Wednesday, 22 March 2017

National Parks in the Time of Grizzly Peak



Disney California Adventure park's Grizzly Peak Recreation Area and Airfield have been reset from the Nineties extreme sports era to the vintage time period of the early Sixties. This makes it contemporaneous with Disney's True-Life Adventures films, Humphrey the Bear shorts, and the Golden Age of the Great American Road Trip that brought so many visitors to the National Parks along the newly christened Interstate Highway system.

One could do worse to capture a feel for the period than to watch the True-Life films and Humphrey shorts, as well as Disney's later animal features like Yellowstone Cubs (some of which are specifically referenced in Grizzly Peak as films being shown in the late-night ranger program). Nevertheless, there is a wealth of available material out there, above and beyond one's old family photos. For example, the following Vacation Land U.S.A. program presented by the Ford Motor Company features Yellowstone circa the late Fifties.


Castle Films presents this 1965 short on Grand Teton Country, featuring Pioneer Days at Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.


The next travelogue is of Glacier National Park around the early Sixties, this time presented by Great Northern Railway. Clearly they are keen to have guests at their chain of rustic lodges sprinkled throughout the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, reached by a ride on a streamlined Great Northern train. But at this time, railway travel was steadily dying out to highway travel.


Here is another take on Glacier National Park in another mid-century travelogue from Great Northern Railway.


The next film takes us on a black-and-white tour of the crown jewel, the Grand Canyon, circa 1958.


This silent film produced by Castle makes a nice virtual tour of the "Grand Loop" through Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon via Utah Parks Company tour bus. Passengers would disembark the Union Pacific Railway at Cedar City, Utah, stay a night in one of the Hotel El Escalante's 23 rooms, and then hop on the subsidiary company's bus for a round trip through each of the region's great chasms.


The following film from 1957 is a promotional film for the Pacific Northwest in general, but pays more than ample attention to Olympic, Mount Rainier and Crater Lake National Parks, and Mount Hood National Forest. The volcanic mountains that shape the geography of this region also shape human life there, from industry to recreation.



More specific than just the National Parks, Grizzly Peak is meant to invoke the Sierra mountains and its parks: Yosemite, Sequoia, and King's Canyon. The following vintage film from the Fifties features Yosemite and is light on footage of the tourists themselves, which isn't so bad.


Of course it's always fun to see how the National Parks Service promoted themselves. There are no scenes of happy tourists in the following video produced by the NPS, but there is lots of vintage footage, some hilariously overzealous narration, and an insight into how Americans perceived their national story in the Fifties.



Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Jules Verne's In Search of the Castaways

Disney's release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 began a flurry of cinematic adaptations of Jules Verne's writings, as well as H.G. Wells and a handful of generically Victorian-style Science Fiction stories. Around the World in 80 Days was released in 1956, From the Earth to the Moon in 1958, Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in 1960, The Mysterious Island and Master of the World in 1961, and Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1962. By 1962 it was natural for Disney to want to follow up their smash hit with another Vernian tale, as well as add to their growing list of high-spirited adventure movies like Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Their choice ended up being a strange one, though. Instead of another big budget Science Fiction epic coping with the anxieties and hopes the Atomic Age, in the vein of 20,000 Leagues, they opted to make In Search of the Castaways into a family musical starring Haley Mills and Maurice Chevalier!

Illustration from In Search of the Castaways by Édouard Riou.

Published originally in serialized form through 1867-1869 as Les Enfants du capitaine Grant, the story known variously as The Children of Captain Grant, A Voyage Around the World, or In Search of the Castaways follows Verne's modus operandi of using a rousing tale of adventure (and sometimes futuristic technologies) to take readers on a journey through some far-flung corner of the world. Only a relatively small fraction of the stories written by Verne would qualify as "Science Fiction." Rather, the celebrated French author created an entirely new genre called "Scientific Romance" which purported to educate readers about geography, ecology, zoology, anthropology, history, the arts, and technology through the medium of the adventure story. The Nautilus was a fantastic invention, which ably served its purpose as a plot device to take the protagonists (and by proxy the readers) on a tour of the world's oceans.

For In Search of the Castaways, the order of the day is a trip along the 37th parallel south... A latitudinal line that crosses South America through the Andes and Patagonia, Australia through the province of Victoria, and the high country of New Zealand's northern island. The purpose of the journey, besides offering a chance to meet Patagonians and Maori, is to rescue Captain Harry Grant. This daring explorer at the helm of the S.S. Britannia had gone missing several years before, leaving behind a pair of orphans in Mary and Robert. No clue was left to his whereabouts until a tattered message in a bottle (in a shark) is recovered by Lord and Lady Glenarvan. Inspired by the plight of Captain Grant and the his children, they resolve to travel the 37th parallel around the world until they find him.

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.