Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Selling the Dream: Part One

Today, looking back at Disney history when it actually involved Disney, today it seems like July 17, 1955 is the epicenter of the Disney empire: everything that Disney had been building towards and much of what he would spend the rest of his life perfecting. After Lady & the Tramp Disney animated films make a precipitous drop in quality - Walt's new toys being three-dimensional, not two dimensional - and for better or worse the QC function went into the hands of the animators: the rigid but gorgeous Sleeping Beauty being the domain of Eyvind Earle, Jungle Book having all of the irritating touches of Woolie Reitherman, and 101 Dalmatians feeling very Marc Davis in pace and design.

In terms of inventing a new art form Disneyland is at least on the level of Snow White, and stood to be as much of a colossal failure. Unlike today's Disney empire, Disney built his business on taking of succession of risks and gambles, small and large, successful and not. He rolled the dice twice on Disneyland, not only on the park, but on the new television medium. And Disneyland itself was built of, on, and with a foundation of cathode ray tubes. Although critics of Walt Disney often point to his status as essentially a talented manager, an animator who couldn't even draw his own star characters and later in life as a right-wing mogul who built a crazy utopia in the middle of nowhere, they often overlook his brilliance in introducing new ideas and concepts. And the fact that Americans always followed his crazy gambles.

It is a masterstroke to introduce all of the key concepts of Disneyland in the format of a television revue show for the entire family. Where a market existed, for the animated features or the True-Life Adventures, it was exploited. Where a market was needed, it was created, and he created stars out of Fess Parker and a schoolroom full of clean-cut American youth. And most importantly, he made a star out of himself and his park, usurping his early career's image as a volatile and aggressive boy wonder and shaping it into a homely protector you could treat to dinner. Look at his official portraits from 1934 and 1955 and the differences in lighting, accent, and pose - and their intent - is unmistakable.

Yet as he created in American families an innate understanding of the concepts of, and a familiarity with, Disneyland, he saved one of his most brilliant flourishes for the whole gamble, the opening day.

By inviting journalists like Art Linkletter, already a respected force in the television scene, Ronald Regan, who was best known at that time for croaking "Win one for the Gipper!" in the phenomenally successful and nauseatingly didactic film Knute Rockne: All American, Disney was shaping his park's public image into something very particular. Already having sold the concept of the park, he now only had to sell the fact that it was open.

Rather than being a travelogue designed to introduce the park, an entertainment spectacular intended to sell its' glamor, Disney was building for Disneyland a movie premiere.

How long do you suppose they spent
setting up this shot?

The opening dedication of Disneyland, read by Disney, cements in place a number of diverse concepts floated through the park, and the Disneyland show, with the conceptual 'mortar' of the speech being that the park is somehow about America. Although certain areas most certainly are - Tomorrowland is an enormous swan-song to American industry in 1955, Frontierland its' Manifest Destiny - it's rather hard to pass Adventureland and Fantasyland off as being somehow indicative of this concept. Disney apparently saw no need to stick to his guns on this thesis statement either, else a Swiss mountain wouldn't have been built in Tomorrowland. Rather his sentimental, distracting and obtuse evocation of Disneyland as "The American Exposition of 1955" is a smokescreen which reassures the viewers, us, the television audience, that Disneyland is Safe, Friendly, and Clean Cut - things that amusement parks in 1955 were not.

Although later park-centric Disneyland programs are usually based on the entertainment value and pagentry of the venture, with parades and endless Annette Funicello musical numbers, Dateline: Disneyland looks exactly like what it is: a live televised news program with all the guts hanging out.

Dateline: Disneyland is thankfully preserved to capture the birth of an American cultural zeitgeist on its' first public exposure in all of its' insanity. Disney looks frequently distracted and terrified. The park looks barren, half-finished and mobbed. Linkletter often appears to be the unflappable ringmaster of a circus. Sammy Davis Jr. rams Frank Sinatra on the Autotopia. Madness breaks out in front of Mr. Toad. Adventureland is almost totally forgotten. Onscreen hootchie-coochie is accidentally broadcast live. If only cameras had captured the fabled James Mason fistfight in front of the carousel, it'd be impossible to conjure up a more successful image of a slightly controlled riot.

Madness in front of Mr. Toad (which has, you may notice, broken)

Disney had much to lose with Disneyland, and even more soberingly, all through 1954 and 1955: having costily converted Lady & the Tramp to widescreen, reshot the ending of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and built Disneyland in less than a year, the Disney studio couldn't afford for any of those ventures to misfire. Had even one not been successful there simply wouldn't have continued to be a Walt Disney Studio. Disney laid his neck on the line once again and many people were disappointed when he did not fail. He didn't even merely succeed. He created three of the most lasting cultural institutions in America.

For the first time Americans looked up a quaint American street to see a European castle. Although the image is irrational and, to some, the worst kind of cultural colonialism, to Americans it always will and probably always has made sense: here, Walt Disney had built the American Dream in concrete, plaster, and wood. Watching it happen on screen for the first time some 50 years later is chilling and exciting. Dateline: Disneyland is a fascinating and sometimes brutally honest look at Walt Disney's greatest gamble.

1 comment:

John said...

Don't forget Irene Dunne's anticlimactic christening of the Mark Twain and the ship's "official" maiden voyage, which better resembled a dry-docked casino than the glorious sailing of a steamship. : )

Still, despite its problems, I'd imagine the special made it possible for the park to start flourishing over subsequent weeks. The broadcast of the Disney-MGM Studios' grand opening in '89 was an absurd affair, too (your host, John Ritter?!?), but it made that park (which had so few attractions at the time I could count them on my right hand) seem instantly appealing.

As an aside, thanks for such a great site. I really look forward to reading your posts.