Douglas Fairbanks, Creator of Zorro

220px-FairbanksMarkofZorroOkay, I know that Johnston McCulley wrote the original story of Zorro in 1919 in a weekly magazine. He titled his tale “The Curse of Capistrano,” and it didn’t get much notice. It would have died an obscure death had not the great swashbuckling actor, Douglas Fairbanks, happened to read the magazine on his way to Europe for his honeymoon and decided it would make a great movie–with himself as the star, of course. 

I recently re-read “The Curse of Capistrano” and re-watched “The Mark of Zorro,” Fairbanks’s 1920 film, to compare the two. I wanted to see just how much of the Zorro persona Fairbanks invented and just how much was McCulley’s. 

Turns out, Fairbanks accounts for as much or more than McCulley. McCulley is not a great writer and is particularly weak on descriptions. While he describes Don Diego as “lifeless” and the character is always complaining about being exhausted, it was Douglas Fairbanks who turned that into a vivid image. He shows Don Diego in his first scene entering a tavern during a storm with, of all things, an umbrella–that highly effeminate tool. He is dressed in fancy, decorative clothing. He yawns constantly and slumps. At least 5 times, he shows a stupid magic trick while asking, “Have you seen this one?” He wears a beauty spot on his chin and in one scene, makes shadow puppets on the wall. None of these details appear in the original magazine. 

Douglas Fairbanks also put details into Zorro. It is he who invented the black outfit, the Z on the cheek and, in one case, on the seat of the pants. Endowing Zorro with his own athleticism, he swings on a rope from balcony to balcony, leaps walls and rooftops, conducts sword fights over tables, while walking over a chair, and crouching on the fireplace mantel. Douglas added the secret, underground lair beneath the de Vega household where Zorro can hide his horse as he is being pursued (sort of like the Bat-cave), and the hidden passageways in the deVega mansion by which Zorro/Don Diego come and go in secret.

Conclusion: Our notion of Zorro, nurtured through many more movies and television series, stems largely from Douglas Fairbanks’s vision of the hero. I’ll be using this in the talks I’m scheduled to give this fall. 

 

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Published in: on August 5, 2014 at 5:55 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro is one of my all time favorites.

  2. this is very interesting. all those years of watching zorro and i never knew the story behind it.
    this contributes to the fact that douglas fairbanks was a wonderful athlete. he performed all the stunts himself. he was amazing

  3. Coincidentally, I just finished listening to “The Mark of Zorro” (The Curse of Capistrano, retitled) on audible, read by Armando Durán. I enjoyed the book quite a bit and thought it stood the 95-year test well. Yes, there is that “lifeless” phrase, which I took as a contemporary catch-phrase, but the basic swashbuckling premise, protecting the oppressed, honoring women, and having a horse that obeys fantastic whistled commands are all there. I found it amusing that Don Diego was a little confused about his own dual personalities, and it was interesting to think that — at the time of publication — the fact these two characters are one man seems to have been intended as a surprise ending. 🙂

    The letter ‘Z’ on the cheek is actually in the novel – in the beginning, Sargent Gonzales rants about Zorro carving the hated letter Z on the cheek of his foe – but I think the only time he makes the mark in front of us is on the forehead Captain Ramon before he kills him at the end of the book.

    All that said, I adore Douglas Fairbank’s Zorro and absolutely agree it is his legacy (and the film and TV Zorros who came after him) that have kept the story alive. Every time I watch one of his stunts I run and get my family and shout “Look! no CGI!” 🙂

    • Do you think “lifeless” was a code word for gay? Don Diego is certainly portrayed as effeminate in appearance and uninterested in marriage to the beautiful maiden. And I must be mistaken about the Z on the cheek–I probably got confused between reading the book and watching the movie a couple days later. Thanks for the correction. As I said, I’m working up a lecture on the topic and would have to make a mistake like that!

      • I don’t think gay (not that I know) – I just assumed it was a word that would be less abrasive at the time. Kind of like someone complaining in a modern book of being bored. After posting, I did wonder if the book (retitled mark of zorro in 1920, I think, to go with the movie) had been rewritten it pick up touches from the movie. But I found a 1919 “Curse of Capistrano” with the same bit about carving cheeks. — I LOVE the story about DF reading the pulp version of Zorro on the boat to Europe for his honeymoon. That would have been spring of 1920 (I think) which means he got married, came back, and did the film all in time for a december release. Times were different! – Let me know if you ever give your talk in Tucson; I’d love to hear it.

  4. Nothing scheduled for Tucson, but who knows? I never charge a fee to speak, but I do ask that my travel costs be covered, and when you start talking about airplane fares and hotels, the cost is often too great for a women’s club, public library, or other private group.
    I have visited Tucson twice in past years with family for vacation and we loved it. My children saw their first cactus! And that wonderful museum you have, the Sonora Desert Museum, isn’t it? Fabulous.

    • It’s a pretty great museum/zoo but you have to be hardy 1920s stock to visit this time of year 🙂 Phoenix has several hotels/golf resorts that date to the 1920s that I keep hoping to visit, but so far, no luck….


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