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The 30-Year 'Quest | Parachute | 2001: A Space Odyssey | The Mark of Zorro | Fest Bets

EN GARDE: 'The Mask of Zorro' inspired another caped and masked crusader—Batman.

There are few century-old movies that count as a hot property, but 1920's The Mark of Zorro still has force and fury on its centennial. People still dream of the masked rider: one reads that there's a gender-swapped version of Zorra currently being shopped around for TV. The fox, Zorro, has all the substance of the wisp of smoke, and yet he's as real as the point of a sword at a villain's throat.

His glorious masquerade is set against the Spanish colonists' efforts to turn this land into a new Granada. With Dennis James at the California Theatre's Wurlitzer, The Mark of Zorro plays at the perfect sight-specific venue: this grand theater with its plaster Castilian coats of arms, Spanish tiles and Moorish trappings, was built a few years after The Mark of Zorro was a world-wide hit.

Unique to a cinema that loves its origin stories, Zorro is just there. Says the first title card, with Hegelian terseness: "Oppression—by its very nature—creates the power that crushes it ... he is born." And crush it, Zorro does.

The first image is the carved "Z" on the face of a soldier who beat an Indian till he was crippled. Now he has a real conversation piece on his cheek. As a cantina full of guards threatens revenge, there's a knock on the door ... but it's only simpering, spit-curled Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks Sr.)

How sad: send your son to Spain from the New World for an education, and they'll send you back a fop, a mollycoddle. Diego is useless to defend either his fiance Lolita (Marguerite de la Motte), or her persecuted family; all he can do is grin feebly and toy with his kerchief. As Sgt. Garcia (Noah Beery) pantomimes how he'll get his hands on that black-clad ruffian Zorro, how he'll knock him to the floor, skewer him and twist the sword, Diego averts his eyes at the dreadful spectacle.

Where is Zorro? "Just mistreat an indian and he'll show up," says a fearful title card. Strangely, he enters right after Diego leaves, wrapped in his cloak, puffing a cheroot to obscure his features with a cloud of smoke. He has two smudgy Cantinflas-style mustaches under the mask. He studies his wanted poster for a second, before drawing his rapier and carving a Z in it. He's a practical fox, carrying a pistol in his sash to make sure the crowd keeps its distance, before the first of a series of gravity-defying fights that keep the ruffian soldiers stumbling for cover.

As the dying Hedley Lamarr observed in Blazing Saddles, Fairbanks was a light footed man: to the art historian Kenneth Clark, he was "a sort of Ariel," like Shakespeare's blithe spirit, able to scale walls, leap buildings, glide onto the backs of horses and dance around a squad of dimbulb soldiers. The fight always escalates, as the swine of a governor sends his hulking Captain Ramon (Robert McKim, a real piece of work) to capture Zorro. Ramon considers it part of his brief to lean on Lolita. Here, the tension of Diego's masquerade waiting to be dropped gets nigh unbearable.

You've the expression—"it brought down the house!"—but the one and only time I heard a house brought down, it was at McKim's flabbergasted reaction to the reveal of Zorro's identity, when it played a sold-out Stanford Theatre.

The pleasure Fairbanks takes in this adventuring, from posing as a trembling wimp, to going on the attack, is one of the first and most thrilling dual-identity melodrama-comedy. One can fret about vigilantism and what a fascist stain its left on the U.S.—all the texture in Watchmen—but by contrast, this is angst-free, a reversal of The Birth of A Nation's hooded Klan. Zorro slices up at the cruel, priest-whipping government. The racial politics aren't problematic, either. The Latin audience gets Zorro, and has got him for years; for every one Zorro movie made in the states, there's about three in Mexico, South America and Italy. And Chile's Isabelle Allende even wrote a fulsome and very PC novel about him.

Zorro is a lover, not just a fighter, rhapsodically courting Lolita with flowery little poems, comparing her to the roses and the turbulent surf at San Juan Capistrano. The mystery is not like Batman's compulsion for revenge, but rather a romantic prank. (And yet the story made its impact on the canonical version of Batman; the 1940 remake is supposedly the last film the Wayne family saw together before they took that ill-advised shortcut through Crime Alley.) A century has not dimmed the thrills of this primordial tale of disguise and intrigue.

The Mark of Zorro is billed with the short One Week (1920). The department store Sears & Roebuck used to sell bungalow kits, some assembly required. A few of these houses still stand a century later. The newly married Buster Keaton receives one as a wedding present from his uncle. His ineptitude as a carpenter (never saw toward yourself, particularly toward your crotch) is complicated by sabotage from a jilted rival, who paints new numbers on the crates. The house starts out cubist, then goes full Frank Gehry and ultimately turns into a merry-go-round in a strong wind.

It's a strangely affectionate film—note how many closeups the young wife Sybil Seely gets, as well as a peekaboo bathtub scene. Keaton shows the beginning of the majestic talent he'd reveal in the decade to come, in particular one gag about a falling wall that he'd build to lethal size in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

The Mark of Zorro
Mar 13, 7pm
California Theatre