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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #11, CinemaScope Special: "Grand CanyonScope" (December 23, 1954)
by Albert Gutierrez

Widescreen movies must have really been a sight to see in the 1950s. Imagine living your whole life seeing fictional worlds in square boxes. Then, suddenly, a travelogue called This is Cinerama comes out and it extends your viewing range to a 146-degree curved screen. After that, various widescreen processes began to emerge. Unlike the standardized Academy Ratio of 1.37:1, widescreen was shown in various ways, the more well-known ones being CinemaScope, Todd-AO, VistaVision, Technirama, Super Technirama 70, Panavision, Super Panavision, Ultra Panavision, etc. Each one promising grand and epic films that made going to the theatre an event once again, offering you a view that could never be done justice on television. In honor of the widescreen process, this week's Saturday Matinee, and the next eight weeks that follow, will cover all nine of Disney's CinemaScope shorts. But first, some background information.

Walt Disney was always looking towards the next innovation, and just as he embraced sound and color film, he also embraced the widescreen process. The studio first used widescreen in 1953 with the live-action period drama The Sword and the Rose. The film was shot in the Academy Ratio (the square), and matted in widescreen-capable theatres to 1.66:1 (the rectangle) in a process they called "Giant Miracle-Screen". Disney stopped calling it "Giant Miracle-Screen" after this picture, but continued to shoot most of their live-action films in Academy and matte to their now-preferred ratio of 1.75:1. The shot-in-widescreen format was still used, but only on four additional live-action films in Walt's lifetime: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Great Locomotive Chase, and Westward Ho, the Wagons! in CinemaScope, and Swiss Family Robinson in Panavision.

(courtesy of 1994 VHS & shameless photoshopping)

Walt's cartoon shorts, however, were always shown in Academy, save for the studio's experiments in CinemaScope. A total of nine shorts, as well as Lady and the Tramp, were made in CinemaScope. Ultimately, shooting in CinemaScope proved to be more expensive than live-action. While a camera simply can simply film more footage in live-action, CinemaScope cartoons required animators to create 60% more image than they did on an Academy Short, as it now had to fill the sides.

(courtesy of 1998 Laserdisc & 2006 DVD)

Lady and the Tramp started out as an Academy film, and now had older scenes re-shot with new picture on the sides, and newer scenes animated twice - once in Academy, and again in CinemaScope. The above example shows a scene animated twice, as the placement of the dogs is closer in the Academy version. The Academy version was made as a safeguard for theatres not yet equipped with CinemaScope's anamorphic projection lens. It was no surprise that 1959's Sleeping Beauty (which would be done in 70mm Technirama) would be the last animated Disney film in a wide ratio until 1985's The Black Cauldron (also in Technirama). Economics and labor made it easier to simply shoot Academy and matte to widescreen, as seen below in Robin Hood. The animators worked with the same space they had for the past few decades, only now knew that a portion of the top and bottom would not be seen.

(courtesy of 2000 & 2006 DVDs)

Now to this week's Saturday Matinee! Rather than go in chronological order of the CinemaScope shorts, I'll examine the nine shorts in an order determined simply by what number I draw out of a hat. This week's short is CinemaScope short #2, "Grand CanyonScope." Please note that the screen caps show how the 2.35:1 ration of the short looks in the standard 1.78:1 ratio of widescreen televisions. The black bars is space not used, not picture missing.

Ranger Woodlore lectures a tour group, and makes sure to tell them, "Spread out, folks, this is CinemaScope!" Suddenly, the small compact group spreads out to fill much of the screen. Among this tour group is Donald Duck, who seeks to experience the Grand Canyon his way. This includes dropping rocks into the canyon, doing a rain dance, and causing an argument with himself thanks to Echo Cliff. During a riding trail of the canyon, Donald asks Ranger Woodlore to take his picture, and the flash causes his burro to nearly go blind. It stumbles along off the trail and Donald eventually falls into Ranger Woodlore's arms. As they try to find the burro, Woodlore instead comes across a mountain lion, who's been hibernating since the Civil War! He scares off Woodlore, and then chases after Donald.

Throughout the chase, Woodlore continues to appear to admonish Donald for breaking the rules, as they speed along the trail, remove rocks from a pond, and ultimately destroy the entire Grand Canyon. Woodlore warns the tourists to run for their lives, and there's a grand crash of rocks and dust. We then see Woodlore chastising Donald and the lion. He tells them, "The National Park Rule Book states, and I quote 'when a natural object is marred or defaced, it must be restored to its original state.' So, start digging!!" He gives them two shovels and Donald and the mountain lion then proceed to dig a new Grand Canyon.

Of the studio's nine CinemaScope shorts, seven of them featured Donald Duck, and "Grand CanyonScope" has always been my favorite of the group. Not just because it was a Donald Duck short, but because it took advantage of the CinemaScope process better than its fellow shorts. It was aware that this would be a wide view, and making the Grand Canyon as its setting leads to nice backdrops and scenes. In addition, the gags are always funny, with the rain dance being my favorite. This short would also mark the second of five theatrical cartoon appearances for Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore, and the second appearance of a nameless mountain lion who first appeared in 1948's "Soup's On" and apparently is cousin to 1951's "Lambert the Sheepish Lion"!

"Grand CanyonScope" is available on DVD in two sets. The first is the out-of-print "Walt Disney Treasures: Chronological Donald, Volume Four," which also features an informative audio commentary for the short by Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck. The short is also more easily-accessible in the still-in-print 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Special Edition. It makes sense adding it there, as "Grand CanyonScope" was attached to the film in theatres, thus helping to recreate the theatrical experience in your own home.

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