Sunday, February 10, 2008

Roadside Disney: Looking for a Good Night's Sleep

One of the themes I revisit often here at 2719 Hyperion is the traces of popular culture that can be found in Disney entertainment, especially in productions from the Studio's first three decades. The emerging dominance of automobile transportation during those decades gave birth to a roadside culture that permeated the American landscape until diminishing with the advent of Interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s. Disney artists and animators would often inject their work with roadside inspirations, and its easy to understand why. Based out of southern California, they existed at a focal point of roadside Americana. The mother road, the legendary Route 66, cut a path directly through Hollywood.

Overnight lodgings became necessities for weary automobile travelers. As author John Margolies notes in his book Home Away From Home: Motels in America, "The roadside hostelries that evolved were not only creative and efficient institutions, but they became part of the ethos of American mobility and popular culture. The setting of a motel room or a tourist cabin has provided moments in movies and literature."

The 1947 Donald Duck short Wide Open Spaces is the first time that a Disney character seeks out a motel for a good night's sleep. The Hold-Up Motel is no more than an old house distinguished by its clever gun motif sign, but it evokes an archetype setting made especially famous by Hollywood in countless crime noir films of that time period. Background artist Howard Dunn did a terrific job of capturing that darker, moodier style, even though the tone of the short was generally light and comical. Seedier roadside venues were clearly the inspiration for the Hold-Up Motel and those places were often distinguished as criminal hideaways or as author Margolies remarks," . . . venues of choice for those with less than honorable intentions." Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attacked the tourist camp industry when he wrote an expose called "Camps of Crime" for The American Magazine in 1940. Fortunately, the only supposed crime Donald encounters at the Hold-Up Hotel is the proprietor charging $16 for "the cot on the porch."

When Goofy took Two Weeks Vacation in 1952, his adventures were the cartoon equivalent of a Route 66 road trip in everything but highway name. At the beginning of the short, a desk bound Goof dreams of golfing, boating, hunting and fishing, but his reality instead becomes roadside escapades involving crooked mechanics, reckless trailer jockeys and the quest for a neon sign proclaiming VACANCY. These vignettes and gags were very much rooted in American roadside culture. Motor courts and tourist cabins were still in their heyday at the time of Two Weeks Vacation, and that is reflected in the backgrounds created by Art Riley.

In his search for lodging, Goofy encounters one of the common marketing mantras of the open road: LAST CHANCE. When countless miles often separated small towns and their roadside establishments, the term LAST CHANCE was frequently used when advertising or identifying restaurants, service stations and motels. To his horror, the Goof discovers he has passed the LAST CHANCE MOTEL and that the NEXT CHANCE MOTEL is still some 500 miles distant. He ultimately arrives at an unnamed motel claiming vacancy. Riley clearly drew inspiration from existing establishments. The motel's adobe architecture can be found in motor courts that dotted the American southwest. The cartoon design is an almost direct copy of vintage motels such as the El Vado Court in Albuquerque and the Adobe Motel in Santa Fe.

Goofy is trumped out of the last room at that particular establishment, but manages to subsequently secure a room at a motel-type that was once a mainstay of automobile travelers: the tourist cabin. In what is perhaps the cartoon's funniest gag, he walks through a quaint and picturesque cottage facade that could have been lifted from a mid-20th century linen postcard. But things are not what they seem, for a ramshackle shack is what lies behind the cottage door.

This is not just a simple cartoon gag; it represents a dynamic that Margolies describes in Home Away From Home:

By 1935, in another article in National Petroleum News, cabin camps were described as being of two types — the $1 cabin and the 50-cent cabin. The dollar cabins weren't all that bad: a bed with good springs, lavatory, toilet, tub or shower, chairs, lamp, and many had interior walls. There was usually a restaurant or a kitchen in a separate building, and some operations even had a swimming pool. The 50-cent cabin was much more spartan, offering little more than a bed with bathroom facilities and electricity, and a lunch-counter-type eating facility. Even so, James Agee, in his 1934 article in Fortune, could wax poetic about "the oddly excellent feel of a weak-springed mattress in a clapboard transient shack."

In the same article, Agee described in detail an even nicer two-dollar cabin: "In this one you find a small, clean room, perhaps ten by twelve. Typically its furniture is a double bed—a sign may have told you it is Simmons, with Beautyrest mattress — a table, two kitchen chairs, a small mirror, a row of hooks. In one corner a washbasin with cold running water; in another the half-opened door to a toilet. There is a bit of chintz curtaining over the screened windows, through which a breeze is blowing. ...Inside you have just what you need for a night's rest, neither more nor less. And you have it with a privacy your hotel could not furnish — for this night this house is your own."

It would appear that Goofy paid for a two-dollar cabin with attractive chintz curtaining, but ended up with the 50-cent transient shack. A closer examination reveals that the bed in the room is in fact an old door propped up with wood posts and bricks. While Art Riley is likely better remembered for his work on such feature films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, his efforts at bringing forth these then mundane scenes of 1950s America have in effect become artistic time capsules of a now bygone era.

While there are many who would likely consider animated incarnations of motel courts and tourist cabins to be no more than cartoon minutia, they are in fact a testament to artists such as Dunn and Riley whose efforts, especially those associated with short subjects, often go uncelebrated. For through their work, they preserved small pieces of history and popular culture that sadly, continue to fade from both memory and view.

Stay tuned for more Roadside Disney in the future, as we explore the gas stations, roadside stands and other open road ephemera of vintage Disney animation.


Screenshots © Walt Disney Company

4 comments:

ROB RICHARDS said...

Hey Jeff,

Loved this post. Very nostalgic!

Cory The Raven said...

This is going to be a great series! I enjoy the air of Americana pop culture that infuses the films of the 30s-50s... The mystique of "National Parks Rustic" is a lot of why I'm a fan of the Ranger Woodlore and Humphrey the Bear cartoons. I'm not exactly sure why it is that, as a Canuck, I'm so fascinated by Route 66, California, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Tiki and Disneyland, but there it is ^_^

Incidentally, this post reminded me of where I stayed last time I went to Anaheim... A nice little motel that was probably a pretty swank number in the ranks of cheap motels 30 or 40 years ago. It had some neat Googie architecture, a now defunct direct radio to the office, the world's worst "continental breakfast", a address right behind California Adventure, no visible cockroaches and the all important price tag of $40 Canadian a night. It wasn't a Good Neighbour hotel, but for a week, it was home!

Tiffany said...

Jeff, as someone who is currently researching travelogue cartoons and tying their content in with the travel movement in the 1930s, this entry was very valuable. Thank you!

Eric Hoffman said...

See, now it's posts like this that make this blog so great. Thanks for the work and Disney love that goes into each one.