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directed by Norman Foster, et al
USA 1957

 

Walt Disney's Zorro, which ran for two seasons and four one-hour made for TV movies between 1957-61, was the most popular show in its time slot – bringing in an astounding 38-40 % audience share. It was not renewed only because of interminable legal wranglings between Disney & ABC. It lived on in syndication for quite a few years, making it seem like it ran longer than it did.

One is taken quite aback by the sheer number of episodes in each season: Airing weekly from October through to July, there are 39 half-hour (nearly 26 minute) shows, compared to, say, 22-24 for Barney Miller, Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother, and where each episode has become increasingly shorter for some years now.

The set-up for the TV series follows its predecessors on film: Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams) has been summoned home from Spain to Los Angeles by his father who has written without detail that the situation at home has become difficult. Diego decides (a bit too quickly here I should think) that he should take the guise of a man of letters instead of a man of action, which he really is in order to best met the situation. He happens on the idea of a masked man (again. a little too easily), and sorts out secret passages in his home and a horse unknown to anyone at large (a nice touch) and, with the help of his mute servant, Bernardo (Gene Sheldo), who also take on a disguise – that of a deaf man, as well – to be Don Diego's eyes and ears, and more. Together, they confront various threats to innocent people, including the native population, starting with the ambitious Capitan Montasario.

As expected with 1950s Disney, not many characters are killed off and rarely on screen, though whippings and humiliations are permitted. Swordfights, of which there many, are designed more to balance comic and thoughtful plot elements than to mete out "justice." The emphasis, rather, is on the challenge of ethical dilemmas (such as Don Diego's decision to keep his identity and as Zorro hidden from his father) and increasing amounts of light comedy, especially as Capitan Monasario is replaced by Corp. Reyes (Don Diamond) as Sgt. Garcia's main source of exasperation.

I was a little surprised by the presence of story arcs over a number of episodes right from the outset. I hadn't realized that such a device was featured so early in television history. There are some notable appearances by guest actors throughout the series, often for an arc of four or more episodes (e.g. Patricia Medina, Everett Sloane, Cesar Romero, Sebastian Cabot, Jonathan Harris, and Jack Elam), but the show doesn't make a point of it. Rather Zorro does quite well with just its handful of supporting characters: Gene Sheldon as Don Diego's faithful servant and partner in crime, the "deaf/mute" Bernardo; the good-humored Henry Calvin as Sgt. Garcia, a forerunner to Sgt. Schultz (except that Calvin has a marvelous singing voice), who always leads with his stomach; veteran actor George J. Lewis as Don Diego's righteous, but forgiving father; Britt Lomond as the ambitious Capitan Monastario, who bears a striking resemblance to Zorro, a coincidence that we hope will play on itself.

The series' episodes were directed mainly by Norman Foster, Charles Barton and Hollingsworth Morse. Original music is by Disney regular, William Lava, and the matte artist is none other than Albert Whitlock, who would go on to do the visual effects for the movies, Earthquake, The Sting, High Anxiety, Missing, and Cat People. The series makes use of a number of writers including Bon Wheling (Zorro being his one significant contribution), Lowell Hawley (who would go on to write the screenplay for the 1960 movie Swiss Family Robinson), and director Norman Foster. Two credits are given to Gene L. Coon, who wrote a good deal for television, including The Streets of San Francisco, but whose name we know as producer of the original Star Trek series.

The success of Disney's Zorro rests largely on the actor chosen to play him, and hardly a more suitable choice can be imagined: Guy Williams had the necessary good looks, charm, athletic ability and sufficient acting chops for the role. He was even able to carry the series without much of a romantic interest for Don Diego, a considerable feat to be sure. I gathered from the bonus features that Williams was an international success in the series as well as at home. It was not for another six years that he found success in television as Prof John Robinson on the hit family sci-fi series, Lost in Space.

 - Leonard Norwitz

DVD Review:  (Walt Disney Treasures) - Region 1 - NTSC

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Distribution

Disney

Region 1 - NTSC

Runtime Approx 26:00 per episode 
Video

4:3 Original Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 4.76 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

Bitrate:
Audio English Dolby 2.0
Subtitles English SDH
Features Release Information:
Studio:

Aspect Ratio:
Fullscreen - 4:3

Edition Details:
• Two volumes (available separately) six discs in each
• 39 episodes per season
• Extras: Introductions by Leonard Maltin
• El Bandido (season one box) (51:16)
• Adios, El Cuchillo (season one box) (49:00)
• The Life & Legend of Zorro (season one box) (12:25)
• The Postponed Wedding (season two box) (49:05)
• Auld Acquaintance (season two box) (49:08)
• Behind the Mask, with Guy Williams Jr., biographer Antoinette Lane, and stunt double Buddy Van Horn
• A Trip to the Archives, with Leonard Maltin & Guy Williams Jr. (season two box) (10:55)
• Certificate of Authenticity
• Collectable Lithographs & Pins

DVD Release Date: November 3, 2009
DVD case with flippages in Disney Treasure Tin

Chapters n/a

 

Comments

Image:
Except for except for Maltin's introductions and three of the extra features (which are in 16x9 color, interspersed with footage from the series) all of the made-for-television episodes are in academy ratio black & white, the bulk of which are in beautiful condition. Aside from the opening credit sequence duplicated for each episode, which is dark and grainy with evidence of oversharpening, enhancement, halos and occasional vertical banding, the episodes that I sampled from both sets are gorgeous – almost as sharp, dimensional, and extended a grayscale as we would expect from a well preserved feature film from the 1940s and 1950s, with the second season even better looking than the first. The original attempts at day-for-night shooting are preserved, without brightening. I found no evidence of problematic transfer issues, blemishes or dropped frame. A light grain is evident, possibly a judiciously applied DNR for Season One – I'm not sure, though there is sometimes a slight, easily ignored yellow cast. The four post- season hour-long movies, however, are somewhat less well preserved and are inconsistent in quality from scene to scene.

Audio:
Considering gives us the original mono mix for the TV episodes, and they are as clear and crisp as hoped for. There is no attempt to enhance or exaggerate effects, so the result is about what we would have heard 50 years ago except that our present sound systems are likely to be much better.

Extras:
Each season is complete on five discs, with disc six reserved for extra features that are not duplicated on each set. Leonard Maltin is on hand to introduce the series to old and new audiences and to put everything in context in his brief intros. Each box set includes the complete work of Guy Williams as Zorro for Disney for television – El Bandido and Adios, El Cuchillo appear in the first season box, and The Postponed Wedding and Auld Acquaintance in the second. (Look for Rita Moreno and Gilbert Roland in prominent roles.) These made their original appearances in the Disney Anthology Series for television in the years immediately following the second season. Disney produced two feature films culled from the TV series: The Sign of Zorro (1958) and Zorro, the Avenger (1959) and are not, as such, included in these sets.

There is a superb and nostalgic segment, titled "Behind the Mask," which profiles the career of Guy Williams, though very much concentrating on his work with Disney (though it gives a moment's homage to his work on Lost in Space. It is guided by Williams' son, Guy Jr. and his biographer Antoinette Lane, with help from the star's stunt double, Buddy Van Horn and others that had a direct connection with the series. Among other things, we learn that all of the swordplay, which is very much in the style of movies from the 40s and 50s, is performed by Williams, who also contributed some ideas for the character of Don Diego.

"A Trip to the Archives" from the second season volume turned out to be not what I expected, though it is interesting all the same: Leonard Maltin and Guy Williams Jr. visit the Disney Archives Museum to check out Zorro's original costumes, memorabilia and merchandizing. "The Life and Legend of Zorro" starts off promisingly with Rudy Behlmer speaking about the characters originally conceived by writer Johnston McCulley back in 1919, followed by the Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power incarnations on film with a stop at Republic Pictures before he lands at Disney. But the bulk of the 12-minute piece is more a "making-of" documentary on the TV series, looking at casting, set design, writing and the scoring, with a nod to Laurindo Almeida's contribution, as much of the music is for solo guitar.

Both "The Life and Legend of Zorro" and "Behind the Mask" are well-crafted pieces, making unusually pertinent use of footage from the series to make their points: When we learn that Zorro was on a 5-day work schedule, and that the action scenes were shot on Friday to give the actors and stunt people the weekend to recover, the montage of vigorous stunts reveals it was a wonder that they were able to keep to their schedule.

Operations, Box Design & Subtitles:
As I have noted in other Disney Treasury reviews, I have to say that these collectable Limited Edition Walt Disney Treasure Tins (complete with their own Certificate of Authenticity) are among the least user-friendly ideas to come along the home video front. At usual, you can take the enclosed DVD case (the size of a typical clamshell DVD case, by the way) out of the tin and file it. The problem with the tin is that it has no identification on the spine, so what are we to do with it? While I have a personal dislike of flippages, at least these are sturdier than we see on Blu-ray boxes, and they appear only one per page without any double-sided discs. Curiously, there are no episode synopses or any details of the material or booklet included with either season. The subtitles, as is the case on all Disney DVDs I've seen so far, are yellow.

Recommendation : 8
Strongly recommended for the care in mastering or remastering or restoration or whatever it took to bring this series back to life. The bonus features, while not extensive, are adequate and absorbing, while avoiding repetitive duplication of material. Zorro was one of Disney's most popular TV series, and Guy Williams may be the best Zorro to date. Definitely worth a visit.

 - Leonard Norwitz

 



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Region 1 - NTSC

 

 




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