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One of the more permanent memories of childhood was watching episodes of Disney's Zorro, a for-the-time lavish TV series that blew away the competition when cookie-cutter westerns were beginning to dominate the TV dial. I remember watching in awe, fascinated as Zorro carved a "Z" in Sgt. Garcia's ample belly; I think my older sister had a crush on star Guy Williams. We didn't follow the series at the time but it certainly stuck around -- twenty years later the episodes were still in constant circulation.
Although Disney didn't go whole hog with color, as he had with Davy Crockett and even TV specials produced before color TV was really available. What this show had was plenty of action, as if Disney's aim was to revive the lost appeal of swashbuckling Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power movies. The show also seems an extension of the dying Republic serials, with their emphasis on do-gooders vs. villains and fast action.
The story of the masked hero's transition to TV is complicated enough to make Walt Disney Treasures DVD Sets of Zorro Seasons 1 + 2 an interesting chapter in Disney history. Despite high ratings the show was cancelled (abandoned? withheld?) after only two seasons. Seasons one and two consist of 39 half-hour episodes each, with additional special "Walt Disney presents" shows aired as specials after the series' cancellation. Disney built acres of standing sets and regularly used matte paintings to add production value. Every third episode or so Zorro seems to escape pursuers by vaulting his horse across convenient (painted) cliff-jumps!
The basic Zorro plot hasn't changed since it was written in 1919. In his introductory segment Leonard Maltin talks about Zorro's influence on masked crusaders like Batman but doesn't acknowledge that the French serial heroes and villains Fantomas and Judex paved the way. Disney's adaptation most closely resembles the Tyrone Power classic Mark of Zorro, retaining all aspects of the story save the romantic dimension. Dashing Spaniard Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams, lately a cop in I Was a Teenage Werewolf) returns from Iberia to find Los Angeles under the wicked thumb of the dastardly Capitán Monastario (Britt Lomond), who is busy squeezing the local nobility with taxes and terrorizing the common folk. He's an all-purpose dictator with a personal Patriot Act -- he regularly opens all mail going back to Spain.
Don Diego assumes the disguise of Zorro, a masked Latino answer to The Lone Ranger, but with a secret identity like Superman. Don Diego originally pretended to be a total fop, a gag that Tyrone Power pulled of with ease. To avoid having to re-establish his limp-wrist cred on a weekly basis (and to sidestep issues of "good taste" -- this was the 1950s, remember) Williams' Don Diego is simply a Spanish Literature Major, a "man of letters" uninterested in politics.
Williams is an excellent find. He moves well and has a bright, broad smile that betters any comic-book character; the lack of a permanent female love interest (there are a few pretenders along the way) makes the women in the audience feel that he's there just for their pleasure. By day Don Diego convinces the evil military governor (and his own distraught father) that he can't be bothered with rebellion or duels of honor. By night, Zorro rescues the unjustly imprisoned, foils the tax collectors and regularly crosses swords with Monastario in rather good fencing clashes -- while smiling, always smiling. Zorro also has his own "wonder horse" Tornado, a trusty wild steed who shows up with just a whistle from his noble master.
Most shows give at least one scene to Don Diego's valet Bernardo (Gene Sheldon) a loveable sidekick type. The mute Bernardo pretends also to be deaf, becoming his master's chief intelligence-gathering source. Even more of a clown is Henry Calvin's Sgt. Garcia, a bumbling but equally loveable dodo on the side of the baddies. Whereas the traditional Zorro would be obliged to skewer a couple of Spain's soldiers now and then, Disney avoids bloodshed by diverting mayhem into "cute action gags" that humiliate Garcia or lay Monasterio low without actually doing any permanent harm. In other words, cue the falling barrels. Swords slash but nobody receives as much as a nick. It's all fine stuff, but this sanitized violence would eventually fuel the ferocious onslaught of cinematic mayhem to come in the 1960s.
The impressive list of guest stars make shuffling through the unending number of episodes worthwhile. (Hint: the IMDB is an essential tool for connecting names to particular episodes.) Although rarely staying around for more than four or five consecutive shows, we spotted Suzanne Lloyd, Myrna Fahey (House of Usher), Annette Funicello, Barbara Luna (The Devil at 4 O'Clock), Patricia Medina, Gloria Talbott (I Married a Monster from Outer Space), and Joan Shawlee (The Apartment) in regular series shows; Rita Moreno (West Side Story) turns up as "Chulita" in one of the post-series specials, opposite Gilbert Roland as a rogue bandido. Zorro enforces the Production Code by forcing Moreno and Roland into an at-sword's-point wedding ceremony!
Notable guest actors include Cesar Romero, Richard Anderson, Perry Lopez, Michael Pate, Everett Sloane, Jack Elam, Jonathan Harris, Jeff York, Jack Kruschen, Paul Picerni and Mark Damon. The writers must have spent late nights inventing long lists of Spanish character names. Although populated exclusively with recognizable Latin types, the stories give most of the characters respect. Even Rita Moreno is called "a choice tamale", but her character is no dummy. We even get to see her dance!
Walt Disney Treasures DVD Sets of Zorro Seasons 1 + 2 comprises 37 hours spread across twelve discs (no, I didn't watch them all). Season 1 has a lengthy docu called The Life and Legend of Zorro and a Zorro-related excerpt from The Mickey Mouse Show; Season 2 carries Behind the Mask and a piece about the Disney archives. The docus reveal plenty of information about the production, starting with the necessity for Disney to delegate responsibility to series producer Bill Anderson. Walt does seem to be shaping the major strokes from behind the scenes, and making sure that the action derring-do is up to snuff. While introducing one of the post-series specials, we can see Disney almost crack up laughing while placing Zorro's mask over his own face. He'd return to similar characters with later shows about Elfego Baca (Robert Loggia), Texas John Slaughter (Tom Tryon), The Swamp Fox (Leslie Nielsen) and Doctor Syn (Patrick McGoohan).
Each tin "Disney Treasures Case " (these are black instead of the usual silver) contains the discs packed tightly in a keep case, with a certificate of authenticity, an insert episode guide and a promo flyer. Season 1 has a postcard likeness of Guy Williams in costume; both sets contain different "Zorro" pins, an essential fashion accessory when ... well, when appropriate. As with all the Disney Treasures disc sets, we feel we're getting a little package of goodies too.
To their credit, the disc extras don't avoid the curious sudden departure of the series in 1959, which apparently was a central issue in Disney's break with the ABC network. In the The Mickey Mouse Show excerpt mentioned above, the Mousketeers ask the paternal Walt for more fun with Zorro. Disney grows unusually grave -- surely his version of a shot across the bow of the powerful Network -- and tells his kids that Don Diego will be under wraps for a while. "Awwwwww..." I'm not up to speed with all the reasons that Disney's 800-pound gorilla TV show left ABC, but Zorro appears to have been a casualty of the boardroom battles.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zorro Seasons 1 + 2 rates:
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