Don Q, Son of Zorro

Don Q, Son of Zorro
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1925
Director: Donald Crisp
Source: Kino Video DVD

Don Q, Son of Zorro

Douglas Fairbanks returns to the well in Don Q, Son of Zorro, once more donning the mask and cape that made him a superstar in The Mark of Zorro. This time around Fairbanks plays both the aging Don Diego de Vega—Zorro—and his son, Cesar de Vega, in a story adapted from a non-Zorro novel, Don Q’s Love Story. Returned from California to Spain, young Cesar astounds his high-society friends with his tricks with an American bullwhip. (Fairbanks trained with the whip for six weeks to get it right.) Shenanigans with the whip get him into trouble with the queen’s guards, and in no time he’s using it in signature Fairbanks style to hogtie sergeants, swing from balconies, and lasso a bull that broke out from the corrida. But then, escaping the guards through a noble’s garden, he meets the luminous Dolores de Muro, played by Mary Astor. You know Astor as the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, but fifteen years earlier she was a silent movie star, a dewy ingénue with a languishing look. Cesar falls in love with Dolores at first sight—but so does the pursuing guard captain, Don Sebastian, and soon he and Cesar are rivals for Dolores’s affection. Sebastian is a dastard, however, who stoops to foul play.

After the colossal epics painted on broad canvasses in Robin Hood and Thief of Bagdad, it must have been a relief to return to the drawing rooms and cabarets of a romantic melodrama, and indeed, the ever-charismatic Fairbanks seems relaxed and comfortable in this film, happy to be doing what he did best. He dances flamenco with a Gypsy, brawls with a gang of back-alley goons, and cuts out his rival at the archduke’s ball. When Cesar is framed by Sebastian for the murder of the archduke, things get serious. He fakes his own death in a trick worthy of his father, and then it’s outlaw time until he can clear his name. It takes both clever chicanery and dashing sword (and whip) play, but virtue wins out in the end, as the son of Zorro proves himself the equal of his father. The exciting finale, with its call-backs to the first film, is genuinely satisfying.

Don Juan

Don Juan
Rating: *****
Origin: USA, 1926
Director: Alan Crosland
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Don Juan features screen idol John Barrymore in the title rôle, playing a character quite a bit different from the standard swashbuckling hero. He’s pretty much a bad apple, a vain, selfish, dishonest conniver obsessed with the seduction of women, who if he does the right thing, it’s usually for the wrong reason. In short, he’s nothing like the sanitized Don Juan of the later Errol Flynn movie, and for most of the picture we wonder how he and his lady love are ever going to get together and win free of his appalling situation and conduct. In this the story draws heavily on the forty-something Barrymore’s own reputation as “the world’s greatest lover,” a rake and roué with a string of abandoned starlets behind him. In a bit of inspired casting, one of his real-world discarded lovers, the barely-legal Mary Astor, was given the part of Don Juan’s one true love, Adriana Della Varnese, and their scenes together are smoking. In fact, generally speaking the acting in this film is unusually good, especially from the villains, who are delicious—but more about them below.

After a short gothic-horror first act that establishes the reasons for Don Juan’s eternal distrust and disloyalty to women—adultery, murder, and bad parenting, the usual excuses—the story moves to Rome circa 1499 during the bloody reign of the Borgia family. To further establish Don Juan’s character, we then get a twenty-minute bedroom farce in his Roman town-house during which the great lover simultaneously juggles the affections, and locations, of three different young ladies. Eventually the women’s husband/uncle/lover intrudes in high dudgeon, hilarity ensues, and everyone runs off, leaving Juan to consult with his valet on his romantic schedule for the evening ahead. But Lucrezia Borgia (the sneering and lascivious Estelle Taylor) has cast her acquisitive eye on Don Juan, and he is summoned to a ball that evening at the palace of the Borgias. Lucrezia is determined to have Juan to herself, and she’s a lethally jealous lover, but all too soon he sees and is smitten by the innocent young Andrea Della Varnese—who is herself desired by Count Donati, a Borgia crony. In no time we are hip deep in burning gazes, derisive taunts, poisoned chalices, and any number of balcony climbs.

Love and politics are intertwined, and when the Borgias finally break with the Varneses, blood runs in the streets of Rome, and Don Juan has to decide what’s really worth fighting for. The bells announcing the impending forced marriage of Andrea to Donati drive him nearly mad, and during his climactic confrontation with the Borgias he seems more dangerous than they do, genuinely unhinged, where the villains are merely wicked. There’s a very satisfying and acrobatic sword duel, but though that’s where most swashbucklers conclude, here it’s just the prelude to the lurid final act, where both Andrea and Juan are clapped in durance vile. By the time Juan escapes the dungeon, it may be too late to redeem himself.

This film looks fantastic: “lush” and “opulent” don’t even begin to describe it. It also marks a technical advance in the march to the talkies, a process called “Vitaphone,” with a pre-recorded musical soundtrack synced up to the action, augmented by sound effects like bells, thumping blows, and clashing swords. The Borgias’ Roman orgies, with their dancing damsels clad only in swirling veils, and a bibulous Bacchus surrounded by vine-draped maenads, are very persuasive, plus this overstuffed film gives us leopard-skin-clad African sedan chair porters, an evil dwarf castellan, a sinister poison-making alchemist, and a jilted lover sealed up alive in a castle’s walls. Also, watch for the striking Myrna Loy in an early rôle as Lucrezia’s intriguing maidservant. And did I mention that Don Juan wears striped asymmetrical trunk hose? Don’t miss this one.