Monday, November 18, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Mark of Zorro'

At last! The first great American adventure film hits the screen.

The Mark of Zorro
Dir: Fred Niblo
Scr: Johnston McCulley, Douglas Fairbanks (uncred.), Eugene Miller (uncred.)
Phot: William C. McGann, Harris Thorpe
Premiere: Nov. 27, 1920
90 min.                    

I am so pleased to make it here after six dozens of chapters on early American film. The decade of the 1920s was the first and the last great one in silent movies, and The Mark of Zorro starts it off with a bang.

We met Fairbanks earlier, in 1917’s Wild and Wooly. As Alistair Cooke observed, “His screen character was in many ways a fantasy in which a suddenly jolted world could escape its bewilderment.” He was a “personality” actor, one who played variations of his vivid self. Fairbanks radiated energy and optimism on screen, and he quickly became the hero of a series of romantic comedies that emphasized his remarkable athletic gifts. By the end of the first World War, Fairbanks was the most popular leading man in Hollywood.

In 1919, Fairbanks formed the United Artists film studio with Charlie Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith, and “America’s Sweetheart,” the successful actress and producer Mary Pickford. In 1920, he married Pickford. Their union made them the first significant example of the power couple, “Hollywood Royalty.” Everybody loved Doug.

It was Pickford who read the source material, Johnston McCulley’s five-part magazine story that gave birth to Zorro, “The Curse of Capistrano.” She pressed it on Fairbanks, insisting he read it as well. He was drawn to the idea of making historical romances, costume dramas with swashbuckling action. His ambition was to play Robin Hood, but he was concerned whether the public would accept him in this kind of vehicle. Zorro, the protagonist of his 30th film, represented a calculated attempt to test the waters.

The plot device of the redeemed son was plainly taken from Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who in Henry IV is a wastrel who reforms and becomes king. Even more to the point as an influence is Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, about a hero with a secret identity who feigns foolishness to divert suspicion from himself. McCulley moved the setting from revolutionary France to Old California in the early 19th century. Now the hero is Don Diego de la Vega, the foppish son of a rich ranchero who, disguised as Zorro (“The Fox”), in black mask and cape, fights for the oppressed and downtrodden.

To date, movie costume dramas had largely been lumbering and pretentious. By mixing together the lavish, detailed settings and the “reckless gaiety” of Fairbanks, the result was a fast-moving, funny, and sweet adventure tale with loads of derring-do. Audiences loved it.

In the film, Fairbanks plays Don Diego as a spit-curled layabout, bored and easily fatigued, a disappointment to his father and society in general. He does not impress his intended, the spunky Lolita Pulido, daughter of a ranchero who opposes the corrupt local government. In Zorro mode, however, he dashes, leaps, swoops, makes love, and crosses blades like nobody’s business. His comic duel with the blustery Sergeant Gonzales is the first of several that punctuate the action. Zorro's signature, scarring his opponents with a "Z", was invented by Fairbanks for the film; Zorro's creator McCulley incorporated it into subsequent stories.

To make the switch between identities, Diego has a secret underground stable from which he springs on his jet-black horse Tornado. (It’s important to match.) He has one faithful servant who knows his secret. These traits would modified and passed down to heroes and superheroes in the future — most notably Batman, but also the Green Hornet, Iron Man, et al.

Zorro has a nemesis, of course, the evil Captain Ramon. Much of the film is classic melodrama, with hero and villain fighting it out, here literally over the leading lady’s body. The bravura sequence is saved for the conclusion, when Zorro leads the soldiers on a merry, stunt-filled chase that reads today like proto-parkour.

The action is swiftly paced, and there are no subplots or extraneous characters. Like Fairbanks himself, the movie exudes energy and confidence. The framing, cutting, and camera movement is strictly functional — it exists to astonish us. Often, the camera stands in for us as an amazed bystander, transcribing the Fairbanksian derring-do as the flashes past.

In the end, Diego reveals his true identity, the corrupt are overthrown, and the girl is won. The brash, upbeat swashbuckler was established, and in one form or another its popularity has continued. Fairbanks’ embodiment of the heroic spirit kept in the starry Hollywood firmament until he retired in 1934, at the age of 51. It was exhausting being Doug.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week.’


Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character
Alistair Cooke
New York: The Museum of Modern Art

The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks
Tracey Goessel
Chicago: Chicago Review Press

Douglas Fairbanks: The Fourth Musketeer
Ralph Hancock and Letitia Fairbanks
New York: Henry Holt and Company

Douglas Fairbanks and the American Century
John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welch
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi

Douglas Fairbanks
Jeffrey Vance with Tony Maietta
Berkeley: University of California Press

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The NFR Project: 'The Making of An American'

It could be the first public service announcement.

The Making of An American
Dir: Guy Hedlund
Scr: unknown
Phot: unknown
Premiere: 1920
14 min.

The Making of An American is an educational film created for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization by the Worcester Film Corporation in 1920. It promotes the learning of English by immigrants; in a larger and more subtle sense, it’s a blueprint for their aspirations. It’s a quiet little masterpiece of idealism.

Then as now, there was extreme concern by white nationalists that immigrants were going to take over and ruin the country — only then, the fear was of incomers from Italy and Poland (the film incorporates both languages in places, a reach out to its target audiences). Then as now, immigrant minorities were stigmatized both for sticking together and for demanding integration and equality. This short is a practical parable about the ideal path outlined for the (presumably legal) immigrant in American democratic process. The path to political consequence starts with the wisdom of assimilation.

First we see poor Italian Pete. He’s just off the boat, and hopelessly monolingual. His already naturalized friend Tony shows off his house to Pete — a concrete, universal aspirational goal is established. Next, Tony tries to land him a job. The supervisor addressed is never humanized; he’s simply a man at a desk with his back to the camera. “Do you know how to work an elevator?” (Ironic foreshadowing!) “Can’t he talk English?” No job for Pete.

Pete ambles down the street until he hears a man speaking his language. He is supervising day laborers digging a trench. Can Pete work here? Yes, he can. It’s about the only job he can get, and it’s not a pleasant one. “There are always jobs enough in America, but not the kind Pete expected.” Even the cartman into whose vehicle Pete shovels debris seems to be grinning derisively down at him.

Pete is trapped in a hell of his own making. “The dream of a beautiful home has vanished. The day’s toil ends in a sordid tenement, amid noise and dirt.”

Now comes the crisis. Pete can’t read the sign ‘WHEN BELL RINGS KEEP CLEAR OF THE GATE”, falls down the elevator shaft, and breaks his leg. As he limps away from the hospital, he sees a sign advertising English classes. Chastened by fortune, he enters, reluctantly.

“By easy stages, the sounds of English became familiar to the foreign ear.” The teacher coaches the class through the symbolic phrase, “I – open – the –door.” Now he’s part of something, a larger group, a similar set of adults engaged in movement toward a common goal. Pete struggles to repeat a phrase, then smiles as he masters it. He is adapting, redeveloping himself into an American.

Time passes, and Pete is wearing snazzier clothes and sporting a cigar. Things are happening for him. Pete can now communicate, take instruction, operate heavy machinery. Pete can contribute more to the economy, his value has risen. “Now it’s up to you to make good money!” says the boss.

One year later, and Pete graduates from his English course. He can read, write, and speak the language. “And at the factory Pete had at length gained the position to which his real ability entitled him.” Now Pete’s the boss, in a nifty straw hat! Now in comes a new, struggling, wolfish-looking immigrant — who can’t speak English. Pete has a flashback. Of course, he counsels the young man to do as he did.

The years pass, and Pete’s got a home, and a wife, and an arbor of grapes, an explicit symbol of earned merit, sufficiency, and peace. He is noted for his “public spirit” and is chosen to be head of the “Safety Council,” improving working conditions. He becomes a benefactor by taking his civic responsibility seriously. At a council meeting, he rises and speaks with apparent eloquence and verve. He is somebody.

“IF YOU KNOW MEN OR WOMEN WHO DON’T KNOW ENGLISH, URGE THEM TO GO TO NIGHT SCHOOL” declares the film at its finish. The benefits are straightforwardly articulated. That the path to empowerment wasn't so smooth or sometimes failed to materialize is outside its purview.

The English-language assimilation in my own family had its own pattern. The ones who came over on the boat learned English with varying degrees of success, but still thought and dreamed in Danish and German, and still spoke it to each other. (It helped that they had their own foreign-language presses, and newspapers, which perpetuated the mother tongue.) Their children, born here, zealously embraced their American identities — not that they spurned their heritage. The children of those children, my parents, knew only fragments of the immigration narrative, pieces jumbled and lost. I still fumble with the pieces, trying to put them all back together.

I leaf through my great-grandfather’s sermons, wrought in excellent penmanship, entirely in Danish. I sigh and look at my Danish-English dictionary and sigh and wonder when I will find the time to work the magic backward, to sail over the linguistic sea and relearn the mother tongue, to unlock his long-dormant thoughts.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Mark of Zorro.’

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Formative Film 18: 'Love and Death'

'Wheat . . . lots of wheat . . . '

FORMATIVE FILM: An autobiography in movies

Love and Death
Dir: Woody Allen
Prod: Fred T. Gallo, Charles H. Joffe, Martin Poll
Scr: Woody Allen
Phot: Ghislain Cloquet

This was Woody Allen’s last film before he garnered spectacular mainstream success and critical acclaim with Annie Hall in 1977. Thus, it counts as the last of his purely “funny” films. In Annie Hall and after, there is always at least a hint of seriousness in his work. This can work profoundly well, as shown in Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors; in many other films, his wit is dulled, and his work slides into a deadly sense of self-regard.

That being said, if we roll back the years we find me, his most avid fan, eagerly awaiting the debut of his next comic masterpiece. I had already fallen in love with his nebbish persona in Play It Again, Sam and Sleeper.

His comic persona was certainly one I could identify with: the oddball, the smart but awkward weirdo with glasses and bad skin, trying desperate to understand a world not made for his benefit. It was carefully crafted out of Hope and Marx and Chaplin, and was the best-realized comic identity of the day. Woody Allen was a throwback to a classic comedic type — the poor soul, the perennial loser. “You’re the greatest lover I’ve ever had.” “Well, I practice a lot when I’m alone.”

American comedy was in transition. When Allen started working in comedy, comics wore tuxes and had jokes written for them. Allen was part of the wave of self-scripted, highbrow but informal comic minds of the 1950s and 1960s. Part of his appeal was his aggression. His repressed fury at the ridiculousness of life exploded through brilliant jokes. Disguised as a nerd, he was actually a rebel we could identify with.

In this film, Woody is Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward (“. . . but I’m a MILITANT coward”) who gets sucked into the Napoleonic Wars and comes out an unlikely hero. Meanwhile, he narrates the up-and-down nature of his lifelong romance with his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton). Nothing quite works out for sad-sack Boris, who in the meantime cracks wise about the absurdities around him, existential and otherwise. (“Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning.”)

Love and Death is a parody of pretentious seriousness, of, specifically, intimidating Russian literature and film. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are pummeled here, so is Eisenstein (and Ingmar Bergman suffers some blows to the groin). Great cultural moments are just there to set up the punchlines. Everyone in the film is oblivious to the silliness of it all — except for Woody and us. That wonderful sense of being in on it turns us into accessories.

The biggest gift the film gave to me was a sense of exuberance and possibility. I hadn’t seen this kind of anarchic energy on film since the Marx Brothers. Allen takes the trouble to make the movie look as legit as possible — the settings are opulent, the edits are ambitious, the camerawork is innovative (when it’s not mimicking its betters). All these choices make the film stronger. It’s half in love with everything it makes fun of, and that affectionate scorn lights up the film and makes it more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, as Allen’s career progressed, his movies became as weighty, airless, and pretentious as those he earlier mocked. It’s hard to age as an artist; sometimes you get stuck.

And as far as his personal life goes, I know that he may be a despicable human being. But his work still entertains me and lifts me up, so I still go back to it, and I still write about it. The list of great artists who are terrible people is long and getting longer every day. I have to separate the creative spirit from the mess of a person it inhabits. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be reading Dickens, or appreciating Shakespeare, or looking at Degas, or listening to Domingo.

It would be nice of our favorite artists were heroes, and that all art was ennobling. They aren’t and it isn’t. Monsters create beauty, and beauty often lacks the power to transform either its creators or its audience. The impulse that drives it is morally neutral. Nonetheless, our need generates it, and sometimes of great value comes of it — even though its source seems as impossible one.