The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929

51Q+nUeLhIL._AA160_I read The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929, by David Pierce, published 2013 by the Library of Congress. I learned a lot about silent movies, and it had some good tidbits that I can use in future Roaring Twenties mysteries:

Coquettemp–in the early years of talkies (1929-1931), some producers shot films as both forms–silent and talkie–so they could be shown in theaters that had not yet outfitted for sound. Mary Pickford’s Coquette of 1929 was one of those. That’s something I’ll mention if and when the series progresses to 1929. (Right now, we’re in 1926.)

–the first feature-length silent films were produced in 1912 and there were only a very few. In 1913 there were about 50. From there the number shot up to over 900 in 1917, then steadily in the 600-800 range, until talkies came on the scene. In 1929, the number dropped to 300, then a dozen in 1930 as talkies took over. 

–Mary Pickford owned many of her films and paid for their preservation. Few other actors, directors, or studios did.

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–“It is Fairbanks’ representations of these characters (Robin Hood, Zorro, the Three Musketeers, the Black Pirate, etc.) that live today, filtered and morphed over the years by Errol Flynn, Antonio Banderas, Michael York, and Johnny Depp.” I completely agree with the author in this and have tried to portray Douglas as the creative innovator that he was. 


The Origins of Zorro

         Just two years before Douglas Fairbanks’ first (1921)  Zorro film was released, a serial called “The Curse of Capistrano” appeared in the  pulp magazine shown here. These cheap fiction magazines, usually sold for 10 cents, were popular in the early part of the 20th century. The author, Johnston McCulley, clearly found his inspiration in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, a story about a brave Englishman during the French Revolution that was written in 1903 by Baroness Emma Orczy, a British woman of Hungarian origin. In Baroness Orczy’s story, the Scarlet Pimpernel is the secret name for a mysterious man who snatches innocent French citizens about to be guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

      Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel have much in common. Both are  nobly-born heroes who disguise themselves as effeminate nincompoops in order to fight against evil in the form of a brutal government. Both hide their true identity from everyone, even their fathers and the women they love. Each has a trusted sidekick who is in on the charade. And each taunts his opponents by leaving his mark–a red flower or a slashed Z–wherever he has struck.

     Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford selected this story while on their honeymoon. As usual, they chose wisely! “The Mark of Zorro” was such a success that Fairbanks followed it four years later with a sequel, “Don Q: Son of Zorro.” It was these two silent films that firmly established Zorro as an American legend and led to many more movies, books, and television programs.

“Out of the Night, When the Full Moon is Bright . . .”

      The story of Zorro existed before Douglas Fairbanks’ two movies (1921 and 1925), but it was the movies that made the character a household name. Just two years before the first film, a serial called “The Curse of Capistrano” appeared in a “pulp magazine”—that’s the term for the cheap fiction magazines that were distributed in the first half of the 20th century and were usually sold for 10 cents. It’s author was Johnston McCulley.

         Douglas Fairbanks, through his two films, helped create the image of Zorro that persists to this day. For instance, Fairbanks was an amateur magician and he gave Zorro that ability. It was Fairbanks who created the black outfit, black mask, and round black hat that figure in all subsequent versions. And Fairbanks’ acrobatic abilities—think swinging from the chandelier and leaping from rooftop to rooftop—were transferred to Zorro.  Watch this fabulous clip (it’s only 3 ½ minutes) to the end and you’ll see the leap across wide space between buildings that Mary Pickford couldn’t bear to watch.

         Or watch the clip where Don Diego (Zorro) performs several foppish tricks: (start at minute 4:40 and you’ll see him play the bored, uninterested suitor who does a magic trick for his intended).

         “The Mark of Zorro” was released by United Artists (a corporation founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith) in 1921. The film was hugely popular, so he reprised the role in 1925 in “Don Q: Son of Zorro,” which was, incidentally, one of the first sequels in Hollywood history.  If you want to see the whole feature-length film (and it’s very entertaining!) click here:

       The Zorro character was very important to Douglas Fairbanks—he and Mary even named their little dog Zorro.