Disney // 1957 // 1006 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // November 15th, 2009
Out of the night, when the full moon is bright.../ Comes the horseman known as Zorro...
In 1919, Johnston McCulley introduced the character of Zorro in the novella The Curse of Capistrano. Since then, the cunning Spanish fox has appeared onscreen in over 40 productions, beginning with two silent films starring Douglas Fairbanks. In 1940, Tyrone Power rode into theaters with The Mark Of Zorro, which proved to be just as popular. Modern audiences are more familiar with Sony's The Mask Of Zorro (1998) and The Legend Of Zorro (2005), both starring Antonio Bandaras, the first Spanish actor to take on the role.
While all of these actors were fine as the masked outlaw, my vote for the definitive version goes to Guy Williams (Lost in Space). In 1957, Walt Disney produced a weekly series for ABC which featured Zorro fighting tyranny and oppression in 19th-century Spanish California. Williams, then a relative unknown, was ideally cast. The result was a massive phenomenon, one in which rivaled the Adam West Batman series of the mid-1960s. In fact, it was estimated that 37% of all homes with TV sets tuned in to watch Zorro. Thrilling, funny, and superbly acted, Zorro: The Complete First Season is now available in a gorgeous black tin, as part of the Walt Disney Treasures collection.
What's unique about Zorro are the extended story arcs, each revolving around different villain. In Season One, we have 39 episodes unveiling three separate storylines:
* Episodes 1-13: Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams) has just left his university studies in Spain, at the urgent request of his father, Don Alejandro (George J. Lewis). The Pueblo of Los Angeles is now being run by the cruel, ruthless Capitan Monastario (Britt Lomond), who's determined to become wealthy by over-taxing his citizens with the help of a crooked lawyer. To stop Monastario's reign of terror, Diego makes use of a black mask and cape to disguise himself as Zorro. Although he takes on the appearance of a bandit, Zorro's mission is to bring peace and justice to the pueblo, rescuing those who have been unfairly persecuted. One such example is Nacho Torres (Jan Arvan, The Poseidon Adventure), a ranchero wrongfully arrested for treason.
* Episodes 14-26: After Monastario is arrested, Diego is ready to declare Zorro dead. However, a mysterious criminal organization known as The Eagle fills the void with plans control of Los Angeles. Their first step is to plant a local Magistrate, Carlos Galindo (Vinton Hayworth, I Dream Of Jeannie), who sends coded messages on feathers back to The Eagle. He arranges for the next Commandante to be assassinated, while also attempting to discredit the bumbling Sgt. Demetrio Garcia (Henry Calvin, Babes In Toyland). Eventually, Capitan Toledano (Peter Adams, The Big Fisherman) is sent from Spain as the new Comandante. Ultimately, the townspeople rebel against The Eagle's plot and Galindo is taken down, killed in a climactic swordfight.
* Episodes 27-39: The new Commandante has brought a unexpected level of order to Los Angeles, gaining the respect of its townspeople. It's only after he's called away to Monterey on business that we find out his wife Raquel (Suzanne Lloyd) has been mentally seduced by The Eagle into becoming their new local leader. Meanwhile, Sgt. Garcia has re-gained control of the Army, but must still submit to Raquel's demands. Eventually, Zorro makes Raquel surrender and volunteer information about The Eagle's latest plan. This leads to the head of the evil organization, Jose Sebastian Varga (Charles Korvin), to show his face in Los Angeles. Zorro escapes death a number of times before defeating Varga in a final showdown.
Growing up in the 1980s, I never caught Zorro in reruns on the Disney Channel, because cable was a luxury my family couldn't afford. However, two other introductions to the character are what got me addicted: The Sign Of Zorro, a 1960 feature film which was really several first season episodes strung together, and six VHS tapes each containing 3-4 episodes of the original series. After more than twenty years, I'm now consummating my addiction by absorbing the entire series in this two-volume Walt Disney Treasures collection, watching them in their original black-and-white presentations and not the atmosphere-draining effect of Disney's syndicated colorized version.
As noted by critic Leonard Maltin in his introduction to Season One, Disney went to great lengths to ensure Zorro was a show of high quality. Indeed, the production values are simply impeccable. The large set which served as the LA Pueblo -- which included the tavern, courtyard, and military cuartel -- cost over a half a million dollars to build, a hefty sum for 1957. Every single show had its own music score by Bill Lava (Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color), while boasting a catchy title song written by studio vet George Bruns (The Aristocats). The expansive landscapes were achieved through on-location shootings and carefully created matte paintings. Production fell on the shoulders of Bill Anderson, who worked overtime to ensure Walt was satisfied with the authentic look and fast pace. Director Lewis Foster (Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier) had the daunting task of not allowing Zorro to revert to formula, but maintain freshness through each story arc.
More than 50 years later, Zorro remains grand fun for all. What remains impressive are the brilliantly executed swashbuckling scenes, the actors working extensively under Fred Cavens, who also served as fight choreographer. Guy Williams had no experience in fencing, yet seemed a natural with the sword. Consequently, he comically pulls off the scenes which require him to be clumsy as Don Diego, pretending to be an inept swordsman with a taste for books, not battle. Britt Lomond, who had the delicious role of Capitan Monastario, was in fact a champion fencer and it shows. Supplementing the fights is some eye-popping stunt work, with Zorro jumping off his horse on occasion to save a girl or grab an enemy. While the violence is never gratuitous or bloody, the threats to our hero and the townspeople remains ominous and intense.
At the center of all this excitement is Guy Williams. His delightful smile and striking athleticism made him a perfect Zorro and equally ingratiating as Don Diego. Thankfully, the writers don't make Zorro a walking one-liner, even though Williams spits juicy dialogue at his enemies from time to time. Much of the series' comic relief is supplied by Barnardo and Sgt. Garcia. The former is played with jovial energy by pantomime artist Gene Sheldon, Diego's servant and the only one to know Zorro's true identity. Barnardo can't speak and pretends to be deaf, in order to spy for information and pass it along to Diego. This act results in some very humorous moments between Barnardo and Sgt. Garcia, who at times is not entirely convinced of Barnardo's deafness. As for Garcia, he's as smart as a baboon, as fat as a blimp, 100% loyal to his superiors, and Henry Calvin is terrific in the role, occasionally breaking his lovely voice out in song. What makes him a memorably character is his cluelessness and everlasting devotion to beer. The show never goes for cheap laughs by having Garcia do pratfalls, but rather gives him a zinger every once in awhile to punctuate his behavior.
Seasons 1 and 2 have been previously released on DVD through the Disney Movie Club. However, these where the colorized versions, spread out over multiple volumes. Walt Disney Treasures attractive black tin offers the original B&W prints, remastered and restored. While there are occasional defects in the image, along with night scenes which are a bit too dark, the picture quality on each episode is top-notch and the mono audio tracks are out of this world. Although dialogue is easily heard, those intimidated by the Spanish lingo have the option of closed captioning. Inside the DVD case, you will find all 39 Season One episodes on five discs, along with a certificate of authenticity signed by Roy E. Disney & Leonard Maltin. A postcard with Williams as Don Diego, an episode guide, and an exclusive pin are also included.
Aside from an introduction by Maltin on the first disc, all of the bonus features are found on Disc 6. The main attraction is a rarely seen, two-part Zorro special which aired in late 1960 on Walt Disney Presents. The crux of the story involves a bunch of Mexican bandidos who invade Los Angeles and Zorro's resulting attempts to control their antics. It's entertaining enough, memorable mostly for having Rita Moreno playing a seductive dancer, just one year before winning an Oscar for West Side Story. Next up is the 14-minute documentary "The Life And Legend Of Zorro," which provides a nice summary of the character's transition from page to screen, spotlighting the numerous adaptations prior to the Disney series. I wish the piece was a bit more detailed, as it ignores the character's various post-Disney appearances. Still, it does reveal production info, some rare photos of the actors on set, and doesn't shy away from the show's controversial cancellation. Finally, we have an excerpt from "The Fourth Anniversary Show" of Walt Disney Presents, with Disney himself announcing the arrival of Zorro to some Mousketeers.
I have couple complaints. Four or five episodes in the last part of the season aren't as zippy or enjoyable as the ones before. This might be due to the mediocre Charles Lamont (responsible for a number of lethargic Abbott & Costello vehicles for Universal) coming onboard to direct several episodes. Also, I didn't find the shadowy figure of The Eagle nearly as profound or effective as Captain Monastario.
Nitpicks aside, Disney has done right by releasing Zorro as part of the Walt Disney Treasures series. The downside is, like Walt Disney Treasures: Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, these volumes have limited availability as only 30,000 of each were produced. So, if you're a true collector, order them as soon as possible.
Zorro and Disney are found not guilty. Signed, Z!
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 1006 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episodes