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Reviews of silent film releases on home video.
Copyright © 1999-2014 by Carl Bennett
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The
Mark of Zorro

(1920)
 

Have you seen this one? Previously known for his many upbeat, optimistic, happy-go-lucky urban comedy films of the 1910s, Douglas Fairbanks made his first swashbuckling film, The Mark of Zorro, which was soon followed by the string of historical action films that dominated Fairbanks’ output in the 1920s.

It is the early California of the 1830s. Both the native peoples and the Spanish settlers are are being victimized by a felonious governor and the corrupt officers of his militia. Yet, a single avenger has arrived on the scene, punishing those who would abuse their positions of power — a mysterious masked man who calls himself Zorro.

Recently back home from an extended trip to Spain is Don Diego Vega (Fairbanks), an effete fop who is short on agression and long on weariness. His impatient father, tired of his son’s silly distractions, has arranged a meeting with the noble (but distressed — thanks to the governor) Pulido family and their daughter, Lolita (Marguerite de la Motte). Singularly unimpressed with each other at first sight, Don Diego is secretly enchanted with Lolita and returns, in a significant counterpoint of character, in his self-confident and suave Zorro persona. It is not long before they are deeply in love — let there be no surprise.

Enter the villain in the form of Captain Juan Ramon (Robert McKim). Quick to overconfidence, quick to abuse the illusion of power afforded by his position, Ramon pursues Lolita like a sexual vulture — a melodramatic antagonist stale enough to be more than 80 years old, yet fresh enough to still be used in Hollywood today. Ramon’s advances are easily thwarted more than once by the rescuing Zorro.

Comes the petty manipulations of Ramon in his false accusations against the Pulido family, and they are jailed for treason. Comes Zorro’s admonition of the complacent local caballeros for allowing corruption to take root, and the Pulidos and other political prisoners are rescued. All except the intercepted Lolita, who is carried away by the dastardly Ramon.

Rescued again, Lolita, Zorro and the entire company of players converge on the Vega villa, where Ramon is given his comeuppance by the simpering Don Diego transformed by indignance into the vengeful Zorro in front of everyone’s eyes — including those of the adoring Lolita.

Fairbanks, scenarist Eugene Miller and director Fred Niblo concocted an extended introduction to the film’s story, which continues for a full reel-and-a-half. Beginning in a cantina with tales of the growing local mythology of Zorro, his recent acts of retribution, and the hollow intentions of the town’s vengeful soldiers, we are introduced to Don Diego as an ineffectual pansy, all shudders and revulsion at the talk of violence. Soon comes the validation of the Zorro mythology with a display of his strength and wits in an amusing fight with Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery). Another notable extended sequence is the penultimate chase led by Zorro throughout the town, with a mob of soldiers fruitlessly pursuing like Keystone Kops.

In Zorro’s use of a secret identity, his acts of retribution, his family fortune, his trap doors, hidden passages, peep holes and secret entrances to a sub-ground-level lair, we have to extrapolate that some of the germination of the character of Batman was seeded by this film in the mind of artist and creator of Batman, Bob Kane.

In the supporting cast, Beery is fun as the boasting yet cowardly Sergeant Gonzales, and Snitz Edwards stands out in his few scenes as the proprietor of the Posada El Camino Real. This first major film adaptation of the Zorro legend stands up today as a fun and entertaining film throughout multiple viewings. — Carl Bennett

2008 Flicker Alley DVD edition

Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (1916-1921), color-toned black & white, color-tinted black & white and black & white, 760 minutes total, not rated,
including The Mark of Zorro (1920), color-toned black & white, 107 minutes, not rated.

Flicker Alley, FA0011, UPC 6-17311-67359-7, ISBN 1-8939-6735-2.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, five single-sided, dual-layered DVD discs, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 14 chapter stops, five slimline DVD keepcases in cardboard slipcase, $89.95.
DVD release date: 2 December 2008.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 8 / audio: 9 / additional content: 8 / overall: 8.

This boxset edition features an excellent full-frame, natural-speed video transfer from a high-quality 35mm safety fine-grain master print, with most print flaws like dust, speckling and timing marks digitally removed. Some digital image stabilization appears to also have been done, as there is little in the way of frame jitters to be seen, but are moments when the source print wins the struggle with some momentary picture destabilization appearing early in the film. Also, a digital video glitch appears in the lower left corner of the picture at 0:05:55.

Whether in the source print or added in post-production, the video master features pleasing color-toning, predominantly in a rich sepiatone with gold midtones, blue-toning for night scenes, and a yellow-green toning for outdoor scenes. Some variation on sepiatones are also present.

The film is accompanied by a small orchestral musical score performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, identical to the edition noted below.

Included in the boxset is a 32-page booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. The supplemental material includes productions stills and pressbook reproductions, an audio essay for A Modern Musketeer, and a reproduction of Fairbanks’ first film contract. This boxset collection won an award at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009 for excellence.

By far the best home video edition of The Mark of Zorro, we love it for its clean and rich sepiatone picture and for its excellent musical accompaniment — highly recommended.

 

Note: A few DVD players have encountered problems playing some discs in this boxset. Flicker Alley has inititated a program to replace defective discs from this Fairbanks set. Click here to report defective discs.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2008 Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra DVD edition

The Mark of Zorro (1920), color-toned black & white, 107 minutes, not rated.

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, no catalog number, UPC 7-00261-25090-8.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 12 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $25.00.
DVD release date: August 2008.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 8 / audio: 9 / additional content: 8 / overall: 8.

This edition from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra features a new full-frame, natural-speed video transfer from a high-quality 35mm safety fine-grain master print, supplied by Film Preservation Associates, that features a broad range of graytones and excellent image detail, and which looks great on high-definition systems with resolution upscaling. Defined image details exist in both the highlights and deepest shadows, which is a quality criteria for both source materials and the video transfer. The print is light-to-moderately speckled (especially in the first reel), with a few seconds of dark discoloration later in the film, print flaws, some dust throughout and, at times, a jittery image within the frame all indicates that digital image stabilization and clean-up has not been performed. Timing marks in the source print have also been consciously allowed to remain in the transfer.

The film is presented with an excellent music score compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. In a novel twist, the film is presented with optional subtitles identifying the accompanying music compositions, which we hail as a great pioneering move in the presentation of silent films on home video. The musically uneducated can now identify which contemporary music pieces have been adapted for the accompaniment, and begin to understand the use of musical themes of underscore the progression of the plot and action and to suggest a mood to associate with a character’s actions and personality. A great idea repeated from Mont Alto’s 2006 DVD edition of The General (1926).

The supplemental material includes enlightening audio commentary by author and professor John C. Tibbetts, Kansas Silent Film Festival host Denise Morrison, and musician and edition producer Rodney Sauer — which could have benefited from closer, individual miking of the participants and a lower audio level of the underlying music score. The supplemental material also includes a short guide to silent film scoring, and a gallery of Fairbanks illustrations by Tibbetts (11 images).

This edition, which is sold at Mont Alto Orchestra performances and through their website, is highly-recommended.

 
This Region 0 NTSC DVD edition is available directly from the MONT ALTO MOTION PICTURE ORCHESTRA.
2002 Kino on Video DVD edition

The Mark of Zorro (1920), black & white, 100 minutes, not rated,
with Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), black & white, 110 minutes, not rated.

Kino International, K249, UPC 7-38329-02492-5.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 1, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $29.95.
DVD release date: 18 June 2002.
Country of origin: USA
We assume that this edition is an improvement over the older Image edition below. But, until viewed we cannot recommend one edition over another.

In addition to the inclusion of Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), the supplementary section includes Fairbanks home movies, an excerpt from a Pathé newsreel featuring Fairbanks vs. Jack Dempsey, an introduction to the film by Orson Welles, an excerpt from Fairbanks’ 1918 book Making Life Worthwhile.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 1 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
This Region 1 NTSC DVD edition is also available directly from KINO LORBER.
1999 Image Entertainment DVD edition

The Mark of Zorro (1920), color-toned black & white, 96 minutes, not rated.

Film Preservation Associates, distributed by Image Entertainment, ID4727DSDVD, UPC 0-14381-47272-1.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, single-layered DVD disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, chapter stops, snapper DVD case, $24.99.
DVD release date: 12 January 1999.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 7 / audio: 8 / additional content: 0 / overall: 7.
This early DVD edition, originally produced in 1991 for VHS and laserdisc release by David Shepard, has been mastered from a very-good 35mm print. The older analog video transfer is softer than the digital transfers of today, and its orangey color tones are more saturated than we would like to see. Some of the shadows are deeper than in later transfers from the same source material. Also, the source print’s picture is jittery within the frame from time to time, sometimes enough to be distracting.

The film is accompanied by a theater organ music score performed by Gaylord Carter, which is the chief attraction of this older edition.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2005 Delta Entertainment DVD edition

The Mark of Zorro (1920), black & white, 97 minutes, not rated.

Delta Entertainment, 82 821, UPC 0-18111-28219-2.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, single-layered DVD disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 12 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $6.99.
DVD release date: 29 November 2005.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 6 / audio: 5 / additional content: 0 / overall: 6.

This budget edition appears to have been mastered from a very-good fine-grain 16mm reduction print that holds a wide range of graytones and reasonably sharp image details, but the shadows are a bit too dark. The full-frame video transfer, which runs a touch faster than natural speed, itself has a handful of momentary horizontal video glitches. But, we’ve seen worse than this.

The film is accompanied by a cobbled-together prerecorded orchestral music score (with a few maracas to remind you of the Spanish influence!) that is utilitarian at best.

The running time on the packaging is wrong, with the digits transposed. Not horrible, but not the best edition available either.

 
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
 
Canada: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0 NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.ca. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
Other silent era DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS films available on home video.
Douglas Fairbanks filmography in The Progressive Silent Film List
 
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