Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Walt Disney's America, Part Two

If, then, we can advance the argument that Disneyland is essentially a number of components brought together to elucidate the theme of the American experience, and that this is the intent of the park as expressed through design, theme, and format, we must then regard Walt Disney’s cornerstone effort towards expressing his patriotism as the cornerstone of this theme.

This is how it began.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

“These immortal words, when first they were written, proclaimed to the world an idea new among men. This was the American dream. The prayer for the future. But that golden goal was not to be had without cost. The American way was not gained in a day. It was born in adversity, forged out of conflict, perfected and proven only after long experience and trial.”

And thus began the 1964 World’s Fair version of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which the head of the event thought the best thing there outside of the Pieta. It is also a key moment in the history of the development of the amusement park into the theme park into something resembling an art, for moreso than the capacity concerns which “It’s A Small World” addressed and fashioned a viable solution for, Mr. Lincoln finally cracked that old nut Mr. Disney had been trying so hard to break since 1955: the representation of reality.

Back in 1937 the Disney animators proved that audiences would care about a drawing on a screen, and a brief review of Walt Disney’s ambitions for Disneyland prove that he probably and immediately wanted to prove that spectatorship could react in a similarly complex way to his new creative medium. After all, an animated film is no more or less synthetic than a fiberglass elephant. Or a President, for that matter.

And it was Disney who was proved right and you can’t find anybody who wasn’t at the 1964 World’s Fair who doesn’t recall Lincoln and that almost the entire audience would cry. If that didn’t happen, they’d throw ball bearings trying to get the President to flinch. Here was the equivalent of that final scene of Snow White and make no mistake, just as Snow White finally and forever announced that animation could be great art, Mr. Lincoln was the start of WED’s greatest age.

There has always been and will probably always be an inherent uneasiness among audiences regarding the merits of the audio-animatronics illusion, an uneasiness which the attraction itself partially, tacitly defuses by announcing that Lincoln was created of “the skills of the sculptor and the talents of the artist”. But even today, after living with the technology for nearly 45 years, audience members still find that Lincoln travels well into what we now know as “the uncanny valley” at the Walt Disney World Hall of Presidents, and therein lies the potential for great opposition.

Richard Schickel, for one, saved a lot of venom for Mr. Lincoln in particular at the end of the otherwise positive “The Disney Version”, potently notating the Frankenstein myth as a valid pararrel. Disney films and Disneyland do not do any favors in painting Disney himself as an insufferable control freak, and in recreating a false human being, long dead, who is essentially impossible to distinguish from a real human being is, in the harshest criticism, essentially an affront to divine providence. In Disneyland, where the smallest details are worked out to the most minute extent, a place which Disney itself called a kingdom and the outside world is blocked out by a 15 foot berm, starting to install and display artificial humans for the amusement of the real humans is nearly asking for somebody to come along and hurl all this evidence of sinister intent right back at King Walt.

But all this assumes malevolent intentions, and those people who most commonly need to assign malevolent intentions to Walt Disney’s personal projects are those who most commonly see little that is good in them. As a work of a kind of art created by a task force of artists under the personal supervision of Disney, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln unpretentiously aspires to what pretentious works of art often fail to do: to inspire.

The cultural exploitation of the figure of Abraham Lincoln in the program is in some ways the biggest cultural “cheat”: through the repetitions of the nickname “Honest Abe” and his constant appearances as a signifier of honest and unpretentious patriotism and common sense, Lincoln is one of America’s most overinflated balloons and as a result is one of most prized targets for those wishing to “make a statement”. Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln’s original Royal Dano recordings are today disquietingly slanted towards a McCarthy-era sermon on respect for America and Americaness, if one wishes to find political targets there.

Our modern conception of Lincoln today comes from the play “Abraham Lincoln in Illinois”, which won the Pulitzer Prize and has received a number of filmed versions. It was here where Lincoln was most successfully and famously portrayed as a folksy, homespun hero who, by dint of his humble and uneducated nature as well as inherent brilliance, managed to portray everything Americans valorize about themselves in one fell swoop. As a result this play must have been in the mind of Disney, a self confessed Lincoln buff, and its’ influential fingerprints can be found all over Dano’s preshow oration of Lincoln’s early life in his own words.

Another influence which bears close analysis which would’ve been in Disney’s mind at the time is John Ford’s 1939 film “Young Mr. Lincoln” starring Henry Fonda, and that role, along with his Tom Joad in Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath” are the two roles most closely associated with Fonda until his role in “12 Angry Men” many years later. Although coincidence cannot be discounted due to the somewhat inverse effects of the actual show sequences, the very end of “Young Mr. Lincoln” is rather similar in individual elements to the very end of “Great Moments” and “Hall of Presidents”.

Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln: Inverted by Disney? (click for larger)

In the film, Lincoln, having just won an impossible to win court case, is asked “what are you going to do now?” to which he replies “I’ll just keep on going – maybe to the top of that hill.” He climbs the hill as a thunderstorm begins to rage, The Battle Hymn of the Republic creeps out of the storm, and the Lincoln Monument appears. This is not too far off, in general strategy, of a sunrise behind the Capitol building becoming an American flag to the tune of “Battle Hymn”, in that both feature a common song, deployment of a national monument strongly tied to democracy, and a symbolic weather transformation.

The Hall of Presidents show of 1971 greatly expanded the scope of the existing Lincoln show, adding every other President and a stirring introductory film. Here, Lincoln’s words, spoken not as a triumphant cry but a plaintive whisper by Royal Dano, are most stirring and effective. It really is a shame that this great performance cannot be heard in any medium today, with the 1993 removal of the original version of the Hall of Presidents show and the 2001 reworking of the Lincoln show into the clumsy and irrelevant More Great Moments With Mr, Lincoln, for the quotations that show director James Algar originally assembled seem more, not less, relevant today.

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge…”

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up among us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves, must be its author and its finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide..”

Since no complete public record of Disney’s original “One Nation Under God” show exists we have no full idea exactly what Disney was planning in 1959 for his Liberty Street, but as in all of Phase One Walt Disney World construction, a semblance of his spirit was carried over through allowing all of the original key creative teams to revise their own work to a higher standard.

In this light it’s hard not to think of The Hall of Presidents as anything other than Walt Disney’s final statement on America and Americaness, regardless of its’ approximation of his 1959 plans. And the original show – the version minus the current President speech and the dumbed down narration and intentional historical inaccuracies – is still a vibrant and stirring statement on the nature of the American Dream. It may be an invariably positive account of a country with an often over-idealized national history, but it never talked down to the audience and did so with no hint of superiority and irony. It is, in short, a show of as high a standard as Walt Disney would have held it to.

The role of these shows in Disney history is often made light of, but Mr. Lincoln was as key of a moment in Disney history as any and deserves serious contemplation as such. As a microcosm of Disneyland’s theme as a whole, as a statement on Americaness by somebody who embodies what we think of as being American more than almost anybody (except George Washington, Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln themselves), and as the lynchpin of an 18 year Renaissance of Walt Disney’s own invented art, Mr. Disney’s Mr. Lincoln is arguably his greatest creation of all.

This second part would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Eric Paddon to document and comment on the various incarnations of the Lincoln shows as posted on www.nywf64.com, Widen Your World and Walt Dated World, as well as Mike Lee and Alison for hosting these efforts, and Bill Young of nywf64.com for pulling together a number of sources to aid this poor young fool in understanding exactly what the original Lincoln show was.


Biblioadonis aka George said...

Simply put: thanks.

ericpaddon said...

I thank you for your kind words about my own research into the "Hall Of Presidents" attraction and am glad it was helpful for your essay here.