December 11, 1920 [The Mark of Zorro]

Douglas Fairbanks as Johnston McCulley's Zorro seems positively spring-loaded, as much a comic as a hero. He grins and gambols, clambering like a monkey, capering from rooftop to window to the thick of things, the flashing arc of his sword curved in a constant smile, shining like clean teeth.

The film commits early to ambitions, solemnly announcing at the start, "Oppression--by its very nature--creates the power that crushes it." And in this dialectical proclamation the "force" is individualized as a "champion"--that is, Zorro as the storm-bird of this particular revolution, stirring up the caballeros to join him in gleeful justice. Even the villains can't resist the fun, Sergeant Gonzales tossing natives and clerics like jugglers' balls, menacing everything in sight--until all of them eventually choose sides, either Latin Keystone Kops or Krooks, slathered with faux-swarthy greasepaint ferocity.

Don Diego/Zorro presents us with an odd bipartite personality that amuses and flabbergasts. As Diego, he is all handkerchief-tricks--parachutes, puppets, and disappearing knots--and yawns, partly bored, mostly sleepy, a definite disappointment to both parent and potential seƱora. As Zorro, though, his slapstick joy and charming, even eloquent exuberance is irresistible to those around him, jolting friend and foe alike, as if their Spanish passions were merely waiting for the proper catalyst.

The climactic showdown does not disappoint, an embarrassment of gravity-defying riches, as ridiculous as they are remarkable. And let me write again: "ridiculous" to the end, Diego-Zorro unmasked, bounding like a big dog, relieved at last that both of him could be himself, tickled like a kid that he can tell the secret and carve Zs into evil cheeks without the bother of a costume. But if this is justice, it seems a tiring occupation, chaotic and brazen; not for a sedentary viewer like myself. By the end I was as worn-out as Diego, eager to turn from the tumult and sleep it off.


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