Hollywood recycling its own material is certainly not a new trend. Ever since the days of the early talkies, studios have drug out old stories, slapped a bit of spit and polish (and usually a new title) on them and shipped the results out to theaters as a matter of routine. In some instances the overhauls were a bit more dramatic. One particular case in point is 20th Century Fox’s first attempt to remake The Mark Of Zorro. While Fox would eventually have a classic with their version starring Tyrone Power in 1940, when studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck originally conceived in 1936 of redoing the story of a swashbuckling Spanish aristocrat who frees the peasants of Spanish California from the rule of a tyrannical governor, he envisioned it as “a delightful romantic comedy drama of adventure and song.” A musical.
It is unknown what gave Zanuck the initial idea of turning the hero of Johnston McCulley’s adventure stories into a singing, romantic hero. Perhaps he was looking for a unique spin on the story to interest the public. But as head of the recently merged Fox Film Corporation and 20th Century Pictures studios, he had a responsibility to deliver some sure fire hits for the new company and must have thought that this could have been a sure-fire winner.
Writer Bess Meredyth, a contract writer at the studio, was assigned by Zanuck to develop a new story outline based on the original 1920 silent version which starred Douglas Fairbanks. Songwriters Arthur Schwartz and Irving Caesar (That Girl From Paris, A Star Is Born) penned six songs for the project. Presumably somewhere in a file in Fox’s archives lies sheet music for such unheard tunes as “My Saddle Is My Throne,” Zorro’s main song, “The Night Has Lost The Moon,” “Lolita Love Song” and three other tunes.
Very little has ever been published about this aborted project. The only mention I have ever been able to find is in Rudy Behlmer’s book A Memo From Darryl F Zanuck. In it, Behlmer reports that notations made by Zanuck on Meredyth’s 1936 outline for the film indicate that he was eyeing the project for possible Technicolor treatment and maybe even location at the Grand Canyon. It was definitely going to be an A picture for the film.
In the lead role of Zorro, Zanuck envisioned opera singer Lawrence Tibbett. With his good looks, the popular Metropolitan Opera bass was one of the first opera singers to take a stab at a film career, though with mixed results. Tibbett had the lead role in Metropolitan (1936), the first film released from the newly formed 20th Century Fox studios. Although it opened at Radio City Music Hall to strong, positive reviews, the public was apathetic. With the film flopping at the box office, it seems as if Zanuck reconsidered his idea of Tibbett heading up a musical version of Zorro.
While Zanuck would go on to bring Zorro to the silver screen just a few years later, with Tyrone Power headlining, the idea of a musical version of the story stayed with him.
In an August 1943 reprinted in Behlmer’s book, Zanuck asked the head of Fox’s story department Julian Johnson, to look into the possibility of reviving the screenplay and songs developed in 1936. What sunk the development of a musical Mark Of Zorro this time around is unknown. Perhaps Johnson saw some potential problems with the basic idea and argued Zanuck out of it. Maybe Zanuck lost interest or changed his mind on his own. It is possible that there was some other financial or business consideration that brought the enterprise to a halt.
And while Zanuck’s vision never reached the screen, another crooning adventurer would make his way to the big screen in a manner of fashion. Stanley Donen’s 1952 Singin’ In The Rain was a love letter to the early talkie era and featured in its plot a silent film about a dashing and romancing cavalier that is retooled into a musical version of the same story. Could screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who interviewed several MGM studio employees who were around during that time as research, perhaps heard of Zanuck’s attempt over at Fox with Mark Of Zorro and used it as a partial basis for their own story? It’s possible, but with all of the principals involved long gone to that big movie palace in the sky, we may never know.