Thursday, 29 April 2010

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1954)

For as impactful a movie as Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier was, it is amazing to consider how little critical thought has gone into it. In Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, Janet Wasko observes that there is a paucity of academic study on this iconic motion picture. Most studies are humble reminiscences of when 1950's pop culture changes practically overnight and every child wore a coonskin cap, whistling the 28(!) stanzas of the famous tune. The major treatment is The Davy Crockett Craze by Paul Anderson. However, as the "Aeneid" of America's own Virgil, Davy Crockett provides a wealth of material for the student of American mythology.

The Davy Crockett franchise began in 1954 with Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, a one-hour episode in the first season of the Disneyland television series. That classic first season is overdue for release on DVD, containing the first Davy Crockett cycle, Man in Space, promotion for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea numerous True Life Adventures, and bookended by the construction and opening of Disneyland the theme park. Later in the season, Davy Crockett Goes to Congress and Davy Crockett at the Alamo rounded out the story, both introducing and killing off their protagonist. These three episodes were edited together in 1955 for full-colour theatrical release, in an era that predated home video.

The extent to which the King of the Wild Frontier intersects with the historical David Stern Crockett is up to debate. For one, Crockett disliked being referred to as "Davy", preferring his proper given name. He came from an abusive family from which he fled at an early age. During his sojourn he learned most of his skills as a backwoodsman. He did return, fell in love with a married woman, then fell in love with a woman he was going to marry but who left him at the altar. Then he married Polly with whom he had two sons, the three of whom were in the show, and a daughter who was not. After Polly died, Crockett remarried and had three more children.

Politically, Crockett did not lead the charmed life that Disney gave him. He lost his first bid for Congress in 1824. He did oppose Andrew Jackson's "Indian Removal Act", but he didn't willingly leave Congress over it. Instead, he was defeated for reelection in 1831. He was elected again in 1833 and lost again in 1835. At that point he said to Hell with politics and left for Texas. The impression one gets is less that of the man of integrity humbly thrust into and out of Washington and more that of a failed career politician.

Applying the skills he picked up as a member of the Tennesse militia during the Creek Indian War, Crockett signed up to the Texas militia under the promise of receiving land to settle on. As a volunteer, he had his fateful encounter with the Mexican forces at the Alamo. Minor controversy suggests that Crockett was one of a handful of Texans who surrendered and were executed after the battle. It is more likely that he was killed along with everyone else in the old Spanish mission.

Crockett, by all reports, was a folksy fellow and the Disney production took its queue from that. No doubt that the actor portraying him was an equal influence. Fess Parker became a Disney darling after the runaway success of Davy Crockett. Since then, he has been honored as a Disney Legend and one of the few non-Imagineers to be emblazoned on a window at Disneyland. Parker's window is on the second story of Frontierland, in the facade of the "Crockett and Russel Hat Company". Sadly, but after a full life, Parker passed away on March 18th of this year.

After Davy Crockett, the Texas native starred in Westward Ho the Wagons (1956), The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956), Old Yeller (1957) and The Light in the Forest (1958). These were often alongside other Disney stalwarts of the era like Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Jeff York and James MacArthur. Capitalizing on that success, Parker performed a number of Western records for the Disneyland label, including the Davy Crockett story album, Yarns and Songs (1956) and Cowboy and Indian Songs (1957).

Parker's relationship with Disney came to an end when even he started recognizing that he was playing virtually the same character in every film. He came to represent Disney's ideal American male: exemplifying the virtues of rural humility and simplicity, ingenuity, courage, good humor, perseverance and duty to family and country. This Aenean figure necessitated the changes to the historical David Crockett. Loyal and romantic to a fault, it would only do for him to have married once and never again. Robust masculinity excised his daughter. His integrity and civic-mindedness would require him to be elected the first time around and to voluntarily leave Congress when its corruption threatened his morals.

The ideal American male is a political figure. America is an individualist society and therefore the driving narrative of its politics and society is that of the individual's supremacy and sanctity. The individual, in turn, becomes symbolic of the processes of the State (and one can certainly debate the extent to which the myth of American individualism both obfuscates and hinders the collectivization that makes society possible). So through the King of the Wild Frontier character we learn the politics of the King of the Wild Frontier film. Where many of these alterations to David Crockett, from a historical figure to a proxy of 1950's American politics, come into sharper focus are in the film's representations of Native Americans.

The Native Americans present in the films serve as necessary foils to build up the origin myth of America and how it reflected in the politics of the day. Throughout the first episode and into the second, the American government's treatment of Native Americans is presented as fair, equitable, balanced and ultimately beneficial to them.

Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter focuses on the Creek Indian War in the teen years of the 19th century. The historical conflict began as a civil war amongst the Muscogee nation, initiated by a group of dissenters named the "Red Sticks" who opposed Euro-American enculturation. The government became involved but could not devoted formal troops on account of the War of 1812. This left it in the hands of state militias.

The Red Sticks themselves were urged on by Tecumseh, the foremost Native ally of the British. One of the more obscure stones paving the road to the American Revolution was relative British sympathy for Native Americans. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 decreed that settlers from the 13 Colonies could not expand beyond the Appalacians and into Native territory without proper legal proceedings. Rejection of this principle of moderation and due process became a core part of the American psyche, spurring on later revolution and aspirations of Manifest Destiny. Many Native tribes later joined with the British in the War of 1812 in order to halt American expansionism. The Red Sticks played into this, though none of these issues are brought to light in Davy Crockett.

In the show, the conflict is streamlined. Crockett and his sidekick Georgie Russel are serving as Tennessee militiamen under Andrew Jackson as the company breaks up the war camp of Native leader Red Stick and pursues him into the wilds of Ohio. Complex geopolitics are resolved, not at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, but when Crockett bursts into individualist macho fisticuffs with Red Stick. The chief's motives are also simplified. When Crockett and Red Stick debate the merits of the Indian Wars and surrendering to the American government, the inevitability and Providence of American settlement is implicit. Culpability for the Indian Wars is placed on the Native leaders like Red Stick and the Wars themselves are portrayed as futile.

When Red Stick proclaims that the white man cannot be trusted because he hunts Indians, Crockett insists that they only hunt Indians because they make war on white men, not acknowledging that the Natives are legitimately defending their homeland from foreign invaders. He states that the "good chiefs" have given up because they know that the wars are no good, hinting at the inevitability of American occupation. The virtue of occupation is taken for granted when Crockett affirms that Red Stick and those like him can "live in peace if [they] just listen to reason". Native objections to settlement are presented as unreasonable and the source of unnecessary and unprovoked bloodshed. The rationality of America's efforts are in part justified by its belief in equality, with Crockett proclaiming that "white man's law's good for Indians if you just give it a chance". Nevertheless, "white man's law" is still white man's law.

The central narrative here is America's evangelistic self-perception of equitability and fairness. In Davy Crockett we see a history of spreading equality, justice, and "official" American values rather than a history of warfare, occupation and imperialism. Through the course of the film, Crockett himself makes the seemingly counterintuitive switch from a warrior against Native people to a protector of them. Even within the film, a claim-jumper points out this incongruity, asking "since when did Davy Crockett become a friend of the Injuns?"

However, Crockett's wartime actions are presented as a service to the Native peoples rather than an attack against them. His goal was to eliminate those leaders who were interfering with the peace between Natives and settlers, thus smoothing the way for the administration of American justice through treaties and reservations. Later, when Crockett arrives in Congress and fights against Jackson's Indian Bill, which would see the annexation of reservation land and the sale of it to white settlers, he resumes his role as Anglo-American protector and spokesperson for the Natives. Storming into Washington in his buckskins, he offers up a speech about how dirty politics are corrupting the nation, leading to a defeat of the bill. Davy Crockett as protector of Native Americans comes out again in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, where he busts up a group of brigands disguising themselves as Natives.

The reason for this lengthy dissertation on Native relations - both in this piece and in the film itself - ceases to be a mystery when one looks at the political environment of the time. Just the previous year, the Korean War drew to a close in the armistice of 1953. That war in Southeast Asia had been raging since 1950, and tensions in the region would continue through the beginning of the Vietnam War in 1959. In the course of it, in the midst of war crimes and Bodo League Massacres, questions rose that would come to roost in later conflicts, from 'Nam to Iraq.

The 150 year old Creek Indian War is invoked, with everything it is interpreted to say about American origins, values and character, in order to soften and answer the questions that were beginning to rise over American imperialism. What are Americans doing in foreign lands waging war on the people who live there? Is it merely the corrupt expansionism of the likes of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, or is there a more noble motive behind it like those of Davy Crockett? The response is unambiguous, though the outcome has shades.

The King of the Wild Frontier stands against his society both in the broad sense and specifically in his opposition to the Indian Bill. Crockett represents America against the government, and one wonders what exactly the opinion of Washington is. Even then, the sense of disconnect between the government collective and the American individual is also a part of the culture (again, as a part of the obfuscation of collectivism). Regardless, Walsh ultimately endorses a critical justification of American militarism: that no matter how violent or unprovoked, the United States wages war on other countries for their own good.

The ambiguity infuses the representation of Native Americans in Disneyland as well. The connection between Davy Crockett and Frontierland was made from the outset, as the land opened on July 17, 1955 with a performance and speech by Fess Parker in character. Manniquins of Davy, Georgie and General Andrew Jackson occupied Tom Sawyer Island's Fort Wilderness. From that point on, Native Americans were invited for open cultural exchange with the now-defunct Indian Village and Ceremonial Dance Circle but also villified as the backwards resistors of white civilization. The latter Disneyland episode An Adventure in the Magic Kingdom presented young people hiding from invading hostile Natives and shooting at them from the parapets of Fort Wilderness. In the album A Day at Disneyland, Jimminy Cricket celebrates the arrival of Davy Crockett to "deal with those bad actin' Indians." The original Indian War Canoes attraction was rechristened the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes when the Indian Village closed in 1971.

The issue of why the powerful nation of America is waging war on villagers in huts being dealt with, the emphasis of Davy Crockett's third episode or cinematic act shifts away from "internal" and "ethnic" Native American issues and towards the matter of outward expansion and conflict with external powers. For the sake of argument, we'll excuse that the Creek Indian War and American westward expansion was an external war of conquest against an external power, though it really ought not to be forgotten. That Native American issues are seen as internal affairs is a testimony to persistent parochial attitudes about Native American cultures as being not legitimate in the same way that European ones are.

Nevertheless, this shift is made from talking about the Koreans to talking about the Communists, in the shape of Crockett's fateful date with the Alamo. Like the background to the Creek Indian War, the history behind the Texas Revolution is also ignored. Following the Mexican Revolution against Spain, the new country liberalized immigration laws to Texas, which appealed to large numbers of American settlers. These settlers, who outnumbered Mexicans 30,000 to 8,000, chaffed under numerous Mexican regulations including a prohibition on slaves and being forced to grow agricultural products that were of use to Mexicans rather than European markets. President Santa Anna believed this immigration to be an American plot to infiltrate the country. These factors led inevitably to the Revolution, Alamo, Republic and eventual adoption of Texas into the Union.

All Davy Crockett knows, though, is that there are Americans in trouble and he needs to go rescue them. Making it into the Alamo, he expresses once more his faith in the Divine hand of Providence protecting American endeavours. As Davy goes down swinging his rifle, Ol' Betsy, the last words that flash on the screen are "liberty and independence forever" written in his journal. Indeed, he loses his life as they lose the Alamo, but there is the statement in that as well: America with never surrender, but fight down to the last patriot in the battle against Communism. The Alamo becomes yet another exercise in patriotism and implicit American righteousness, explicitly invoking God in opposition to the faceless foreign adversary.

It should be noted that "In God We Trust" was adopted as the official motto of the United States in 1956. Charles Edward Bennett of the Congress explained it saying "In these days when imperialistic and materialistic Communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom" it is worth remembering that "as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail." It was only 10 years prior that Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Walt, however, was not originally so keen on the Davy Crockett project. It was largely the brainchild of Bill Walsh, for whom Crockett was a hero and evidently fruitful ground for political commentary. The subsequent craze was so huge that one retailer stated that "Davy Crockett is bigger even than Mickey Mouse." It was, in a sense, the Pirates of the Caribbean of its day (if we take The Mickey Mouse Club as High School Musical and Annette as Hannah Montana).

When Walt was sold on the production and they put it to film, they were faced with an incredible problem. In the words of Disney,
We had no idea what was going to happen on Crockett. Why, by the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest over-night hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero!

Several more parts were written. Reaching screens in 1955 were Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, a two-part piece of blatant mythmaking that was collected into the feature film Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). The scale of this adventure was a much smaller folk tale befitting the likes of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. As evidence, we meet folk hero Mike Fink, whom the historical Crockett never met. Unfilmed were How Davy and Russel Met and Davy Crockett on the Great Plains, which sound like they would have been quite interesting. By 1956, though, Disney looked upon Fess Parker as a bankable movie star.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Walt Disney and the Sons of the Pioneers

Nowadays not only is one hard-pressed to discern the difference between Country and Western music, the latter having been subsumed into the former, but one would likely be challenged to find any Country music that sounded like Country and not just weak pop music with a Southern accent. One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of said accent and the obligatory slide-guitar. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them.

Amongst the most popular Western acts of all time were the Sons of the Pioneers. They still are, as a matter of fact. Though none of the original members remain, the Sons of the Pioneers are a designated national treasure and the longest reigning commercial musical troupe. Their origins go back to 1933 when a handsome gent named Leonard Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in the flickers. You might be more familiar with Slye's stage name: Roy Rogers.

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers kept a good, healthy relationship through the decades. They joined with Roy in the 1942 film titled Sons of the Pioneers and guest-starred on The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show 20 years later, with some 45 films inbetween. The Sons of the Pioneers hit the Hollywood big-time, appearing in numerous films and drawing the attention of the one and only Walt Disney.

Times were notoriously tough for Disney through the 1940's. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs catapulted him to even greater fame, follow-up features like Pinocchio and especially Fantasia failed to capture the same popularity. The animator's strike struck in 1941, tensing up the studio at the same time that World War II shut off the European film market. In order to survive, Disney slimmed down its cinematic offerings, releasing a string of "package films" that anthologized shorter subjects.

Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros came out during the war, as a product of Walt's Latin American goodwill tour and post-strike vacation. These begat Make Mine Music in 1946 and Fun and Fancy Free in 1947, the latter comprised of two straightforward half-hour cartoons and the former edging towards being a pop-music Fantasia. At the time, pop-music meant Benny Goodman, Nelson Eddy, Andy Russell and the Andrews Sisters.

Disney looked to refine the format of Make Mine Music with 1948's Melody Time. Donald Duck and José Carioca of the Latin American films returned in Blame it on the Samba, the Andrews Sisters narrated Little Toot, Freddy Martin and His Orchestra provided the Bumble Boogie, and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers sat around the campfire telling Song of the South's Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten the story of Pecos Bill.

One of Disney's tallest tales, Pecos Bill is also one of the best possible introductions to the work of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. The piece, the climax of Melody Time, begins with a melancholy ballad entitled Blue Shadows on the Trail, indicative of the Sons' two biggest hits Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, also released in 1948. The animation is slight, touring us around the moonlit mesas of an idealized, romantic American Southwest.

In the midst of this animated landscape, Ub Iwerks' special processes bring us around the live-action campfire of Roy Rogers, Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers explaining to Bobby and Luana why coyotes howl at the moon. It has to do with ol' Pecos Bill and his fateful meeting with Slue-Foot Sue. Roy slips into cowboy storyteller mode, a unique narrative style that is folksy, quick-witted and extremely engaging. This story segues into the big number, a jaunty rendition of Pecos Bill's self-titled song. Controversially, a part of that song involving Bill rolling a smoke while riding a tornado was cut from the last DVD release.

If there is any doubt, I can only recommend the audio version performed by the cast for RCA-Victor records. It has moments even more inspired and drop-dead hilarious than in the film, and it is freely available from the incomparable Kiddie Records Weekly. Click on the cover below to download it.

The Sons of the Pioneers wouldn't return to the Disney fold until 1961, and then it was to be fronted by Rex Allen. Though not a member of the group, Disney Legend Rex Allen had been working steadily for the company since 1956, starring in everything from live performances on the Disneyland television series to narrating feature films to (afterwards) providing Father's voice for the Carousel of Progress to recording albums for Buena Vista Records. It was only natural that they would pair him with the Sons of the Pioneers for the short Saga of Windwagon Smith.

An excerpt from The Saga of Windwagon Smith (1961).

By the 1960's, the film market had changed sufficiently that the Walt Disney Company began to phase out their long tradition of animated shorts. Television had shifted the efforts of middle range artists towards The Wonderful World of Color, which debuted on NBC in 1961 in place of ABC's Disneyland, which had aired since 1954. Wonderful World of Color became a venue for those classic shorts to be seen again in the relatively new medium, and consequently diminished their box office draw. Though one of the last shorts to be produced (before they were resurrected recently by John Lasseter as a training ground for future feature animators), Windwagon Smith is cut from very old cloth. As a classic tall tale it hearkens all the way back to Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan.

Windwagon Smith was the story of a sea captain (who looked suspiciously like Kirk Douglas' Ned Land) who fit a Conestoga Wagon out with a deck and sails, where the wind carried it along the Santa Fe Trail. After striking an agreement with the Westport town council, Admiral Smith constructs a massive "prairie clipper" that takes him to a fated meeting with a Kansas twister. Throughout, the Sons of the Pioneers provide their musical stylings and distinctive voices to the townsfolk.

An excerpt from The Legend of Lobo (1962).

A year later, the Sons of the Pioneers supported Rex Allen once again in the unique Legend of Lobo. Though not advertised as such, The Legend of Lobo is not far removed from the "True Life Fantasy" style of film Disney introduced in 1957 with Perri. A fitting documentary in it's own right, Lobo features characters and plot imposed onto the action, which is set against the stunning backdrop of red-rocked Sedona, Arizona. Though cowboys and wolf-hunters terrorize Lobo and his kin throughout, the only voice to be heard is Allen's, narrating the story while the Sons of the Pioneers pluck their guitars.

Melody Time is due for another DVD release sometime soon (perhaps, if we cross our fingers, in an unadulterated 2-pack with Make Mine Music). The Saga of Windwagon Smith was included in the Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities collection and the Walt Disney Animation Collection 4: The Tortoise and the Hare but, surprisingly, not with the recent Disney Movie Club exclusive release of The Legend of Lobo.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The Anachronism (2010)

Debuting online this past Monday, The Anachronism is a Canadian short film set against the stunning backdrop of the Pacific Northwest and the strange thing that a pair of inquisitive Victorian children find there. Director Matthew Gordon Long has gone to pains to describe the short as a "Steampunk" film for marketing purposes, but with all due respect to him I would disagree. For instance, no one is wearing goggles in it. Nor are there air pirates, nor is the mysterious Septopus made entirely out of brass.

Less facetiously, his own description of the film's themes explains why this is not - to it's credit - a Steampunk film:
The Anachronism, then, is about moments of discovery that have no reference points and about confrontations for which there are no preparations. Book learning and parental guidance can only take us so far. Beyond them lie the real questions that shape our journeys. How do we respond to the unknown and the seemingly impossible? With fear and denial, or with childlike curiosity?

My aim was to capture a child’s incomplete picture of the world, with all the sublime potential and scarring confusion that can come with it. I wanted to create a film that achieved the crystalline simplicity of a child's storybook while carrying complex, genuine mysteries at its heart.

The Anchronism, to reiterate, is a film about liminal spaces... Those encounters where we transition from the known to the unknown, when our concepts and labels fail us in the sublime immediacy of the moment.

Long himself has fixated on the liminal space of childhood, when the simplicity of taught rules and roles are shattered by the complexities of a broader, populous, multicultural world. There are further layers; symbols used to illustrate the theme that are themselves rich with meaning.

The children are naturalists whose ability to scientifically label and catalogue has failed them. Science, as effective and majestic as it is, is still a human rule-role system, an imposition on nature to make it comprehensible. Beyond our labels and catalogues lies our fullest encounter with nature as a spiritual force, fearful and wonderful. Even the mighty pontiffs of Scientism, brimming with contempt for "unreason", are ultimately forced to talk about nature in irrational, spiritual terms simply to justify their love of science.

It may simply have been the convenience of proximity, but my mind wanders to the connection between this film and the brooding coastal rainforest of Edwardian Canadian painter Emily Carr. Carr began her artistic career around 1898 with representational studies of Canada's Pacific coast. Over time and demoralizing career interruptions, she resumed her art in the 1930's and 40's by eschewing representation for a more emotive style. In her later work, the islands of British Columbia took on dark, mythical scope. Long echoes this progression and makes symbolic reference to nature as liminal space by moving the children from a pastoral farm to the forest, and from the forest to the coast with its rapidly encroaching tidewaters.

Two paintings by Emily Carr, both entitled Wood Interior.
Top: 1909; bottom: 1935.

The setting also begs discussion of the liminal space of the Edwardian Era as the transition between the seeming rigidity of the Victorian world and the uncertain chaos of the modern. Or, further yet, the modern day as a liminal space against an even more uncertain and alien future. The viewer is caught at the centenary pivot between the two anachronisms that meet in The Anachronism. Yet was are no clearer about that central mystery than the two children.

Then again, it may even be more mysterious than that, if the central conceit is a Shyamalanian twist. Perhaps it is the Edwardian children who are the mystery, not the Septopus. Not even being clear on that point is part of it. The Anachronism is itself a liminal storytelling space that invites multiple interpretations.

The duration of the film is perfect. If anything, it may be a minute too long, as the end begs more questions than it actually poses. My only real complaint is the final cliche reaction to "The Things Man Was Not Meant To Know". Restraint with the rising tide ready to reclaim its cephalopodic own would have been sufficient to convey the hint of Lovecraftian cosmic angst. Rumour has it that there are graphic novel prequels and sequels in store, and one certainly can't blame Long for wanting to build a franchise. This is a case, however, where less is more. More explanation can only work to undermine the the central contention of the short. The various little clues emanating from the Septopus deepen the mystery and plants the viewer firmly in the midst of the liminal space. To know how it got there risks turning this into yet another Sci-Fi epic. If Long proceeds, I hope he proceeds carefully.

In conclusion, I would argue, The Anachronism goes beyond the rules and roles affixed to a set of costumers and the Industrial Age Urban Fantasy they model their costumes on. Rather, such themes, settings and historical recollections place it as the latest full-blooded Scientific Romance in a long line. That it stars children leads one to implicate it favourably with other children's films of emotional, philosophical and aesthetic heft, such as The Adventures of Mark Twain and the works of Karel Zeman and Hayao Miyazaki. Overall it is a curious short film with much broader themes than any limiting label.

The whole short can be viewed at The Anachronism website.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Walt Disney at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth

It's the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth... Every July, the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada pauses for 14 days of revelry in remembrance of its Western heritage. In 1912, American entrepreneur Guy Weadick saw the "last best west" disappearing beneath the extension of the railway, the oncoming settlers tilling the land and the great urban centres springing up on the former bald-faced prairie. The age of the free-range cowboy was drawing to a close. So Weadick, backed by the big cattle barons of the Canadian frontier, created the Stampede as a celebration of the cowboy way of life, with a rodeo and chuckwagon races, Native American village, parade, midway carnival, agriculture shows, and plenty of alcohol. The Stampede continues to this day and is heralded as one of North America's - if not the world's - great festivals.

The Stampede also provides Calgary with a connection to Disneyana. In 1965, Walt Disney - who so often told tales of the Wild West and enshrined its romantic myth in Disneyland's Frontierland - was invited to be the honorary grand marshal of the Stampede Parade.

Walt Disney signing autographs
at the Stampede Parade.

Canada was nothing new to Walt Disney productions. Walt himself had roots in Canada, his family having arrived in the Dominion in 1830. His father and grandfather later emigrated to Kansas, where Walt was born. Walt talked warmly of those roots in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Later on, Disney productions returned to the True North Strong and Free when a crew of naturalist-photographers was sent up to the high north to film the True-Life Adventure White Wilderness in 1958. Jack Jungmeyer, staff writer for the Disney studios, wrote of the trials of filming in the Winter 1958 issue of the Canadian history magazine The Beaver:
There is nothing haphazard about making a wildlife film... details of transport, supplies, and communication must be worked out, in this case covering remote parts of northern Canada...

The subarctic Canadian wilderness is itself an essential element of the picture, for snowfield and tundra have conditioned the lives of some of the oddest animals of North America, among them living relics of ancient times. The photographers travelled by bush plane, by canoe and dog-team, camera batteries cuddled in sleeping bags. Pioneering in their own way, they followed and crossed old trails of Hudson's Bay men - a varied group of specialist with a single aim: to capture for film audiences, the pageant of this "White Wilderness."

... The search for caribou and musk-oxen led from Great Slave Lake to the Thelon River barrens, first by canoe, later by dog-team, when the quiet photographer and his silent Indian guide travelled for days with a minimum of words but with warm understanding and appreciation of each other's woodcraft... The career of the wolverine is seldom brought to light but this fierce, cunning predator... was found with the aid of Indians in northern Alberta...

Filming White Wilderness.

Walt himself fell in love with the Canadian Rockies when Alvin Gunn, then proprietor of the Rafter Six Ranch near Canmore, Alberta, convinced him to film Nikki, Wild Dog of the North there in 1960. Though Walt didn't stay at the Rafter Six, opting instead for a hotel in the nearby National Park resort town Banff, he did return again and again. A special cabin was built for him and his family at the ranch, where it stands today with distinction as the "Disney Cabin". (Calgary Herald, Aug. 20, 2006.) Elsewhere in the country, Ontario to be exact, his studio came back to film the 1963 film The Incredible Journey.

Finally in 1965, Walt was asked to be the honorary marshal of the Stampede Parade, the big kick-off event for the Stampede. He and his wife Lillian arrived in their private plane on July 4th to a 500-strong throng of fans and dignitaries. The official greetings were delayed by a surging mass of schoolkids who surrounded the couple and which the 20 dispatched constables of the Calgary Police Force were unable to keep at bay. Members of the local Nakoda, T'suu Tina and Blackfoot First Nations greeted Walt while the School Patrol Band played "Waltzing Matilda" in formation. (Calgary Herald, July 5, 1965.)

Walt meets a representative of the T'suu Tina First Nation.

A Calgary custom is to gift visitors to the city with a trademark white stetson, which then-mayor Grant MacEwan did, warning Walt: "Unless you wear one of these white hats while you're here you might be charged with indecent exposure." Getting your own cowboy hat signed by Walt became a prize of distinction, and before he could escape to the waiting 1925 Lincoln convertible, he was mobbed once again. Laughing, he was heard to say to Lillian "Oh, oh, we're in trouble." (The Albertan, July 5, 1965.)

Walt wasn't the only one to debut on Calgary's airfield that day. Along with him came Bertie Beaver, a new mascot developed by Disney as a "Smokey the Bear"-type character for Alberta's forests. (The Albertan, July 5, 1965.)

An original fire danger board featuring Bertie.

Surviving the onslaught of fans, Walt and Lillian were whisked away to a press conference with local media, where he gave his thoughts on a variety of subjects. When asked about the lack of sex in his films, he quipped "I am about the only producer that never uses sex." On the differences in his films, he said of the recently released and very successful Mary Poppins: "It has had the biggest audience I have ever reached." by contrast, he said of Alice in Wonderland: "For a while I wished I had never attempted it." He even took a moment to promote the journey into the cosmos:
As a tax payer and citizen I'm all for the American space program - I'm a slap-happy optimist and feel that out there is a mystery we've got to learn about... we've got to know.

Of his filmmaking philosophy, Walt characteristically said "I make pictures for children and about children but I don't make childish pictures." Continuing, he remarked that "I just try and make everybody happy." When responding to the question of whether or not the forthcoming Jungle Book would be another children's classic, he humbly observed that "classics are earned and not made."

Nevertheless, Walt was in the business of making movies. For every lovely and insightful comment about making everybody happy, he followed with
When planning a film you have to study the market. I cater to the family audience, and it is a situation where the parents have to enjoy the film as much as the children... Anybody can make a film if they have some filming background, but you have to pick the right thing to sell in the universal market.

Ever the impresario, he didn't miss a beat in promoting his productions. "We have six features and 25 television shows under way as well as five projects for Disneyland," Walt said. (The Albertan, July 5, 1965.)

His biggest promotion, however, was for the big camera rig he was bringing along with him to the Stampede. The show O Canada! in the Canada Pavillion at EPCOT's World Showcase isn't the first time that the Circle-Vision 360 format has been used to showcase the True North Strong and Free. Disney created a Circle-Vision 360 show entitled Canada 67 for the Montreal Expo 67. This half-hour show, commissioned by Canadian telephone companies, was part of the exposition's celebration of Canada's 1967 centennial.

The Circle-Vision camera at the Stampede.

Any celebration of Canadian identity cannot but include scenes from the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. The Circle-Vision camera was brought up to the rodeo, with a beaming Walt proudly adding: "This is the first time that the gigantic screen has been used in Canada." "It will be an exciting indication," he said, "of what goes on here during the Stampede." (Calgary Herald, July 6, 1965.)

That it was, and in spades. Frank Sisson, well-known Calgary business owner, recalls when one of Disney's cameramen was filming a scene during the chuckwagon races:
Each year, more than 1,200 media come to the Stampede. It can get quite interesting as they try to get a picture or a story. I remember the time a Walt Disney cameraman was in the back of a chuckwagon doing a special film when it got into a wreck. When we got to the upside down wagon, the cameraman, still strapped in, had never stopped filming despite the chaos. His comment: "What a hell of a finish!"

Walt was also the guest of honor at the evening Grandstand show. Speaking to the thousands of audience members packing the stands, he chimed that it was "a privileged experience to be here at last. The Stampede is known throughout the United States and no doubt throughout the world." When declaring the Stampede officially underway, he grinningly noted that "It's known as the best outdoor show on earth - next to Disneyland." However and wherever the Calgary Stampede places on the list of greatest outdoor shows on earth, Walt was quite taken with it. "It was everything they told me it would be," he said. "It is truly a wonderful show." (Calgary Herald, July 6, 1965.)

Walt Disney left as big an impression on the city of Calgary as the city left on him. We leave off this article with a very touching editorial that appeared in The Albertan newspaper of July 6th, 1965:
The names of those who have opened the Calgary Stampede over the decades have been as illustrious as they have been numerous. But we suspect that not one of them would raise a dissenting voice if it were said that of them all, the name of Mr. Walt Disney deserves a special niche to itself...

There will come a day, we feel sure, that when as yet unborn generations speak of the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen and the other great children's story-tellers of history, Mr. Disney's will be up there in the fore...

For not only have our young known as loved the productions that bear his name but their parents and, in some instances, their grandparents too. Who among us hasn't smiled over the antics of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, The Three Little Pigs or his magnificent full-length adaptation of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", "Peter Pan" and other animated adaptations of the classic fairy tales. Then there were his wonderous nature films... his forays into American history, such as Davy Crockett, and, last but not least, his Academy Award-winning "Mary Poppins"...

Unlike so many other productions designed for children the "Disney" name on the marquee is a guarantee that the film will engage all regardless of age, that it will have a gentle moral without being preachy and that the contents will be above reproach - in this day and age no small compliment.

By the presence of Mr. Disney and his wife, Calgary has been honored. May they return soon.

Walt never did. It should be noted, however, that his creations Mickey and Minnie Mouse picked up his mantle as parade marshals in 1983.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Grand Canyon Diorama

Few natural wonders exemplify America so well as the Grand Canyon. The largest canyon in the world, it is big and bombastic and symbolic of the Western frontier. Laid down and carved out over a billion years, this chasm in the desert was first home to the ancient Anasazi people, then the present-day Puebloans, then the advance of Euro-American settlers and cowboys. It is spacious, rugged, sublime. Being so iconic, it naturally drew the attention of Walt Disney. After all, the great natural showman already brought back the Matterhorn mountain for his park! Why not the Grand Canyon?

The canyon was perfectly suited to demonstrating the flashy new technology of a larger than life man. When the Disney Studios dived into CinemaScope technology with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was preceded by the Donald Duck short Grand Canyonscope. The beautifully pop-art painted backgrounds were wonderfully served by the widescreen format, against which Donald and Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore fought off a Civil War veteran cougar (Woodlore even tells the crowd of tourists to spread out because they're in CinemaScope).

In Grand Canyonscope, we see all the elements that make up the mystique of the Grand Canyon in the modern era. The squat little National Parks ranger is there, directing tourists into the canyon aboard the famous mule ride. Donald encounters the ancient cliff dwellings of the Native Americans, as well as their stoic living descendants, who are as timeless as the canyon itself. Even the Grand Canyon's palaeontological heritage is winked at with a brief glimpse of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Grand Canyon was honored on the opening of Disneyland with a special Disneyland Railroad parlor car. The Grand Canyon observation car was at the end of the #2 E.P. Ripley passenger train, following behind the Navajo Chief, Rocky Mountains, Land of Pueblos, and Painted Desert cars. Originally two types of trains circled the tracks of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, the passenger and freight trains. Both carried passengers, of course, but if you wanted to ride like human beings rather than like livestock, your best best were the enclosed, Pullman-style carriages of the passenger train. Though all were painted in a deep yellow, the Grand Canyon was emblazoned with an oval mural of the canyon on its side.

Walt standing in front of Main St. Station
and his fleet of passenger parlor cars.

Then in 1958, Disney Studios took a more serious approach with Grand Canyon, a half-hour nature film preceding the theatrical release of Sleeping Beauty. The greatest gift of Grand Canyon to the mythos was the first pictorial correlation of Ferde Grofé's famous Grand Canyon Suite to the sights of the canyon itself. Deeply evocative of the natural wonders for which it and its movements were named, Grofé's composition places the canyon within the mind's eye, the emotive space of being there along the trails that descend for miles into the earth. Disney took this and gave us the Best Live Action Short Subject Oscar-winning visuals.

Those visuals were not necessarily direct correlations, however. Some could not be helped, like equating the "Cloudburst" movement of the piece to the torrential monsoons that sweep through Arizona during August. Others were more interpretive. For instance, the rolling tune of the "Sunrise" sequence was putting to the rolling rapids of the Colorado River. Instead of the mule rides, the clip-clop of "On the Trail" Mickey Moused the activities of tarantulas, sidewinders and other canyon wildlife. The effect is somewhere between a True Life Adventure film and Fantasia.

Unable to pass up the opportunity, Walt Disney Records released a soundtrack LP for the short, complete with a booklet of photos. Ken at Walt's Music has posted a recording of it, which can be reached by clicking on the cover below...

Complimenting Grand Canyon was the Grand Canyon Diorama, unveiled the same year. A long stretch of backlot between Tomorrowland and Main Street was converted into this grand finale for the grand circle tour, and no finale could be grander than the Grand Canyon itself.

The pattern for the diorama - which was the largest in the world at 306' long by 34' high, covered in 300 gallons of paint applied by 80,000 hours of labour at a cost of $367,000 - was very much the short feature. In keeping with the live-action, True Life Adventure style of Grand Canyon, the diorama made use of the only real, taxadermied animals in the park. These are no fibreglass or animatronics, and along with the constructed outcrops and copses of trees they foreground a spectacular mural of the canyon. The first half of the scene makes use of the "On the Trail" sequence of the Grand Canyon Suite, to which the wildlife scenes of the short were set. This transitions into a very short clip of "Cloudburst," illustrating the diorama's winter snowfall, just as the end of the sequence in the film does. Finally it reverts back to "On the Trail" before leaving the Grand Canyon of today for the Primeval World of yesteryear.

Seeing the largest of anything in the world, whether a canyon or a diorama of a canyon, demands sharing the experience as best one can with their loved ones back home. This first set of images are of souvenir postcards once sold at the park. The second is a set of Panavue slides featuring denizens of the Grand Canyon Diorama.

The installation of the Grand Canyon Diorama necessitated a change in the Disneyland Railroad that spelled the eventual death of the old-style passenger cars in 1974. In place of the enclosed parlor cars, new open-air excursion carriages were put on the rails. The Navajo Chief, Rocky Mountains, Land of Pueblos, and Painted Desert were retired and the Grand Canyon given a makeover. Rechristened the Lilly Belle, it served as a VIP salon car until it fell into disrepair. Then for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, the Lilly Belle was restored to glory and reattached to the old #2 engine, where she can still be ridden if you ask very politely.

The change also came to how the railroad was run. Previously, the passenger train made its round trip from Main St. Station while the freight train made its round trip from the other station in Frontierland. The new diorama brought with it a station in Tomorrowland and the option of loading and unloading each train at each station. To bless the new station and Grand Canyon Diorama, Hopi Chief Nevangnewa was brought from the lands of the Arizona desert. Also to be blessed that day was the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad's #3 engine, the Fred Gurley. Gurley, the then-president of the Santa Fe Railway was on hand to unveil the reconditioned 1894 Louisiana plantation engine. This is the same engine featured on the Grand Canyon Diorama's attraction poster.

Disney's relationship with the American Southwest and its most stunning natural feature continues. A tile mural by Mary Blair adorned the "Grand Canyon Concourse" at the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World and Adventures by Disney offers a vacation tour to the real thing. Sadly, the Grand Canyon Railway - which offers passenger service between Williams, Arizona, and Grand Canyon National Park - retired their own steam engine in September 2008. However, one can still go by steam to Disneyland's own Grand Canyon Diorama.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Walt Disney's Gay Nineties in Song

Disney would not be Disney without music. From the very beginning with synchronized sound and Steamboat Willie's whistling "Turkey in the Straw" to Broadway-style song and dance blowouts to the wafting rhythms of Jazz quartets in New Orleans Square, the history and allure of Disney is tied intimately with music. And when it came to defining the aura of Disneyland's Gay Nineties, this was no less true.

Ken at Walt's Music provides an invaluable service for fans of Disney music. For the benefit of those of us without the resources and in some slight defiance of a company that is often reluctant to rerelease vintage material, he records and posts his extensive Disneyland Records vinyl. His is a rich repository of material, including this trio of albums that typify Main Street USA and the Gay Nineties motifs which so capture the hearts of wanton nostalgists.

Meet Me Down on Main Street was performed by the house barbershop quartet, The Mellomen. Perhaps the most famous member of the foursome is Thurl Ravenscroft who, besides having one of the best names in the world, is a familiar voice throughout Disneyland and as the original growl behind Tony the Tiger. In his posthumous life, he can be seen as one of the Singing Busts in the Haunted Mansion's grand "swingin' wake" finale. Meet Me Down on Main Street perfectly captures the mood of Main Street USA, including its titular theme song. The liner notes do their best to describe it. Click on the cover below to listen for yourself.

Main Street USA used to be a focal point of music echoing from every storefront and bandstand. One of those storefronts was the Wurlitzer Organ shoppe, staffed by musician Dee Fisher. The liner notes of the album Echoes of Disneyland paints a lovely word-picture that Fisher completes with the soothing sounds of the organ:
For most people, the word Disneyland means throngs of happy people having a wonderful time. Very few have ever seen it under the circumstances shown in our cover photo. It's a California winter evening and the lights are just beginning to flicker on. The noonday crowds are gone, and the few visitors remaining stroll slowly toward the gate. It's then that the little old Main Street, springing so recently from an orange grove, takes on a patina of quiet dignity and age that makes it really become the heartline of America.

The album is a perfect intersection of classic Disney songs delivered in a warm vintage style. A click on the cover will take you to it.

Also, nice, clean versions of Meet Me Down on Main Street and Echoes of Disneyland are available through the iTunes store. If you like what you hear, make sure to obtain your copies!

The third is the Disneyland Band Concert. Recorded live at Disneyland in 1956 (only the second year of operation), this album is a delightful mix of classic Disney tunes with genuine era music. One track is even titled Gay Nineties Medley, another Old Time Ballads Medley, and another yet captures the era of the Mississippi steamships with the River Boat Medley. Disneyland's own paddlewheeler, the Mark Twain Riverboat, got in on the act and became an instrument in itself. Once more, click on the album cover to listen for yourself.

While listening at Walt's Music, be sure to drop Ken a line of thanks for all his hard work!

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.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

G.K. Chesterton on the Sensational Novel

My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world. There was a time in my own melodramatic boyhood when I became quite fastidious in this respect. I would look at the first chapter of any new novel as a final test of its merits. If there was a murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I read the story. If there was no murdered man under the sofa in the first chapter, I dismissed the story as tea-table twaddle, which it often really was. But we all lose a little of that fine edge of austerity and idealism which sharpened our spiritual standard in our youth. I have come to compromise with the tea-table and to be less insistent about the sofa. As long as a corpse or two turns up in the second, the third, nay even the fourth or fifth chapter, I make allowance for human weakness, and I ask no more. But a novel without any death in it is still to me a novel without any life in it. I admit that the very best of the tea-table novels are great art - for instance, Emma or Northanger Abbey. Sheer elemental genius can make a work of art out of anything. Michelangelo might make a statue out of mud, and Jane Austen could make a novel out of tea - that much more contemptible substance. But on the whole I think that a tale about one man killing another man is more likely to have something in it than a tale in which, all the characters are talking trivialities without any of that instant and silent presence of death which is one of the strong spiritual bonds of all mankind. I still prefer the novel in which one person does another person to death to the novel in which all the persons are feebly (and vainly) trying to get the others to come to life.

But I have another and more important quarrel about the sensational novel. There seems to be a very general idea that the romance of the tomahawk will be (or will run the risk of being) more immoral than the romance of the teapot. This I violently deny. And in this I have the support of practically all the old moral traditions of our civilization and of every civilization. High or low, good or bad, clever or stupid, a moral story almost always meant a murderous story. For the old Greeks a moral play was one full of madness and slaying. For the great medievals a moral play was one which exhibited the dancing of the devil and the open jaws of hell. For the great Protestant moralists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a moral story meant a story in which a parricide was struck by lightning or a boy was drowned for fishing on a Sunday. For the more rationalistic moralists of the eighteenth century, such as Hogarth, Richardson, and the author of Sandford and Merton, all agreed that shocking calamities could properly be indicated as the result of evil doing; that the more shocking those calamities were the more moral they were. It is only in our exhausted and agnostic age that the idea has been started that if one is moral one must not be melodramatic.

But I believe that sensational novels are the most moral part of modern fiction, and I believe it upon two converging lines, such as make all real conviction. It is, I think, the fact that melodramatic fiction is moral and not immoral. And it is, I think, the abstract truth that any literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.

- G.K. Chesterton, The Spice of Life and Other Essays.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Tom Sawyer's Island, a Recollection

Though I write little about him in this weblog, Mark Twain is one of my most favorite authors. The blame for my making his acquaintance lies squarely on the heads of two men: Will Vinton and Walt Disney. The former is responsible for making The Adventures of Mark Twain, a beautiful Claymation animated film in which Mark Twain takes Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher along in his airship to his fateful 1910 rendezvous with Halley's Comet. The ship and set-up is itself a reference to Tom Sawyer Abroad, and during the course of the movie we also see adaptations of The Diary and Adam and Eve, The Mysterious Stranger, Captain Stormfield's Trip to Heaven and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County. A stunning, melancholy, delightful, sensitive, literary film, it alone would have been enough to interest me in the American Bard.

Then Walt Disney enters the effort. My first trip to Disneyland USA was in 2005, a mere day after the kick-off of the park's 50th anniversary celebration. It was a trip that I had been preparing for some time, and one of the sights I told myself I must see was Tom Sawyer's Island. A childhood ritual of mine was coming home after school every day to watch the afternoon line-up on Family Channel, what was then Canada's closest equivalent to the Disney Channel. Amidst that line-up was the original Mickey Mouse Club. Of that I remember very little, save for the vignettes promoting Disneyland. Of those, the ones that implanted most strongly all featured Frontierland. Perhaps because I am a native of Canada's own Wild West, the images of canoes, steamboats, cowboys, and palisade forts burned into my memory.

Original map brochure of Tom Sawyer's Island.

1955 artwork.

Tom Sawyer's Island, around which the mighty Rivers of America loop in Frontierland, was the heart of it. I had great ambition for running amok... as amok as an adult is socially permitted to run... through Fort Wilderness and Injun Joe's Cave. Only to discover that Fort Wilderness had long since been closed and the island in general wasn't fending too well. Nevertheless, it still became one of my favorite spots in Disneyland. It was especially placid in the mornings, when the mist hung low on the artificial river and it almost took on the air of really, truly being somewhere on the shores of the Mississippi of romance and imagination.

Morning on the Rivers of America.

The island has the distinction of being one of the few places in Disneyland that was personally designed by Walt himself. It took some time to settle on the island being based on the writings of Mark Twain. Concept art and maps also have it designated as "Mickey Mouse Club Island" and "Treasure Island". Sensibly enough, Twain won. The theme fit best for Frontierland and the author held a place in the movie-maker's heart. Walt grew up in Marceline, Missouri, a mere 80-some miles from Twain's own hometown of Hannibal. He is right in Twain country.

It was Walt who drafted up the shoreline of Tom Sawyer's Island and decreed that the paddlewheeler plying the rivers around it should be called the Mark Twain (and the Mark Twain Riverboat is, in fact, the only Disney attraction poster I have in my house). The island itself did not open until 1956, a year after the park. For the opening, a boy dressed as Tom and a girl dressed as Becky planted a box of soil from the Mississippi.

The Mark Twain Riverboat, dressed
for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland.

The landing and rafts that take
visitors to Tom Sawyer's Island.

Tom Sawyer's Island, I would later discover, was only nominally inspired by Twain's most famous novels. If anything, it was really an inspiration of spirit more than an inspiration of specific elements. A grist mill put in for atmosphere took on the name of Harper's Mill, from the character Joe Harper. A half-whitewashed wall pays tribute to what may be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer's most iconic scene. The largest extended reference came via Injun Joe's Cave.

Harper's Mill and the Mark Twain.

Taking its queue from the final chapters of the novel when Tom and Becky were trapped in an endless series of caverns with the murdering thief Injun Joe, his eponymous cave was a walk-through that cut underneath the south end of the island. Sculpted rock layers and fossil remnants could be felt along the walls, but Joe's ill-gotten gold could not be found. Instead, one hazarded the Bottomless Pit that tormented the characters so. Joe's treasure beneath the sign of the cross was actually hidden behind a heavy wooden door beneath Castle Rock in a different section of the island's caverns.

Injun Joe's Cave and the gloom
of the Bottomless Pit.

Castle Rock and its riches.

The third set of caverns led from Fort Wilderness to the former Eastern raft landing: an escape route in case of attack. By the time of my visit, this cavern had been largely plastered over. An escape route was no longer necessary after the shuttering of Fort Wilderness. The Fort, when open, featured gun turrets and snack stands and mannequins of Davy Crockett, Georgie Russell and Andrew Jackson from the first episode of the Davy Crockett trilogy.

Behind Fort Wilderness, one of
Disneyland's five graveyards.

Tom Sawyer's Island held other attractions. At what was originally the highest point in Disneyland, a Tom and Huck's Treehouse stood. Waters from underneath the treehouse spilled out to pour down three different streams that in turn fed the Rivers of America. An overhang of rock was dubbed the lair of the river pirates, a reference to Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Smuggler's Cove had both a pontoon barrel bridge and a swinging suspension bridge. It also had about the nicest view of the river in Disneyland's most naturalized area. This gentle respite was something like a true park in the midst of the theme park.

Smuggler's Cove.

Tom and Huck's Treehouse.

Unfortunately, this is all gone now. Tom Sawyer's Island in its original form is an extinct attraction. With the popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean, the area was transformed into Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island, yet another victim of Jack Sparrow after the vandalism on the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Smuggler's Cove was filled with shipwrecks, a high and dry pirate shipwreck adjoined Castle Rock, and Injun Joe's Cave was renamed Dead Man's Grotto. The bottomless pit acquired a bottom and a new life as the dig site for Davy Jones' Dead Man's Chest. Fort Wilderness lost its fight with termites, the elements and the managers, being demolished and replaced with a ghastly surrogate that houses bathrooms and staff breakrooms. Behind it is a photo spot for Jack Sparrow fans.

The only remaining Twain reference is in the Treehouse. There is a part in the middle of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where the boys run off to play pirate, commandeering a spit of land in the river to become their pirate's lair. There they take on names like "Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main", "Huck Finn the Red-Handed", and "Joe Harper, the Terror of the Seas". These have now been scrawled upon the walls of the Treehouse.

As I was to discover, these references are really no less than was present before. The delightfulness of Tom Sawyer's Island compelled me to finally read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Between my two trips in 2005 and 2006, I inhaled it, hoping to better catch the references made through the island... Only to discover that the whitewashed wall and the name of the cave were about it. In that respect I am not too offended by the transformation of the island into Pirate's Lair. I am more offended that park management felt the need to fill up space with more things (sometimes less is more) and that they did it with more pirates.

Unlicensed properties don't seem to sell, the logic goes. But why Disney has not yet made an animated version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is beyond me. Since they haven't, however, that leaves an island park of vague literary references as an open target. At least Tom Sawyer's Islands still remain in Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.

The Mark Twain Riverboat by Night.