Out of the night,
When the full moon is bright,
Comes the horseman known as Zorro.
This bold renegade
Carves a "Z" with his blade,
A "Z" that stands for Zorro!
Zorro! Zorro! The fox so cunning and free
Zorro! Zorro! Who makes the sign of the "Z."
In recent years broadcast in a ghastly, colorized version and available on DVD only via Disney's pricey Movie Club, Zorro - The Complete First Season, part of the label's line of Walt Disney Treasures (and their signature tin cases), at long last presents the show in a respectable format worthy of its cult following, with crisp, black and white transfers supplemented with myriad fine extra features.
This is one of those "limited series" releases designed to move stock (and, arguably, artificially generate consumer panic) on those titles with a loyal but limited customer base. Last year's Dr. Syn - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh quickly went out of print and is now fetching collector's prices inching toward $200. This one is supposedly limited to 30,000 copies.
Like other Disney shows of its era, The Mickey Mouse Club, Disneyland and its "Davy Crockett" shows on Disneyland, Zorro has huge nostalgia value for those old enough to remember it when it was new or in early syndication. Like other Disney programs made during Walt's lifetime, it has all of the advantages and disadvantages of the strict Disney Style. And like "Davy Crockett," Disney seemed caught off-guard by its enormous popularity. Where Disney prematurely killed off Davy at the Alamo, Zorro got mired in network vs. Disney wrangling and the 1957-59 series was ultimately cancelled after just two seasons, despite a 40% audience share.
Based on Johnston McCulley's swashbuckling Spaniard, who first appeared in the 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano, Guy Williams stars as Don Diego de la Vega, a university student and expert fencer called back to America from Spain by his father, Don Alejandro (George J. Lewis), who needs Diego's help in fighting the tyranny of corrupt officials like Captain Enrique Sanchez Monasterio (Britt Lomond), who rules 18th century El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula - that is, the precursor to Los Angeles - with an iron fist. So bleak is the situation that Don Diego decides to conceal his bravery and skill with a saber, instead in public pretending to be a harmless, apolitical intellectual. His identity hidden behind a black mask and flowing black cape, Don Diego's alter-ego, Zorro, rides through the night, righting the wrongs of Monastario and others.
This identity he keeps secret even from his deeply disappointed father (who sees only the frustratingly inert Diego). Only Bernardo (Gene Sheldon), Diego's mute manservant, is aware of Diego's dual identity. To further protect them, Bernardo feigns being deaf and dim-witted as well.
This being a Disney family show, broad comedy goes hand-in-hand with all the adventure. Sheldon, a former comic banjo player influenced by Harry Langdon and Harpo Marx, is a subtle pantomimic and very funny, but most of the show's humor falls on fat, slovenly Sergeant Demetrio López García (Henry Calvin). A good-bad guy, Sergeant Garcia is the main villain's henchman but too hapless and incompetent to be much of a threat, and his innate good-naturedness makes him hard to dislike. When Lomond's nefarious Commandante left the series midway through the first season, Don Diamond was cast as Garcia's assistant, Corporal Reyes, pushing the villains even more toward the comic.
Typical of executive producer Walt Disney, the series was produced with lavishness extremely rare for 1950s series television. Most primetime, half-hour shows around this time cost between $40,000-$55,000 per episode, but Disney spent around $78,000 on the average Zorro. The extensive use of locations (including the Mission San Luis Rey, in Oceanside, California) and a massive standing set on Disney's Burbank lot built for $500,000 (all by itself equivalent to the cost of a typical studio B-movie), and elaborate matte paintings gave Zorro the polished look of a feature film, as opposed to shows like Adventures of Superman, which more closely emulated cheap serials.
Adding to the feature-like sheen was the use of directors primarily associated with fast-moving B-features, notably Norman Foster, Charles Barton, and William Witney. And, almost unprecedented, Disney ordered that each and every episode of Zorro include an original musical score (by William Lava throughout), with little to no use of stock cues. By comparison, shows like Twilight Zone were lucky to get every sixth or seventh show scored.
But the real key to Zorro's popularity was its perfectly cast star - Guy Williams. Much like Fess Parker's Davy Crockett, the plucked-from-obscurity Williams - he had a small role in I Was a Teenage Werewolf just prior to being cast - seemingly was destined to play Zorro and to a large degree remains everyone's primary image of the character. Born of Sicilian parents who had immigrated to America, Williams also had much the same appeal as the original movie Zorro, silent movie icon Douglas Fairbanks. Williams was similarly athletic, adventurous, and dashing, but also more authentically Hispanic/Latino and, debatably, more classically handsome.
Moreover, Williams was instrumental in the critically important decision to shift his Diego away from the lazy, effeminate, and/or cowardly Don generally done in the past (to further contrast him with the fearless Zorro), and toward one more genial when not in the mask and cape. This made him enormously appealing in and out of his Zorro costume; take at a look at the two Batman serials from the 1940s to see how quickly tiresome the Don Diego character might otherwise have become.
By all rights Williams should have springboarded from this to big film roles a la Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and James Garner to name three, but the long hiatus and eventual cancellation of Zorro after just two seasons seems to have irreparably damaged his career. An early post-Zorro title role as Captain Sindbad (1963), a delightful fantasy, exhibited Williams' enormous potential as a film star, but it wasn't long before the hungry actor was reduced to playing third fiddle to Jonathan Harris' Dr. Smith and the Robot on Lost in Space.
The series itself, while undeniably slickly produced, is also superficial in its teleplays, like most other TV Westerns of the late-1950s. Regrettably, it never reaches for anything much beyond its carefully calculated mixture of romanticized adventure and lowbrow comedy, though within this limited scope it does it better than just about any show of its era. Ironically, the politically conservative Disney may have been partly inspired by the British series made by blacklisted American expatriates, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955-60) which, while very similarly structured and produced, had a bit more depth.
Notable guest stars this season include Sebastian Cabot, James Griffith, William Schallert, Nestor Paiva, John Dehner, Jack Elam, John Doucette, Peter Brocco, Joan Shawlee, Anthony Caruso, Suzanne Lloyd, H.M. Wynant, Michael Pate, Ted de Corsia, Jack Kruschen, Kent Taylor, Mary Wickes, Paul Picerni, and Jay Novello.
Video & Audio
Zorro - The Complete First Season is presented in its original full-frame format and in its original black & white. The image is excellent, with exceptionally good blacks and detail; overall, it's comparable to CBS/Paramount's classic television titles from the same era. Episodes appear to be complete and unedited, and are not time-compressed. Included are the original previews to next week's show. The original mono audio is more than adequate. Optional English subtitling is included.
The 39 episodes are presented over five single-sided, dual-layered DVDs, with 7-8 episodes per and special features confined for the most part to Disc Six. (Leonard Maltin provides a good introduction on Disc One, putting the series into context.)
As with other Disney Treasures, this comes packed in a tin box, something great for collectors but less so for others who simply want to watch one episode at a time, spread out over several months. Inside is a "crossed sabers" Zorro pin, a roughly 5 x 7 black & white publicity photo of Guy Williams, and a "certificate of authenticity."
Besides Leonard Maltin's introduction, this set includes several featurettes: The Life and Legend of Zorro explores the character's origins (with clips from the 1920 Fairbanks film and at least one Republic serial, but not the 1940 Fox film with Tyrone Power) and discusses the making of the series. There's a lot of good information here.
There's a brief preview of the series by Walt himself, surrounded by Mouseketeers. Williams appears in original footage, but does not interact with anyone else. Also included are two episodes from Walt Disney Presents that were a brief semi-continuation of the series, after its last official episode, and while Disney was still trying to hammer out a third season with ABC. It's also in great condition and appears complete.
Those who remember Zorro back in the 1950s or in early reruns will probably enjoy this set enormously. For the more casual classic TV viewer, Zorro is a lot of fun, but limited story-wise like most other late-1950s Westerns and family-targeted melodramas, though this is much better produced than most. It's a quality packaging of good material, and Highly Recommended.
Note: Zorro: The Complete Second Season, was released simultaneously.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.