Walt Disney Productions (1957-1958), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (November 3 2009), 6 disc set, 1121 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital Mono, Not Rated (nothing offensive), Retail: $59.99
Out of the night, when the full moon is bright, the horseman known as Zorro arrives to bring justice to the people of California, under the rule of a succession of power-mad, corrupt officials. With his Robin Hood aesthetic, and pre-dating Batman by twenty years, Zorro became a favorite in many different guises, with this first season of Walt Disney’s adventure version among the most fondly remembered of all!
The Sweatbox Review:
The impact of Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier on Walt Disney’s weekly anthology program in 1955 can not be emphasized enough. Apart from changing the face of movie merchandising (although Disney had almost invented such things, with Mickey Mouse trinkets in the 1920s and Snow White memorabilia in the ’30s, it was the Crockett phenomenon the proved how massive merchandising a hit could be), it led the Studio to consider other potential hero characters that would mine the same potential. Since his creation by pulp author Johnston McCulley in the 1919 Curse Of Capistrano, serialized in All-Story Weekly, Zorro has captured the imagination of readers and filmmakers alike.
None other than Douglas Fairbanks picked it as a starring vehicle for his new studio United Artists (co-founded with wife Mary Pickford, silent clown Charlie Chaplin and director DW Griffith) just one year after publication, and the exciting feature The Mark Of Zorro proved such a hit that the magazine republished Capistrano with the same title as the movie in book form, which led to McCulley penning more than 60 new Zorro adventures from 1922 until his death in 1958. Each new incarnation seems to add a new element to the Zorro legend: it was Fairbanks’ black mask and hat that then informed McCulley’s further stories as well as all future screen editions of the character.
Fairbanks reprised the character in Don Q: Son Of Zorro in 1925, although this had little to with McCulley’s Zorro, being tailored to Fairbanks from another script written by others. Zorro spoke for the first time in The Bold Caballero, but other than that milestone the film is memorable only in that it somewhat pre-dates the plots of later Zorro adventures. Perhaps the first significant screen adaptation of the character came with the Republic serials Zorro Rides Again and Zorro’s Fighting Legion, both 12-chapter cliffhangers that kept kids coming back to their local theaters each week. Typically cheap and cheerful plotting and values don’t matter when serials like these are such fun, and they progressed the character somewhat as to dispense with an origin story and present him as a known hero (and menace to the corrupt authorities).
Zorro really hit the big time one year later in an obvious attempt to cash in on the huge popularity of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures Of Robin Hood, with that film’s villain Basil Rathbone in a similar role opposite Tyrone Power in 20th Century Fox’s The Mark Of Zorro. This 1940 swashbuckler, essentially a remake of the Fairbanks film, is widely regarded as the best of the classic movie versions, with some excellent swordplay and fighting talk between the leads, and Alfred Newman’s Oscar-nominated Robin Hood score goes some way to play up the (intended) similarities between the two. Indeed, it is The Mark Of Zorro that Batman lore suggests is the film the young Bruce Wayne’s family had been attending when they met their demise outside the theater, influencing his later actions profoundly.
But if anything influenced Walt Disney’s choice to bring Zorro to television screens, it was probably a revival of the Republic serials, which had been re-edited alongside the spin off serials Son Of Zorro and Ghost Of Zorro as a series of six-part versions for television in the early 1950s, which is when Walt purchased the rights to the property. Following the success of Davy Crockett on his hour-long weekly anthology family show, Disney saw the chance to use Zorro in the creation of a second half-hour series to compliment The Mickey Mouse Club that appealed to younger audiences. Positioned somewhere between the two demographics, Zorro was introduced to the Walt Disney Presents audience on September 11, 1957 (which, had I been alive back then would have been so cool as that’s my birthday), for a fleeting appearance before the prime time series proper debuted one month later.
Most notable in Zorro lore for changing Don Diego Vega’s character name to Don Diego de la Vega (which would remain consistent in screen versions evermore), Disney’s take on McCulley’s stories begins with another introduction to the origin story, to best bring young and eager viewers up to speed. Still set in the Spanish California of the 1820s, Zorro’s initial 39 programs comprise three 13-episode story arcs, allowing the stories to unfold dramatically. As in Zorro lore, we find California under the thumb of a greedy Captain, here named Monastario, who rules with the threat of terror. Recalled from Spain by his father, de la Vega learns that he has been summoned to assist with setting up an opposing force and, although possessing a formidable skill with a flickering blade, chooses to pass himself off as a bookish and delicate fop who can but just about hold a sword rather than do anything useful with it.
Although his father is disappointed in him, de la Vega would no doubt thrill his old man if he knew that he was the masked crusader of justice that appears in the night. Dubbed Zorro – Spanish for the fox – this original masked avenger is branded an outlaw immediately by Monastario, and so begins an exciting battle of wits between them. Interestingly, Disney doesn’t see the need for any romantic interludes, which could have bogged down such a high energy series. Even when not in the mask, de la Vega is fast with the quips, running verbal circles around the Captain and his men. In both parts, Guy Williams – a bit part-actor who was about to give up acting before landing the Zorro role – excels at capturing the various aspects of the character, and it’s a wonder that he really didn’t go on to become a bigger screen presence other than featuring in Byron Haskin’s enjoyable fantasy Captain Sindbad, Disney’s own The Prince And The Pauper and perhaps most memorably as John Robinson in Lost In Space.
Williams is matched by Henry Calvin as Sergeant Garcia, who would be a threat if he weren’t such a jovial bungler, with Gene Sheldon taking on the part of de la Vega’s trusted “spy” Bernardo, a mute who also pretends to be deaf in order to listen in on Garcia’s latest plans to capture and unmask Zorro – only for Bernardo to slip the caped crusader a warning, of course! Over the course of the initial 13-episode arc, de la Vega, in and out of his Zorro mask, protects and librates a wrongfully accused man, saves the local Mission and helps various innocents escape, rescues his own father (although forgoes revealing himself to him to restoring his faith in his son; that would happen in the second season), sees off an impostor and instigates a final showdown where Monastario receives his comeuppance.
The second and third arcs, both of 13 episodes once more, see Zorro doing battle with two new foes: the Magistrado Galindo (Vinton Hayworth), part of a mysterious larger terror group who see the opportunity to seize a fragmented California for themselves, and the forces of the character ultimately behind that scheme, known only as The Eagle, a seemingly formidable opponent revealed as the supposedly respectable and egotistical José Sebastián Varga (Charles Korvin), who ultimately turns out to Zorro’s advantage to be quite the fearful bully. True to many three-act structures, the second part of these three adventures delves deeper into background to present more threat, while the end of the third story returns to the ideas of the first, with a conclusion that sees Varga dispatched in classic matinee serial fashion, providing a suitably thrilling end to this first season. There’s lots of dashing around, jumping over walls, creeping around secret passageways, sneaking about in the shadows and leaping on to horseback – Zorro’s faithful steed Tornado – and it’s all done with such gusto and a straight face, that one simply becomes involved and rides along with it.
What’s great is that the writing and production remain totally committed to the ideals of the character and true to the audience. Zorro is not dumbed down in anyway for children: people do die, from gun shot wounds and by the sword, and though he only resorts to putting on the mask when reasoning has proven fruitless, Zorro kills when he must, though not in any gruesome manner, of course. The series also takes its time with setting up its characters: over a 13 episode arc it can afford to, but this structure is sheer perfection, allowing the same core characters and variations on the same story to be played out each time without losing its spirit or freshness. The uncut “next week” previews tagged on each show only adds to the serial feel, which provide entertainment in themselves, often including alternate takes and deleted lines – the plump and bearded Garcia, caught playing Zorro one time, asks how he was recognized: “I was wearing a mask!” he amusingly protests in the preview, a line missing from the subsequent episode.
Zorro is pure escapist entertainment, and even with the slightly more limited TV budgets, Walt Disney wasn’t going to let his latest character acquisition look cheap! Veteran studio director Norman Foster directs, and often writes too, a majority of the pivotal episodes (alongside another Studio stalwart Robert Stevenson), with Walt’s right-hand producer Bill Anderson (here credited as William H Anderson) making sure the money is up on the screen. They’re ably served by a top-notch technical team from cameramen and stunt performers – displaying some excellent swordplay and horsemanship – to background scenic artists, whose work the later colorization process in the early 1990s ruined in making look too obviously fake. Here they’re more than passable, and anyway it all adds to the fabulously theatrical feel; likewise the many day-for-night shots are as expected, being fairly authentic save for some of the deep shadows. In fact, I noticed only one “mistake” as such, where in one shot as Zorro leaps on to Tornado a hand is clearly seen releasing the horse’s reigns, but these are minor aspects that can easily be discarded and probably won’t be noticed by the majority.
Adding further visual value is the clever use of animation and matte paintings – by Studio legends Albert Whitlock and Peter Ellenshaw – which really open up the scope, and the stop-motion employed for the cutting of the iconic “Z” into various materials is exciting and cool in itself! On the soundtrack, William (Bill) Lava’s musical scoring is big fun, each episode individually scored though understandably re-using several arrangements throughout both seasons (a much quoted phrase seems to recall the song Stranger In Paradise from Kismet which, intentional or not, is wryly appropriate). Lava’s music excellently supports the dialogue and amplifies Sheldon’s pantomimed actions as Bernardo so as to make them doubly clear, while the Foster-penned lyrics of the theme song, with music by Studio composer George Bruns (and sung by Disney regulars The Mellomen), creates a rousing introduction that’s no hokey Disney track but a classic in its own right.
Zorro is never talky, and is always filled with intrigue; even the dialogue scenes crackle with a fizzy energy between the cast, which shares a terrific chemistry, especially Williams and Sheldon: look at the scene where de la Vega shows off his own secret “Bat Cave” to his manservant to see their relationship in a nutshell. Bernardo is also a shrewd move by Disney to let the audience in on de la Vega’s plans; he was genuinely deaf and mute in the books, but removing the deafness (if only for it to be kept secret from everyone else) gave de la Vega someone to confide in. It’s a clever ploy, often repeated in subsequent productions, which allows Bernardo to listen in without suspicion, especially to the schemes cooked up by the helpless Garcia (Calvin himself often reminds us of a young Oliver Hardy, so it is no surprise that these two actors were paired a couple of years later as the Laurel & Hardy types in Walt’s Babes In Toyland).
With its mixture of fine writing, top of the line values and exciting, enjoyably predictable adventures, Zorro was an instant smash, proving to be a ratings winner for Disney with over a third of the audience share, and that number growing even larger in its second season, where a romantic interest was introduced and guest stars included Cesar Romero, Ricardo Montalban, Annette Funicello and Jeff York. Unfortunately, Disney’s network ABC insisted on keeping budgets down and shooting the series in black and white, and when they refused Walt’s decision to switch to color for a third season, he pulled Zorro and The Mickey Mouse Club from the air, choosing to go with NBC, who not only welcomed Walt’s color offerings but promptly re-ran much of the earlier programs which had been shot in color. Although Walt had been forced to shoot The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro in black and white, a canny Walt still marketed the Zorro series as a pair of feature films in the late 1950s.
Created from the first 13-episode story arc, The Sign Of Zorro (1958) was released internationally in theaters, while an arc from the second season was re-cut and shown around the world as Zorro The Avenger in 1959. Guy Williams would return to the role for four hour-long follow ups to the series, an unofficial “third mini-season” of two two-part stories (or eight half-hour episodes in effect) in the early 1960s. But Zorro was not a Disney character, of course, and when Disney let the rights lapse, several more screen versions – many of them forgettable – would follow from other producers, including a quite loony Italian-shot effort with Alain Delon, and a lacklustre (though unintentionally hilarious) television remake with Frank Langella and Ricardo Montalban, both in 1974, and a silly parody, Zorro: The Gay Blade, in 1981.
Since then, animation has been Zorro’s medium of choice, including shows from Filmation and Warner Bros, as well as a misguided future-set cartoon, but he did return to the Disney Studio one more time, for the doomed television “comedy” Zorro And Son in 1983, which was shot on the very same backlot sets. This pale imitation, so bad that a guesting Williams walked out on the show, is unfortunately the first version of the character I ever came across on screen, and after years of my Dad telling me how cool Disney’s Zorro was, and my avidly reading through Disney Zorro comics and listening to Disney Zorro records, the loud crash of embarrassment of this terribly unfunny show could almost be heard in the hyperactive laughter track that had desperately been added. Not surprisingly, Zorro And Son faded away after just four episodes.
Which made it a true delight to finally sit and watch this original series the way it had been intended, in black and white. I had sees some of these episodes before, and dipped into Zorro a year or two ago again via the Disney Movie Rewards offering of the first season in a colorized edition, but as highly entertaining as the stories were, there’s just something about seeing them as they were originally shot and broadcast. Zorro has always been a bit of a favorite character of mine and, most recently, was the subject of two immeasurably fantastic movies produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Martin Campbell, The Mask Of Zorro and The Legend Of Zorro, starring Antonio Banderas as the man in black. Exceptional family swashbucklers in the classic mould, these two movies really captured the spirit of the character and were a good indication of how exciting Walt’s 1950s television take must have been for audiences of the day.
With true to form production values (all shot, mostly, on a half a million dollar Disney backlot set, with a lavish for the time five-day shoot), strong performances from a continuing parade of “hey, it’s him!” faces as both heroes and villains (including later Western veteran Jack Elam), and simply a healthy dose of sheer nostalgic charm, Walt’s Zorro is one of the most entertaining selections from the Disney vault ever. Easily on par with what other studios were touting as big screen productions, it’s easy to see why Disney’s films and high-end television output continues to be popular to this day, and Zorro is easily still among the best and most fondly remembered of them all.
Is This Thing Loaded?
In a word, when it comes to the Disney Treasures, yes! This is the first multi-multi-disc set in the line, which usually features two discs of terrific content and a number of limited extras, not all of which always hit the mark. This time out, the series breaks with tradition to present two entire seasons of a television program (counting the concurrent release of Season Two in a similar set), so before we even get to the supplements there’s a heck of a lot more content than usual.
As always, the Disney Treasures are promo-free, meaning that other Disney product placement is not allowed to dilute the contents; there aren’t even any sneak peek menus! The usual Treasures intro has been stretched out to fit the 16×9 frame, but this will go missed by most, and it leads to an excellent opening Introduction with Leonard Maltin, the series host who we must thank for continuing to push for these releases. Maltin’s enthusiasm for all things Disney is always infectious, and here he packs a ton of information into these five or so minutes – indeed, you’ll feel like you’ve come away experiencing a full-bodied documentary featurette, which is a very good thing since it’s unfortunately the only time Maltin turns up in the set (also losing the opportunity to introduce us to the supplements, which could have done with a bit more context).
Discs Two through Five contain the continuing episodes only, but an exclusive bonus Disc Six is where the good stuff is at, starting with the first of the aborted “third season” stories. Walt’s wrangles with ABC over filming in color eventually led to the cancelling of the program, but not before production on the first eight episodes for the next run had started. These shows were quickly reformatted into one hour lengths (losing only the main title opening and, sadly, the theme song, though composer Lava references it in his scores), to screen as four episodes of Walt’s weekly anthology show, complete with intros from the old Mousetro, who clearly delights in donning the mask for a moment and swooshing the sword to create the legendary mark of Zorro on screen! Though it is unclear as to whether these shows had been part-shot already, the argument is that work was already underway for Season Three since, if the squabbles with ABC had been over shooting in color, why did Walt continue to shoot these shows in black and white when color on the hour shows was the norm?
Whatever the circumstances, it’s as if a day hasn’t gone by: the same cast and production crew continue their roles, and the commercial fade out points mirror the half hour shows exactly, lending great credence to the thought that these were originally straight Zorro episodes swapped around late in the game. The second and final two hour long shows have been included in the Zorro: Season Two Treasures tin; here we get a story of intrigue in El Bandido when guest star Gilbert Roland turns up with his roughian muchachos to cause trouble in Los Angeles. Naturally, Zorro turns up to help a charmed Garcia see sense and restore the peace, though not before the conclusion of part two, Adios El Cuchillo, when there’s some double-crossing by the tavern’s comely barmaid, played by Rita Moreno just one year before breaking onto the big screen in the classic musical West Side Story.
A welcome featurette, The Life And Legend Of Zorro covers the hero’s print and screen adventures up to the debut of Disney’s version, when it then becomes a discussion about what a great show it was. The historical opening repeats much of Maltin’s intro and is too brief, but it covers the basics, and though the details mentioned on the making of this version won’t shake the ground with any new revelations, it’s a nice enough twelve and a half minute retrospective on its production, especially the various color shots of Walt, Williams and the cast and crew on the backlot set, including reminiscences from Williams’ son. I would have liked to have seen a further history, post the Disney series, just to show what a varied and popular character Zorro has continued to be, including the ill-fated 1983 Disney resurrection, most recent Banderas movies (which hark back to this very series) and even a stage musical, currently playing in London, but this is short and sweet.
Lastly – yes, lastly – a 3:15 segment from Zorro’s debut on Disneyland’s The Fourth Anniversary Show, in which Walt introduces the Mousketeers and the audience to the star of his new show, has been seen before in the Treasures, but makes perfect sense including here. In the mask, Williams displays dexterity with the sword and a playful sense of humor and, although Walt’s and Zorro’s scenes were shot apart from each other (one on a stage, the other on the backlot), you’ll still buy that they’re speaking to each other. Given the amount of stills shown in the documentary featurette, I’d have thought a gallery would have been most welcome, and although they were terrible, how about including two episodes (on each set) of the short-lived half-hour 1980s series, which is linked to Zorro both thematically and physically, having been shot on the same sets?
Also announced early in the specs were the two feature films cut down from two of the 13 episode story arcs in both seasons, The Sign Of Zorro and Zorro The Avenger, though they have not materialized in this collection’s final form. I highly doubt disc space would have been an issue since the extras discs in both Season One and Season Two sets last less than 2½ hours, which with a bit of a squeeze could easily fit the less than 90 minute features on each. While not the greatest omission in Disney’s DVD release history, I was somewhat looking forward to how the editors managed to cut an over four hour storyline down to feature-length, but I suppose releasing those films as their own double-feature disc in future gives Disney one more bite at the franchise.
There’s been a bit of talk suggesting that Zorro’s two seasons have moved away from the usual silver tinned cases of the Walt Disney Treasures line towards a sleek black finish because these editions contain entire television series instead of theatrical animation or television specials. Could I slip in that it is most and more probably likely that they’ve taken on this look in keeping with Zorro’s own jet-black costume of choice? And as such, they look pretty darned slick!
Zorro marks a few more changes than normal, too. The tin follows the same dimensions as before, but instead of a double-width keepcase, the six discs are presented in a slimline black case that features two disc trays inside. That’s okay if you don’t have anything extra in there, but of course the Treasures come with a Certificate Of Authenticity, marking the numbered copy in this print run of just 30,000 copies, a commemorative lithograph (this one of Williams as de la Vega), and an eight page booklet outlining the show and the disc contents. Making a welcome return is the wraparound strip, “signed” by Roy Disney on one side (though increasingly, I’m wondering why) and series host Maltin on the other.
On top of that, there’s a promo flyer for the D23 fan community, and the stick-on contents card from the back of the tin…all of which then start to bulge the package out when one tries to pack it all it. And the reason you’ll want to try and pack it all in is because both volumes of Zorro come with very snazzy collectible pins, Zorro-themed and very neat. However, they are a puzzle as to how to squeeze back into the tin without leaving a dent in the tin, so a bit of careful manoeuvring is required to make sure everything fits back in without leaving its own mark of Zorro. The pins in both sets are very nice, coming presented on their own “Z” marked presentation cards, and these are not like the simple buttons found in the Oswald The Lucky Rabbit collection.
In fact, that set was differently colored too, sporting a special gold finish, which made me wonder if the Treasures couldn’t leap off into new territory: there are many programs from Walt’s weekly series that many fans would love – perhaps multi-disc, multi-colored sets are the way to go with this line? Of course, we’d still love to see the People And Places films, the long-rumored A Disney Education collection and certainly more of the post-Walt animated featurettes, but if the Treasures morphed into a way for much requested television material to make it to disc, then that would be no bad thing either! More, more!
Ink And Paint:
Colorized in 1992 and previously made available from those masters as a Disney Movie Rewards and Movie Club exclusive, it’s very pleasing to report that both seasons of Zorro in these new Treasures releases have been remastered as they should be shown, in black and white. Clearly having undergone some kind of restoration to stabilize the image and remove the majority of print speckling, instead of murky, colorized composite video with muddy colors and crosstalk on every edge, we are presented with bright, almost magically silvery images that look like they might have come direct from the negative. Properly progressively transferred, it’s certainly not just a case of desaturating the color from the interlaced video of before – a side by side comparison reveals these aren’t even the same source prints!
A constant layer of grain retains the film feel and everything is so pin sharp that I might complain about edge enhancement if I didn’t guess it was down more to the high contrast b/w stock. I did question, however, the lack of the overlaying Zorro logo at the end of the opening credits (matching the echo of the name in the song, the logo multiply fades back against the silhouette of Zorro on Tornado in the colorized prints) but since it does appear on each show after the first three or four episodes, this was probably a late composite effect that was added early into the run. And, far from suggesting there’s even one cut in this series, we even get the “next week” previews at the end of each episode, the last one of which reveals the program went right back to showing the second two arcs when it came to a close. Excellent!
Every one of de la Vega’s quips and the villains’ dastardly dialogue comes through especially clear on the authentic mono soundtrack, sounding, quite frankly, superb. Raising the volume on some of the very quiet moments (be careful not to blow your speakers when a loud noise comes crashing in!) might reveal some basic signal noise but the RCA recording process of the time captures a mix of talk, sound effects and music that is way more direct and full of life than any 1950s television content has any right to sound! English subtitles are also included.
I’m sure many of you, if having to take on home improvement or painting chores, will have some old dirty rags or overalls you pull on for the job. I certainly do, and right on the old sweater I still wear when dripping paint around the place is a painted “Z”, a great memory from childhood that always gives me a smile. I loved the character growing up and I still love these shows now. If you’re even a small Disney fan, especially one that considers his live-action work to be much better than is often given credit, then you deserve to treat yourself to this excitingly fun-packed adventure series. With some witty banter, values that often surpass other feature-films of the time, and a sheer sense of fun, Zorro is sure to capture the excitable child in you. I know I was rooting for him all over again, and I can’t wait to move on to Season Two. Although the typically light Treasures treatment doesn’t cover every angle that it could, buy it for the show: absolutely excellent Disney nostalgia that still stands up today!
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?