Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Recently, we’ve been watching the old Walt Disney Zorro, first series and very much enjoying it.
By the time Disney’s version appeared, in 1957, Zorro had had—for film—a long history.
It had begun in 1919 with a 5-part serialized novella by Johnston McCulley, “The Curse of Capistrano”.
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., a famous early-20th-century silent movie star, appears to have realized the character’s potential and almost immediately appeared as Don Diego Vega (the “de la” came later) in 1920, in The Mark of Zorro, which, in our opinion, is a film still worth watching, if nothing else for Fairbanks’ own stuntwork.
(The Internet Archive has this—for free–https://archive.org/details/markofzorro-1920 We are big fans of silent film and the IA has lots of them, if you enjoy this one.)
After that initial film, a number of others have appeared, (here’s a LINK to what may be a complete—and rather overwhelming list: https://zorro.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_Zorro_Films ) including our favorites, the 1940 The Mark of Zorro
and the 1998 The Mask of Zorro.
Our boxed set was in black-and-white and, while we were watching, although it was great fun, we kept wondering what it would be like in color. As a project, then, we thought that it might be interesting to do a little image research and come up with models for our own “colorizing”—and, as we did our research, we were rather surprised at what we found.
We began with the very elaborate Disney set of “Los Angeles”, about 1820.
(This is a beautiful Disney model of the downtown.)
This appears to have been mainly constructed of adobe—mud brick, plastered over, and the colors might have looked something like these—
And here is where our first surprise appeared.
In reality, this “Los Angeles” has almost nothing to do with the real Los Angeles of 1820. Here is the original, in the first picture we’ve found of it, dated 1847.
And here’s the first photo (daguerreotype?), from 1869.
The major building in the first picture, labeled “church”, and on the left in the 1869 photograph, was consecrated in 1822 and, as “La Placita”, much changed, is still there.
The set model, perhaps because it is meant to be a Los Angeles of about 1820, doesn’t show us this, but the early illustrations also don’t show us any of the two-story buildings which appear in the model. And, more striking, the presidio (“military base”, or cuartel, meaning “barracks”, as it’s labeled on the wall of the set)
is missing, as well. What about the “lancers” as they’re called in the series? Where were they living?
Our second surprise: there seems, in fact, to have been no garrison at all in Los Angeles in 1820. There were four presidios at that time in what was called Alta California, at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, each being the headquarters for a military district. In reality, then, we presume, since Los Angeles was between San Diego and Santa Barbara—see map below—
that, should it ever need soldiers, they would come from either of those two presidios.
The soldiers who might have been sent were not technically lancers—although they carried lances, along with carbines, pistols, and swords. Instead, they were dragones de cuera, “leather dragoons”, Spanish frontier soldiers so-called because they also wore a kind of leather armor and even carried leather shields as protection against the arrows of the Native American tribes they occasionally came up against.
Underneath the leather, however, they wore a uniform much like the ones Zorro’s “lancers” wear.
Because they could be attached to a presidio, they were also sometimes called presidiales.
As we’ve said, there was no presidio at Los Angeles, but we think that the actual presidios of Alta California served as models. Take, for example, this map of that at San Diego from 1820
or this reconstruction of the installation at San Francisco.
In both cases, just like the “cuartel” at Zorro’s Los Angeles, there is a walled enclosure with a selection of buildings inside.
If the buildings on Disney’s set weren’t there in 1820 and there were no soldiers, we could still “colorize” them, of course, but was there anything which might match the actual Los Angeles of 1820? And here we thought: how about the citizens? During that period, Los Angeles had about 650 people, many scattered on farms and the growing haciendas of the region, which became known for its leather, as well as for its grapes.
Images of people who would have lived in Los Angeles in the 1820s don’t appear to be easy to find, but we could locate parallels from those of two artists who worked in Mexico in the 1830s and early 1840s, Carl Nebel and James Walker, and, with the exception of the last image, these are all from their work.
Here are a couple of portraits of those at the top of society.
To the right in the second picture is a vaquero, literally, a “cowboy”, who worked for the hacienda owners, and here’s an image of several at work.
And we can add some folk perhaps a little lower on the social scale—
Then, as we continued our research, came our third surprise: the Disney studio had been ahead of us in all of this, having eventually themselves colorized a number of the episodes!
It was a pleasure to do the research, however, and, even if the Los Angeles of Zorro wasn’t the Los Angeles of our 1820, it gave us a keener appreciation for the high quality of imagination and construction skill which continues to bring us—in color or in black-and-white—so much adventure and fun.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Stay well and know that, as ever, there’s
In 1924, The Mark of Zorro appeared as a novel. Here’s a LINK so that, if you’d like, you can read it for yourself: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/61620/61620-h/61620-h.htm
In our research, we stumbled upon this article—in color—about surviving Zorro/Don Diego costumes and we thought that you might enjoy it: