Walt Disney was a genius.
That’s always important to remember, and easy to forget on any conscious level. At this point, “Walt Disney” is a corporation, a corner of pop culture that is ubiquitous. But before that, before the parks, before his name became a brand, Walt Disney was a genius. And for someone who grew up after the real heyday of Walt as an onscreen figure, there are things I simply never knew.
One of the greatest things about the Walt Disney Treasures series is that they offer up collections of what I would call the ephemera of Walt’s career, things that don’t necessarily have the same sort of awareness now that they once did, but that were key steps along the way. Like many of the things that Walt Disney was associated with, “Zorro” was not created by him, but when Disney got around to telling his version, he did it in a way that staked a certain ownership on the character for an entire generation. The “Zorro” series that premiered in 1957 was hugely influential to young audiences at the time, and I know a whoooole lotta film geeks who were kids then who have fond memories of that show. They know the theme song. To them, Guy Williams was the gold standard that they’ll compare any other Zorro to, forever. For an older generation, Douglas Fairbanks was Zorro. To the generation between, it’s Tyrone Powers. My sons are just the right age for the adventures of Zorro, and when trying to decide where to start them, I decided that Disney was the right way in.
Each season of the show comes in a separate oversize tin case. “Zorro: The Complete First Season, 1957 – 1958” is a hefty six-disc collection, featuring all 39 episodes of the first season of the show as well as two one-hour episodes of the show produced after the second season ended, both of which aired originally on “Walt Disney Presents.” They’re all remastered, and they are as impressive as any black and white film from the ’50s, crisp and clean and genuinely sort of amazing, especially for the time. Disney spent a ton of money on this film, and as a weekly production, it looks better than a lot of modern shows. Matte paintings, major stunt sequences, tons of extras, expert swordfighting… the show has it all, week after week.
When Disney was preparing to launch the show, he did what he did better than anyone: he hyped it up. The way he used his TV show to feed his films which fed the park which fed the TV show… he invented that. He was the guy who predicted the future of entertainment on that sort of scale, and all you have to do is look around to realize that we have inherited the pop culture landscape that he helped define. He made an appearance on the fourth anniversary show of “Walt Disney Presents,” which was a major hit, an anthology show that allowed him to try a bunch of different ideas and formats. That special preview segment is included on the last DVD in the set, and it’s impressive. I was curious before I tried showing Toshi and Allen any “Zorro” if they’d be interested at all, and after seeing what Disney did on that show, I decided to try an experiment.
I told Toshi I was going to watch something, and if he was interested, he could join me. And so did Allen. I know I’ve barely mentioned Allen in this column so far. He’s about to turn two, and until very recently, he was totally uninterested in any of the televisions in the house, much less anything showing on those televisions. He’s absolutely captivated by his big brother, though, so in the last few months, he’s made the decision that if Toshi is doing something, then he’s doing it, too. His nickname these days is “The Shadow.” So when I asked Toshi to come into the office, Allen came with him. When Toshi took a seat, Allen insisted on taking the same seat, right there next to him.
“Okay, guys, this is pretty short. Tell me if this is interesting to you at all.”
The segment features Walt Disney talking to the Mouseketeers as part of the anniversary celebration. “Who’s that, Daddy?” Toshi asked, so I paused on a still image of him.
“That’s Walt Disney.”
“That’s the real Walt Disney.”
“Walt Disney was a person?!”
It was a full ten minute conversation about that mind-blowing point before we were able to get back to the preview piece. The Mouseketeers ask Walt about what’s going to be coming up on the show in the future, and he lists a number of specials, and the whole time, one of the kids keeps asking “What about Zorro?” And Walt just keeps ignoring him.
Finally Walt fesses up: Zorro will not be appearing on “Walt Disney Presents.” They’re all disappointed, and Walt just basks in it for a moment before the punchline. “That’s because ‘Zorro’ is going to be our very first stand-alone series.” He talks about who Zorro is, a fighter for freedom and justice in the early days of Spanish California.
One of the kids asks Walt if Zorro was real, a question that I find is important to Toshi on every single thing that he watches. “Daddy, is Godzilla real?” “Daddy, is Bambi real?” “Daddy, is Earth versus the Flying Saucers real?” Walt tells the kids that Zorro was not real, and before he can continue, a voice from off-screen breaks in with a difference of opinion.
Yep. Zorro breaks the fourth wall and leaps into the studio to offer up his point of view on whether or not he’s real, and as he’s talking, a Spanish soldier tries to sneak up behind him. Zorro swordfights the guy, and after he disarms him, he bids Disney farewell and rides away on Toronado, his horse.
And when that was over, Toshi jumped out of his chair and said, “Daddy, play it again!” And Allen jumped out of the same chair and said, “Babagaaaafa thppppt!” And after I did play it again, Toshi proclaimed, “Daddy, I have an idea. We should watch ‘Zorro’! Right now!”
Like I said… Walt Disney was a genius.
Over the next few weeks, Toshi and Allen and I would get together and watch two or three episodes at a time, chipping away at the series. And every time, it was a delight, a pure pleasure, told in broad strokes by directors like Norman Foster, William Witney, Charles Lamont, and Robert Stevenson. And both of the boys fell immediately in love with Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams) and his mute manservant Bernardo (Gene Sheldon), with swordfighting become the game of games in the house. The two of them rampage over furniture, up and down the halls, up onto tables, swordfighting and singing the theme song to the show, which we all now know by heart:
“Out of the niiiiiiiiiiight, when the full moon is bright/Comes the horseman known as Zorro/The bold renegade carves a ‘Z’ with his blade/A ‘Z’ that stands for Zorro.”
And as we were wrapping up that first season, another disc showed up in the mail, this one a BluRay for the 1998 Martin Campbell film “The Mask Of Zorro,” and as soon as Toshi opened the envelope and saw that giant slashed “Z” on the cover, it was pretty much a done deal that we’d be watching that one, too. What impresses me is that kids don’t seem to get hung up on one particular interpretation of something. Toshi’s got room in his heart for both the original ’60s TV version of “Star Trek” (which we watch often on BluRay together) and the new JJ Abrams film. And in this case, the same is true. He loves the old black-and-white episodes, and all the derring-do of that particular version, but as soon as he saw the Nick Gillard-staged swordfights in “The Mask Of Zorro,” he fell for that version as well. Given a choice, I think he prefers Don Diego de la Vega and Guy Williams to Antonio Banderas as Alejandro Murrieta, but Campbell’s film plays well with the icons of the Disney show and the Fairbanks films, and fans of the earlier versions must have recognized a lot of the touchstones that were applied in Campbell’s film. Banderas walks the fine line between cool and goofy, and the overall tone of Campbell’s film is comic adventure, a wise choice. Guy Williams, though, is pure awesome, cool and smooth and charming.
I love that Zorro is a Latino hero, because my kids are bi-cultural, and anything that gives them a role model who ties back in to their own heritage in any way is a good thing. There’s a lot of Spanish in the original Disney show, and a strong sense of what role both Spaniards and Mexicans played in the development of California. Since the character was created in 1919, he’s been reinterpreted many times, but he’s always a Robin Hood figure, defending those who have no power against the cruel ruling class, and kids respond to the simple polar morality of Zorro the same way they do to the good guys/bad guys dynamic of most pulp. Zorro cuts an impressive figure all in black, with his mask and cape and with the way the people love him. Even without being told, Toshi connected Zorro to Batman, although the connection he likes is the two of them teaming up for adventures in our backyard, with his little brother getting to play Batman more often than not.
So this particular chapter of Film Nerd 2.0 seems to have been an important one for both boys. It brought them closer together, it gave them a nightly goal, and it has become a key part of their fantasy life as they play together. A show over 50 years old still retains every bit of power it ever had, and once again, I’m amazed at how quickly something they’d never heard of until this year has become an essential thing to them. I look forward to Allen joining Toshi for more installments of this column in the future.
Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.
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