Tyrone Power makes his mark on TCM
By Charles Culbertson
Rathbone: Quiet, you popinjay. I’ve no reason for letting you live, either.
Power: What a pleasant coincidence. I feel exactly the same way about you, capitan.
From the pulse-pounding strains of Alfred Newman’s opening musical score to the raucous exhilaration of the movie’s final scene, The Mark of Zorro (1940) is a testament to the kind of craftsmanship that existed in Hollywood during its Golden Age. This landmark film — which contains some of the most impressive, non-computerized action sequences in movie history — will air on TCM on Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 9:45 p.m.
Recipe for a classic
Although the Technicolor process was readily available to 20th Century-Fox in 1940, the studio wisely chose to shoot The Mark of Zorro in crisp black and white, an artistic move that deepened shadows and helped establish moods that supported Zorro’s persona of mystery and danger. And yet, believe it or not, The Mark of Zorro was expertly colorized in 2005 and lost none of its punch or appeal.
The movie was also scored by a musical genius whose contributions to the film industry are still in use today. Alfred Newman, who began his 20-year association with Fox as music director in 1940, was nominated for an Academy Award for his catchy, heart-pumping Zorro score. He went on to pen more than 200 movie scores for Fox, winning nine Academy Awards along the way.
And last but not least, Fox employed some of the most attractive and talented people in Hollywood to bring life to a taut, well-written script that was, by turns, tense, thrilling and light-hearted. Dishing out the swordplay as Zorro was a criminally good-looking Tyrone Power; providing the raw sex appeal of youth beyond its years was a 16-year-old Linda Darnell; and stealing scenes throughout the movie was the best — and most elegant — bad guy in Hollywood, Basil Rathbone.
The result for Fox was beyond even president Darryl Zanuck’s expectations. Zorro’s receipts more than tripled the studio’s $1 million investment, and for once a studio other than Warner Brothers had made a splash in the action-adventure genre. While Errol Flynn that year was burning up movie screens in The Sea Hawk, Power provided him some viable competition thanks to Zorro.
Seventeen years later — their looks gone and both of them nearing their deaths — Power and Flynn worked together in The Sun Also Rises, Power’s last movie for Fox. One has to wonder if these former matinee idols ever discussed with each other the glory days of 1940 when between them they had commanded so much of the adulation of the movie-going public.
Never seen it? Well….
The story is well known, but worth revisiting. Power plays Don Diego Vega, a native of Mexican California who is attending a military academy in Madrid. He is called home by his father, Don Alejandro Vega (Montague Love), who has been displaced as alcalde of Los Angeles by corrupt politician Luis Quinterro (J. Edward Bromberg) and his henchman, Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone).
When Diego learns of the tyrannical situation in his old homeplace, he assumes the airs of a fop — sniffing scented handkerchiefs, dipping snuff, yawning at the mention of armed rebellion. He dances eloquently, he woos the wife of Luis Quinterro with oily grace and, when he’s not discussing the latest fashions in Madrid, he performs limp-wristed and vapid parlor tricks. Disgusted, his father wants nothing to do with him. The new alcalde and his thugs regard Diego as a suitor for Quinterro’s niece, Lolita (Darnell), and nothing more. For Capt. Pasquale (Rathbone), perhaps only an insect would rank lower than Don Diego Vega. Lolita’s opinion of Diego isn’t much better.
But oh, what they don’t know.
One day, without warning, a masked horseman clad in black attacks two soldiers in the town square and forces them to post a warning to Quinterro and his followers. It is signed “Zorro,” Spanish for “fox.” At first written off as a lone nut, this horseman soon strikes fear into the hearts of nearly everyone associated with Quinterro. No one knows who he will attack next. No one knows what outrage he will commit. He appears and dematerializes seemingly at will. He out-rides and outfights all who are sent against him.
The only person he reveals is identity to is Lolita, who at first doesn’t believe that the womanish Don Diego Vega is actually the hard riding, fearless marauder known as Zorro.
An artistic and historical treasure
The Zorro character and story were based on a 1919 serialized novel, The Curse of Capistrano, by pulp writer Johnston McCully. Originally, the 1940 movie was slated to be called The Californian until clearer heads prevailed. Someone realized that there was money to be made by directly associating with the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks silent epic, The Mark of Zorro. That movie had rocketed Fairbanks to superstardom, and many people still fondly remembered his version of Zorro. So The Californian was dropped in favor of the original title.
Another, more emotional, connection to the Fairbanks version was made that resulted in good headlines for Fox. Following the filming of 1920’s The Mark of Zorro and its phenomenal success, Fairbanks gave to his fencing trainer, Fred Cavens, the sword he had used in the movie. His instructions were to pass it along to the next actor who played Zorro. Twenty years later the San Francisco Examiner wrote:
“Cavens, who has been offered $10,000 for the blade, made the same request of Tyrone Power when he presented him with the sword on The Mark of Zorro set, where he coached him for the famous and colorful role of the great California bandit.”
And so all the scenes in which Power fights with a sword are done with the same blade used by Fairbanks in the 1920 film.
During filming, Power took a daily dip in a swimming pool that he had the film crew carefully heat for him. One day, as a practical joke, Zanuck arranged for the pool to remain unheated. When Power dove in for his daily swim, he reportedly received such a shock that he later claimed he thought he was going to have a heart attack.
Retaliation was in order, and the result can be seen today in many compilations of film bloopers and outtakes.
When Zanuck was watching the daily rushes, he was shocked to see a drastically different version of a scene in which Zorro robs a coach carrying Quinterro (Bromberg) and his wife. After robbing the couple, Zorro slashes the coach seat with his sword — but when the camera pans over, the usual “Z” is replaced with “DZ.”
Bromberg breathes, “Zanuck!”
Power replies, “Let that be a lesson to you, damn it!”
While Power as a movie swashbuckler never really threatened Errol Flynn, he came as close as anyone in The Mark of Zorro. Despite significant stunt-doubling in the final duel with Rathbone, Power made his performance look good and came out of it with one of the most impressive sword fights anyone ever produced.
The movie also features a beautiful, playful love scene between Power (hidden beneath the robes of a priest) and Darnell, and an eye-popping chase scene in which Zorro — trapped on a bridge between two approaching forces of soldiers — jumps, horse and all, over the rails of the bridge and into a river 15 feet below. You have to remember that there was no such thing as CGI in those days; some stunt man on a horse really did that, and it’s impressive as hell to watch.
The Mark of Zorro, which had its premiere in Tyrone Power’s hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, was named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2009.
Charles Culbertson is a freelance writer with a lifelong interest in the early days of film, television and radio. He has written and published extensively about American history, and has just published his first work of fiction: Siege at Fort Lyautey and Other Stories. Culbertson lives in Waynesboro, Virginia, with his wife, Janet.