We think of superhero films as a recent genre from Disney/Marvel & WB/DC, but they actually go back to Hollywood’s silent days.
THE MARK OF ZORRO, which opened Nov. 27, 1920, in New York City, is really the starting point for superhero movies. Its masked action hero, a swashbuckling swordsman played by Douglas Fairbanks, protects peasants from the oppressive rulers of early 19th Century Spanish California. Villains’ faces after meeting Zorro’s sword are marked for life with his trademark Z. Like future superheroes, Zorro also has a mild-mannered alter-ego — Don Diego Vega, son of a wealthy ranchero.
Fairbanks was a top star in 1920, having already made 29 movies — mostly boy-meets-girl romances and comedies that were popular in early Hollywood. Fairbanks wanted to find something altogether different to do next and he knew it when he saw it — a 1919 story “The Curse of Capistrano” in All-Story Weekly magazine, about a new and virtually unknown character called Zorro.
Fairbanks, using the pseudonym Elton Thomas — his middle name — adapted the story with Eugene Miller and produced it for his own Douglas Fairbanks Pictures. It became the first movie released by United Artists, which had been founded in 1919 by Hollywood’s three biggest stars — Fairbanks, Mary Pickford & Charlie Chaplin — and pioneer director D. W. Griffith, whose THE BIRTH OF A NATION had done blockbuster business in 1915.
Not only did the success of ZORRO reboot Fairbanks’s acting career, it also launched a brand new action genre driven by a masked human superhero — a prototype for later comic book stars like The Batman. In fact, ZORRO was the movie that Thomas & Martha Wayne took their young son Bruce to see the night in 1920 when they were murdered right in front of him in Gotham City — the tragedy that motivated Bruce Wayne to devote his life to fighting crime.
Fairbanks is remembered today for action roles in silent films like ZORRO, 1924’s THE THIEF OF BAGDAD & 1922’s ROBIN HOOD as well as for being a founding member of the Motion Picture Academy and hosting the first Academy Awards in 1929. Fairbanks’s 1920 marriage to superstar Mary Pickford made them Hollywood’s first power couple.
THE MARK OF ZORRO was remade twice — in 1940, during the Golden Age of comic books, with Tyrone Power, and in 1974 with Frank Langella. There also were other episodes like 1998’s THE MASK OF ZORRO with Antonio Banderas & THE LEGEND OF ZORRO in 2005, also starring Banderas.
After getting off to a strong start with ZORRO, UA managed to survive decades of Hollywood twists & turns and is still active today as a distributor. But when Fairbanks & his superstar pals formed UA, competing movie moguls insisted the lunatics had now taken over the asylum.
“Out of the mystery of the unknown — appeared a masked rider who rode up and down the great highway — punishing and protecting — who cunningly avoided apprehension by authorities. He became a hero to the oppressed, who — cunning as a fox — in the language of the Latinos, was called El Zorro.” – Opening title text from THE MARK OF ZORRO