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.

Gertie the Dinosaur was first released in 1912 as a Vaudeville act with a live component by its creator, the great illustrator Winsor McCay. A recreation of that show was performed as a part of the Walt Disney's Disneyland episode The Story of the Animated Drawing. In 1914, a roadshow version was produced, which you see here. Though not the first animated cartoon, Gertie the Dinosaur is notable for having the first real character created specifically for an animated cartoon.

The Great Train Robbery (1903) was the first Western film ever made and one of the only films shown at Main Street Cinema that young Walt might have seen in Marceline. The cinema also regularly showed another Western - Dealing for Daisy (1915) - with the original cowboy star William S. Hart, whose name was synonymous with the genre during the silent era.

Another film which Walt could have conceivably seen, though it predated him by a few years, was Fatima's Coochie-Coochie Dance, an 1896 Edison recording of Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos' belly dancing. Fahreda, who danced under the stage name "Fatima", made the "Hoochie Coochie Dance" famous at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Edison restaged the dance for film, though the footage had to be blocked out at points to appease the censors. For the Gay Nineties, this was quite the scandal!

A Dash Through the Clouds (1912) is a sordid tale of jealousy and revenge from the comedic director Mack Sennett, who made ample use of an aeroplane, which was still relatively new technology. Another Mack Sennett comedy shown in the Main Street Cinema was 1914's The Noise of Bombs.

The theme of train robberies was revisited in 1912's A Girl and Her Trust by D.W. Griffith. The film is a short morality tale just predating Griffith's landmark, controversial, Birth of a Nation, and is notable for both the high-speed locomotive chase in its climax and for a courageous heroine far removed from the many simpering female leads of the time.

Then there was the cinema's greatest lover, the sensation who could be known simply as Valentino. Trained as a dancer and theatrical performer, the Italian-born Rudolph Valentino moved to Hollywood after World War One and began working bit parts. Eventually, his undeniable charm and good looks propelled him into super stardom. He featured in a string of silent megahits including Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Blood and Sand (1922), The Sheik (1921), Son of the Sheik (1926), and The Eagle (1925), which was shown at Disneyland. In the latter, Valentino stars as a Cossack soldier who runs afoul of the Czarina and becomes a dashing masked outlaw. Sadly, Valetino's star was cut down in its prime. He died in 1926 at the age of 31, one of the first of Hollywood's stars whose mystique grew because of their untimely passing.

Lon Chaney was one of the great stars of the silent era, who was admired for his incredible make-up skills. Unlike a Valentino, Chaney was virtually unrecognizable from role to role. His two most famous personas were as the Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both films - 1925's Phantom of the Opera and 1923's Hunchback of Notre Dame - were shown at the Main Street Cinema.

Another classic horror film of the silent era was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) starring John Barrymore. Nicknamed "The Great Profile", Barrymore was a more recognizable star who still managed to contort himself convincingly into the role of the good doctor's villainous alter ego. Of any clip, the Main Street Cinema probably aired one of the transformation sequences, but there is also an incredibly creepy dream sequence with a superimposed spider with the face of Mr. Hyde that would have sent chills up the spines of Disneyland's guests.

More films showed at Main Street Cinema during its rotations than are readily available online. Gloria Swanson's 1918 melodrama Shifting Sands was one (clips from it were used, decades later, in the film Sunset Boulevard), the 1924 Will Rogers comedy Two Wagons: Both Covered was another, as were the 1915 short The Heart of a Waif, and some indeterminate comedy shorts starring one of the silent screen's great duos, Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Buster Keaton, whose career also began as a partner to Arbuckle, was also featured in one of his talkies (presumably on mute in the Main Street Cinema), the 1934 picture Allez Oop.   

I'm not sure of when Disneyland switched out silent films for early Mickey cartoons. If I had to guess, I would say 1978 for Mickey's 50th anniversary. Regardless of exactly when, the point is that they did. In one sense, it is a loss for Main Street's verisimilitude, but on the other, it is a gain for sharing Mickey's early exploits with willing guests who take a few minutes away from the rides to quite down and chill out in an old fashioned movie house. 

1 comment:

  1. The Main Street Cinema is a great place to take a load off for a few minutes on a hot day. It's cool, quiet, and *dark*, so your eyes get a break from the blazing sunshine.