Old Movies and Old Television: “Zorro”

Over the past couple of weeks, my beau and I have been watching Zorro. There are many different media versions of Don Diego de la Vega, a Spanish nobleman who takes who takes care of business in Old California during the Spanish Colonial Era as his alter ego, Zorro, most particularly in the pueblo of Reine de los Angeles (modern day Los Angeles).

Zorro began with the original, pulp fiction stories written by Johnston McCulley, a native of Ottawa, Illinois, and published as a serial in 1919.

He debuted Zorro in a five-part series, The Curse of Capistrano. It became a hit. So much so, that the hugely popular silent movie actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford decided during their honeymoon that this story would be the first movie for their new studio, United Artists. (Note: Charlie Chaplin was the other founding member of United Artists.) In 1920, The Mask of Zorro debuted as the first-ever cinematic version of the black-masked outlaw. Fairbanks gave us the visual style that which most of us identify: A masked man, dressed in black, wearing a flowing Spanish cape, carrying a rapier and bull whip, and riding Diablo, his black horse.

The movie was a hit, and this prompted McCulley to write more stories over approximately the next 30 years or so. His characterization of de la Vega/Zorro fluctuated wildly. For example, in one story, Zorro revealed his identity, yet in the following one, his identity remains secret.

After United Artists’ The Mask of Zorro came Don Q., Son of Zorro in 1925 with Fairbanks again as the star. Eleven years later, in 1936, the first talking Zorro movie, The Bold Caballero was released by Republic Pictures with Robert Livingston as de la Vega/Zorro. This movie was different again, since Alejandro de la Vega (ol’ Dad) and Bernardo (faithful sidekick) were not included. However, the actor Chief Thundercloud played the sidekick.

1939 brought the Zorro serials to theaters via Republic Pictures. Zorro’s Fighting Legions was a 12-part serial, with Reed Haley as the brave outlaw/milquetoast nobleman. There were other serials, but Hadley was the only one to consistently play Zorro.

The Curse of Capistrano returned as a talkie in 1940, but just like in 1920, the title was converted to The Mask of Zorro. Tyrone Power starred as de la Vega/Zorro, Basil Rathbone as the villain, and Linda Darnell as the love interest.

It wasn’t until October 10, 1957, that the Walt Disney Studios version with Guy Williams in the lead role debuted on television. In past versions, Bernardo was a deaf-mute, but in this version, he was only mute, pretending to be deaf in order to spy for de la Vega/Zorro. Additionally, the actor who portrayed Bernardo, Gene Sheldon, was a master pantomimist who studied the silent film era’s Harry Langdon, who himself was masterful at pantomiming in films and in vaudeville. Henry Calvin, who played Sergeant Garcia, was the lead vocal in the program’s opening theme song.

There were radio versions, made-for-television movies, a parody starring George Hamilton (Zorro, the Gay Blade), and other movies on the silver screen.

Zorro is international. There are films that were made in Mexico, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, et cetera. Zorro even made it to the stage, with a stage production and musical. Zorro is collectable. Lunch boxes, trading cards, coloring books, toy hats, swords, computer games, and other paraphernalia were produced for popular consumption.
Creators of other popular crime-fighting characters admit to being inspired by McCulley’s Zorro. Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, even wrote that Bruce Wayne/Batman’s parents took him to see The Mask of Zorro after which they were murdered, which led to Wayne becoming Batman. The Lone Ranger, too, has obvious links to being inspired by Zorro. In the film, The Artist, the character George Valentin plays a version of Zorro.

Zorro, even in his many incarnations, has proved to be a great success. One could apply one’s life to the general approaches and principles of Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro:

Let no one stand in your way of positive success. Work hard and work smartly. Do good. Fight wrongs. One doesn’t have to brag about successes. Anonymity can be its own reward, because the results will show anyway.


©Susan Marie Molloy and all works within.

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