main street: direct appeal to the senses

Period pieces. Toby Tyler, circa 1890 and chockablock with tried and tested cliches which work pretty well, even by today’s standards. Toby Tyler, an orphan, and Disney is really the patron saint of orphans, who lives with a crosspatch uncle and a thin-lipped aunt, runs away from home and joins a circus. He rises from peanut vendorĀ  to star trick horseback rider in nothing flat, realizing the dream of all American children in the days when circuses were in tents and smelled like circuses.

—It is natural that they would react by emphasizing the obvious hierarchy of “Art” over the commodities of the people: “Kitsch”. Am I saying that they actively used this as propaganda to suppress peasant revolt? I don’t know, though it is a possibility. But, this is only the beginning, and we’re still a long way from the present definition of “Kitsch”.
“There is a philosophical background to kitsch criticism, however, which is largely ignored. A notable exception to the lack of such debate is Gabrielle Thuller, who points to how kitsch criticism is based on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics. Kant describes the direct appeal to the senses as “barbaric”. Thuller’s point is supported by Mark A. Cheetham, who points out that kitsch “is his Clement Greenberg’s barbarism”. A source book on texts critical of kitsch underlines this by including excerpts from the writings of Kant and Schiller. One, thus, has to keep in mind two things: a) Kant’s enormous influence on the concept of “fine art” (the focus of Cheetham’s book), as it came into being in the mid to late 18th century, and b) how “sentimentality” or “pathos”, which are the defining traits of kitsch, do not find room within Kant’s “aesthetical indifference”.—Read More: image:

Under the Strong Man’s rough exterior there beats a heart of solid gold; the clown is a saint; the concessionaire, Toby’s first employer, is a crook in a straw hat and arm bands, and he gets his comeuppance in the end for his double-dealing despite his clever spiel; the harsh foster parents see Toby’s performance, smile proudly and agree that they have misjudged him.

Toby and a chimpanzee, after an initial altercation over a banana which the latter steals, become the best of friends, and there is a pretty good scene involving the pair that is pretty masterful, wonderfully comic and a great spoof of westerns. It is the fourth of July, and as the circus parade proceeds down the main street of a small town, some pranksters throw a string of small firecrackers into the wagon in which the Strng Man, Toby, and Mr. Stubbs, the chimp- so called because he reminds Toby of someone back home- are riding. Mr. Stubbs panics and thereby panics the horses; the wagon overturns and Toby is hurled to the ground. He sees stars only for a moment, for he realizes that Mr. Stubbs has disappeared. Mr. Stubbs, meanwhile, has taken over the sheriff’s office and there he sits in a swivel chair, terrorizing the citizenry by shooting a six-gun through the door and windows and taking pot shots at two prisoners in their cells.

—Another influential philosopher writing on fine art was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who emphasized the idea of the artist belonging to the spirit of his time, or zeitgeist. As an effect of these aesthetics, working with emotional and “unmodern” or “archetypical” motifs was referred to as kitsch from the second half of the nineteenth century on. Kitsch is thus seen as “false”. As Thomas Kulka writes, “the term kitsch was originally applied exclusively to paintings”, but it soon spread to other disciplines, such as music. The term has been applied to painters, such as Ilya Repin and composers, such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whom Hermann Broch refers to as “genialischer kitsch”, or “kitsch of genius”—Read More: image:

With relief, the embattle and evicted sheriff ducks the last bullet, but Mr. Stubbs swivels the chair around and picks another gun out of a pigeonhole in a roll-top desk. It is Toby Tyler, of course, who disarms him and restores law and order to the town. In the book Toby Tyler, Mr. Stubbs is fatally shot by a hunter, but Disney, with his infallible way of winning friends and influencing people, suffers him only to receive a flesh wound which will be set right in a jiffy by the clown, who seems to hold a degree from a prestigious veterinary college.

Despite the syrupy, blatant sentimentality, and the total want of subtlety, in all its gorgeously colored and upholstered schmaltz, it is still enjoyable and fun to watch.


Watching this effective family-friendly drama of yesteryear makes me yearn for something comparable today. It’s easy to appreciate Toby Tyler’s style, tone, and pacing, which are all often hard to detect by modern standards. While anything but slow, the film’s leisurely indulgence of the appealing circus atmosphere seems far more embraceable than that of films with today’s editing sensibilities. Another attractive quality present is that not everything has to be spoken down to the audience. Patches of the film with no dialogue are as engaging as those which go for a chimp sight gag, and the little bit of subtlety goes a long way in endearing you to the film. Read More:

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