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The Franchise Known as 'Zorro'

Out of the past comes a host of versions of the masked swordsman's adventures.

July 16, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the new romantic adventure "The Mask of Zorro," opening Friday, Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins join the ranks of such actors as Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, Guy Williams and even George Hamilton who have played the dashing Latino hero. Many of these colorful, often amusing earlier versions are available on video.

The swashbuckling Zorro, the creation of writer Johnston McCulley, made his debut in the 1919 magazine serial "The Curse of Capistrano," which appeared in a publication called All-Story Weekly.

Hollywood took notice, and the following year, the athletic superstar Douglas Fairbanks starred in the classic silent "The Mark of Zorro" (Kino, $25). Fred Niblo directed this enjoyable adventure with Fairbanks having a field day as the masked hero righting wrongs in old California. It's a bit slow at first, but the action really picks up steam in the last half thanks to Fairbanks' spectacular stunts and deft swordplay.

Five years later, Fairbanks starred in the entertaining "Don Q, Son of Zorro" (Kino, $25). This time around, Fairbanks plays Zorro's son, who is attending school in Spain. After he's unjustly accused of murder, it's up to his father (also Fairbanks) to take up the sword once again and clear his son's name. Not as good as "Mark," but still lots of fun. Donald Crisp, who also directed, plays the baddie. Mary Astor also stars.

In 1936, McCulley granted the motion picture rights to Zorro to Republic Pictures. Republic Home Video has just released the studio's first "Zorro" feature, 1936's "The Bold Caballero" ($15). Photographed in Technicolor, "Bold Caballero" is a feast for the eyes. Though there is plenty of action, wimpy Robert Livingston is a washout as Zorro. He should have been called ZZZZZorro. Heather Angel also stars.

Also available from Republic is the 1937 serial "Zorro Rides Again" ($20), starring a solid John Carroll as Zorro. Republic has just released an edited version of "Zorro Rides Again" ($15), which trims nearly three hours out of the running time. Unfortunately, it's a confusing muddle.

Reed Hadley donned the mask for one of Republic's most popular serials, 1939's "Zorro's Fighting Legion" ($20). Five years later, Linda Stirling became the first woman to be the masked hero in the three-hour serial adventure "Zorro's Black Whip" ($20).

In 1947, George Turner inherited the sword and whip for the fourth serial adventure, the 13-part "Son of Zorro" ($20). Before he became the masked man on "The Lone Ranger," Clayton Moore wore the mask of Zorro in the 1949 western serial "Ghost of Zorro" ($20). Republic is also offering the edited version ($15) of the serial, which is slightly more coherent than the "Zorro Rides Again" debacle.

In 1940, 20th Century Fox produced the lavish delight "The Mark of Zorro" (Fox, $20), starring the devastatingly handsome Tyrone Power as Zorro and Linda Darnell as his lady love. The action sequences are top-notch, especially the suspenseful swordplay between Power and Basil Rathbone, as the bad guy. Rouben Mamoulian directed. Alfred Newman penned the terrific score.

Before his "Lost in Space" days, Guy Williams played the masked avenger on the popular Disney-produced 1957-59 ABC series "Zorro." Disney has released six volumes of episodes on video ($13 each). Not great, but they bring back warm childhood memories.

Duncan Regehr played Don Diego de la Vega in the forgettable 1990-93 Family Channel series "Zorro." The feature length pilot "Zorro: The Legend Begins" ($13) and another two-part episode, "Zorro: The Conspiracy of Blood," ($13) are available on video. To order, call Movies Unlimited at (800) 4-MOVIES.

George Hamilton manages to eke out some laughs in the wildly uneven 1981 slapstick farce, "Zorro, the Gay Blade" (Fox). Peter Medak directed this slim spoof, which finds Hamilton cast as the dandified son of the original Zorro, as well as his gay brother, Bunny Wigglesworth. Lauren Hutton and Ron Leibman, as the villain, also star.

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