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A Wonderful Night at the Fabulous Fox Theatre: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Thursday, August 25th, I attended a very special screening at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre: 1920′s The Mark of Zorro starring the original King of Hollywood– Douglas Fairbanks. Up until last Thursday I had never seen a Douglas Fairbanks film. Something I’m not proud of for sure. The Fox Theatre is truly a gem. For most of the year the theatre features off-broadway musicals and plays, concerts, and ballet performances. In the summer The Fox holds a movie festival featuring classics and newer films. The architecture and décor enrich the moving-going experience. Often described as Arabic, Moorish, and Egyptian, the design is opulent. The main feature of the theatre is of course the auditorium. The ceiling is painted twilight blue with moving clouds and has lighted crystals that twinkle like emerging stars. Sitting near the stage and looking up, one can almost imagine being in a majestic courtyard in some far away land. The Fox also boasts the second largest theatre organ in the country. The “Mighty Mo” is used for pre-show sing-a-longs and silent film accompaniment. The organ also controls a full size baby grand piano! The screening was hosted by TCM and introduced/emceed by Ben Mankiewicz. In his introduction, Mankiewicz discussed Fairbanks’s influence on the action/adventure genre. In Mankiewicz’s words “Fairbanks was Errol Flynn before Errol Flynn was Errol Flynn.” The accompanist for the evening was renowned theatre organist Clark Wilson. He travels around the country playing his original scores for silent films (more info about Wilson in this article).

Don Diego Vega and Sgt. Gonzales
Don Diego Vega and Sgt. Gonzales

Honestly, The Mark of Zorro should be called The Mark of Fairbanksbecause in every scene he leaves his mark as he triumphs over the rest of the cast in commanding fashion. Fairbanks is Don Diego Vega, a wealthy fop who is more interested in performing magic tricks than wooing women. He is socially awkward–hands in his pockets, shuffling around with his head down. Don Diego is the kind of guy who would today live in his parents’ basement. In the opening scene, he is sitting in a bar drinking with a group of rowdy men, including the villain of our story, Sgt. Pedro Gonzales (played by Noah Beery, older brother to Wallace Beery). Led by Gonzales, the men are all discussing the pesky Zorro, champion of the poor and oppressed. Gonzales, right hand man to the governor and his dictatorship, details how he will capture and kill the masked bandit. After an elaborate display by the sergeant, Don Diego stands up and politely makes his exit. In this moment, Sgt. Gonzales has no earthly idea that he will soon receive that famous mark…

Zorro makes his entrance to an unsuspecting Gonzales
Zorro makes his entrance to an unsuspecting Gonzales

Fairbanks’s first entrance as Zorro is one of the greatest in cinema. With smoke and a wicked little smile, the audience knows the bad guys will get what is coming to them…and it is going to be loads of fun.Fairbanks’s Zorro is lean, light, and quick–blink and he’s gone as quickly as he arrived. In between swordplay and ducking flying objects, Zorro easily slinks past his opposition. He lights a cigarette, grabs a drink (he’s thirsty!), and sits back to watch the bad guys fight each other. I imagine Zorro’s motto might be “Fighting evil one prank at a time.” Being a master swordsman, Zorro is also quite the lover. No awkwardness or magic tricks here. Zorro always knows the right things to say or do, especially to the lovely Lolita Pulido (played by Marguerite De La Motte). Currently being “courted” by Don Diego, Pulido is quickly swept off her feet by the dashing and mischievous Zorro. After watching The Mark of Zorro, I now understand the magnificence that is Douglas Fairbanks. His wit, athleticism, and timing is perfect. I thoroughly enjoyed his performance and the film. His athletic style made an impression on many actors and especially on a young Archie Leach. In 1920, Leach was on his way to America to tour with the Pender troupe. During the voyage, he met Fairbanks and new bride Mary Pickford, who were on their way home from a European honeymoon. The newlyweds were nice enough to spend time with Leach, who idolized Fairbanks. The young acrobatic Leach later became Cary Grant. For years, they kept in touch and Grant often cited Fairbanks as being a huge inspiration. Fairbanks’s influence changed the action/adventure genre and many copy cats followed. He is the original Errol Flynn. or Tyrone Power. or Stewart Granger. And in my generation–the original Harrison Ford. Douglas Fairbanks as Han Solo? Hmm…

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Jill Blake

Jill Blake is the owner of the classic film website Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence. She is also a co-founder and editor of the film site The Black Maria and film editor at CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. In 2013, she was a featured guest on the TCM podcast. In her spare time Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries.

Comments

Angela
Reply

This sounds amazing! Seeing Doug Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro is amazing enough when you watch it at home on TV, but to be able to see it in a theater with live music, the way it was meant to be seen, sounds simply divine.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

It was spectacular. And it has spoiled me. Seeing a silent film at home absolutely does not compare. It’s unfortunate that silents aren’t screened more. This is when I wish I lived in L.A.

The Lady Eve
Reply

In the last two years I’ve had the chance to see a few silent classics in a theater setting with live accompaniment and, I’ve realized, it’s a joy I wished I’d discovered much earlier. Your evening at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre sounds fantastic – and so special with Ben Mankiewicz presenting. Great post! I’ve only seen Fairbanks films on TV and not very often. I got a real sense of his performance and style from your post. Excellent!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

It’s so hard to watch a silent at home. The first one I saw in a theatre w/ live accompaniment was The Phantom of the Opera. The masquerade sequence was fantastic! Then I saw Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. at the Robert Osborne Classic Film Festival. A jazz trio accompanied it. At first I was a bit skeptical, but it was perfect! Their scoring was quite unique and added so much to the experience.

Thanks for your comment!

Raquelle
Reply

Sounds like you had a wonderful time! That theater sounds amazing. Next time post pictures!

I enjoyed this film too. Was really impressed by Douglas Fairbanks’ acrobatic skills. Dang!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

I have a couple pictures from my phone, but it doesn’t really do the theatre justice. However…I have been invited by the Fox Theatre management to take a private tour. Once that happens I will write up a nice post and include some pics!

Let me tell you, I’m hooked on Fairbanks now. ;)

kimalysong
Reply

This is the only Fairbanks film I have seen so far (although I have Thief of Bagdad recorded to hopefully watch one day soon) and I really enjoyed it. I’ve always loved Zorro and Fairbanks did a great job bringing the character to life. You are right the film was all about him because I can barely remember anyone else that was in it.

I will say unfortunately I only got to see it on TV and not on a big screen in a beautiful theater. I would have loved that. It’s my dream to see a silent film on a big screen with a live orchestra but there isn’t many opportunities in my city, unfortunately!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

I can’t wait to see Thief of Bagdad. And I just got a copy of Robin Hood. It’s the restored Kino version and is supposed to be fantastic. I wish more than anything that you had some film events near you. We don’t get many, but when we do they are quite good.

vp19
Reply

Do check out some of Fairbanks’ character-based (not really slapstick) comedies, made before “Zorro” shifted his career in another direction. (I believe some are available on DVD.) Doug is just as athletic in these films, exhibiting the same sort of charm that would mark his swashbucklers.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Thanks so much for commenting! I really want to see his earlier films. Do you have any recommendations?

Jnpickens
Reply

How fun that you got to see this in a theater! I’m only in South Carolina so I wish I’d know so I could go too! haha.

I just saw this movie back in June and loved it. You are right “Mark of Fairbanks” would be a perfect title. I’m in love with his son, Doug Jr, but fascinated by Doug Sr and all of his stunts. He’s so funny too!

That’s also very nice to hear how Mary and Doug spent some time with young Cary Grant. I didn’t realize Doug Fairbanks was an inspiration to him but it makes sense.

Thanks for sharing about the evening! Was ole Ben Manckewitz pretty much the same as he is on TV? Awkward and sorta funny? haha

Talk to me!

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