“Old California, in a bygone era of sprawling haciendas and haughty caballeros, suffers beneath the whip-lash of oppression. Missions are pillaged, native peasants are abused, and innocent men and women are persecuted by the corrupt governor and his army. But a champion of freedom rides the highways. His identity hidden behind a mask, the laughing outlaw Zorro defies the tyrant's might. First published in 1919, Zorro has inspired countless films and television adventures.”
That lengthy opening is the publisher’s blurb for THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO. As with every first Monday of the month, welcome to another edition of the Book Review Club. And, being that we’re The Writing Greek, Zeus’ immortal Olympians have agreed to again assist us. Hades actually contacted me earlier this month as soon as he heard I was doing Zorro. I didn’t realize Hades and Zorro had much in common, but apparently, Hades is a big Zorro fan. He also mentioned something about justice and punishing evil doers.
Side note – Hades wanted me to fly to L.A. (where he lives and Zorro is set), but I bravely told the Lord of the Underworld that I have to work on Wednesdays. Hopefully, he’s not mad at me. That’d be bad, right? Okay, here’s a recap of our conference call:
Me: Hello, Mr. Hades. Did you enjoy THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO? I loved it.
Hades: Does your opinion matter? Look, mortal, Johnston McCulley’s novella sold over 50 million copies. 50 million. FIVE-OH. Bob Kane based Batman on THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO’s main character. As a tribute, Kane’s original comic even has Bruce Wayne’s parents returning from seeing a Zorro movie when they are attacked by robbers. Yes, Zorro is practically mythical.
Me: Novella? Batman?
Hades: Yes, and before Zorro was put into a novella, it came out in five issues of “All-Story Weekly,” a pulp magazine. In fact, Johnston invented several other characters over the years, eventually totaling over a thousand stories. These included Thubway Tham (the lisping comic pickpocket), Black Star (a "gentleman criminal"), and the Crimson Clown (who carried a gas gun).
Me: I’ve never heard of Thubway Tham (really??) or the other two. How come Zorro to make it big?
Hades: The (ah-hem) immortal Douglas Fairbanks came across the novella while on his honeymoon. He brought it to Charlie Chaplin and his other co-investors. Together, they released “The Mark of Zorro” as the first movie for their new company, United Artists. Zorro proved immensely popular and spawned additional books and films.
Me: No doubt McCulley selling the rights to Disney in the 50’s is what led to THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO having been bought by 50 million people. I mean, do you think it sold that many on its literary merit? Zorro owes its popularity more to those Guy Williams’ TV movies, right?
Hades: Insolent mortal! Listen as I read an excerpt from Zorro’s excellent first chapter –
Outside, the wind shrieked and the rain dashed against the ground in a solid sheet. It was a typical February storm for southern California. At the missions the frailes had cared for the stock and had closed the buildings for the night. At every great hacienda big fires were burning in the houses. The timid natives kept to their little adobe huts, glad for shelter.
And here in the little pueblo of Reina de Los Angeles, where, in years to come, a great city would grow, the tavern on one side of the plaza housed for the time being men who would sprawl before the fire until the dawn rather than face the beating rain.
Sergeant Pedro Gonzales, by virtue of his rank and size, hogged the fireplace, and a corporal and three soldiers from the presidio sat at table a little in back of him, drinking their thin wine and playing at cards. An Indian servant crouched on his heels in one corner, no neophyte who had accepted the religion of the frailes, but a gentile and renegade.
For this was in the day of the decadence of the missions, and there was little peace between the robed Franciscans who followed in the footsteps of the sainted Junipero Serra, who had founded the first mission at San Diego de Alcála, and thus made possible an empire, and those who followed the politicians and had high places in the army.
[I cut Hades off]
Me: That’s a long –
[Hades cuts me off]
Hades: That, mortal, is only the book’s beginning. Well written, THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO gets only better as it goes along. Set in Spanish California, the military mistreats the poor while the wealthy dons do nothing to uphold justice.
Me: I read the book, Mr. Hades. Luckily, Zorro defends the poor.
Hades: Ah, but the book also deals with the most idle of the young dons, Diego. Diego’s fiery father, Don Alejandro, orders him to marry. Diego approaches Don Carlos’ daughter, Lolita, but his wimpy demeanor and lack of romantic spirit leave Lolita wishing for more from her suitor.
Me: If I recall right, that villainous Captain Ramon and then Zorro also begin courting Lolita. Lolita favors Zorro and even tells him, "It is not as if you were an ordinary thief. I know why you have stolen - to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians, to aid the oppressed. I know that you have given what you have stolen to the poor."
Hades: That’s fine to say, but don’t give away anything more. People need to read the book for themselves. Look here, mortal, my cell phone minutes are about to run out. I must leave you. Farewell. Persephone will be waiting for me, you know.
[End of call]
Uh, not really. But, well, Hades just up and hung up. Immortals – hmpf. I suppose that’s a sign we should close out. Before going, I have to mention that it is not until the CURSE OF CAPISTRANO’s end that Zorro’s true identity is revealed. Lolita decides who she really loves. I won’t say anything more for fear of spoiling the great ending for any that have not seen the movies.
A couple of housecleaning items:
(1) Check out the superb Nostalgia League for an e-copy of the book as well as some nifty Zorro trivia (it’s where I learned about Thubway Tham).
(2) Special thanks to Barrie Summy for hosting the Book Review Club. Click on the logo off and up to the left for more reviews.
Alright, I’m signing off, singing as I go – “Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, comes a horseman known as Zorro …”