Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Mark of Zorro, the 1920 Film

Filmmakers and media mavens were quick to recognize the appeal of the masked bandito for justice, Zorro. No sooner had Johnston McCulley's character first appeared in print in 1919 than the film rights were scooped up by none other than Hollywood's top action star, Douglas Fairbanks. He found the perfect vehicle for his patented brand of swashbuckling acrobatics and thrilling swordplay, creating the very first picture released by United Artists, the production company founded by him, his wife Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. It became the first of 40 films to feature Zorro, the most recent being those starring Antonio Banderas and the most famous being Disney's television series (the first 13 episodes were condensed into a feature film, The Sign of Zorro). It would also inspire wider aspects of pop-culture: the debt owed to Zorro by comic book creator Bob Kane was acknowledged when it came time to reveal the origin of The Batman. It was a showing of The Mark of Zorro that the Waynes were returning from when a mugger killed Thomas and Martha, the parents of young Bruce Wayne. Five years later, Fairbanks would return in Don Q, Son of Zorro.

Now here, for you enjoyment, is Douglas Fairbanks' silent film adventure from the Golden Age of Hollywood, The Mark of Zorro...

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Walt's Era - Part 11: A Gala Year for Disney (1959)

1959 was a good year for Disney in front of the cameras. In Disneyland, it was a "Gala Day" when the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, and Disneyland-Alweg Monorail were opened on June 15th. The openings were commemorated on television with the program Disneyland '59 (to be re-released theatrically the following year), and inaugurated the new "E-Ticket." On television, Walt Disney Presents, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Zorro were still going strong. On the silver screen, 1959 was Disney's best year since 1954/55... Sleeping Beauty, The Shaggy Dog, Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Third Man on the Mountain, Jungle Cat, Grand Canyon, Donald in Mathmagic Land... After some of the low points of the last couple entries, such a consistently good slate of films is a welcome relief. New stars were also being built up, like Annette Funicello, who was rising to stardom with her first top ten single, Tall Paul.

Walt and the Nixons attempting to cut the ribbon for the Monorail.
Photo: Disney.
Behind the cameras though, the situation was tense. Annette was getting an improved sense of her own economic value with her rising stardom, and filed a suit to break her contract with Disney in order to make higher pay. Disney launched into their own dispute with ABC to break their contract. As a result, the last episode of Zorro aired on September 24th and the last episode of The Mickey Mouse Club aired on September 25th. It was competition from Pacific Ocean Park, which had started to outdraw Disneyland, that prompted the investment in new attractions. However, the low-capacity wagons and stagecoaches of Nature's Wonderland closed down. And despite how good the films were, Disney's theatrical releases also underperformed through 1959 and 1960. In 1960, the company reported their first fiscal loss in ten years, leading to substantial layoffs in the animation department.

As an aside, for the many fans of a particular Disney Parks attraction (myself included), Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone also debuted in 1959 on CBS. It would run for five seasons, ending in 1964. The show was not initially profitable, having to fight against the bias that Science Fiction was merely childish escapism, but has since become one of the most revered and respected adult television dramas of all time. That The Twilight Zone should have eventually worked its way into a Disney theme park is an ironic twist worthy of the show itself. Whereas Walt offered reassurance, Rod Serling did anything but. The dominant theme of The Twilight Zone was the existential angst of modern society, and especially the role of the modern man in a culture that seemed to be leaving him behind.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Zorro, the Curse of Capistrano

The archetype of the avenging swashbuckler is a very old one. Ballads of Robin Hood go back to the 15th century, and there were certainly others before him... Characters of great daring and great romance who rob from the rich and give to the poor, and otherwise seek to right wrongs and fight injustice against which others are cowardly or impotent. The legacy of the swashbuckler has distilled into the modern superhero, the Captain Americas and Batmans who fight the fight that properly constituted authority cannot (in fact, Captain America lately seems to spend more time fighting government institutions than being one). Though the swashbuckler archetype is an old one, some of its most popular and well-known manifestations are not as old as some might think. The lineage of Batman - the dilettante whose secret identity is the mask - goes back at least to Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, the 1905 novel set in Revolutionary France. His more direct ancestor is Johnston McCulley's black-clad avenger of Alta California, Señor Zorro, who was created in 1919. Zorro was such a smash success that Douglas Fairbanks immediately scooped up the movie rights, and it was that 1920 film that a young Bruce Wayne and his family saw on that fateful night.

Originally published in the pulp magazine All-Story, The Curse of Capistrano introduced Zorro and his alter-ego Don Diego de la Vega to the world. While the various assorted swashbucklers of the past had their romantic appeal, Musketeers and Pimpernels working for the benefit of European aristocracies was a bit of a hard sell in the United States. Zorro was the first true, homegrown version of the archetype. Zorro was not an agent of Alta California's governor or the Mexican authorities. Unlike Disney's later adaptation, there was no recourse to any just form of higher authority whatsoever. In McCulley's California, the corruption goes all the way to the governor himself. Capitán Ramon and his cronies were merely vultures at the scraps, using their position to exploit what the governor himself had overlooked in a pervasive culture of injustice. Zorro instead stood as a man among men, fighting against the corrupt system for the benefit of Natives, Franciscan missions, and the unfairly persecuted, eventually uniting to himself a militia of gentry to confront the governor. The Curse of Capistrano could very well be taken as a veiled recapitulation of the American Revolution.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio

By 1881, the Italian author Carlo Collodi had already achieved renown as a translator of fairy tales when friends piqued his interest in writing his own. A short story about a little wooden puppet come to life was published in the children’s section of a Roman newspaper, which evolved into the serialized Adventures of Pinocchio. The first 15 episodes ran through 1881 and 1882 before Collodi was invited to write an additional 21 chapters for publication in a book in 1883.

In the original serialized form, Pinocchio is an outright brat whose short life ends with being hanged until dead at the conclusion of chapter 15. Collodi dispenses with trying to explain how Pinocchio is alive. Much like ourselves, he merely is and the rest must suffer the consequences. Among his miscreant acts is to flee from Geppetto the moment he is given legs, squish the Talking Cricket that tries to moralize at him, sell off the A-B-C book that Geppetto bought for him (by trading off his only coat) in exchange for tickets to the Marionette Theater, and finally to run afoul of the Fox and the Cat, who are ultimately responsible for his assassination. Pinocchio's was a hard life poorly spent and easily lost.

Fleeing from Geppetto. Illustration by Carlo Chiostri.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Walt's Era - Part 10: Disney's Lost Years (1957-58)

1957 and 1958 coasted along fairly well for Disney, with a few hiccups. Walt started the experiment of taking True-Life Adventures to their next logical place, with his first (and only) "True-Life Fantasy"... A scripted film featuring animals. On October 10th, 1957, the first episode of the legendary Zorro series debuted. In 1958, Walt added to the largest model train set in the world with the addition of the Grand Canyon Diorama, the  #3 engine, and a new station at Tomorrowland. That wasn't the only change in Tomorrowland either. Large parts of it went down for renovations, including the Viewliner train that only opened in 1957. On the other side of the park, the Sailing Ship Columbia, Fowler's Harbor, and the proper Alice in Wonderland ride opened. In September of 1958, Walt Disney's Disneyland on ABC becomes Walt Disney Presents. Apparently the need to so directly build up Disneyland's name recognition was no longer urgent.

Guy Williams doing a public appearance in Frontierland, in character, in 1958.
Photo: Disney.

The biggest blow to the company in this period came with Fess Parker's departure in late 1958, though they probably didn't really notice. After such a banner year in 1956, in which he carried the company's live-action films, Fess was severely underutilized through 1957 and '58. He only made one film for Disney in 1957 - Old Yeller - and another in 1958, and in both he was merely a supporting actor. Recognizing this, how his character was essentially the same in every film, and how little he was being paid by a demanding institution with so many fingers in so many pies that they could really care less about his well-being or career, he wanted to pursue other opportunities. Walt refused to lend him out to other studios for any role that did not conform to Disney's vision for him. This included missing out on a meaty role opposite John Wayne in The Searchers (which he only found out after the fact, when Walt told him in passing) and as Marilyn Monroe's leading man in Bus Stop. Therefore, when Fess was ordered to begin filming a bit part for Tonka in 1958, he refused. He was put on suspension, and eventually walked away from his contract.

What I find most notable about this period, though, is that so much of it is missing. Of the 20 films listed in this part, 10 are not available in any current format and a further four are not available in their theatrical form. Four of those films that are unavailable in theatrical form don't even have a recorded release date. Also of interest, three of those were "Tomorrowland" featurettes: Our Friend the Atom, Man and the Moon, and Man in Flight. In retrospect it would have been interesting to have had a second Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland DVD with the theatrical versions of these shows and Man in Space and Mars and Beyond, as well as missing episodes like Magic Highway U.S.A. Maybe that could have gone alongside the People and Places DVDs that should have been made alongside the True-Life Adventures DVDs. The vast majority of the missing films in this section are People and Places shorts. Unfortunately both Walt Disney Treasures and the Walt Disney Legacy Collection DVDs stalled out long, long ago.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Three Little Pigs

When Disney's Silly Symphony short The Three Little Pigs was released in 1933, it was a runaway success. In Disneyana: Classic Collectables 1928-1958, authors Robert Heide and John Gilman attribute this to the short's echoing of the Great Depression's darkest depths...
1933 has been called the worst year of the Great Depression, and those who kept their jobs worked hard to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. In the 1930's, the Big Bad Wolf served as a euphemism for the landlord, the mortgage company, or the bill collector... The story of the three little pigs and their frantic attempts to outwit the wolf, as well as their desperate search for security, captivated adults and children alike, who identified with them in those difficult times. 

The original nursery rhyme has an enduring quality because those trials faced by the titular swine aren't unique to the Depression. Originally, the story began with a sow sending her children off to make their own way in the world, as all children eventually must. The wise pig builds his house of bricks and demonstrates sufficient craft to outwit those who would take advantage of him. The other two pigs less so. Like many nursery rhymes and fairy tales, it was a cautionary tale about the world. An acquaintance of mine once described fairy tales as "the horror stories we tell children to prepare them for the horrors of the real world."

The story is of unknown provenance. The first printed edition comes by way of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips' The Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1886. That version gives us the same basic outline found in all subsequent versions, and is credited directly by Joseph Jacobs, who quoted almost verbatim in his English Fairy Tales book of 1890. Jacobs was a pioneering folklorist and is responsible for popularizing many of the stories that are still passed on today (and which became fertile source material for Disney's Silly Symphonies). The following rendition, and illustration, is from Jacob's book:

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Cory's Disney in Review 2016

It's that time again, closing out the year with my top fives for 2016! But what to choose from? Some of the things on my list might seem a bit odd, but you've undoubtedly figured out by now that my tastes can skew to the unusual. There is a rhyme and reason to it though, so let's go...

#1: The Jungle Book
If we ignore Maleficent and anything produced by Tim Burton, then Disney is doing really well with their live-action remakes of classic animated films. Last year's Top Five lead off with Cinderella in #1, and this year it is The Jungle Book. Beautifully realized for a film pushing the boundaries of what even qualifies as "live action" anymore, the greatest gift that it gave to the story was providing a genuine emotional heart. Both the original film and the original books just had a series of things happening to man and animal alike. Dwelling on the credo of the wolves provided an emotional heart that paid off very, very well. If Disney can keep it up, then I suspect that next year will be lead off with Beauty and the Beast.

#2: Shanghai Disneyland
Disney's newest theme park came in second place because until China throws off the shackles of dictatorship, I never plan on going there. However, it's full of all sorts of neat things that would be nice to see spread across other Disneylands. I don't even mind the movie-heavy Pirates of the Caribbean, because at least it was custom-built that way instead of just imposing Jack Sparrow on an otherwise perfect attraction. I'm uncertain about Mickey Ave. but I do like the more robust castle, the Tron coaster, expanded Peter Pan's Flight, and Adventure Isle.

Photo: Disney

#2: Disney Parks Present: The Haunted Mansion
I grant that the quiet release of a picture book may seem an odd choice after Shanghai Disneyland, but this is as much a vote of confidence in the series as for the book itself. In 2011, Disney put out a picture book based on It's a Small World, which printed the Sherman Bros. lyrics with art by Joey Chou and a CD of the song. Apparently it did well enough that Disney Parks went ahead, declared an official series of books, and inaugurated it with The Haunted Mansion. Another CD joins the art of James Gilleard and lyrics of X. Atencio. It's a wonderful way to celebrate the music of Disney Parks and a fond way to remember the rides and shows at home. I look forward to the inevitable Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted Tiki Room, and Country Bear Jamboree books!

#3: Camp Woodchuck
Can we just accept that I always pick offbeat things? Every time I've been in the US parks and seen anything to do with the Wilderness Explorers, be it in California Adventure or Animal Kingdom, I immediately think "tisk tisk, it really ought to be the Junior Woodchucks." And lo, Japan did provide a Junior Woodchucks based restaurant and meet-and-greet area! It's very well done, with tonnes of references to classic Disney, which is very pleasing, but I also like it for what it means. The Disney company itself seems to have a crisis of identity... An almost profound lack of faith in itself, leading to the imperial acquisition of IP after IP and proceeding to stuff those down everyone's throat. This past year I had a little outburst on one or another of Disney's Facebook pages exclaiming that I'm sick to death of hearing about Marvel and Star Wars. I'm a DISNEY fan dammit, and was one BEFORE they bought up these things. I just want DISNEY news. It was, of course, deleted by the moderators. Tokyo Disney doesn't seem to have this same problem, no doubt owing to the fact that the Oriental Land Company is licencing the Disney brand. They have very real faith in the strength of that brand and a clear apparent idea of what to do with its IP. They have an entire section of Tokyo DisneySea based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and for several years have been running a Duffy-like merchandise promotion based on the black sheep from So Dear to My Heart. For real! And now there's Camp Woodchuck. Who knows, if the new Ducktales does well, maybe a version of it will come over to North America?

Concept art: Disney

#4: Moana
I was modestly looking forward to Moana, being an aficionado of Tiki and Polynesian culture, largely thanks to Disney. But I've also learned to be reserved in my expectations, especially after the trailers and clips I had seen before the film's debut. To be honest, I didn't think the music and dialogue in those clips was much to look forward to. Nor did "Made by the studio that brought you Wreck-It Ralph", that infamously being the only Disney film I've actually turned off a half-hour in, and having done so while on a plane. Yes, I decided that doing nothing while trapped on an airplane was a better investment of time than finishing Wreck-It Ralph. Thankfully, those songs and clips from Moana worked a lot better in context. It ended up being a decent little film with a Miyazaki-esque vibe to it that was very welcome to see from Disney. As is the case typically, I would rather have seen a movie based on the actual legends of Maui, just like I would have rather seen more straightforward adaptations of The Snow Queen (Frozen) or Reynard the Fox (Zootopia). For what it was, however, it was fine and it was good to see representation of Polynesians in a major Hollywood film.


Dishonourable Mention
Dear Once Upon a Time, exactly what do you think you're doing?! Fans of the ABC television series Once Upon a Time have long had to face up to the fact that Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz only really had a good, solid idea for one season, and have been running on inertia ever since. The first season was phenomenal, and while the second season wasn't as good, it still had some interesting characters and ideas. The show began morphing from a story about defeating the villains to a show about redemption. Season three fell into the silly fad of breaking a season up into two half-seasons, with varying degrees of success. Seasons 3a with Peter Pan and 4a with Frozen were actually pretty good, season 3b with the Wicked Witch of the West (played by the horribly miscast Rebecca Mader) was just awful, and seasons 4b and all of five were mostly victims of missed opportunities that could have benefited from full-season story arcs. Oh yeah, there was an unwatchable and forgettable spin-off series in there as well, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, that only lasted one season.

That brings us to the current mess. The Land of Unread Books Untold Stories plot has been a bust. It hasn't provided anything this season that ought to have been done or couldn't have been done another way. With the Underworld being evacuated at the end of last season, they could have easily brought characters like Lady Tremain or Captain Nemo back to life, maintaining the essential integrity of those episodes. They never should have done the Count of Monte Cristo, which did such a disservice to the character that it outright offended Ashley, who counts the Alexandre Dumas classic as her favourite book. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could have just as easily, and more sensibly, come from the realm of Gothic Horror that they already established in season two, when they revealed Dr. Whale's identity. I've been dying to see them do more with that realm, from which they could derive Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, Dorian Gray, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Dr. Moreau, Heathcliff, the list goes on. That would be a heck of a season. I guess we'll always have Penny Dreadful for that, which is an excellent series that knew when to quit.

The worst part of season six, though, is the unending, repetitive drama of the leads. They had a brilliant opportunity mid-season five to explore how Rumpelstiltskin rebuilds his life and redeems himself after being released from the curse of the Dark One. Nope. Nope, he's just the Dark One again, and now we have to deal with interminable drama between him and Belle. Nor do I care about the Charmings anymore. Haven't we really said everything about them that we need to at this point? The separation of the Evil Queen from Regina could be interesting if Regina was at all a different person with her evil part gone, or had any real insights into the nature of good and evil. Poor Captain Hook has now suffered the malady of Badass Decay. Not that the season has been without highlights, but the best part is getting the least attention, being the B-plot with Aladdin and Jasmine. Right now, the most entertaining part of Once Upon a Time is reading Lily Sparks' irreverent reviews.  

For for a writing a depressing rant to end off what is supposed to be a celebratory post, but this one has been brewing for a while, as one might glean from its length. So in the spirit of ending on a high note, I will mention one of the highlights from this season of Once Upon a Time: seeing the Nautilus again. Luckily, it's easier to be flexible with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than with The Count of Monte Cristo. The latter is a very contextually specific book with a subtlety that can be missed if it's simply treated as a crude revenge story. For 20,000 Leagues, after decades of seeing Nemo and his creations in one movie after another, and speaking as a huge Jules Verne fan, all you really need to get right is the submarine. Thankfully Once Upon a Time chose to stick more or less with Disney's iconic design! Good job guys!