Sunday, November 14, 2010

Film #138: Disneyland Dream (RIP: Robbins Barstow 1919-2010)

In 2008, among the 25 movies that the National Film Registry included in its yearly list of American movies to be preserved was one title I didn't recognize (not something new for me with the Registry; they're astonishing authorities on indespensible film obscurities). The movie's was called Disneyland Dream, and it was made in 1956 by a Connecticut family man named Robbins Barstow. I saw the title on the list, and simply shrugged back in 2008. But recently, I was looking at a compendium of the 525 movies the Registry has dedicated themselves to, and I saw Disneyland Dream down there again and, curious, I tracked it down on the astounding Internet Moving Image Archive.

I was immediately charmed and won over by Barstow's epic 16mm home movie. As you can surmise, the film tells the story of the Barstow family--Robbins, wife Meg, kids Mary, David and Dan--and their journey to California's Magic Kingdom. But, to me, the equally fascinating aspect of the film takes place in and around the Barstows' New England home, where they prepare to enter a contest given by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. Each family member concocts a little project to illustrate, to parent company 3M, why they love Scotch Tape; the winners will be treated to that tony California vacation. These are the parts I really love--the making of the projects, the wait for results, the talks to the family parrot Binky, and the hilarious slo-mo/fainting/fireworked reactions of each family member as they hear the good news. Whole bunches of sweetness are blooming all around in this movie.

Barstow goes all out with Disneyland Dream. He narrates the film, of course (the soundtrack was added in 1995; I suppose he voiced it live previously). But there are credits, an opening theme via Sergei Rachmaninoff, special effects, and even a movie star (though Robbins could have not know this back then). Apparently, in the shot where the Robbins' family first arrives at Disneyland, they pass under a train's bridge, and you can glimpse a little boy in a top hat down in the right hand corner of the screen. This was confirmed, by the star himself (in a letter to Barstow) to be none other than Steve Martin, caught on film for the first time as he works as a pamphlet hawker for the theme park (Steve Martin appears at about 5:22 in Part 3, seen below). This is a particularly nifty revelation about a film which is already a gem.

Naturally, Disneyland Dream taps into that idyllic 1950s innocence to which many people futilely wish this country could return. I personally feel a rush of warmth when seeing the reaction of the Barstows' neighbors to the family's good fortune; this is a close, friendly world long gone, it seems. But the film's remarkable in other sociological ways. It points to a time where home movie-making was a hobby only a few took as seriously as did Barstow. This film--one of many by the director--clearly required a mini-scaled version of the planning and follow-through that goes into any professional documentary. The shot choices are intelligent and well-schemed, the editing detailed, and occasional effects (simple things like slow motion, rudimentary animation, and backwards-running shots) are unusual for a vacation film. Still, and irresistibly, with its occasionally clunky cuts and camerawork, the movie never feels anything less than a labor of unschooled film love.

And, then, of course, as a travelogue of 1950s California, the film is an invaluable historical document. The Disneyland footage is the main event here, and it doesn't disappoint, of course. But we also get glimpses of 50s-era airplanes and automobiles, luxury hotels, Davy Crockett jackets and hats, St. Louis, Hollywood and Vine, and an aerial view of New York City (the Barstows had to connect to another flight at NYC's NY International Airport, which later changed its name to JFK). Movie fans will also dig the family's trip to Grauman's Chinese Theater (I think the theater is showing The Robe, and we can see the handprints of Bill Hart, John Barrymore, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe). Plus we get a superb tour of Will Rogers' home, Knotts' Berry Farm and--best of all--the Walt Disney and Universal Studios, where we can peep quickly at old small-town and European-themed backlots and facades. The whole thing--with Barstow's wry, cozy commentary as an essential addendum--is just a spectacular tornado of fun.

Since aqe 10, Barstow had been a lifelong booster of amateur filmmaking, having shown his movies in local outlets and on Connecticut public access for years before Disneyland Dream made the National Film Registry. Once this event occurred, though, the film entered a new era of appreciation, going viral online at 76,000 downloads (an earlier movie of his, 1936's fanfilm Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, has fared even better at more than 150,000 downloads; 16 more of his movies can be seen at the Moving Image Archive and Disneyland Dream can be purchased on a Barstow-produced DVD--complete with a making-of documentary--through Amazon).

On November 7, Robbins Barstow passed away at 91, having spent his life as a well-loved educational administrator (his day job), filmmaker, world traveler, husband, father, and grandfather. His legacy is one of time well-spent, and well-documented, here in this terra realm. He's obviously an inspiration to many filmmakers and viewers still today. And here, for that fabled viewing pleasure of yours, is a big reason why: Disneyland Dream, in four parts, via that great repository of amateur film, You Tube. Enjoy it, and thank you, Robbins Barstow!


Lisa said...

Lovely tribute to a genuine filmmaker. I haven't watched the Disneyland movie yet, but am so interested since I grew up in So. Cal and was a frequent Disneyland visitor as a kid. I'm a complete fan of home movies, especially early ones, and thanks so much for celebrating Barstow with this post. It's wonderful that he got recognition for his accomplishments! Sounds like a great guy, too.

MovieMan0283 said...

Dean, I first heard of this when you included it in your gallery this past summer. I loved the idea because I'm a big booster of home movies and always wondered/hoped if there was one that could legimitately be considered "great cinema" as well as of sociological interest. Great to hear this is online. I'm also on a big Disney kick right now, so I'll watch this soon. R.I.P. to Barstow.

Your 6-part "cinema gallery" post still remains my favorite blog post, of the year, and maybe ever. So many movies to follow up on there; already I tracked down and loved Story of a Fox.

Dean Treadway said...

Yeah, MovieMan, I think home movies are of particular historical and cinematic interest. The Anthology in NoHo in NYC does a Found Footage Film Festival, and the Millinium, on E. 4th, does a monthly "come bring your own films to show" night, complete with 8mm and 16mm projectors!

RIP to Barstow, indeed!

And favorite blog post of the year??? I'm honored!