Film Review: The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Release Date: November 27th, 1920 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Fred Niblo
Written by: Johnston McCulley, Eugene Miller, Douglas Fairbanks
Based on: The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley
Music by: Mortimer Wilson
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery, Robert McKim, Milton Berle (uncredited)

Douglas Fairbanks Pictures, 90 Minutes (1970 cut), 107 Minutes (DVD cut), 97 Minutes (Academy Archive Print)

Review:

“We never let business interfere with drinking!” – Undetermined Role

My mother used to love this film a lot and I saw it multiple times, as a kid, because of that. Granted, her favorite Zorro film was the one with Tyrone Power but it was my mum’s love of Zorro movies and swashbuckling in general that made me appreciate these whimsical adventure movies too.

I wanted to go way back and revisit this one, though, as it actually set the stage for what Zorro would evolve into over the years. This generated the tone and style for the franchise from a visual standpoint and with this picture, specifically, you can see how this character and his world inspired the main character and world of the Batman comic book series.

Douglas Fairbanks, working with the original Zorro creator, made a pretty action packed, energetic and jovial motion picture, especially for its time, as this is a silent picture and had to rely more on the physical performances and athleticism of its cast.

This has a good, straightforward story and it created a template that wasn’t just reused in the dozens of Zorro films, serials and television shows that followed but also in other intellectual properties.

The Mark of Zorro is quite fantastic for its era. While it isn’t my favorite version of Zorro, it made it possible for those other versions to exist, as well as so many pulp heroes and stories from Batman, The Shadow, The Phantom and countless others.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other Zorro pictures and film serials, as well as other Douglas Fairbanks movies.

Film Review: One Week (1920)

Release Date: August 29th, 1920
Directed by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Written by: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Joseph M. Schenck Productions, 25 Minutes (TCM print), 19 Minutes (1995 Film Preservation print)

Review:

“Now look at the darned thing!” – The Bride

One Week is a fairly early movie in Buster Keaton’s career but I wanted to revisit it, as it is one of my favorites.

It’s actually the first film where he is the star and it also has Sybil Seely playing his wife. She would be featured in other early Keaton films.

As a kid, this was one of my top Keaton films because it’s just really damn good and the physical comedy here is just on another level. Plus, it’s a short film, so it used to pop up on TV early in the morning quite a bit.

The story revolves around two newlyweds that are gifted a “build-it-yourself” portable house. Keaton, as the Groom, does his damnedest at trying to build their new home but he’s terrible at it, which leads to a great series of gags and still, some of the comedian’s best.

Looking at it through a modern lens, it’s impressive for the time. I’m not sure how they were able to pull off some sequences and there are really big things that happen in this that exceed the scope of a typical movie for the time.

For instance, there is a bit where the entire home is spinning as people tumble in and out of it. There is then the big finale, which sees the house get decimated by a real life train. I’m guessing it wasn’t hard to get permits back then.

At the end of the day, this isn’t Keaton’s best film but it is a good example of how far ahead of the competition he was in his first starring role.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s.

Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Also known as: Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany)
Release Date: February 26th, 1920 (Germany)
Directed by: Robert Wiene
Written by: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer
Music by: Giuseppe Becce
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér, Lil Dagover, Hans Twardowski

Decla-Bioscop, 74 Minutes

das-cabinet-des-dr-caligariReview:

Few movies can illicit as many feelings and emotions without the use of sound as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While I love many films of the silent era, especially the German Expressionist pictures of that time, none of them quite capture my attention and imagination in the way that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has.

The film came out between the two World Wars, wedged between the loss and destruction of the Great War and the rise of Nazi Germany. Needless to say, it was one of the darkest and precarious eras in European history. The film reflects the state of life in that time and it exists as an allegory to the war-like authority of the state and the abuse of the common man, manipulated by a greater power into committing heinous acts that serve the sinister master.

Was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari somewhat prophetic? Scholars have debated that for decades. In fact, there are several books and a documentary about it.

As a film, outside of its apparent political influence, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a superior work of art. It is meticulous in its design and execution. It is one of the most haunting and well-acted silent films ever made.

The real standout of the film is the talent of Conrad Veidt, who played the hypnotically controlled somnambulist killer Cesare. His motion, his facial expressions and his aura of dread makes him one of the greatest horror characters in the history of cinema. In the silent era, he is only really rivaled by Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck) in 1922’s Nosferatu and Lon Chaney in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Werner Krauss also created a very effective and scary presence as the title character, Dr. Caligari. He was large and brooding and carried a strong sense of authority with him, especially when the reality of his character is revealed in a great twist ending.

Lil Dagover was beautiful and almost angelic as the apple of everyone’s eye. She had a grace and frailty that made her feel like a sole delicate flower on the verge of getting torn apart in the oncoming storm.

Apart from the acting, the set design was also marvelous. The surreal German Expressionist vibe takes over the film and makes it feel like a nightmare sequence, which is the intention. It is effective while creating a contemporary dark fantasy setting that many filmmakers have tried to emulate for generations with none of them coming close to the magic of this film’s set design and cinematography.

There are many great motion pictures from the silent film era. None of them, however, match the storytelling, aesthetic and overall quality of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is also a great silent classic that many consider the best of the best, it still falls behind Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Plus, this film also benefits from being its own unique story where Murnau’s masterpiece is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Rating: 10/10