbanks himself, shamelessly leaping over tables and under donkeys, vindicating forever the sheer pleasure of showing off.