The Mark of Zorro (1940) Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone (94 min).

Dashing Don Diego returns home to colonial California and masquerades as a fop to conceal his secret identity as the populist avenger, Zorro. The climactic swordfight is breathtaking and the film “among the finest examples of its genre” Tony Thomas, Films of the Forties.

The Mark of Zorro was based on a 1919 novella, “The Curse of Capistrano” by Johnston McCulley, serialized in All Story Weekly. The hero was named Zorro, the Spanish word for fox. Surprisingly there was little popular fiction written about early California, the most successful being the novel “Ramona” in 1884, which was a romance about a Native American in love with a Spanish girl. “The Curse of Capistrano” was described by one writer as “an undistinguished story by an unheralded author” (Hofstede 241) but McCulley was a prolific scribe who specialized in Westerns, and he wrote under several pseudonyms, including a female one. You can evaluate the novella for yourself, since it is readily available online. He loosely based his character on several well-know California banditos, including Tiburcio Vasquez, Joaquin Murieta and Jack Powers. But McCulley’s California history is a little shaky, as he blended facts and tall tales. McCulley wrote 64 Zorro stories, the last in 1959. Clearly influenced by the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) which also featured an aristocrat masquerading as a fop to right wrongs, Zorro became part of the popular culture after being made into a hit movie in 1920 by Douglas Fairbanks. McCulley retitled his story and republished it as The Mark of Zorro after the success of the film.

The Mark of Zorro was the first of Fairbanks historical adventure movies. He had previously played a comic hero in modern dress, in sprightly films that showcased his amazing athletic abilities. The comedy elements were included in the adventure formula because Fairbanks was uneasy about leaving his successful comic persona behind, although he was ready for an image change. In his first swashbuckler, he had props and sets meticulously designed and sized to make his heroic leaps and bounds looks effortless. The action scenes in his films, for which no doubles were used, have never been surpassed. Fairbanks loved the Zorro character so much that he and his wife, Mary Pickford, bought a 3,000 acre ranch north of San Diego. Christened Rancho Zorro, he hoped to recreate a bit of colonial California with a working ranch.

20th Century Fox viewed Tyrone Power as their answer to Errol Flynn, the talkies’ premiere swashbuckling hero, and this edition of The Mark of Zorro borrows cast members Basil Rathbone, Montague Love and Eugene Pallette (who reprises Friar Tuck pretty much completely) from Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. Power lacked “Flynn’s extrovert Anglo-Saxon ebullience and devil may care athleticism. A soulful reserve and dignified restraint were the keys to Power’s appeal, and such qualities were at odds with the bravado demanded by the swashbuckler” (Richards 30). But he was beautiful and romantic and summons more fire than usual as Zorro. Tom Milne observes, “Tyrone Power, they said, was tame stuff in comparison, unable to match the spring heeled Fairbanks athletics; but what they failed to notice was that he didn’t need to, since (director Rouben) Mamoulian was doing the swashbuckling for him.” One Zorro expert doesn’t hesitate to call the concluding duel “the best swordfight in the movies” (Hofstede 243). He also speculates that if McCulley, who died in 1958, had any idea of how enduring his character would be, he surely would have demanded a bigger piece of the financial pie. Zorro has had incredible longevity. There were Zorro movies and serials in the 1930s (one of which greatly influenced Steven Speilberg’s Indiana Jones movies). Altogether there have been 16 Zorro films in the US to date, a very popular Walt Disney tv show, which many Boomers remember fondly, and 37 Mexican, Spanish, French, Italian and Belgian Zorro films. One faithful Zorro fan donned mask and cape with his little friends, creating a neighborhood band called “The Zorros.” When Bob Kane, now grown up, was looking for a model for his own comic book hero, Batman, he looked no further than the beloved hero of his youth.

Director Rouben Mamoulian was born in what is now Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. He studied criminal law at Moscow University, but ended up at the Moscow Art Theater. He left Russia for a theater career in London, and came to American as the director of the American Opera Company for George Eastman in Rochester, NY. He moved from there to the Theatre Guild in NYC, where he directed the original (non-musical) production of Porgy and Bess. His ability to handle sounds on stage was attractive to Hollywood in the early days of sound films, and he was lured there. His early talkie films, Applause, City Streets and Love Me Tonight revolutionized sound movies, breaking the camera’s confinement to the sound proofed box, he also pioneered multi track recording, invented the voice over and used sound in ways undreamed of by the more prosaic engineers. He directed Greta Garbo in one of her most famous roles, as Queen Christina and was entrusted with the first Technicolor film, Becky Sharp. All in all, he made only 16 features, spending much of his career on the stage, he also directed the Oklahoma and Carousel in their original runs. Replaced while shooting the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra, adjusted for inflation still the most expensive film ever made, his last completed film was Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, the musical remake of Garbo’s Ninotchka.

Tyrone Power was one of the most popular movie stars of the 30s and 40s, Fox’s #1 leading man. He came from a distinguished theatrical family, and his father, Tyrone Power, Sr. was a famous stage actor. His son, the third Tyrone Edmund Power, was born in Cincinnati in 1913. His parents began preparing him for a theatrical career in his childhood; he made his stage debut at 9. At Purcell High School in Cincinnati, the yearbook predicted he would be a successor to John Barrymore. Tyrone worked in a movie theater during high school, and kept a journal analyzing the plots and performances of the movies he saw there.

Fan magazine photo–lovingly cut and pasted

Power, Sr. deserted his young family (Tyrone had a younger sister) and they were raised by his mother. But, father and son reunited when Tyrone was a teen, and both went to Hollywood when Power, Sr. was cast in the title role The Miracle Man in 1931. Tyrone Power, Sr. died of a heart attack on the set of that film in Tyrone Jr’s arms, and his son made the rounds of the theaters and studios looking for work. His good looks and family name got him little parts on both stage and screen, until he decided to sign a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1936. Studio chief Darryl Zanuck had scoffed at his screen test, his thick eyebrows and low hair line. “He looks like a frightened monkey” Zanuck decided, but his wife, Virginia, thought differently (Belafonte 12). His eyebrows and hairline were reshaped, and he suddenly, he was gorgeous on screen. He was dashing in Lloyds of London, and suddenly, a big star at 22, with 1000 fan letters a day. He acted in a series of popular dramas and romances, including In Old Chicago, Suez, Marie Antoinette and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Darryl Zanuck wanted him single, better to fan the flames of his female admirers, but Power married the French actress Annabella, whom he met while filming Suez.

He enlisted in the Marines in 1942, seeing action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Returning to Hollywood, he signed a new contract with Fox after the War, but never regained his former popularity. Like his father, he died of a heart attack on a movie set, after a strenuous dueling scene with George Sanders in Solomon and Sheba. He was only 44 years old. He didn’t like many of his films, he wanted to be a better actor than perhaps he was, often returning to the stage as an antidote to many of the formulaic parts he played on screen. When his Fox contract expired, he said ruefully, “I’ve done an awful lot of stuff that’s a monument to public patience” (Shipman 453).

Basil Rathbone excelled at the sneering villain. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and bunked the insurance business for the stage, playing a variety of Shakespearean roles until he enlisted in WW I. He was Katharine Cornell’s leading man in the 1930s and toured the US with her. Although he’d already had small movie roles, his breakthrough was in 1934 in David Copperfield, where evil Mr. Murdstone’s merciless flogging of poor little Freddy Bartholomew electrified the public. The next year, he played four ruthless villains, driving Greta Garbo’s to suicide as her husband in Anna Karenina, Pontius Pilate in the Last Days of Pompeii, the Marquis de Evremonde crushing the masses beneath his carriage wheels in A Tale of Two Cities and the blood thirsty pirate Levasseur in Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood. Rathbone knew how to use a sword, he had been taking fencing lessons since he was a teenager. He always claimed that he could easily have bested all the heros from whom he was forced to suffer defeat, and Fred Cavens, who staged the fight in The Mark of Zorro said that of all the actors he ever trained, Rathbone was the one who could have been a competitive fencer. In turn, Rathbone said, “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before the camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat” (Belafonte 111). Of course, Rathbone went on to play perhaps the definitive Sherlock Holmes in a series of popular films about the great detective, and ended up, like so many character actors of his generation, in Roger Corman horror films.

Rathbone and Power

Linda Darnell was an exquisitely beautiful 17 years old when she played Lolita in this, her 5th film and first major role. She was born in Dallas, Texas, to a nightmarish stage mother. Current starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are simply the latest in a long line of beautiful girls victimized by their mothers’ destructive aspirations. Mrs. Darnell gave her five children names she thought appropriate for show business. Two daughters were named Undeen and Monte Maloya, but the daughter for whom she had the most hopes, Monetta Eloyse, began her tap dancing lessons at four years old. She was modeling by the time she was 11, and worked as a greeter at various fairs and expositions. Whenever a talent scout happened through Dallas she was brought to his notice, “I had no great talent” she said years later, “and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly. But, mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” When a Fox talent scout noticed her stint as the “official greeter” for the City of Dallas, Mama shoved some photos at him, and when he showed polite interest she packed up Monetta and moved to Hollywood. 20th Century Fox did eventually sign her to a contract, and changed Monetta to Linda. It was director Mamoulian whose beautifully lit close-ups of her sultry brunette beauty in this film (no doubt on instructions from the studio) made her a star. She was not troubled with the inconvenience of historically correct costuming. Travis Banton garbs her fancifully in pure 1940s high fashion.

Darnell and Power

Mamoulian, who had loved the Fairbanks version of Zorro, wanted some script revision and clashed with studio head Darryl Zanuck. “I have to give Zanuck his due,” Mamoulian said later, “He knew what was good and what was bad. Darryl was a tyrant, and he had his hand in everything, but he had a terrific eye.” But, Mamoulian was given six weeks to tailor the script to his desires. Darnell enjoyed Power’s joking on the set, and the director said, “She was like spring, young sweet and innocent. The whole crew behaved differently when she was on the set. There was a kind of innocence about her that was enchanting” (Davis 58).

This was her third film with Tyrone Power, who, back in Dallas, had always been her favorite movie star. It couldn’t have been anything but a surreal experience to play romantic scenes with an actor she had fantasized about. In her first film with him, she was so young she had to be tutored on set. “I would be kissing Tyrone Power and the school teacher would come and tell me it was time for my history lesson. I never before or since have been so embarrassed” (Davis 51).

Fan magazine glamour portrait

Darnell was quite popular in the 1940s, until her terrible reviews in the title role of the lavish costume picture, Forever Amber. This hot property was based on a scandalous popular novel, but was transformed into a turgid costume picture, effectively subduing her career. Perhaps, her greatest role was in Joseph Mankiewicz’s acerbic Letter to Three Wives in 1949. By the late 40s her career stalled, her three marriages were disasters, and her business manager embezzled all her money. She began to drink heavily, fell into debt, gained a lot of weight. In 1965, she watched one of her very first films, Star Dust, with her former secretary and family in suburban Chicago. That night the house caught on fire, and she died in the flames.

Gale Sondergaard, plays Lolita’s flirtatious aunt, was born Edith Sondergaard in Minnesota. She always wanted to be an actress, studied drama in school and moved to New York, where she landed a contract with the prestigious Theater Guild. It was there she met her husband, Abner Biberman. They moved to California, where he had a contract to direct at Columbia Pictures. Even though she was sure that her looks would deny her entrée to the movies, she auditioned for and got a part in the prestigious costume drama Anthony Adverse. She would win the first Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this, her first film. She specialized in sinister roles of mutable nationality, and is best remembered as the mysterious Eurasian woman in The Letter with Bette Davis. In 1950, her husband was jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten during the House of un-American Activities Committee’s purge of the film capital, and her film career essentially came to an end. She did not have another role in Hollywood for almost twenty years, until she was cast in an episode of It Takes a Thief opposite Robert Wagner. Afterwards she guested regularly on television and had a few film roles before her death in 1985.

Sondergaard and Power

The sword fighting was staged by master fencer Fred Cavens, who worked with virtually every swashbuckler from the 1920s to the late 1940s. He graduated from the Belgian Military Institute, and staged his first film for French comedian Max Linder’s Fairbanks spoof, The Three Must Get Theirs. Fairbanks brought Cavens to Hollywood to work on the real thing. He strove to have the battles he staged be essentially correct (no pointless blade waving). Cavens stated “All movements—instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing—must be large, but nevertheless, correct. Magnified is the word. The routine should contain the most spectacular attacks and parries it is possible to execute while remaining logical to the situations. In other words, the duel should be a fight and not a fencing exhibition, and should disregard at times classically correct guards and lunges. The attitudes arising naturally out of fighting instinct should predominate. When this occurs, the whole performance will leave an impression of strength, skill and manly grace” (Richards 44).” His swordfights, and I would consider this to be one of the finest, “created moments of screen magic that will endure as long as the celluloid that contains them and the memories of the countless millions enthralled by them” (Richards ibid).

Albert Cavens and his father, Fred Cavens, rehearse for the final duel.

Bosley Crowther the long term, rather short-sighted film critic for the NY Times grumped, “Mr Fairbanks, we can tell you, was really something to see. A swashbuckler who swashed with magnificent arrogance, and swished when required, with great élan. Mr. Power rather overdoes the swishing, and his swash is more beautiful than bold. Neither does he vault about with the athletic ease of a proper Zorro. And, a Zorro without at least one leap from a balcony to the back of a runaway horse is gravely suspected by us” (Arce 154).

One reason that this film ages so well is the humor, which was inspired by the Fairbanks film, and not the source material. One of Power’s biographers said, “It allowed much of the wry, sardonic offscreen Tyrone to be seen finally on the screen and win a vaster legion of fans than ever…and Tyrone loved everything about the film (Guiles 131). Although Power made other swashbucklers, none were as successful as this one, because of the humor in it. “Public acceptance of this new Tyrone was so strong, future essays by him into swashbuckling adventure which were intended as serious romantic adventures would be haunted by the ghost of Zorro, so that audiences waited for laughs that never came, except occasionally, unintentionally” (ibid).

The film was a smash hit, and Power rose to #5 at the box office. He also became an idol in Central and South America, where he was dubbed into half a dozen regional Spanish dialects. Power may not have been the athlete than many of his swashbuckling rivals were, but the glowing production values and director Mamoulian’s mastery of the camera kept the film graceful and exciting. Arthur Miller’s chiaroscuro cinematography and the superb sets by Richard Day and Joseph Wright are the perfect setting for a first rate cast.

Tyrone Power struggled with the hypocrisy of being a movie star, a manufactured deity whose access to lazy luxuries scuttled any chance of the greatness on stage that he imagined his father’s theatrical dynasty enjoyed. And, although he was married three times, and had high profile romances (with Lana Turner, Judy Garland and many others) he was also discreetly bisexual. It’s impossible to watch The Mark of Zorro, with its fop/hero masquerade and not muse on how Power’s career as a popular movie star involved a kind of reverse of the Zorro formula, as he lived out his life in the public eye pretending to be completely straight.

Jeffrey Richards describes swashbucklers as a celebration of male beauty, and perhaps, that’s why the genre is so appealing. The model of the gentleman outlaw, dedicated to the return of power to the virtuous endures. Movie audiences are so fragmented now, there is the action picture and the chick flick, and never the twain shall meet. Perhaps, the natural place of rendezvous is on a moonlit veranda, prepared with a kiss, a quip and the noble sword of justice.


More Tyrone Power on Moviediva: Nightmare Alley (1947).

(Photos from Moviediva’s scrapbook collection, Cavens photo from Behlmer, Sondergaard from Bowers, others from Balafonte and Richards. Sources included: The Secret Life of Tyrone Power by Hector Arce, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, “Tyrone Power” by Robert C. Roman in January, 1959 Films in Review, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman, Films of Tyrone Powers by Dennis Balafonte with Alvin H. Marill, Tyrone Power: The Last Idol by Fred Lawrence Guiles, “Linda Darnell” by Robert C. Roman, October 1966 Films in Review, “Gale Sondergaard” by Ronald Bowers, August-September 1978 Films in Review, “Swordplay on the Screen” by Rudy Behlmer, June-July 1965 Films in Review, The Swordsmen of the Screen by Jeffrey Richards, Rouben Mamoulian by Tom Milne, Zorro Unmasked: The Official History by S.R. Curtis, Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream by Ronald L. Davis.