Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Zorro: a masked man with many faces

Zorro's first appearance in the world, 1919

Once I started watching the Zorro telenovela, I got curious about the background of the character. He first appeared on the literary scene in the 08/19/1919 issue of the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly, which featured the first of five serialized installments of The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. After a successful 1920 silent film adaptation called The Mark of Zorro, McCulley changed the title of his story to match the film. The Mark of Zorro is still in print today.

McCulley wrote a number of sequels, which are more difficult to come by: The Further Adventures of Zorro, Zorro Rides Again, etc. McCulley's final installment in the Zorro saga appeared posthumously, a short story called "The Mask of Zorro" in the April 1959 edition of Short Stories for Men.

The Mark of Zorro is a fun read, though no one should expect it to measure up to Isabel Allende's novel in literary terms. But I wouldn't want to underestimate the value of McCulley's Zorro. It's safe to say he created one of the best known fictional characters of the last century, as the current Zorro telenovela and the Antonio Banderas films of recent years attest.

The plot (warning: spoilers in the next five paragraphs!) is pretty simple. In the pueblo of Los Ángeles around 1810 or so, Zorro is playing Robin Hood along the highway linking the Spanish mission towns in Alta California. We don't learn for sure his alter-ego is the mild-mannered Diego Vega until the very last, when he unmasks in front of the entire pueblo and declares his Zorro career at an end. McCulley obviously wasn't planning on a century's worth of sequels in 1919. But it would be hard for even a mildly attentive reader not to guess correctly by the end.

Both Diego and Zorro are courting the same woman, Lolita Pulido, daughter of Carlos and Catalina Pulido. Meanwhile, Zorro shows up periodically to save a friar from being mistreated or to thwart some misdeed of the evil comandante Captain Ramón or to torment the bumbling Sargeant Pedro Gonzales, whose character resembles the now more familiar (and more bumbling) Sargeant García. In the end, Zorro/Diego wins the lady's heart and hand, kills the evil Comandante, survives various perils and forces the not-particular-good governor to make concessions to the local citizens.

Much of the 1919 Zorro has endured in later incarnations. Zorro wears a black cape and a mask, though in the novel it's clear the mask covers either his lower face or the entire face, rather than just his eyes in the more familiar version. The cover illustration shown above from All-Story Weekly shows a full-face mask, although it looks as if a mild breeze would blow it aside. He fights for the natives and for friars that are being oppressed; he's on good terms with Fray Felipe, a local Franciscan.

Alejandro Vega (the "de la" part of the De la Vega name was added later) is present as the leading citizen of the pueblo, though Diego has his own separate mansion. Bernardo shows up briefly, but as a deaf-mute native servant, not the close confidant of later stories, much less the bosom buddy of Diego's in the Allende novel.

In the romanticized early California of the novel, both churchmen and natives were oppressed by the Spanish rulers. One likely authentic touch is that Señorita Lolita despite being the frontier Spanish version of a Southern belle is also expert at riding a horse.

The 2005 Penguin edition of The Mark of Zorro has a very informative introduction by Robert Morsberger and Katherine Morsberger. Among the Zorro movies they discuss, several sound interesting: the two silent films, The Mark of Zorro and Don Q Son of Zorro; The Bold Caballero (1936) The Mark of Zorro (1940); Zorro: Conspiracy of Blood; Zorro, the Gay Blade; The Mask of Zorro (1998).

The Morsbergers note that Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona was important in romanticizing the Indians in literature. Jackson was a serious reformer who actively protested federal policy toward the Indians in the later half of the 19th century.

Bob Kane, who created the Batman character, credited McCulley's Zorro with giving Batman a secret identity as a wealthy man, "a man of means who put on a facade of being effete". Zorro's cave, he said, inspired the Batcave.In ome version of the Batman story mentioned by the Morsbergers, young Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered after leaving the movie, The Mark of Zorro, though that doesn't appear in the original comic book version.

Besides the three novels and 57 novellas and short stories McCulley himself wrote about Zorro, the masked swordsman has been featured in stories by other writers, the movies, TV series comic books and various spin-off products. There's even a Zorro Wii video game.

In the course of this many-faceted literary and cinematic life, Zorro has acculmulated many experiences, supporting characters and villains from which a prsent-day writer like Isabel Allende could draw.

These features include an erotic dance (introduced in The Mark of Zorro 1940 movie), a focus on the oppression of Indians (The Bold Caballero 1936 film), Zorro organizing a revolution (Zorro's Fighting Legion 1939 movie serial, although he gets up a minor revolt in the 1919 novel), Don Alejandro being deposed as alcalde (mayor with a lot of power) and having his property seized by the evil governorn (The Mark of Zorro 1940 movie), a female Zorro (Zorro's Black Whip 1944 movie), a comically inept Sargeant García (Disney's 1950s TV series but first introduced by McCulley instories in the 1940s), a more prominent role for Bernardo (Disney), Diego as a bookish intellectual instead of a "mincing fop" in the Morsbergers' description (Disney), Zorro as a mixed-blood peasant (The Three Swords of Zorro movie), a medallion as a special identifier for Zorro (The Mask of Zorro 1998 film), even Zorro fighting Dracula in Notre Dame Cathedral (1993 Topps comic book) with Napoleon saving Dracula at then end.

See also:

Zorro Productions Web site, including their list of the Zorro pulp fiction stories by McCulley.

The face of Zorro by Luis Valdez Salon 07/23/0998.


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