The (Beauty) Mark of Zorro
According to reporter Rob Faubion, The Mark of Zorro “featuring Douglas Fairbanks, has been dubbed “Hollywood’s first action-adventure movie.” (weareaustin.com). If such a statement is indeed correct, then the Fairbanks film was the father of all action film clichés, but that’s not the only first for this 1920 silent film. I will argue that The Mark of Zorro was also the first film to remove the middlebrowed middle man and enmesh the airy ideals of the highbrow with the escapism-seeking lowbrow; ultimately, creating a film comprised of multiplicity of cinematic firsts. Furthermore, I will examine whether The Mark of Zorro—in the historical context of its original release—was initially meant to be campy or whether camp was an reactionary causatum of nostalgia and changing meanings behind camp as it was assimilated into the American cultural lexicon.
As Russell Lynes observes in his Harper’s magazine article, “Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow,” the lowbrow consumer “wants to be comfortable and to enjoy himself without having to worry about whether he has good taste or not…He doesn’t care whether movies are art…so long as he has fun while he is giving them his attention and getting a fair return of pleasure from his investment” (p.25). Lynes has also included a handy ‘highbrow to lowbrow’ chart, and places Western films under the ‘lowbrow entertainment’ category. Quite obviously Western films fulfill the ‘gun fights’ and ‘shoot-outs’ that Susan Hayward lists in her definition of ‘action films’ from her book, Cinema Studies.
Additionally, Hayward’s description of the action film corresponds to Lynes’ description of lowbrow escapism: “The motivation behind action films is pure escapism…any sense of guilty pleasure we derive from the thrill of it all is compensated for by the fact that we go to these films to escape everyday ordinariness and, moreover, to experience plenitude as a way of making up for the scarcity in our own lives” (Hayward, pp.5-6). Thus, the action film, by logical extension, would be considered lowbrow cinema, and, as Hayward points out, “Action movies are not new to Hollywood and can be dated back to as early as the 1930s, at least, and the swashbuckler film, with Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Errol Flynn being some of the first action heroes” (p.8). As a consequence of such a statement, one would assume that The Mark of Zorro is both an action film and lowbrow entertainment.
Likewise, with the action film, “excess is key and there is a great deal of ‘male swagger’” (Hayward, p.9). Hayward further elaborates on male swagger by stating that the “action hero embodies the tradition of its earliest courtly meaning whereby it referred to the swank of knights and nobles who would carry this swagger into battle” (p.10), and that—on the swagger spectrum, with brawn being at one end and brains at the other—there is also the action hero that falls somewhere in between and suffuses the two together: “They have the physical strength and display it; but there is that added element that theirs is also cerebral swagger” (pp.10-11). Within the context of The Mark of Zorro, the masked hero clad in black appears to fall into this third ‘male swagger’ category. As can be seen in all of Zorro’s sword-fighting scenes, he quite obviously has the physical swagger since he not only has the stamina to endure intense swordplay but the confidence necessary to maintain a devil-may-care flare with his rapier. Furthermore, Zorro is also imbued with cerebral swagger since he is capable of constantly outwitting and outsmarting his opponents with the tweak of his mustache. For instance, the first time the viewer is introduced to Zorro, we find him laughing nonchalantly at his enemies intimating that he knows something that they do not and that they are, on some level, slow-witted dullards, incapable of comprehending Zorro’s master-plan. While an example of both the hero’s cerebral and physical swagger manifests itself both in the forms of a 'cigarro'-smoking Zorro’s trickster-god flippancy and the element of comedy (and not camp) during his initial sword-fighting scene in the local tavern with the oafish Sergeant Gonzalez.
Similar to this cerebral/physical swagger duality embodied in its hero, The Mark of Zorro straddles the line between highbrow and lowbrow without entangling itself in the exploitative tentacles of the Hollywood middlebrow. In his piece, “The Photoplay of Action,” Vachel Lindsay points out, “The main merit of the movie [The Mark of Zorro] was that it was a direct challenge to all the Hollywood moralizers who said there was no such thing as a successful costume show” (p.7). Since the The Mark of Zorro symbolized a direct challenge to the Hollywood elite’s assumptions of what constitutes the formula for action film success, it is proof of freedom from middlebrow meddling.
Russell Lynes further points out that “if he [the lowbrow] likes grade-B double features, the highbrow blames that on the corrupting influence of the middlebrow moneybags of Hollywood” (p.25); in regards to The Mark of Zorro, this highbrow assumption falls short of the ‘mark’. For although “[Douglas] Fairbanks' 1920 film version was a smash success, rocketing its producer and star to the pinnacle of fame and fortune” (weareaustin.com), The Mark of Zorro was still regarded as “a definite challenge to the wisdom of Hollywood” (Lindsay, p.8). In other words, Hollywood’s ‘middlebrow moneybags’ had little corrupting influence over Fairbanks’ silent film because they had assumed that a ‘costume show’ about a Spanish-colonial era Robin Hood would fail at the box office.
Additionally, The Mark of Zorro’s main star and producer, Douglas Fairbanks, refused to play by the Hollywood’s rules, and, in doing so, he simultaneously sabotaged the highbrow belief that lowbrow taste in films was instituted by the middlebrow and the middlebrow belief that the lowbrow consumer wouldn’t buy a ticket to see a jumped-up trickster hero. For standing his ground and proving the middlebrow movers and shakers of Tinsel Town incorrect, Fairbanks falls into that creative breed of “the professional man who…is primarily a doer and not a done-by” (Lynes, p.23), which places him in the highbrow category utilizing a lowbrow genre of film—the action film—as his medium of choice. Moreover, the fact that The Mark of Zorro “was generally praised by critics” (Lindsay, p.8) while proving to be a box-office success, suggests that Fairbanks accomplished the rare privilege of finding highbrow praise for a film genre that was more often than not considered lowbrow.
As for the issue of camp in The Mark of Zorro, I find it highly unlikely that the comedic elements of the film were meant to be campy. Considering that the first textual citation of camp can be found 1909 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in which “the term camp refers to behavior thought to be characteristic of male homosexuals” (O'Brien, p.104), I question whether Fairbanks was angling for what would’ve been considered a scandalous subtext to early 20th century moviegoers. Instead, the slapstick acrobatics and trickster-god motif that materializes as comedy in The Mark of Zorro, is more likely meant strictly for knee-jerk laughs from the audience—an audience not entirely ready for a sensibility with its origins in what was still considered a sexual perversion at the time of the film’s release.
Although, with that in mind, Zorro’s other half, Don Diego de la Vega, is without a doubt every bit the effeminate dandy. However, I argue that if anything this wasn’t an homage to camp or a secret code approving of the homosexual community, but rather a mocking jab at early 20th century ‘gay’ stereotypes of emasculated masculinity and effete effeminacy. While being forced into the courtship of Lolita Pulido, Don Diego limply utters, “My father insists that I get married. It’s an awful nuisance,” showing more affection for his silk handkerchief puppets than Lolita. Later on, after Captain Ramon has forced himself upon Lolita, her father, Don Carlos Pulido implores Don Diego to retaliate against Ramon to defend his daughter’s honor in a duel to which Diego replies, “So many unpleasant things happen—it is most fatiguing.” Of course, Don Diego’s spit-curled dandification and listlessness unbecoming of a caballero is just a ruse to dissuade anyone from connecting Diego to Zorro, and, therefore, eliminates even the slightest scintilla that Don Alejandro de la Vega’s posturing progeny is the masked hero.
It is only through the evolving meaning of camp over time and through the lens of nostalgic retrospect, that Don Diego’s limp-wristed posturing takes on a new meaning and Fairbanks’ performance is re-appropriated and then regurgitated with a brand-spanking-new camp subtext. Curiously enough, it would take Hollywood 60+ years to finally exploit these qualities in The Mark of Zorro that are now deemed camp with the release in 1981 of Zorro, the Gay Blade. But, by this time, camp was already in the process of being assimilated into American culture—and by middlebrow Hollywood types—thereby, tainting any true camp quality that the Fairbanks original had accrued over the decades into caricatured clichés of the male homosexual…but, then again, I suppose that’s the closeted, middlebrow Hollywood machine for ya.
Faubion, Rob. "Classic Film "The Mark of Zorro" Screens at the Long Center with Live Orchestra." Austin News, Weather, Sports - We Are Austin.com KEYE TV. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July 2011. <http://weareaustin.com>.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema studies . 2e ed. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Lynes, Russell . "Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow." Harper's Magazine Feb. 1949: 19-28. Print.
O'Brien, Jodi. Encyclopedia of gender and society . Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. Print.
The Mark of Zorro - Featuring the Original 1920 Score. Dir. Fred Niblo. Perf. Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery Sr.. Rialto Media, 1999. DVD.