Thursday, November 5, 2009

DVD Review - Zorro, The Complete First & Second Seasons (Walt Disney Treasures)

Once again, Disney has dipped into its seemingly bottomless vault of television productions for another gem, the complete series run of Zorro, including all 78 half-hour episodes from both seasons, plus the 4 hour-long specials. It’s been difficult to see the series since its initial run, lasting from October 1957 through June 1959; shot in crisp black and white, the series suffered a grotesque colorization for reruns on the Disney channel in the early 90s (though some episodes were shown in their original versions to please us nitpicking purists). Disney had released small groups of shows in 3-4 episode spurts through the Disney Movie Club (which for us is a nice way of saying “out of print”) making this large scale release all the more tantalizing.

Upon the return of Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams) to the southern California (still under Spanish rule) estate of his father, Don Alejandro (George J Lewis) a wealthy and respected rancher, he learns that the region has fallen under the control of the villainous Capt. Enrique Sanchez Monasterio (Britt Lomond). Don Diego vows immediately to use his newly acquired swordsmanship and riding skills to resist Monasterio, but decides to do so behind a black cape and mask in order to protect his family. He christens himself ‘Zorro’ (Spanish for ‘The Fox’) and becomes a thorn in the side of the Captain and his men, particularly the oafish Sergeant Garcia (Henry Calvin). But when not protecting the innocent as Zorro, Don Diego adopts the personae of a foppish intellectual, incapable of even defending himself with a sword, while his faithful manservant, Bernardo (Gene Sheldon) pretends to be ‘deaf and dumb’ allowing him to eavesdrop with impunity. But Don Diego’s lifestyle of leisure deeply disturbs his father, Don Alejandro (George J Lewis) who whishes that is guitar-strumming son were more like the heroic Zorro.

New York City born Guy Williams worked as a fashion model before a string of bit parts in the 50s brought him to the attention of Walt Disney. Italian by birth, Williams slid easily into Zorro’s cowl, and the actor’s 6’3” frame and matinee-idol looks made him an instant sensation. Missing the original airing of these episodes (and though we enjoyed the Antonio Banderas retooling, Zorro-mania has heretofore been lost on us) we were startled by Williams’ effortlessly charming performance. The actor’s natural athleticism (he apparently did quite a bit of his own sword fighting) made a formidable match with his easygoing charm. But we also found ourselves falling for the comic buffoonery of Henry Calvin’s Sergeant Garcia (think of Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes in the Spanish army and you won’t be far off). In keeping with the Disney tradition of largely non-threatening villains, Garcia barely makes a move on-camera that isn’t accompanied by a muted trumpet refrain, but Calvin always made it work, and helped the show strike that elusive balance of comedy and drama that keeps it in the radar of both adults and children (we were incredibly relieved that the show was largely devoid of Apple Dumpling Gang-style hijinks.)

The first season is neatly divided into 3 separate 13 episode story arcs, making for an astonishing 39 total episodes (compare this to any modern network series, which typically top out at 26 episodes per season, or cable, at 13). Some episodes, like the first season’s Monasterio Sets a Trap and Zorro’s Ride Into Terror even flow together, cliffhanger-style. The above description accounts for the first storyline of the first season, but the core cast (minus Lomond’s Monasterio) remained through both seasons, with a rotating cast of villains against whom Zorro battled. The remaining two storylines of the first season involve a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Eagle (who was more of a presence once his identity was revealed and played thereafter by Charles Korvin). The second season played a bit looser with the story arcs, allowing for more flexible storyline lengths and even the occasional one-shot (Spark of Revenge, featuring an incredibly young Robert Vaughn) though our favorite features an extended guest appearance by Cesar Romero as Diego’s scheming uncle, Estavan. Sadly, the series came to an abrupt end after the second season due to an ownership dispute between Disney and the ABC network (which also extended to the Mickey Mouse Club). During that time, four hour-long episodes were produced (all of which are included in the new sets) Williams was paid full salary during the 2 years or legal rumblings that followed, but even after a courtroom victory, Walt decided that the Zorro fad had peaked, and did not bring the series back for a third season.

Each of Disney’s new Zorro sets feature an entire season spread across 6 discs, all kept in amazingly good order within a standard-size case (something Sony can’t seem to figure out how to do without resorting to disc stacking). The image is amazingly rich for a half-century old show, with the original black and white episodes looking wonderful – much better than most other shows of this era that we’ve seen recently and easily on par with Image’s Twilight Zone sets. Disney’s historical shows of the period were generally quite sumptuously produced, with lavish attention paid to period detail and production authenticity (see 1963’s Dr. Syn for our own favorite example). The first season set leads off with Leonard Maltin’s typically good-natured intro, and also features the exhaustive The Life and Legend of Zorro, a well-produced documentary on the production of the show, along with a Zorro-related clip from The Mickey Mouse Show (the second season set features the Behind the Mask documentary). In a striking – and pleasing – packaging change from previous Walt Disney Treasures collections, the outer boxes are black-lacquer in color, but feature the usual artwork and photo reproductions along with the ubiquitous Disney ‘certificate of authenticity’. And even though they never fit comfortably back into the outer tin once opened, we enjoyed the collector’s pins enclosed in each and will be wearing the crossed swords emblem fare more often than we should.

It’s impossible to say what children today might think of the Disney variant of Zorro, but we hope that the appeal of these wonderful sets isn’t limited to the adult collector. It would be interesting to get these shows into the hands of kids who haven’t yet developed an aversion to black and white programming, as it’s far more engaging than most current kids fare (including much of Disney’s own output) and, frankly, at least as smart as a good chunk of our present prime time programming.