Thursday, May 29, 2008

Museum of Modern Marvels

The future frequently envisioned in the 1930s was a bright and shining place, filled with tall skyscrapers and mechanical automatons that took even the most common laborious tasks and functions out of the hands of the common citizens. It was a great big beautiful tomorrow as presented in films such as Metropolis and Things to Come and a popular culture phenomenon that ultimately culminated at decade's end in the World of Tomorrow presented at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair.

Donald Duck experienced that particular vision of the future for a brief time in 1937 when he visited the Museum of Modern Marvels in the cartoon Modern Inventions. It was released on May 29th of that year.

The Museum, like much of era's pop culture futurism, what no so much a showcase of emerging technologies but a series of robotic appendage-based contraptions designed to perform the mundane rather than the magnificent. Hydraulic potato peelers, pneumatic pencil sharpeners and robot nurse maids were among the exhibits within the halls of the museum's sleek, streamline moderne architecture. No doubt many members of the cartoon's audience, as they were then emerging out of the throes of the Great Depression, could dream of owning a robot butler, despite Donald's own exasperation with the one that haunted his steps as he toured the museum.

A standard archetype of these earlier era future visions and also present in Modern Inventions is the robotic barber chair. Donald comically gets his tail trimmed and head polished by the friendly automation. Disney would in fact revisit that concept and the whole of 1930s futurism some forty years later in a set piece of the Horizons attraction at EPCOT Center.

Fleischer Studios, home of Popeye and Betty Boop, would also explore similar themes in 1938 with the short All's Fair at the Fair, a cartoon that anticipated the upcoming New York World's Fair. It as well featured an automated robot-based shave and a haircut sequence.

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Images © Walt Disney Company


Cory Gross said...

Thank you for this (you're on a roll this week!). I love the streamline, Art Deco stylings of the era and this short... Though I wonder if "a great big beautiful tomorrow" is really an accurate summary of Fritz Lang's Metropolis ^_^

Unknown said...

Another great look at a great animated short!

I loved any thing with a "retro-future" look to it--and this short was fantastic. Kudos for making the Horizons connection.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Thanks for nice words, Cory.

You're right--my phrasing concerning Metropolis was a bit off considering that film's theme and message--I was more considering the visual style when making the "great big beautiful tomorrow" reference and I see now that even that is a bit of stretch. I should have gone with the wacky musical "Just Imagine" instead. Things to Come is a bit of a downer as well.

Thanks for the feedback.

FoxxFur said...

I've always dragged out Modern Marvels as a fairly good example of the strengths and weaknesses of a Donald cartoon of the era. It's strictly formula (Donald goes somewhere and is harassed), yet it has strikingly beautiful design and backgrounds. Unfortunately the ending is pretty abrupt, which is also typical of the problems of formula. Moreover, I think it's representative of the Hollywood factory in general: it may be very craftsmanlike, but in the end it was just more Donald product they needed on the market and the failings of it as a short film are the result of this.

I actually can't think (offhand) of an "ultra-future" film of the 1930's that's really all-out saying that stuff will be great - the big fascination with an art-deco future of conveniences didn't really kick off until well into the 30's, and when Lang's Metropolis appeared in 1927 it was as hated in America as Germany. Things To Come is, as you say, also a bit darker than expected. I don't know. Buck Rogers serials?

Cory Gross said...

Would it be fair to suggest that maybe the starry-eyed "great big beautiful tomorrow" didn't really get into full swing until the 1939-40 World's Fair?

I think over serious cinema of the era and don't really see the motif show up... Through the 30's most scientists were mad, and didn't really stop being so until the late 40's and early 50's. The early Weismuller Tarzan films were all about escaping civilization until the jungle was domesticated in the mid-30's onwards. I can't even really think of a lot of pure SF from the time that wasn't Buck Rogersy space opera, of which the technology was a nominal theme unto itself.

Of Metropolis itself, it wasn't well liked, and I suspect it's because people easily saw the truth in it. H.G. Wells in particular hated it and thought it anachronistic, which I find ironic because it's really the starting point of where his vision in The Time Machine ends up (an underground race of workers...). I suspect he had hoped that in 30 years some progress had been made, which Lang was refuting.

I can see a plausible explanation being buried in how the anxieties and desire for escapism of the Great Depression was being mirrored in film. As it drew to a close in late 30's, the great big beautiful tomorrow emerged along with newfound hope.