This week, I’m presenting a 2-night program at Patriots Colony, the retirement community where my parents live in Williamsburg, based on my Silent Murders book. The program starts on Wednesday with a screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s movie, “Don Q: Son of Zorro.” Since you can’t be there (I’m sure you’re not old enough!), I’ll share my short, pre-film presentation. I hope the folks there enjoy the 1 1/2-hour film. The following night, I’m giving a short talk on silent movies and joining the entire community for a cocktail reception. (Cocktails always bring out a crowd . . . )
Don Q: Son of Zorro, is the 1925 sequel to Douglas Fairbanks’s hugely successful Mark of Zorro of 1920. You’ve probably heard the joke about the high school student who is reading his first Shakespeare play and complains that Shakespeare uses so many cliché’s . . . well, that’s the case with watching a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. He invented the action hero. His own athletic prowess and acrobatic feats seem ho-hum today—but they wowed audiences in his day because he did them first. Swinging from a chandelier, sword fighting on the stairs, leaping from parapet to parapet, dropping down onto the back of a horse—Douglas was a font of ideas that others were quick to copy. He had a superb physique. He mastered the sword, the whip, the bow and arrow, and the knife. His gymnastic skills let him leap, tumble, and swing with apparent ease. He did his own stunts. After Zorro, he went on to play the lead in the Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Thief of Bagdad, Ben Hur, the Black Pirate, and Man in the Iron Mask.
In Son of Zorro, Douglas plays two roles: that of the aging Zorro as well as his dashing, young son, Don Cesar. Douglas was 42 when the movie was filmed, 20 years too young to play the father and 20 years too old to play the son. When he showed up on the set all made up to look old, the director jokingly called him Gramps. Douglas was not amused. Hollywood actors did not appreciate being reminded of their age. His co-star, Mary Astor who played the fair Dolores, was 18.
The story takes place not in California but in Spain. Zorro has sent his son to Spain to acquire culture. There he is falsely accused of killing the heir to the Austrian throne and has to hide out in the ruins of the family castle. He writes his father who dashes to Spain to help. In the movie, this seems to happen in a few weeks . . . in reality, it would have taken a ship at least 12-14 months to sail from Spain to California with a letter, then another 12-14 months to return. But never mind details . . .
Zorro was the creation of Johnston McCulley, the man who wrote the original short story titled “The Curse of Capistrano” which appeared in a minor magazine in 1919. It would have died an obscure death had not the great Douglas Fairbanks happened to read the magazine onboard his ship on his way to Europe for his honeymoon with Mary Pickford. He decided it would make a great movie–with himself as the star, of course. It was a smashing success, soon followed by a sequel that you can watch tonight. Douglas also invented the “son of” sequel, something that had never been done before.
If the titles seem to stay on the screen forever, it is because the movie producers were aiming at the lowest common denominator. Many people had minimal education and read very slowly; many in the audience were immigrants with poor English. The rule of thumb was to allow one second per word, which to us today seems overly long. I tested this and found 30 words lasted precisely 25 seconds.
Douglas Fairbanks plays an important role in my book, Silent Murders, as Jessie’s employer, as she moves from vaudeville to Hollywood for a low-level job at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios where they are currently filming Son of Zorro. Jessie quickly learns that all of Hollywood scorns the speakeasies everywhere with bootleg hooch and Mexican dope. After a powerful director is murdered at his own party and Jessie’s waitress friend is killed for what she saw, Jessie takes the lead in an investigation tainted by corrupt cops. Soon she’s tangled in a web of drugs, bribery, and murder, nearly becoming a victim herself.