Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
Title: The Sign of Zorro
Year: 1960. However the television episodes aired in 1958
Source materials: Zorro debuted in Johnston McCulley’s novel The Curse of Capistrano, serialized in five parts between August 9 and September 6, 1919 in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly.
Plot: In 1820, Don Diego de la Vega returns to California after three years in Spain with his mute servant Bernardo. His father has written to him asking him to come home as their community has been taken over by a ruthless dictator, Monasterio. Don Diego decides to conceal his fighting prowess from the world and Bernardo will pretend to be deaf as well.
Don Alejandro wants to form a plan of action, as their neighbor Don Nacho Torres has been arrested, but Don Diego pretends to be a spineless coward. He acquires his old horse Tornado and assumes the masked identity of Zorro, “the fox,” preferring secrecy and guile. He shows Bernardo a series of caves accessed by a hidden door in their house. He rides into town. He loosens the saddles on the mens’ horses. Monasterio plans to have Torres appear to be shot while escaping. Zorro frees Torres and they escape.
A reward is placed for Zorro’s capture. Torres’ family is held hostage, upsetting the people. Don Alejandro leads a group to free. He asks Don Diego to go, but he pretends to be a pacifist, disappointing his father. Zorro learns of an ambush and warns the group. Don Alejandro is shot but Zorro rescues him. He tells Alejandro that he will get his son to take care of him. Torres returns under the protection of the Governor and takes the wounded Alejandro for help. Torres and Alejandro have surrendered to the Governor and are scheduled for a trial under the Judge Bosca. But Monasterio holds a kangaroo court with his puppet Piña as judge, but Zorro convinces Piña to rule not guilty due to the point of a sword through a curtain.
At a dinner party, which Don Diego is invited, Monasterio has hired a bandit named Martinez dressed as Zorro to rob the guests to discredit the vigilante. Diego escapes and changes into his costume and enters after the false Zorro escapes, which is hindered by Bernardo constantly moving the ladders. The real Zorro defeats both the imposter and Monasterio. Monasterio fakes Martinez death, and has him, once again disguised as Zorro to rob a church. Don Diego has paste jewels that he drops at a tavern in front of Piña, who tells Monasterio. Concerned they seek out Martinez and Don Diego follows. Martinez attacks Monasterio, but Diego faces him in his civilian identity, pretending to fight awkwardly. Monasterio shoots Martinez, but has to return the jewels.
Monasterio figures out that Don Diego and Zorro are never in the same place and arrest him. The Viceroy arrives and his son was a friend of Diego. Monasterio challenges Diego to a duel. Diego fights incompetently and Bernardo, dressed as Zorro arrives and throws a knife at the door. The Viceroy, believing that Diego was framed, has Monasterio and Piña arrested and the foolish Garcia is placed in charge until a new leader is assigned.
Background: Guy Williams was introduced to the Disney audience as Zorro in a segment of the Disney anthology television series, The Fourth Anniversary Show. During this episode, which starred the Mouseketeers and featured upcoming shows, Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) repeatedly asks Walt Disney, “What about Zorro?” Finally, Zorro appears, but not in the same shot with the Mouseketeers. Zorro explains who he is, and coyly answers the question of whether he is “real”. Williams and other key cast members also made a number of live appearances at Disneyland in 1958. Some of their shows involved Zorro and Monastario battling each other on the rooftops of Frontierland.
The television series was broken up into several arcs over a number of episodes. The film is an edit of the first eight episodes, similar to the release of Davy Crockett
Changes from the Source Material: In the original story, Zorro’s identity is revealed. Bernardo is both deaf and mute in the original stories, but can hear in this version. Bernardo was originally a Native American. He is a full-blooded Spaniard in this depiction. Zorro’s name in Johnston McCulley’s writing and previous adaptations was Diego Vega. The Disney version expands the name to Diego de la Vega, an innovation retained in some subsequent versions of the story.
Guy Williams as Don Diego de la Vega. He is best known for playing Professor John Robinson in Lost in Space. He also appeared in The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Prince and the Pauper, Damon and Pythias, Captain Sindbad and Bonanza. George J. Lewis as Don Alejandro de la Vega. He appeared in many films including Casablanca, Lady on a Train, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Gilda, One Touch of Venus, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Viva Zapata!, The Prisoner of Zenda, Shane, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, Davy Crockett, and Lust for Life.
Gene Sheldon as Bernardo. His film debut was in the 1934 movie Susie’s Affairs. He then appeared in Roberta, Where Do We Go From Here?, The Dolly Sisters, Golden Girl, 3 Ring Circus, Toby Tyler, and Babes in Toyland. Henry Calvin as Sergeant Demetrio Lopez Garcia. He appeared on Broadway in Kismet. He also appeared in Toby Tyler and Babes in Toyland.
Britt Lomond as Captain Enrique Sánchez Monasterio. Lomond was active with NYU’s fencing team, and he earned a place on the United States’ fencing team for the 1952 Olympics. He appeared in Death Valley Days, Tonka, Perry Mason and The Virginian. He was a unit production manager for The Waltons, Somewhere in Time, and Falcon Crest. He was also known for being a first assistant director for Battlestar Galactica and MacGyver. Than Wyenn as Licenciado Piña. He was Mr. Ambrose in Splash.Other film roles included Beginning of the End, Pete Kelly’s Blues, The Boy and the Pirates, and Being There. Wyenn’s numerous television credits included Leave it to Beaver, Gunsmoke, Dragnet, Barnaby Jones, Mission: Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Perry Mason, Quincy, M.E., The Six Million Dollar Man, T. J. Hooker, Hart to Hart, The Untouchables, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Burke’s Law.
Legacy: Comics based on the Zorro character had already appeared before the Disney TV series. But when the Disney TV show became popular new comics were published under the banner Walt Disney Presents: Zorro and the artwork reflected the way the characters looked in the TV version. The Disney: Zorro comics were drawn by Alex Toth.
My take: I watched the television show in reruns as a kid. To me, Guy Williams is Zorro. The show checked off the same boxes for me as Batman did (not knowing at the time that Zorro inspired Batman). It’s straightforward action and Williams brings both the panache and humor to the role.
Available on Disney +?: Yes
Next Week: Grayfriers Bobby