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Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland USA
This is the least-organized offering in the Disney Treasures series, but does have a lot of historical and nostalgic appeal. It's simply four television broadcasts on the Disneyland and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color television shows. Even though we're offered shows about the theme park before, during, and after its 1955 opening, the appeal is limited. Except for one really historic show about opening day, the majority of the content was promotional in nature, and there's little depth to the presentation.
There's no denying the marvel of Disneyland and the magical feeling we had for the Disney empire in the 1950s. This man could do no wrong, and was Santa Claus, Abe Lincoln, and the Brothers Grimm rolled into one. In the space of three years, he consolidated a media empire that moved from animation to live action movies, to television and on into his amazing theme park in Anaheim, California. I've read articles on the problems and successes Walt had during this period, that are fairly necessary to a full understanding of what happened, when one successful but by no means all-powerful company sought to create a huge theme park from scratch. If simple nostalgia for the park is your reason for seeing this special DVD set, you'll find what you want. If more content is desired, the shows will get tiring after a while.
What you see here is the official story of the creation of Disneyland, as presented to Walt's potential customers, the American people. As such, we only see Disney's manufactured image of preparations, and not a full history. Host Leonard Maltin does a good job with his cursory explanations, interpreting the vagaries of the live-action broadcast of the park opening, but there's just no depth. The fact that the park was built and opened so quickly is nothing short of miraculous. Maltin includes the fact that Disney had to go into partnership with the ABC network for needed capital. That's the only reason there ever was a Disney television show - Disney didn't like the medium very much. But there's no mention of notorious control freak Disney having to capitulate to the 'involvement' of a score of outside corporations. He obviously wanted the park to be free of any logos except his own, but even on park opening day, there's outside corporate involvement in almost everything we see. The project was just too big for Disney alone to float.
It's kind of refreshing to see Walt in the first two shows. As he shows us models of his park-to-be, he resembles a latterday Pharoah consumed with dreams of construction. The overly sanitized control that that would creep in later isn't quite there yet. These really do look like conceptual paintings and models, not after-the-fact fakes to use as props on the show. The program that introduces the television show does a good job of making it seem as if Disney was the hub of the entire entertainment world, with plenty of success to show in all four of his Disney 'lands'. He was already pre-promoting his Jules Verne feature and his upcoming Davy Crockett television series. We see glimpses of the work of 'hundreds' of camera crews sent to the far ends of the Earth to film the nature series (including Conrad Hall in the Galapagos), with the idea that these were all Disney people, instead of independent filmmakers. Even when reduced to promos, these 'true-life adventures' betray a condescending attitude toward foreign cultures, and the nagging Disney habit of anthropomorphing the behaviors of all animals.
What the first two hours really show, if you know what to look for, is the creation before our very eyes of a media network of modern mass merchandising and marketing, that cross-pollinates itself. Maltin makes mention of it, but doesn't begin to explain how important this is - it took decades for other conglomerate corporations to see the brilliance in Disney's big plans, and to get into the act. The idea that cartoon characters can tie together a line of unrelated products, or provide a corporate image, was pioneered here. Even Mad Magazine didn't get the big picture when it lampooned Disney as 'Dalt Wizzy', or 'Walt Dizzy' (I forget which) in a cartoon spoof of this 'introducing the empire' show. In the Mad takeoff, Walt can't open a box, pull down a map, or enter a door without revealing tons of folding money, which eventually buries him. The spoof was hilarious, but missed the point in that Disney was always more than just money, as his dreams were sincere and he was trying to build something previously unheard-of. Now, of course, the Disney corporate empire is simply all about money, like any other mega-conglomerate.
The best show of the four is the kinescope of the live broadcast of Disneyland's opening day. Despite occasional flubs, the broadcast is extremely sophisticated for 1955. The quality varies wildly, and you see lots of poorly-leveled camera shots, and assistant directors trying to get out of camera range, but all-in-all it's a masterful introduction to the park. It's also a great record of just what was there when the park opened. Panning along main street, it looks like preparations were barely complete, what with windows missing in some of the buildings, and construction trucks parked not-quite out of sight wherevever there's a gap in the buildings. Tomorrowland has the original rocketship (to represent the far-off future of 1986, when moon travel will be commonplace - wow!) and the Jungle Cruise looks like an under-landscaped ditch in an ex-orange grove.
Television professionals will be thrilled to see the scope of the broadcast, with three glib announcers (well, the glib Art Linkletter and Bob Cummings, and the doltish Ronald Reagan reading from copy and acting like he's too good to be there), batteries of cameras, and guest stars galore. It looks as if every Hollywood personality with kids showed up - even Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. putt by in Autopia cars. Woven into the broadcast are a score of choreographed musical numbers that come off rather well, especially the slick Davy Crockett dance. Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen probably had a year of publicity practice by the time of the park opening. For the kids of 1955, seeing Davy Crockett come down main street must have been like watching Superman or Dumbo show up in person: corny as all get-out, the whole enterprise is intensely nostalgic for anyone Savant's age.
Disney, reputed to be a fussy and short-tempered coot, stands up well to the challenge of live TV. His introduction, arriving by train with a fuzzy Mickey Mouse doll (wait 'til you see the flea-bitten appearance of the original park walk-around characters) is a bit flat, but he's an excellent host whose telegenic appearance makes it look as if the whole shebang were a party for him too, instead of him being the controlling factor. That's the Disney genius, at least in this specific era. When he's mis-cued reading the dedication copy for one of the park 'lands', instead of looking miffed, he's completely non-plussed. He would have been a very good general in WW2, if he hadn't liked drawing mice.
Savant made the trek to Anaheim about a month later, at the ripe age of three, and my memories of the park all come from home movies my folks took, and just a few snippets of original memory, like wasting time waiting for silhouettes to be cut of my sister and myself in a main street shop. Bus tours from Edwards Air Force base took us to strange things like the Roller Derby in San Bernardino, and to Knott's Berry Farm, which at the time was a farm with a couple of rides and a restaurant that was too crowded to eat in. This bus trip to Disneyland was truly fantastic, as we felt we'd been transported to some other planet - I was too young to be aware of what Disney was, exactly. Mostly I remember huge sections of the park that were simply incomplete. A lot was already there, but Frontierland was just a big open area with a donkey ride and fields. If I recall, my Dad wanted to go on the steamboat, but it wasn't functioning. In the show, it also seems to be out of action on opening day, with guest Irene Dunne mentioning that it's listing to port!
You have to read between the lines to really appreciate these earlier shows. The two later shows, from the 1960s, aren't as much fun or as interesting, because they're the work of a completely controlled Disney organization. I remember a show around 1960 (that I watched in Hawaii) that introduced a number of new attractions in the park, like the monorail and the Matterhorn, and really had us dying to go to the park as soon as possible. But the next historical broadcast in this set is from 1964, and its 'magic' is the modern predigested kind. Some of the 1960 highlights are recapitulated in clips, but most of the show is spent in professionally directed (but cheap) little scenes with the walkaround characters (who were presumably cheaper than specifically-hired talent) going through their routines. The park looks better in living color, but there's a lot of time wasted on Disney introducing a tour lady whose job is to represent the park around the world or something. Disney looks more subdued and worn out, and not just from age.
With such a corporate polish on the park and the show, all the old gripes about Disney sneak back in. Besides the odd performer here or there, there's nobody of color to be seen anywhere. The script has Disney condescendingly tell the tour guide lady that she was probably seven when the park opened; I really wanted her to answer, "Yes Walt, that was the year you bought me from my parents and I became a Disneyland slave." To show off the Swiss Family Robinson tree house, the whole Mills family, including Hayley, are seen touring through it. John is affable but Hayley, bless her, seems purposely to refuse to flash one of her Disney smiles, like the moody teenager she had every right to be. The show spends minutes on a tour of the workings behind the animatronic Magic Tiki Room, and only now do I realize that the South American parrot character is given a very offensive stereotypical Mexican 'cholo' voice. The animatronics eventually took over, making the park into a Land of Robots; all the impressive personal involvement in the original park (more dancers and attendants, like the stewardesses and Pilot for the moon rocket) have since been replaced with fake robots .... who wants to learn about the future from a badly animated cartoon bear character?
The Disneyland at Night show is hosted by Walt, but he stands in front of process screens most of the time, autographing people's hats and seeming almost an outsider to the show-bizzy musical stars he introduces. Annettte Funicello is given a dippy song to sing, Bobby Rydell somehow gets in there (he must have had one heck of an agent), and Louis Armstrong also puts in an appearance, but it just isn't the spirit of the Disneyland we remember. The crowds are now overfed people leering at the Tahitian dancers or families watching the massive fireworks displays ... now the park is so slick and robotized, it does the work of being entertained for us.
Savant found the Disneyland USA: Special Historical Broadcasts tin set to be fascinating and oddly a little depressing, as we see Disney's drive to be unique and magical slowly become folded into the general rut of mediocrity around him. Some critics are vocally bent out of shape because the set isn't a full-fledged research document on the real story behind the park, but this presentation doesn't claim to be that. There are books readily available on the subject; and this show may make you more interested in looking into it.
The quality of all of the material is just fine. The opening day show is of course a video mess, because it was made from a kinescope 1 of a broadcast that had its share of glitches and momentary blackouts. As a document of Disney's biggest day, it's still pretty amazing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Disneyland USA: Special Historical Broadcasts rates:
Supplements: Image file; The Magic Kingdom and the Magic of Television
Packaging: Double keep case inside numbered tin box guaranteed to set off airport security devices
Reviewed: January 15, 2002
1. Literally a film from a movie camera aimed at a video monitor.