Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sign Of Zorro

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sign Of Zorro

As I mentioned when I started this project, the purpose of this column is to examine all of the Disney studio’s theatrical output in order of its American release. This means that TV productions like The Horsemasters and Hans Brinker that screened theatrically overseas won’t be appearing here. The Sign Of Zorro, a compilation of TV episodes originally broadcast back in 1957, first premiered overseas in late 1958. By the time it hit American theatres in June of 1960, Zorro was essentially over.

Zorro first appeared in the 1919 novel The Curse Of Capistrano by prolific pulp writer Johnston McCulley. A year later, the character made his movie debut with Douglas Fairbanks starring in The Mark Of Zorro. Both the book and the film were incredibly popular, leading McCulley to write dozens more Zorro stories, more movies (notably the 1940 version starring Tyrone Power), serials, comics and assorted rip-offs. Somewhere along the way, a little kid named Bruce Wayne saw a version of it just moments before his parents were senselessly murdered in front of him. But that’s another story.

Walt acquired the TV rights to Zorro in 1952, hoping to attract a network that would help finance the construction of Disneyland. Nobody was willing to give Zorro a greenlight without a pilot, a prospect Walt found somewhat insulting given his track record. However, Walt did reach a deal with ABC to produce the anthology series Walt Disney’s Disneyland, which premiered in 1954. After Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club both proved popular, ABC agreed to take a chance on Zorro.

To play the title character, Walt cast Guy Williams, a former fashion model who had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years, appearing mostly in smaller supporting parts. Williams was presumably cast solely on the basis of his good looks and the fact that he knew how to wield a sword. Certainly there was nothing in his professional background to suggest that he could anchor a series, much less pull off a dual role.

As it turned out, Walt’s instincts were correct. Guy Williams is a terrific, swashbuckling Zorro. He looks like he’s genuinely having fun, which is something of a prerequisite for this character. You can understand why kids everywhere tried emulating his Zorro, resulting in a schoolyard epidemic of slashed and graffitied Z’s.

Pantomime artist Gene Sheldon won the role of Zorro’s devoted, mute manservant, Bernardo. Broadway actor Henry Calvin was cast as the bumbling Sergeant Garcia. Both actors would appear in the Kevin Corcoran circus vehicle Toby Tyler, a movie we’ve already covered in this column but was filmed after Zorro had completed its second season. Sheldon and Calvin will be teamed up again soon.

The impulse behind The Sign Of Zorro was the same one that led to the two Davy Crockett features. Overseas audiences didn’t have access to Disney’s TV productions unless they were given a theatrical release. Once international audiences proved that the TV stuff played just as well on the big screen, why not release them in the States?

But there’s an important difference between Davy Crockett and Zorro. The Crockett programs were both miniseries. Each one of the films simply assembled all three episodes of its respective series. But Zorro was an ongoing, weekly series with story arcs that tended to run for about 13 weeks. The Sign Of Zorro was compiled from the first arc, following Don Diego de la Vega’s arrival in Los Angeles, the creation of the Zorro persona, and his defeat of greedy tyrant Captain Monastario (Britt Lomond, previously seen as General Custer in Tonka). That’s a whole lot of story to whittle down from 8 half-hour episodes to a brisk 90 minutes.

Given those limitations, it’s a little surprising that The Sign Of Zorro is as coherent and enjoyable as it is. I haven’t seen the TV series, so I’m not entirely sure what material was left on the cutting room floor. That’s a good thing. If at any moment the audience starts to suspect they’re missing something, the project would have to be considered a failure.

I suspect the TV version makes more use of George J. Lewis as Zorro’s father, Don Alejandro de la Vega. Lewis was a veteran character actor who had earlier starred in the Zorro-In-Name-Only serial Zorro’s Black Whip. He’s mostly stuck on the sidelines in the feature version but he stayed with the series to the end.

More than anything, The Sign Of Zorro reminds me of a greatest-hits album. You get a little taste of everything that made the TV show fun. There’s the catchy theme song by Norman Foster and George Bruns, performed by the Mellomen. (The Chordettes, the girl group best known for “Lollipop” and “Mr. Sandman”, got as high as #17 on the pop chart with their version in 1958.) You get a little flavor of the comedic touch Sheldon and Calvin brought to their roles. Williams and Lomond are well-matched and get in some exciting swordplay. It’s all just enough to leave you wanting to see more Zorro adventures.

Original theatrical release poster for Zorro The Avenger

Overseas, they got more. Zorro The Avenger, released in 1959, pits Zorro against “The Eagle” (Charles Korvin) in another first-season storyline. But in the US, Zorro hit a major stumbling block. After the second season, ABC got into a dispute with Disney over ownership of Zorro. While that worked its way through the courts, Walt stopped production on the series, despite the fact that the ratings were as high as ever.

Assuming everything would be ironed out eventually, the entire cast was kept on contract. Guy Williams was kept busy doing personal appearances, often in character as Zorro. Sheldon and Calvin went off to film Toby Tyler. To keep the character in the public eye, Disney released The Sign Of Zorro domestically and produced four hour-long specials that began airing in October of 1960. But, like Davy Crockett before him, Zorro’s time in the spotlight was intense but short-lived. The series petered out but the studio retained the rights to the character for awhile, not letting them go until 1967.

Guy Williams was kept under contract for a short time, appearing in the 1962 Wonderful World Of Color adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper (another overseas theatrical release). After leaving Disney, he became the patriarch of the Robinson family on Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space. That would end up being his final role before retiring to Argentina, where his performance as Zorro was revered.

Weirdly enough, that was not quite the end of the story for Disney and Zorro. The character never entirely went out of style and the early 1980s brought a mini-resurgence of interest. George Hamilton starred in the parody Zorro, The Gay Blade and Filmation produced an animated series where Zorro shared top billing with Tarzan and The Lone Ranger. Disney wasn’t about to miss out on this action, so in 1983, the comedy Zorro And Son premiered on CBS.

Print ad for Zorro And Son (1983)

Zorro And Son was intended to be a direct continuation of the original series. But half-hour dramas were out of style by 1983, so CBS made Disney switch to a sitcom format. It was even rumored that Guy Williams would be coming out of retirement to reprise his role but left the project when he got a look at the scripts. Instead, Henry Darrow, who provided the voice of Zorro for the Filmation show, starred as Zorro Sr. and Paul Regina played Zorro Jr. The show utilized some of the same sets and recycled the classic theme song. Former Disney imp Kevin Corcoran, who moved behind the camera after his years as a child star, even served as producer. The series was not well-loved and was mercy killed after just five episodes. You can find episodes on YouTube if you’re morbidly curious but I don’t recommend it.

Despite this, Disney’s Zorro remains popular to this day. Repeats, both colorized and in their original black-and-white, would soon become staples on the Disney Channel. In 2009, the studio would release complete season sets as part of their Walt Disney Treasures line of limited edition DVDs. Those collections are now some of the most highly prized discs in the Disney library, selling for megabucks online.

Even if Disney is no longer in the Zorro business, the character is very much alive. He has continued to appear in books, comics, plays, TV shows and, of course, a pair of movies starring Antonio Banderas. Robert Rodriguez, who was originally attached to direct the first Banderas Zorro, is currently developing a female-led Zorro TV project. Given the character’s enduring popularity, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another Disney Zorro someday. And as long as it somehow incorporates that killer theme song, I bet it’ll be a big hit.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Third Man On The Mountain

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Third Man On The Mountain

It’s a little bit hard to imagine that Walt Disney was ever an avid mountain climber. Apart from a brief phase as a polo player that came to an end after he injured his back in 1938, Walt wasn’t much of an outdoorsman. But even if he wasn’t a climber himself, he had a lot of respect for people who were. More importantly, he absolutely loved Switzerland. He and his family had taken several holidays in the Alps. In 1955, he produced Switzerland, an entry in the People And Places series of documentary shorts, sort of a travelogue cousin to the True-Life Adventures. It was nominated for an Oscar but Walt felt he still hadn’t quite tapped the country’s cinematic potential. Or perhaps he just wanted an excuse to take more working vacations in Switzerland. In any event, the country and its landscape are the real stars of the 1959 feature Third Man On The Mountain.

Producer Bill Anderson found James Ramsey Ullman’s book Banner In The Sky, based on the story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Anderson brought the book to Walt, who probably gave the project a greenlight as soon as he heard the word “Matterhorn”. Eleanore Griffin was hired to write the screenplay. This was her first and only assignment for Disney but she had been a veteran screenwriter since the 1920s, winning an Oscar for the 1938 Spencer Tracy drama Boys Town.

Director Ken Annakin, who had previously helmed the UK productions The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men and The Sword In The Rose, was brought back into the Disney fold. The two young leads were Disney contract players. James MacArthur, last seen pretending to be an Indian in The Light In The Forest, played novice mountaineer Rudi Matt. His love interest was Janet Munro, fresh off the set of Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

David Niven was to play gentleman climber Captain John Winter but ended up being replaced by Michael Rennie, the star of The Day The Earth Stood Still and the 1952 version of Les Miserables. This would be Rennie’s only appearance in a Disney film, while Niven had merely postponed his Date with Disney Destiny. He’ll eventually show up in this column.

Walt assembled a first-rate cast and crew for Third Man On The Mountain but the location itself was always the number one priority. Unlike Darby O’Gill, which had substituted sunny California for its Ireland setting, Third Man would be shot on location in the shadow of the Matterhorn itself. More than that, Annakin wanted the climbing sequences to look as authentic as possible. Both the cast and the crew were given an intensive two-week training course, after which Alpine guides decided if the stars were capable of doing the stunt work themselves.

The physical shoot took its toll on the cast and crew, though no one seems to have been hurt too seriously. Both MacArthur and Munro ended up doing a lot of their own stunts, although Munro’s actual climbing time was a lot more limited. She ends up dangling at the end of a rope, hoisted up the mountain like “a bundle of firewood”. Needless to say, sisters weren’t exactly doing it for themselves in little Swiss villages in 1865 or most Hollywood movies in 1959, for that matter.

The stunt work is fairly impressive, especially for its time. Annakin does a terrific job staging these sequences, making it difficult at times to tell the difference between actual location footage and special effects. No movie is seamless, of course, but in general, it’s pretty convincing. You definitely get the sense that this was not an easy movie to shoot. Walt wanted to make sure that 1959 audiences knew exactly how difficult the shoot had been. He promoted the movie with a behind-the-scenes episode of Walt Disney Presents called Perilous Assignment.

The story is pretty much exactly what you might expect, even if you know absolutely nothing about this film other than it’s a Disney movie about mountaineering. MacArthur’s Rudi Matt works for his uncle (James Donald) as a dishwasher but dreams of being an Alpine guide like his late father. He sneaks out regularly to climb the foothills around the Citadel (the fictional name given to the Matterhorn), the mountain that cost his father his life.

On one of these trips, he rescues Captain Winter (Rennie). Winter knew Rudi’s father and intends to be the first man to conquer the Citadel. Against his uncle’s wishes, Rudi goes along as an apprentice but his recklessness almost causes an accident. Winter goes off to hire a more experienced guide (the great Herbert Lom as the sinister Emil Saxo) while Rudi trains and learns about teamwork. Lessons are learned, the mountain is conquered and dreams are fulfilled.

Dramatically, Third Man On The Mountain is pretty inert. But nobody’s watching this for the gripping plot. You watch it for the scenery and the mountain-climbing and on those points, Annakin delivers. Cinematographer Harry Waxman (who would later shoot such disparate films as Wonderwall and The Wicker Man) captures every inch of the breathtaking Swiss landscape. It’s easy to see why Walt fell in love with the place.

It’s also easy to understand why people decided to just drop by the set for a visit. One such visitor was MacArthur’s mom, the legendary Helen Hayes. She thought the movie looked like fun, so Walt and Ken Annakin gave cameos to her and MacArthur’s then-wife, Joyce Bulifant. They can be spotted as a couple of American tourists leaving the hotel. Both Hayes and Bulifant will be back in this column in considerably more substantial roles. James Ramsey Ullman, the author of the original book, also popped by to see how things were going and ended up in front of the camera.

Apart from the scenery and the stunts, Third Man From The Mountain isn’t bad so much as it is bland. MacArthur is better here than he was in The Light In The Forest but he’s just not in the upper echelon of charismatic Disney stars. Munro is pretty and energetic but she doesn’t have much spark with MacArthur. That’s not a knock on him. Munro’s previous costar was Sean Connery, after all. Almost anybody would pale in comparison.

Third Man On The Mountain was released in November 1959 and most critics found good things to say about it. But it was a failure at the box office, another disappointment in a year where only The Shaggy Dog had been a hit for the studio. Today, it’s considered one of Disney’s most obscure live-action features. They’ve never released it on Blu-ray and it isn’t currently available on Disney+, although you can rent or buy a decent-looking digital version in HD.

And yet, Third Man On The Mountain has had more of a lasting cultural impact than some better-known Disney films, thanks to a consistently popular ride at Disneyland. The Matterhorn Bobsleds opened at the park in June, just a few months prior to the film. Walt had been struggling with a concept for a toboggan ride for a couple of years. While on location for Third Man On The Mountain, Walt grabbed a postcard of the Matterhorn and sent it to Imagineer Vic Greene with a simple message: “Vic. Build this. Walt.”

The Matterhorn Bobsleds ride at Disneyland, inspired by Third Man On The Mountain

Greene did exactly that, modeling his roller coaster on the Matterhorn itself. Over the years, the ride has been updated in ways that make its connection to Third Man On The Mountain more tenuous. The Abominable Snowman, for example, does not make an appearance in the film. But it has remained popular for decades, the Matterhorn becoming almost as visually associated with the park as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Considering its connection to the ride, I’m surprised that Disney has ignored Third Man On The Mountain for so long. It’s no masterpiece but it’s a well-made little adventure movie that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. Walt himself was happy with the way it came out, so you’d think that should count for something. It deserves better than to languish in obscurity.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Darby O’Gill And The Little People

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill And The Little People

As a rule, Walt Disney did not spend nearly as much time developing his live-action features as he did his animations. He’d settle on a subject, assign it to a writer, assemble a cast, shoot the thing and get it out to theatres in a relatively short period of time. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea posed some technical challenges that lengthened the production period but Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer still put the script together quickly. The project that evolved into Darby O’Gill And The Little People was an exception, with over a decade elapsing between Walt’s original concept and its eventual release in June 1959.

Walt made his first trip to Ireland in 1947. While there, he got in touch with his family’s Irish roots (tenuous and distant as they may have been) and decided he wanted to make a movie about leprechauns. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s UK productions of the early 50s, produced a script called Three Wishes which would have combined live-action and animation. By 1956, it had turned into The Three Wishes Of Darby O’Gill, based on the stories by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh. Walt and Watkin returned to Ireland, soaking up the atmosphere and researching Irish folklore. By early 1958, casting was underway on the newly retitled Darby O’Gill And The Little People.

Originally, Walt wanted Barry Fitzgerald, the Oscar-winning Irish star of Going My Way, to play both Darby O’Gill and Brian, King of the Leprechauns. But Fitzgerald felt he was getting too old to take on such a challenging workload and passed. In his place, Walt cast Albert Sharpe as Darby. He’d seen Sharpe perform in the Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow and kept him in mind as a backup in case Fitzgerald turned him down. But Sharpe had essentially retired by the time Walt got around to making the movie and had to be talked into doing the role. He’d appear in one more film, the 1960 caper movie The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, before retiring for good.

For King Brian, Walt abandoned the dual-role gimmick and cast Jimmy O’Dea, a popular star of Irish stage and radio. O’Dea was most famous for his character Mrs. Biddy Mulligan, a working-class street vendor, who he performed on stage and a series of records. After Darby O’Gill, O’Dea had the opportunity to immortalize the Biddy Mulligan character on camera for his sketch comedy TV special, The Life And Times Of Jimmy O’Dea, before his death in 1965.

Amusingly, Walt tried to sell audiences on the idea that he had cast actual leprechauns in the film. The movie opens with a personal note that reads, “My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible.” He’d take the gag a step further with I Captured The King Of The Leprechauns, an episode of Walt Disney Presents promoting the movie. In the episode, Walt travels to Ireland to personally meet with O’Dea (as King Brian) and persuade him to appear in the picture. If nothing else, you’ve got to give Walt credit for finding fun and novel ways to sell his empire.

Although the film would be shot in southern California, casting took place in London. It was there that Walt spotted Janet Munro, an ingenue in her early 20s. Munro had appeared in a couple of films, including the B-horror movie The Trollenberg Terror (better known in the States as The Crawling Eye), but had mostly worked in television. Walt saw her on an episode of ITV Television Playhouse and called her in for a screen-test. Munro has a wide, infectious smile and a no-nonsense attitude that makes her perfect for the role of Darby’s daughter, Katie O’Gill. Walt liked her so much that he made her part of the Disney Repertory Players, signing her to a five-year contract. She’ll be back in this column.

Walt did not offer a contract to Munro’s leading man, a tall Scotsman named Sean Connery. Connery had been trying to break into the movies for a few years, landing mostly bit parts in forgettable thrillers like No Road Back and Action Of The Tiger. His biggest role to date had been in the 1958 melodrama Another Time, Another Place opposite Lana Turner. That movie made him the target of Turner’s jealous gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, but didn’t do much for his career. When the Darby O’Gill offer came along, Connery was in no position to pass it up, even though it required him to sing, which he was not excited about, and attempt to transform his Scottish accent into an Irish brogue.

There are rumors that Connery’s and Munro’s singing voices were dubbed by others. That’s certainly possible. That practice was commonplace back in the 50s and 60s. But Connery also sings a little bit in Dr. No and his voice sounds identical in that movie as it does here, so I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. His Irish brogue, however, is less convincing. The next time he played an Irishman, in his Oscar-winning role in The Untouchables, he wisely didn’t even bother trying.

Connery was not the breakout star of Darby O’Gill. That honor went to Janet Munro, who won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer. Connery was described as “merely tall, dark and handsome” by The New York Times and the film’s “weakest link” by Variety. But his performance did catch the eye of producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, who had recently acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Broccoli liked Connery and brought his wife, Dana, to another screening of Darby O’Gill to get her opinion. Dana wholeheartedly believed that Connery had the right stuff to be Bond and the rest is history. So even though Connery didn’t land a Disney contract, things seemed to work out all right for him.

Rerelease poster for Darby O'Gill And The Little People

The director was Robert Stevenson, making the third of his many Disney features following Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller. Darby O’Gill required a lighter touch than had his previous films for the studio and Stevenson acquits himself well. The pub sequences with Darby regaling the townsfolk with tales of his adventures with King Brian are full of character and warmth. Stevenson doesn’t bother with a lot of traditional exposition. Rather, we’re allowed to fill in the blanks and get to know the characters and their relationships to one another in our own time.

This was also the most technically challenging film Stevenson had attempted to date. Convincingly bringing the leprechauns to life required a combination of practical effects and visual trickery courtesy of the great Peter Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw and cinematographer Winton Hoch employed forced perspective to create the illusion that Darby was interacting with the 22-inch-tall King Brian. Disney’s Imagineers had been using similar tricks with forced perspective throughout Disneyland. It’s the technique that makes Sleeping Beauty’s Castle appear to be a whole lot bigger than it really is.

The Disney studio only had one soundstage big enough to accommodate the oversized sets and enormous lights the work required. But Stage 2 was in constant use by the TV division, so Disney constructed a massive new soundstage, Stage 4. (Stage 3 and its water tank had been built a few years earlier for 20,000 Leagues.) In 1988, it would be divided in two, Stage 4 and Stage 5, where it would become the home of various TV shows like Home Improvement.

All the new construction and work paid off. The illusion of the leprechauns is completely convincing to this day. Even when you know how it was done, there are shots of Darby sharing the screen with the leprechauns that have you blinking your eyes in disbelief. That’s the difference between special effects and optical illusions. You can dissect a special effects shot and see how it was built. Optical illusions are seamless no matter how many times you’ve seen them.

The leprechauns aren’t the only characters from Irish folklore brought to life by special effects. Darby’s horse transforms into a púca. Later on, the banshee appears and summons the death coach to claim Katie. These optical effects haven’t aged as well but they work beautifully within the context of the film. When I was a kid, the banshee scared the bejeezus out of me. Needless to say, I absolutely loved the banshee.

Stevenson allows the story to unfold at the leisurely, rambling pace of a good yarn spun in a warm and inviting Irish pub. The heart of the story is the relationship between Darby and King Brian. It’s an equally matched battle of wits. They’re both clever, a little conniving and fond of a nip from the jug now and again. In a lot of ways, it’s Disney’s first buddy comedy.

The love story between Munro and Connery isn’t quite as convincing. Munro does her part, lighting up the screen with her smile and gradually warming to the young man in line to take her father’s job as caretaker. But Connery doesn’t seem all that interested in her. He does a great job early on as he wonders what exactly he’s gotten himself into by accepting this gig. But his attraction to Munro happens in an instant, like a switch has been pulled.

The supporting characters are a lot of fun, especially Estelle Winwood as the Widow Sugrue and Kieron Moore as her son, Pony. The widow aims to install Pony in Darby’s old job and as Katie’s husband. Winwood’s great juggling her two-faced nature. One moment she’s too sweet and too helpful. The next, she’s hustling into town to give Pony his marching orders. This would be Winwood’s only Disney film in a long career that reached back to the 1930s. She’d later have memorable appearances in The Producers and Murder By Death before her death in 1984 at the age of 101.

The bullying, somewhat dense Pony always does exactly what his sainted mother tells him to do, even though he doesn’t fully believe that things are going to work out the way she thinks. Moore is kind of like a flesh-and-blood version of Gaston in Beauty And The Beast. He’d go on to appear in such films as The Day Of The Triffids and Son Of A Gunfighter before becoming a documentarian and social rights activist in the early 1970s.

Darby O’Gill And The Little People did reasonably when it came out but it wasn’t a huge hit. Compared to the millions raked in by the low-budget The Shaggy Dog, the lavish Darby O’Gill was considered a disappointment. But in the years since, it has become something of a cult movie. Its ingenious special effects and the winning performances of Sharpe, O’Dea, Munro, Moore and the early star-making turn by the legendary Sean Connery have all kept it alive in the memories of its fans. It’s just a little bit darker and a little bit more grown-up than some of Disney’s other live-action productions but not so much that people don’t feel comfortable sharing it with their kids.

So far, Disney has resisted the urge to produce a sequel or a remake of Darby O’Gill. Good. This is by no means a perfect movie but it is a perfectly charming one. Replicating the unique magic that makes it special would require a very careful hand. Disney’s current filmmaking-by-committee approach to most of its reboots does not suggest they’d be capable of such a task. Better to leave Darby O’Gill And The Little People in Walt’s imagined SoCal Ireland.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Dedicated to Sir Sean Connery

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