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: Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Toby Tyler

It was the dawn of a new decade but you wouldn’t know it from a stroll around the Disney lot. Granted, the aesthetic of the 1950s would remain firmly entrenched around most of the country for at least the first few years of the 60s. But as we’ll see in the weeks ahead, it would linger around the conservative, family-friendly Disney studio even longer. But Walt wasn’t just trying to stop time. He was trying to turn it back. Once again, he was trying to recapture his boyhood in Marceline and another of his youthful obsessions: the circus.

Toby Tyler was originally a serial by prolific kid-lit author James Otis that ran in the pages of Harper’s Young People in 1877. It was collected as a book in 1881 and followed by a pair of sequels. Otis’s book falls squarely in the tradition of mischievous youth novels like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn and Peck’s Bad Boy. It was a childhood favorite of several future literary giants, including William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison and Carl Sandburg.

The book had been filmed once before as the 1923 Jackie Coogan vehicle Circus Days. (Good luck tracking that one down. The film had been considered lost until recently and it still hasn’t been made available to the general public.) Whether Walt had read the book or seen the movie or both, it’s hardly surprising that it ended up on his radar. The 1880s setting and depiction of small-town Americana puts it right in his wheelhouse.

Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward, who had previously collaborated on The Shaggy Dog, Disney’s biggest hit of 1959, reunited to adapt the book. They lightened the tone considerably, softening Toby’s character and making him more sympathetic. They also got rid of the book’s bleak ending in favor of something a lot happier. To direct, producer Walsh brought back another Shaggy Dog alum, Charles Barton.

As usual, casting was a relatively simple matter of assigning roles to the usual batch of contract players. For Kevin Corcoran, this was finally a chance at the spotlight after being teamed up with Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. In those previous outings, Corcoran wasn’t required to do much other than act precocious. But he’s in almost every scene as Toby and he’s surprisingly up to the challenge. He even gets to do some impressive trick horse riding. Sure, you can see the safety wire but so what? When I was his age, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do those stunts, even with a wire.

Walt also cast a pair of actors from the Zorro TV series that were sitting idle while a contract dispute between Disney and ABC played out. Henry Calvin, Zorro’s bumbling Sergeant Garcia, appeared as circus strongman and Toby’s reluctant protector Ben Cotter. Mime Gene Sheldon, who played Zorro’s mute companion Bernardo, had a rare speaking role as clown Sam Treat. Since this column is following the American theatrical release order, we haven’t quite made it up to Zorro but we will very soon. Here, both Calvin and Sheldon have an easy, natural rapport with Corcoran, imbuing their characters with real humanity that goes beyond mere caricature.

The cast included another longtime Disney employee. Composer Oliver Wallace, who had been with the studio since the pre-Snow White days, makes his acting debut as the bandleader. In a nice touch, the then-72-year-old gets the on-screen credit, “and introducing Ollie Wallace”. Oddly enough, Wallace did not do the score for Toby Tyler. That job went to a relatively new hire, Buddy Baker. Baker had been hired by another staff composer, George Bruns, to work on TV projects like Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club. Toby Tyler was his first feature credit but far from his last. Baker would stay with the studio until the early 1980s. He’ll be back in this column and if you’ve ever been to a Disney theme park, you’ve heard plenty of his work.

The movie hits most of the book’s major points, albeit through Disneyfied glasses. Toby is a poor orphan sent to live with his child-hating aunt and uncle (played by veteran character actors Edith Evanson and Tom Fadden) on their hardscrabble dirt farm. In the book, Toby lives in an orphanage and runs off to join the circus to escape the constant abuse. Here, Toby’s relations are far from loving but that isn’t why he leaves. Instead, Toby feels guilty that his indolent ways have made him such a burden, so he joins the circus temporarily with plans to return home once he’s earned enough money.

Toby’s new career path puts him in the employ of shifty concessionaire Harry Tupper (the very funny Bob Sweeney, who will be back in this column). Harry apparently has a reputation around the circus for mistreating his assistants, so Ben warns that he’ll be keeping an eye on him. The specifics of that reputation go unsaid, so you can feel free to read as much or as little into that as you’re comfortable with.

Toby has a little trouble fitting in at first but soon begins making friends like the warm and friendly Sam, gruff but lovable Ben, child equestrian Mademoiselle Jeanette (Barbara Beaird) and mischievous chimpanzee Mr. Stubbs. On one of their parades through town, Ben’s wagon capsizes and Mr. Stubbs gets loose, making his way into local sheriff’s office where he gets his paws on a loaded gun. As Mr. Stubbs fires wildly and the lawmen dive for cover, Toby bravely enters the jail and disarms the chimp. This causes a sensation and the circus owner (Richard Eastham) immediately tries to capitalize on Toby and Mr. Stubbs’ new fame.

Toby’s star continues to rise when Jeanette’s partner, Monsieur Ajax (Dennis Olivieri, then credited as Dennis Joel) hurts himself while trying to show off practicing without a safety line. Toby had told Jeanette about his old horse back on the farm, so she suggests he take Ajax’s place. But Toby failed to mention that he had never actually ridden that horse, so Ben and Sam team up to give him a crash course in trick riding.

Just as he’s about to make his big debut, Mr. Stubbs shows Toby a bunch of letters he’s received from his aunt and uncle. Turns out they’ve been writing him all along and Harry’s been hiding them from him. Uncle Daniel’s doing poorly and they desperately want Toby to come home.

Toby sets out for home, followed by Mr. Stubbs. They’re making their way through the woods when a hunter (James Drury, who we’ll see again in this column and went on to star on the long-running TV western The Virginian) accidentally shoots Mr. Stubbs out of a tree. Things don’t look good for the little guy as Harry shows up and drags Toby back to the circus where Toby’s family is waiting.

Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are overjoyed to see Toby again. They promise things will be better if he comes home. Just when things can’t seem much rosier, Jim the hunter shows up with Mr. Stubbs, who has made a miraculous recovery. Everyone gathers under the big top to watch Toby and Jeanette triumphantly perform their trick riding act, now with a grand finale appearance by Mr. Stubbs! Even Aunt Olive and Uncle Daniel are impressed and it’s unclear at the end of the movie if Toby goes back to his drab homelife or if he stays and becomes a big-time circus star. One would assume the latter but Uncle Daniel seems prone to wild mood swings, so who knows.

It’s been a long time since the days of “everybody loves the circus”. These days we’re more likely to see clowns in horror movies and circuses in news reports about either alleged animal cruelty or businesses you didn’t realize were still a thing. At this point, I’d wager that most people have never even been to a circus, at least not one without the words “du soleil” in its name. That’s too bad because a heaping dose of nostalgia for (or at least interest in) the golden age of the circus is needed to truly enjoy Toby Tyler.

I have a passing interest in circus culture, so I can appreciate both the atmosphere and the genuine circus performers whose acts are immortalized on film. It’s fun to see actual Ringling Brothers clowns, the Flying Viennas trapeze artists and the Marquis Family Chimps (especially Mr. Stubbs, who is awesome). Walt even acquired and restored some authentic period circus wagons, which are now on display at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Like all of Walt’s period pieces, Toby Tyler succeeds at capturing an idealized time that never really existed except in memory.

But if you’re not into circuses and clowns, I don’t think Toby Tyler is going to change your mind. Toby’s ten weeks on the road certainly look more appealing than what he had going on back home but compared to other boy’s adventures, they’re kind of low-key. For some, that’ll be part of the movie’s charm and appeal. Others may be left rolling their eyes.

If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re in luck because you’re not very likely to stumble across it accidentally. It’s not currently streaming on Disney+, presumably because of all the scenes involving chimps and guns. The fact that there actually are multiple scenes that can be described this way should tell you something. So if you want to see it, you’ll have to pick it up on DVD or digitally, where there is a nice HD print.

On the other hand, if this flavor of cotton candy appeals to you, Toby Tyler is worth seeking out. Kevin Corcoran finally demonstrates some of the charm that Walt presumably saw in him from the get-go. The supporting cast is a lot of fun. And you’ve got a chimp shooting up a jail! What more could you ask for?

VERDICT: Disney Plus, if only for Mr. Stubbs.

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