On Sunday, July 15th the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen The Mark of Zorro (1920), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
As Zorro, a masked champion of the people, Fairbanks displays the athletic prowess, humor, and rakish charm that would propel him to super-stardom. The film is a classic, and in it Fairbanks set the bar high for subsequent action-adventure films in what was his first-ever swashbuckler.
Set to introduce The Mark of Zorro is Jeffrey Vance, Fairbanks scholar and author of Douglas Fairbanks, which was published by the University of California Press. Vance is a film historian, archivist, producer, lecturer and the author of a trilogy of earlier books, each highly regarded, on film greats Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Vance will be signing copies of his books following the Sunday screening The Mark of Zorro.
Recently, I spoke with Vance about Fairbanks, silent film, his work as a film historian, and what he is looking forward to seeing at this year’s Festival.
Jeffrey Vance in Hollywood
Thomas Gladysz: How did you become interested in Douglas Fairbanks?
Jeffrey Vance: I became interested in Fairbanks as a result of my early interest in Charles Chaplin. Fairbanks was Chaplin’s great friend, and a partner in the United Artists Corporation. He was also a Hollywood superstar along with Chaplin and Mary Pickford. I wrote Mary Pickford a fan letter at the end of her life. She responded with an encouraging letter. Fairbanks’s namesake son also provided encouragement later on.
Thomas Gladysz: Fairbanks was more than a popular actor—he was an innovator and pioneer.
Jeffrey Vance: Yes. Douglas Fairbanks was one of the most creative producers in America and one of Hollywood’s great leaders. He came to films as a Broadway star, transitioned to films first as a screen satirist and then, of course, as the great screen swashbuckler. Beyond that, he was a civic leader, an independent producer, the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a developer of America’s first film school, now called the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Fairbanks helped pioneer and popularize Technicolor cinematography and original film scores. And, his film collection was one of the first important film deposits at the Museum of Modern Art; Fairbanks was also a pioneer of film preservation. In short, Fairbanks was at the forefront of many important things.
Thomas Gladysz: At this year’s SFSFF, you’re introducing The Mark of Zorro. What should viewers expect?
Jeffrey Vance: The Mark of Zorro is a landmark not only in Fairbanks’ career but also in the development of the action adventure film. With The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks was transitioning from comedies to the costume films for which he is best remembered. Instead of reflecting the times, The Mark of Zorro offers an infusion of the romantic past with a contemporary flair. Prior to Fairbanks, most costume films had been largely turgid affairs; Fairbanks’ contribution to the costume film was his winning charm, humor, and athleticism executed in a modern manner.
Beyond re-energizing his career and redefining a genre, The Mark of Zorro also helped popularize one of the enduring creations of twentieth century American fiction, a character that was the prototype for comic book heroes such as Batman. Bob Kane told me that Fairbanks’ Zorro costume, secret lair, and dual identity inspired Batman. And, of course, footage from the original The Mark of Zorro is cleverly interwoven into the Oscar-winning film, The Artist.
Douglas Fairbanks, by Jeffrey Vance
Thomas Gladysz: Speaking of The Artist, Fairbanks’ persona obviously influenced the film’s lead character, George Valentin. What did you think of the film?
Jeffrey Vance: I think The Artist is a miracle. The fact is it raised a “dead” art form—the silent cinema—like Lazarus. It’s no longer perceived as irrelevant; someone else could conceivably make another silent film and it too could garner critical and commercial success.
Thanks to the Weinstein Company, I was able to attend several screenings and events promoting the film. It was gratifying to hear writer/director Michel Hazanavicius tell me that the creative team behind The Artist had my Douglas Fairbanks book, and that it was the book and all the screenings and events around the book that helped shape the character of George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin. They could have easily modeled the character on John Gilbert or Rudolph Valentino.
Thomas Gladysz: What draws you to silent film?
Jeffrey Vance: For me, a great draw is that the viewer is part of the creative process. The viewer is interpreting the images on the screen. Silent cinema is like opera and ballet; what’s not provided the viewer provides with their imagination. As a result, one is more involved with silent cinema than with other types of films. They mean more to the viewer.
Thomas Gladysz: As a film historian and author, what’s next?
Jeffrey Vance: I’ve done quite a few audio commentary tracks. Recently released, The Gold Rush for Criterion Collection is my best commentary work and my favorite. I’ve also recorded tracks for Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad for the Cohen Collection, as well as the 1944 British comedy On Approval for Inception Media Group. I’m recording another for Warner Home Video at the end of the month.
I’ve also done quite a bit of work in the past year for Roy Export, the Chaplin family organization that controls the copyrighted Chaplin films as well as the Chaplin image. A Chaplin film deposit now joins the Chaplin photographic collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I helped negotiate and arrange that collection. These two important collections will be celebrated by the Academy in the near future. Recently, I took the NBC Today Show on a Chaplin tour, it will air sometime after the Olympics.
I am also working on a book project about Mary Pickford. The late Robert Cushman, a leading Pickford expert and photo curator at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote several chapters for a critical study of Pickford. Robert also conducted interviews with cinematographers Hal Mohr, director George Cukor, and others in the early 1970s. Manoah Bowman, the executor of Robert’s estate, has allowed me exclusive use of these materials to develop into a complete book. I intend to augment Robert’s materials with my own interview materials and research. I believe it will be an important Pickford book.
The Mark of Zorro (1920), stars the masked Douglas Fairbanks (left)
Thomas Gladysz: Besides The Mark of Zorro, which films at this year’s festival most intrigue you?
Jeffrey Vance: For me, there are three must-see films. Mantrap is a comedy gem. With a capacity Castro crowd, Mantrap may very well bring the house down. It’s Clara Bow’s best film. I find we’re still catching up with Clara Bow! She was very much of her time yet ahead of her time. Another is Pandora’s Box. Silent films are all about picture quality. In an inferior print, you’re taking away vital information. Louise Brooks really comes alive in the new restoration. To see additional detail in her performance is to see the film for the first time. And Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box is a performance for the ages!
Finally, I’m keen to revisit The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna. The film co-stars Francis Lederer, and I remember being seated next to him when the film was shown in his honor at Cinecon in Hollywood in the 1990s. It was an amazing film, and Mr. Lederer was flabbergasted at this silent picture he made early in his long career. At the film’s conclusion, he kept repeating, “I can’t believe how good this picture is. That man Schwarz [Hanns Schwarz, the film’s director] was a genius!”
These films are just shells of themselves on home video or screened in museums/archives. They were designed and timed for the big screen, large audiences, and live music. Anything else isn’t the authentic silent film experience. I’m very grateful to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for the opportunities they provide to revisit and rediscover the very fragile art form that is the silent cinema.
Further information about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival can be found on their website at www.silentfilm.org. The Festival takes place at the Castro Theater July 12 – 15th.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts journalist and early film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books on the actress, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced Brooks’ films around the world. He will be signing copies of his “Louise Brooks edition” of Margarete Bohme’s classic novel, The Diary of a Lost Girl, following the screening of Pandora’s Box at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.