The Mark of Zorro (1920) by Fred Niblo and The Circus (1928) by Charlie Chaplin represents classical narrative cinema that is defined by a set of typical attributes of narration and style. The Mark of Zorro is an American adventure film with a historical atmosphere, elaborate costumes, dueling, stunts, a heroic character, and a positive resolution. Unlike its American counterpart, The Circus is an English silent film about the life of an impoverished performer that does not offer a happy ending and leaves the audience with a feeling of melancholy. Despite significant differences, the films share the elements of humor delivered by the comedic talents of Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Moreover, the theme of romance is another common feature of the films depicting Don Diego’s affection for Lolita Pulido and the Tramp’s unrequited love for Merna.
In general, classical cinema demonstrates realistic and clearly structured narratives consisting of a sequence of events or stories unfolding in a specific time and place. The era of classic films is also characterized by the evolution of style, as action films became the novelty and the utilization of professional actors playing characters with recognizable traits and text-frame dialogues. Filmmakers increased the production budget and introduced new lighting, acting, editing, direction, and staging techniques to improve the storytelling possibilities of films and heighten their impact on the audience. The Mark of Zorro exemplifies the attributes of a classical Hollywood film because it is an action movie involving American stars and memorable dialogues revealing the theme of political oppression in Spanish California. The Circus also qualifies as a classical film since it was produced in Hollywood and contains narrative storytelling techniques to create a sense of realism, and features a famous actor and director, Charlie Chaplin.
The description of some moments from the films can illustrate their status in classical cinema. The Mark of Zorro contains the scene of Zorro’s appearance before his enemies and the subsequent fight. The moment is characterized by the use of professionally staged acrobatic tricks performed by the characters, lavish costumes illustrating the colonial period, and narrative dialogues. The moment with a lion cage in The Circus supports its status as a classical film. The introduction of live animals instead of costumed actors increases the realism of the scene to impact the audience and help them clearly define the film’s specific location (the Circus). Moreover, the appearance of a female character, Merna, develops the romantic narrative that is typical of classic cinema.
The Circus demonstrates several aspects uncharacteristic of classical Hollywood cinema due to the legacy of Charlie Chaplin’s style and screen persona transferred from his previous silent films. For instance, the use of high frame rates was employed to produce the comical effect during escape scenes, which decreased the sense of realism. The limited use of intertitle cards and the lack of dialogue between the characters suggest that the film relies on visual narrative techniques rather than Hollywood-style dialogue-based storytelling. The Mark of Zorro seems more classical than The Circus because it combines the typical elements of classical Hollywood cinema (acrobatics, thematic costumes, dialogues) discussed above. Additionally, the film contains an intelligible plot delivered by Douglas Fairbanks, which explains the causes of Zorro’s heroic motives and the effects of his fight for freedom from colonization. Finally, the traits of the protagonist (bravery, honesty, strength) are comprehensible and assist the audience in understanding the conflict-driven plotline.