Friday, October 17, 2008

For Further Study, #3

It is my genuine, firm belief that if all one ever does is to expose herself to culture that is culture approved of by Disney, then her world view will be far narrower than any shared by any of the artists who created the Disney product from the great eras. Disney isn't high culture, but it isn't low culture either, and as such I genuinely hope to point the receptive spectator in the direction of related but challenging, exciting art which will significantly broaden the richness of the experience Disney offers.


Walt Disney often sought in his life and work to associate himself with other notable figures of American history - other movie moguls, oftentimes immigrants, aligned their product with the great international masters such as homespun Warner Brothers offering England's Bard in our last For Further Study - Disney sought and found success in America by creating works of undeniable local color. His early films have been often described as "Barnstorming" - as much for their irrepressible energy as their rural Midwest atmosphere and unsophisticated humor. His one big effort to recruit "Continental" sophistication - Fantasia - mired an already troubled studio in even more financial doubt. It was not an experiment Disney would repeat. His bread and butter for the next several years would draw heavily on American pop rather than the European Gothic of Snow White and Pinocchio.

Disneyland, Walt Disney's largest manifestation of American mythology, included a "River of America", essentially a fantasy of the Mississippi in miniature, a big sternwheel riverboat called the Mark Twain, a whole attraction called Tom Sawyer Island based much on "recieved knowledge" about Sam Clemens' most popular book, and would eventually expand to include a whole New Orleans section, a miniature great northwest, monument valley, and more.

Walt Disney World's version of American history tied together by that river was overall perhaps a bit more ambitious, and in the intervening sixteen years of additions and reconceptualizations the threads of the fictions of Sam Clemens, Walt Disney, larger American myths and WED enterprises had become tangled so finely that extracting any one element from the others would be almost impossible. Mike Fink's Keel Boats, based on a historical figure appearing in Davy Crockett Disney-produced television episodes and extrapolated by Bob Gurr and others into operable form for Disneyland, circled Tom Sawyer Island, a careful index of many places and incidents sometimes mentioned only in passing by Clemens in his famous book, passing along the way Wilson's Cave Inn, a factual figure and location along America's waterways, integrated into the Disneyland television show, and redesigned by Marc Davis for the Walt Disney World show. The ties become culture soup, unlikely and undesirable to untangle.

In 1996 the Magic Kingdom Florida's remaining steamboat Richard F. Irvine was refurbished and renamed the Liberty Belle, in an effort to tie the boat more concretely to her dock in Liberty Square. Part of this effort included a new spiel, rewritten and revised perhaps more extensively than any other equivalent spiel at Walt Disney World. These spiels were often recorded by a jovial but generic sounding "captain" who would point out various attractions of interest along the ride path in typical "folksy" fashion. The new Liberty Belle spiel, adapted from the existing Keel Boat Standard Operating Guide Narration, split the role amongst two narrators, a "captain" and a "pilot", allowing for some degree of banter to enter the narration. The clever touch is that the pilot is Sam Clemens and the captain is a gentleman named Horace Bixby, putting the time frame of the attraction somewhere about 1857 - 1860. Instead of being the result of Clemens' fanciful adventure tales, Tom Sawyer Island is now the place which inspired them.

There are a handful of objections to the spiel, including certain historical inaccuracies - Horace Bixby was never a riverboat captain to Clemens, for example, a Captain of a riverboat being the owner rather than chief operator of the vessel - and the generally pervasive sense that the existing spiel was peppered with passages from a rather short collection of famous Sam Clemens quotes in fairly desperate fashion. It is, however, the only attraction in Disney to casually mention almost hanging somebody as a throw-away joke, and deserves more credit than the above paragraph perhaps suggests.

At this point we reach the For Further study portion of this history lesson, which is not, as expected, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain but rather, his lesser known and wickedly entertaining "Old Times on the Mississippi". This series of seven articles is the absolute basis of the Liberty Belle spiel, and although nowhere in the work does Clemens once mention Horace Bixby by name, any cursory examination of Clemens' personal history will dredge this name up. It is the stuff of legend that Clemens was once a Riverboat pilot, and "Old Times on the Mississippi" proves the tall tales true with comic anecdotes, technical specifications, atmosphere and nostalgia. In the shadow of the book does the Liberty Belle spiel become a fount of rich history.

One of the secondary functions of Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom is teaching; histories and architectural styles are taught with mere glances, while films, novels, plays, music and all other media are annotated vigorously and continually. Although probably not everyone was led from Mr. Toad's Wild Ride to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad to Kenneth Grahame's beautiful The Wind in the Willows as I was, but youthful expeditions on Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World may one day bear fruit as assigned readings of Mark Twain in high school become as nostalgic and enjoyable as hey deserve to be. It would probably be impossible to construct a full list of references for something like The Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, but memories of everyone from Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson echo through Walt Disney World like a chorus.

The full text of Old Times on the Mississippi.
Further information on Clemens and Bixby.
Full text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.


Passport to Dreams Old & New For Further Study list:

Old Times on the Mississippi, 1876, Mark Twain - nonfiction.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Warner Brothers Pictures 1935, Dir: William Dieterle
The Tales of Hoffman, London Pictures 1949, Dir: Michael Powell
Tiki Modern, 2007, Sven Kirsten, Taschen Books