Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Original Films of the Main Street Cinema

I've long believed that Main Street USA at Disneyland USA should be treated like a genuine land unto itself rather than merely a pretty mall to speed through on one's way in and out of the park. The charming Victorian atmosphere, exquisite detail, and variety of things to do make it well worth the time to investigate, from the Disney Gallery to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln to the Penny Arcade to the Disneyland Railroad to the Dapper Dans to the Emporium dioramas to the Main St. vehicles. Merchandising demands consistently wear away at the integrity of Main Street - Oh to see the Penny Arcade as it once was! Even to see it as I first saw it! - but one of the park's true gems has remained more or less inviolate. That gem is Main Street Cinema.

Where other Disney parks have closed down their cinemas or turned them into shops (or never had them to begin with), Disneyland's remains a quiet respite from crowds and weather where one can watch classic Mickey Mouse cartoons of a bygone age. Yet when the park opened, and for a good many years thereafter, it was not Mickey who emblazoned the cinema's six screens, but the greatest films of the silent era. Of course, none of these films would have been shown in a theatre at the turn of the century when Walt was growing up... Some of them were even made after Walt had already grown and moved to Hollywood! Nevertheless, they still achieve Main Street's desired effect, which was not a documentary verisimilitude, but rather, a nostalgic reminiscence of everything "old timey."


Main Street Cinema had a rotating series of films it showed. Every so often, the marquee changed and a different set of sign boards were put out on the sidewalk to tempt passersby to spend an A-ticket. Yes, at one time the ticket booth was actually in use (not merely deluding poor guests who didn't notice that the person inside was a mannequin, as I have seen happen several times). For that A-ticket, guests could experience limitless thrills, chills, pathos, and excitement as they watched clips from classic comedies, cartoons, and dramas.

Presented below are a few of those films, as could be identified from old photos of the cinema and are readily available online.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A is for Atom

In my research on Disney's Our Friend the Atom, I came across this interesting little film from 1952. Titled A is for Atom and produced by General Electric, it covers essentially the same ground, in almost the same way, as Disney's later episode of Walt Disney's Disneyland. It doesn't have the same production values behind it, but it does have a lot of nice, mid-century modern style and the same unenviable task of making atomic power seem less frightening than it (rightly) did.


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Walt's Era - Part 15: Clear Sailing Through the Early Sixties, Part 2 (1963)

This year brought a generally good slate of films... Mostly nice, solid, and some classic pictures like Sword in the Stone and The Incredible Journey... but once again the biggest advancement for Disney was in the theme parks. 1963 was the year that Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room debuted, revolutionizing the art of mechanical animation. The attraction still astonishes and enchants me every time I see it today, even with all the improvements in audio-animatronics in the past 50-some years. I can only imagine what a bolt from the blue it must have seemed like in 1963.

Walt visits the Enchanted Tiki Room. Photo: Disney.
On the business side of things, Walt began scoping out locations for the future Walt Disney World, settling on Florida. An assortment of false-front companies started buying up the necessary land, hoping to keep it under wraps to suppress avaricious real estate inflation. Walt also extended his 1953 contract with Walt Disney Productions, which included his ownership of the DLRR, Monorail, royalties from his name and WED creations, and this newest enchanted attraction. Even today, the attraction is formally known as Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, as a nod to the day when it was personally owned by Walt Disney and charged a separate admission fee of 75 cents. 


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Requiem for Pirates of the Caribbean

"We wants the grandfather clock!" Image: Disney.

I had already stopped reading the largely depressing spectacle that is the Disney Parks Blog some months ago, so I had to hear about this through the grapevine. I would imagine that it says a lot right there that the major source for official news is depressing enough for me to stop reading it. When I hear people attempt to defend Disney when they do things like this by saying "You just have to trust Disney, they know what they're doing," I see no evidence to support that claim.

If somehow you have not heard about this, the current refurbishment of the Disneyland Paris version of Pirates of the Caribbean will include not only Jack Sparrow, Davy Jones, Blackbeard, and Barbossa (inserted unceremoniously into the scene with the skeleton at the helm, because at this point why not?), but an altered auction scene in which it is not wenches up for sale, but the villagers' loot. Because, after all, why would pirates be looting loot themselves when they could just buy it? Furthermore, these changes are not limited to Disneyland Paris: they are set to be introduced to rides in Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 2018. The offending post can be read here. The comments are golden.

Concept art of Barbossa in the skeleton at the helm scene,
like a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Image: Disney.

Presumably the changes were undertaken with the idea of making the ride more politically correct in respects to the status of women. Really, this is a logical trajectory after the alteration of the scene where pirates were chasing women. After the vandalism perpetrated to the ride through the addition of Jack Sparrow as the entire ride's focal point, inappropriate projection effects of Davy Jones and Blackbeard, and ill-fitting clips from the film soundtrack, the ride no longer has artistic or narrative integrity anyways. I can't really muster outrage for the Disneyland and WDW versions of the ride, because they have already been irredeemably wrecked. 

What I'm most upset about is the vandalism to the Disneyland Paris version. Though the layout of the attraction is different, it was the last remaining version that retained the spirit and intent of the original. The movie-based vandalisms had not yet been applied, and all the original show scenes were intact, including the pirates chasing the women. When we rode it on our trip to Paris in 2013, I actually began tearing up because I had forgotten what an amazing ride Pirates of the Caribbean used to be. When all the elements work together in a coherent whole, it is one of the best themed attractions ever designed. Or was.

The usual tonedeaf, clueless interviews with Imagineering (including dusting off Marty Sklar) came with the news. One particular nugget, from Kathy Magnum, Sr. VP of Imagineering, sums up the entire problem:  "Our team thought long and hard about how to best update this scene." Any thinking Disney fan knows the appropriate response to this: "WHY?!" The scene didn't need updating. Keen to vandalize the work of their predecessors, they decided to needlessly destroy one of the ride's most iconic scenes and replace it with... nothing. A wry and witty scene that everyone understood was based ultimately in the fact that pirates were bad people is being replaced by a nonsensical scene in which nothing really happens. The new redhead pirate just stands there, the former auctioneer just stands there, and I guess the guys across the shore will be just be sitting there. There is no joke implicit to this scene, and nothing memorable about it. Though I guess in a ride where the highlight is now catching a glimpse of a Jack Sparrow animatronic just standing there, we're expected to take the redhead pirate just standing there as a memorable moment. I'm not even confident that, with this accumulation of changes, what Magnum herself described as "the standard for the theme park industry for half a century" even qualifies as a good attraction anymore.

Some might retort that Disney has to keep changing in order to keep drawing guests, just like how the curators at the Louvre make little changes to the Mona Lisa every year to keep it fresh. I've already wasted my time and breath addressing that particular argument though. Great works of art are timeless because they are great. They don't need to be made "fresh," they don't need to be "updated" to remain relevant. No, I don't hate change: I hate the wanton destruction of great, beautiful, important things.

"Our team thought long and hard about how to best update the
Mona Lisa. The painting has always represented great
Da Vinci storytelling, but it's a story you can
continue to add fun to," said curators at the Louvre.

Some time ago, I watched a video on the question of what would be the "last straw" to finally make you stop going to Disneyland (sadly the video seems to have disappeared down the memory hole). It occurred to me that if it was anything, it would probably be something that, on it's own, appeared kind of petty and silly. That's because my growing dissatisfaction with Disney is really a death by a thousand small cuts. It's not the addition of Jack Sparrow to Pirates of the Caribbean on its own, or the loss of the Court of Angels on its own, or the truncating of the Rivers of America on its own, or the loss of Big Thunder Ranch on its own, or even the loss of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror on its own (though that was certainly enough to swear me off California Adventure)... It's the cumulative effect of turning Disneyland into a place that is increasingly alien, inartistic, and unpleasant.

Could this be the last straw? I don't know. But I do wish that when we took our last trip to Disneyland in 2015 that I knew about all the changes that would come in the past year and a half. I would have spent more time savouring what would be lost, understanding the very real possibility that our last trip could well be our last trip.