Monday, September 12, 2011

Making Chaplin Move

I generally walk right on through Disneyland’s Main Street. The turn of the century themed entrance to the original park has charm, but doesn’t provide the same thrill as a roller coaster. While I love any occasion to obnoxiously sing along to Oklahoma! or Hello Dolly, Main Street is not really the main attraction. Walt Disney described it as a "weenie," something to pull people in. By definition it is something you are meant to walk past, but if one looks closely it has hidden treasures for the film history fan.

I hadn’t walked into one of the area’s storefront arcades until a few weeks ago, or if I have it was at a time when ‘this tall to ride’ signs had meaning. I’d seen them as I passed, but never really taken note of the bank of Mutoscope machines lining the walls. I didn’t even know what they were until I took the time to walk up to one and read the manufacturing information.

Stop by and pay a penny. That seems to be the motto of the Mutoscope, and DL hasn’t changed the form. Except in Disneyland it’s more stop by, stand in line, have time to think about the exorbitant price you’re paying for a ticket, pay for the ticket, want to slap your crying five year old for not appreciating the vacation time and money spent to bring the whole family on this magical adventure, then say what’s an extra penny after all?

Note: “What’s an extra penny after all” was the original music pitch for the Small World ride. Ok no it wasn’t, but it should have been.

The machine itself operates on the old arcade model, with viewing meant for one individual at a time. The passerby pays a penny, turns the crank, and a series of images roll past on what looks like a giant rolodex. If the right rhythm is hit, the images move like a flipbook, creating fluid action. If you’re like me you’ve never been able to get a flipbook to operate properly, but the imagination fills in the jolts and small spasms of movement. Really there’s a reason these puppies went out of style.

Subjects for these machines varied, but one of the most popular topics was movies. One of the Disneyland Mutoscopes, simply called “Dough Fight,” features a scene from the Chaplin silent film Dough and Dynamite (1914).

As it’s a film I’ve seen before I couldn’t resist putting a penny into the slot to see what the experience would be like in a more personal, handheld environment. You speed up, Chaplin speeds up. You slow down, the chosen gag becomes a rickety mess. All that perfect tramp timing rested at my fingertips, and all of Chaplin’s precision came to naught in my inexperienced grip. In this scenario Chaplin became the Mario of the early 20th Century. It's now the norm for films to become video games and video games to become films, but the practice isn't without precedent.

A plaque at the entrance to Disneyland reads "Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy." Maybe yesterday and tomorrow are closer together than we might think.


  1. I'm glad you wrote about the Mutoscopes. Playing with the speed and pausing on certain cards is a lot of fun for one penny.

  2. My sister and I used to have these outdated travelogues from the Disney parks that we would watch over and over again. Believe it or not, they actually made a to-do over the Mutoscopes, I'll never forget...

  3. Joe-It really is. As far as the penny market is concerned it dominates (pressed pennies? ha!)

    And Wilde those sound wonderful! What a treat. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Wow, this is so neat!! I was just at Disney World (not Land) .. I wonder if they have these there, too? I'll have to look next time I go! In Epcot they had Edison's original film camera, so I was definitely gawking in front of that for a while :)

  5. Kate-Yes, it's definitely a must! Loved looking at pictures from your trip. Oh my goodness I would be gawking too. Amazing stuff. One of my favorite things at Dland is a Toy Story installation made based on the zoetrope model. I love how they've taken an old concept and made it seem new and thrilling.