Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Walt Disney and the Gay Nineties

One of the favorite milieus of the classic Disney era was the Gay Nineties. Not what you may have been thinking of, the Gay Nineties were a romantic notion of the American 1890's and 1900's most prevalent in the 1930's through 1960's. Understandably so, given the complications of the Dirty Thirties, World War II and dawning Cold War. Also ironic, considering that the actual 1890's were not so gay and included, amongst other things, a depression from whence came the trope of the abandoned Victorian mansion and American colonial expansionism typified in the Battle of Wounded Knee. Rarely do such details interfere with historical romanticism, however.

It popped up through numerous films and television series during the time period, including The Gay Nineties released in 1933 and remade in 1942. Abbot and Costello had fun with The Naughty Nineties, from which one finds the famous rendition of their "Who's on First" routine. A more southerly version was found in the original Show Boat, which was said to serve as inspiration for Disneyland's own Mark Twain Riverboat. Rod Serling both indulged and challenged the Gay Nineties when he brought them into the Twilight Zone, in such episodes as A Stop at Willoughby. Where you see barbershop quartets with handlebar moustaches and women with big bustles and bigger hats you are looking at the Gay Nineties.

Walt Disney famously never forgot his childhood in Marceline, Missouri, enshrining his spit-polished memories in Disneyland's Main Street USA. The Mellomen - Disneyland's resident barbershop quartet in the days before the Dapper Dans - describe this bygone emotive state by singing in the title track of their Disneyland Records album Meet Me Down on Main Street:
The firemen's band is gonna' play,
So meet me down on Main Street.
They'll play "tra-ra-ra-boom-de-ay",
Parading down on Main Street.
We'll pause a while at the popcorn stand,
What an evening, ain't it grand?
Our little home town is a fairy land
Down on old Main Street.

Indeed it is. Silent films flicker in the Main Street Cinema while amusements clink and clank in the Penny Arcade and the aroma of fresh baking wafts into the path of a horse-drawn surrey. Meanwhile, at the far end, the conductor announces that the gleaming, brassy engine is pulling into Main Street Station.

More than a few Disney films were set in this fairy land, from the live action Pollyanna (1960), Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1949) to the Mickey Mouse short The Nifty Nineties (1941) and Donald Duck's Crazy Over Daisy (1950) to Casey at Bat (1946) and Casey Bats Again (1954). So Dear to My Heart is every bit as saccharine as one might imagine of a film starring the duo of Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, off their roles in Song of the South, with music supplied by Burl Ives. It is the story of a boy and his black sheep in rural America, replete with Godfearing values and the rural charm of county fairs and dime stores, as well as animated interludes and a magnificent steam engine. In fact, Walt - who was born in 1901 - was quoted as saying "So Dear was especially close to me. Why, that's the life my brother and I grew up with as kids in Missouri." Currently the film is available as a Disney Movie Club exclusive with bonus cartoons carefully chosen with fans of Disney railroading in mind, such as the Gay Nineties tall tale The Brave Engineer (1950).

Mary Blair's concept art for the
live-action film So Dear to My Heart.

Pollyanna has a reputation, to be sure. Starring one of Disney's chosen child stars, Haley Mills, it is the quaint story of a girl who is brought into the household of the family who founded the village of Harringtontown. The townsfolk are eventually stirred from depression under the thumb of the Harringtons to near revolution by the antics of such a pleasant child. Revolution, that is, in the form of a blissful town carnival. Problems follow and Pollyanna doesn't always remain the happy-go-lucky character, but it all ends on a... Well... Actually Pollyanna doesn't really end. The message it imparts is not one that actually requires resolution to the problem. Pollyanna's most recent DVD release includes The Nifty Nineties as a bonus.

The Nifty Nineties.

The comedy duo in The Nifty Nineties were based on two Disney animators into whose personal lives the Gay Nineties seeped. "Fred" was Fred Moore and "Ward" was Ward Kimball, the more chronic of the two cases. Kimball's most unsung recognition comes from having designed and animated Jiminy Cricket, The Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, and the Crows from Dumbo, as well as animating the grand, insane "Three Caballeros" musical number from the eponymous film.

Behind the scenes, he was a rabid rail fan and is credited with helping nurture Walt Disney's own interest in trains. It was an interest that led inexorably towards the Disneyland Railroad, upon the tracks of which now roll the engine #5 Ward Kimball. Kimball enjoyed a full-size, narrow-gauge railway of his own in his backyard, dubbed the Grizzly Flats Railroad. Quaint photos from the unveiling show the party reveling in a Gay Nineties atmosphere and shooting their own slapstick silent films. As a gift, Walt donated the station from So Dear to My Heart to the Grizzly Flats RR... Only to ask for it back when he needed it for Disneyland! Kimball, who put a great deal of effort into fixing the false front into a real building refused, and the Frontierland/New Orleans Square station seen in Disneyland today is a replica.

Walt and Ward with their toys.

Lookout! The Grizzly Flats RR is now operational.

Kimball also achieved some degree of fame as the trombonist and leader behind the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland Jazz band composed of Disney animators. Other members included Frank Thomas, Danny Alguire, Harper Goff — designer of the Nautilus - Clarke Mallery, Monte Mountjoy and Ed Penner, all of whom wore vintage firemen's helmets and rode around in an antique fire truck. The group had a storied career, recording some 13 albums before commitments to Disney forced them to pack it in. Walt always said that they would be allowed to do their side project so long as it never interfered with their day jobs. They did, however, appear in the One Hour in Wonderland Disney Christmas special, the Disneyland opening day broadcast and the Goofy cartoon How to Dance, as well as record one of their albums live at Disneyland.

The Firehouse Five Plus Two playing Red Hot River Valley.

The company's love affair with the Gay Nineties continued on after the passing of Walt Disney in 1966. In 1970, Imagineering published a short in-house pamphlet explaining their technique in the wake of the Haunted Mansion's completion. It seems that there were questions about how they accomplished all the amazing technological feats they did, and a ready answer was available.

Click me to read!

Click me to read!

Click me to read!

That affection for the romantic myth of the latest Victorian and earliest Edwardian has yet to truly leave the Disney company. After Kimball and the remainder of the old guard moved on or passed away, another generation of nostalgists moved in. Imagineer Tony Baxter became obsessed with translating 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - though not strictly Gay Nineties itself - into theme park form, originally conceiving of Discovery Bay and resulting in Disneyland Paris' Discoveryland as well as large swaths of Tokyo Disneysea. The latter enjoys not only the Vernian Mysterious Island, but a turn-of-the-previous-century American Waterfront. California Adventure has been hard at work enhancing the Victorian splendor of Paradise Pier though the remainder of the park is moving on to the next most recent period of nostalgia, the Roaring Twenties.

By general consensus, the Gay Nineties is more fit for parody and mostly consigned to the dustbin. Conan O'Brien's favorite sketch, about an old time baseball league, lampoons it while TV Tropes considers its unchanged name to be evidence enough that it's a dead trope. Some speculate, however, that the current fad of Scientific Romances and their derivatives is a call-back to the concept. The extent to which that is true may be up for debate, but unquestionably, Disney has remained a standard-bearer.


George Taylor said...

Fantastic exposition!

I always enjoy reading your posts, Cory, because you never go off the deep end into the Disney Darkness! You provide intelligent insight into various realms of Disneyana without drinking the proverbial kool-aid.


Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much!

I think that one of my big drives is to understand, dismantle, deconstruct, pick to bits the things that I like; being critical in the true sense of the word. Do I love Disney? Oh my goodness yes... Whatever it is that Walt channelled with Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Main Street USA does resonate very strongly with me. So does Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Georges Melies, Kenji Miyazawa, Karel Zeman, and Hayao Miyazaki.

I want to understand why. I want to make clear the messages I'm being fed. Hence this whole weblog. Later on this month, you'll read my grappling with Davy Crockett. It's such an entertaining and romantic film, so I need to understand what it's trying to say even when it's unflattering and I disagree. If I know, then I can deal with it, compartmentalize it, filter it, whatever.

Same as this. I love the image of the Gay Nineties... My image of "Steampunk" is not dirty, faux-industrial looking brass stuff but the Gay Nineties with automata and airships. When I go to Disneyland, I treat Main Street like a real land unto itself (not just the mall you have to pass through to get to the rides), deliberately taking time to enjoy the Cinema, Penny Arcade, DLRR and other attractions. So I want to understand it. I want to know where the romantic image came from and what it meant so I know what I'm getting romantic about.

And as you and the other high-end Disney bloggers well know, Disney isn't just endlessly fascinating as a provider of entertainment but as an object of study.

Anonymous said...

The Disney version of Gay Nineties / Victorian /Turn-of-the-Century America, especially in its small town milieu, has long fascinated me (and long have I loved it). Main Street U.S.A. has always been perfection, a uniquely American version of Utopia. It never really existed like this, of course, but it should have! Another great Disney film set in the Gay Nineties is "Lady and the Tramp," a classic if ever there was one.

Cory Gross said...

Thanks Anonymous! It's been so long since I've seen Lady and the Tramp that I didn't realize it was a Gay Nineties setting.

philphoggs said...

A minor comment, but this is why I always felt that 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was so intrinsic to the park.