In my last two posts, we’ve looked at how Disney reflected the 1930s and the 1940s. As the studio emerged from World War II and into a new decade, it faced a changing nation. In their insightful book A Patriot’s History Of The Modern World, Volume II, Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty write:
Long-held and oft-repeated notions that the 1950s were a decade of sameness and conformity in the United States miss the revolutionary changes occurring in the decade – radical shifts that, fundamentally, may have altered America and the world far more than the superficial changes of the 1960s.
Far from reflecting a widespread sameness among Americans, life in the 1950s witnessed a burst of new businesses, consumer products, artistic expression, and social cross-pollination.
Disney’s productions from the 1950s reflect this rapidly changing America, and here are ten examples.
10. Matterhorn Bobsleds (1959)
Walt had two needs to fill: one was a way to promote the upcoming film Third Man On The Mountain, while the other was an attraction to fill space on a hill between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. He remembered the majesty of the Matterhorn when he visited the set of Third Man On The Mountain, and the Imagineers designed a roller coaster based on the mountain.
The resulting attraction became the first steel-tube roller coaster, providing a smoother – yet still thrilling – ride than the traditional wooden coaster. Disney changed the way we think of thrill rides and opened the door for endless possibilities. The Matterhorn Bobsleds still bring excitement to this day.
9. “The Story Of The Animated Drawing” (1955)
Walt’s Disneyland television series on ABC served of course to hype the upcoming theme park of the same name, just as it sought to entertain viewers. Some episodes of the series gave viewers a glimpse behind the scenes at the studio.
In once such episode from 1955, Walt took viewers on a look at the history of drawing and animation, from the time of the cavemen to the Renaissance to the earliest cartoons of the 20th century, including animators such as J. Stuart Blackton, Winsor McCay, J.R. Bray, and Max Fleischer. He closes out the episode by turning the focus on his studio’s contributions to animation, including the “Nutcracker Suite” sequence from Fantasia.
In “The Story Of The Animated Drawing,” Walt used the relatively young medium of television to share the inner workings of his company. This idea blossomed just over three decades later into the original intent of Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in Florida.
8. “Eyes In Outer Space” (1959)
Each week’s episode of Disneyland took its theme from one of the lands at the theme park. Naturally, the Tomorrowland segments looked at exciting ideas that were on the horizon.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. Two years later, Disneyland aired “Eyes In Outer Space,” a speculation of how satellite technology could make our lives better, with a special focus on weather. The episode impressively predicts our future ability to forecast and observe weather using satellites.
Oddly enough, director Ward Kimball takes this notion a step further (with help from the United States Department of Defense) and examines a scenario whereby we might use satellites to control the weather. So, not everything “Eyes In Outer Space” proposed has come true, but the Tomorrowland segments did some fascinating dreaming.
7. Rocket To The Moon (1955)
From our perspective in the 21st century, it’s tough for most of us to imagine a time when space travel wasn’t a reality. But when Disneyland opened, spaceflight was essentially still a dream. So imagine the thrill that early Disneyland guests experienced on Rocket To The Moon.
Guests sat in a theater-in-the-round and buckled in. A screen above them pointed the way to their destination, while another screen below showed what they were leaving behind. (I remember the identical concept of Mission To Mars at Walt Disney World, and it really was clever, creative staging.) They would experience as close to the excitement of leaving earth and journeying to the moon as 1950s technology would allow.
That this kind of attraction predated real spaceflight is remarkable, as is the road it paved to the current space travel thrill of Mission: SPACE at Epcot.
6. Monsanto House Of The Future (1957)
The new and innovative materials developed during the mid-20th century staggered the imaginations of many builders, developers, and corporate CEOs looking for a way to promote their companies. The Monsanto Corporation wanted to show how plastics could change the way people lived at home, so they developed the House Of The Future for Disneyland.
The house featured a cantilevered, futuristic design with striking modern furnishings. The latest in home technology went on display inside – from intercoms to microwave ovens to ultrasonic dishwashers (that didn’t work). The public was fascinated by the amazing house, though many admitted that they would not want to live in a home built out of plastic. By 1967, the attraction was out of date, and Disney closed it.
But the House Of The Future may have gotten the last laugh. When a demolition team began to knock it down, the wrecking ball merely bounced off the well-constructed plastic house, and the team had to destroy it by hand using crowbars and saws.
5. “Our Friend The Atom” (1957)
The Tomorrowland segments of the Disneyland series on ABC delved into scientific and technological advances that were on the horizon. Some of these new concepts were right around the corner. In the early years of the Cold War, a dozen years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Disney took a look at harnessing the same atomic energy that destroyed thousands of lives and using it for positive purposes.
In “Our Friend The Atom,” German-American scientist Heinz Haber tells of how our modern society can harness “the atomic genie” to generate electricity, travel into space, engineer healthy foods and plentiful medicines, and to usher in an era of peace (by our stewardship of atomic power).
Ok, so the picture Haber paints is a little rosy and overly optimistic, but “Our Friend The Atom” was one of the first family programs to look at the use of atomic energy as a positive force.
4. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
Most movie historians and film critics say that the blockbuster era began with Jaws in 1975. But I believe we could make a case that, over twenty years earlier, Walt Disney created the first special effects extravaganza with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
Walt hired Richard Fleischer, son of his former rival Max, to direct, and the two set out to utilize the most cutting edge filmmaking techniques to bring Jules Verne’s story to life. The feature was the first Disney film to use the Cinemascope widescreen process. Studio employees constructed a 50 foot giant squid with mechanisms so complex that it took 28 people to operate it. One hundred backstage hands created a storm sequence when a sunset scene on a calm sea revealed too much of the behind-the-scenes magic.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea created a new brand of movie magic and paved the way for countless big-budget, big-screen spectacles to come.
3. “Davy Crockett” (1954-55)
One of the first runaway hits on the young medium of television was Disneyland’s first season staple “Davy Crockett.” Walt had three episodes made starring Fess Parker as Crockett, who died at the end of the third episode. The episodes became so popular that Disney ordered two more episodes to run later on in the season.
Walt seized on the new phenomenon of marketing. Hit records, coonskin caps and other toys, and even feature film releases of the episodes made the company plenty of money in the wake of the success of “Davy Crockett.” $300 million worth of merchandise flew off the shelves, and the company realized even more than they did in the ’30s how powerful the right merchandising and marketing can be.
2. “Man In Space” (1955)
One first season Tomorrowland episode of the Disneyland series turned out to be impressive in its prescience. “Man In Space” took a look at the idea of manned space travel – two years before the Soviets launched Sputnik and six years before Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space. Ward Kimball directed the episode, which looked back at the history of rocketry and included literal rocket scientists Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, and Heinz Haber to speculate about what space travel would look like.
The episode ended with actors portraying what a typical space mission could look like. “Man In Space” proved popular enough to spawn the follow up films “Man And The Moon” and “Mars And Beyond.” Disney’s eerie accuracy in guessing what space travel could be make these episodes compelling even today.
1. Disneyland (1955)
In many ways Disneyland was the culmination of so many of the technological and cultural changes of the 1950s. We’ve looked at a few of the individual attractions at Disneyland so far, but the theme park itself deserves a mention as a reflection of this changing country. Walt promoted, previewed, and even helped pay for the park via television. As a destination, Disneyland epitomized the California car culture of the decade.
Of course, Walt wanted his park to be the ultimate representation of all things Disney, from shorts to features to television shows. He brought everything he and his Imagineers learned from moviemaking and animation to bear in creating a place that would transport guests to different times and places and become the epitome of family entertainment.
With Disneyland, Walt was able to revolutionize the way families interact with their favorite characters and films. He won acclaim and awards, and the park made loads of money, but Walt aspired to more, which led to his ambitious Florida Project and Walt Disney World. It’s just too bad he didn’t live to see that dream become real.