Thursday, October 7, 2021

Nostalgia lane: "Lonesome Ghosts" on the Fisher-Price Movie Viewer

In the 1970s, we didn't have DVDs, smartphones or YouTube, so we couldn't satisfy our urge for any visual media on demand. Heck, that wasn't even an urge we knew it was possible to have. We watched ZOOM or Battle of the Planets at the appointed time it came on, or we missed it.

There was, however, one thing that gave us control over nearly every aspect of what we were viewing:

The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer.

I didn't have one, but I had multiple friends who did, so I was well-acquainted with its greatness. I was fascinated with it, which might have been an early hint of my later cinema fandom (ahem, nerdness).

The Movie Viewer, which was introduced in 1973 and required no batteries, just a light source, allowed the viewer to control the speed of the film. You could crank it up to Keystone Cops (or Benny Hill) levels. Or you could slow it down and literally watch it frame by frame, to see how the filmmakers or animators did their job. And you could watch it backwards, too. All of these features allowed for Antonioni's Blowup or Stone's JFK levels of examination (without the need to solve a murder). It was YouTube long before YouTube.

For me, and appropriately for its discussion during Mild Fear 2021, one cartridge stood above the rest: Walt Disney's Lonesome Ghosts. The original cartoon is eight minutes long and was released in late 1937. It's an abridged version that appears on the Fisher-Price Movie Viewer cartridge. And it's basically Ghostbusters, a half-century before the Ivan Reitman comedy. Three "ghost exterminators" (Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck) are called out to investigate a haunted house. Hijinx ensue, because the ghosts mostly have the upper hand over the bumbling investigators.

I spent ridiculous amounts of time watching this short. Going back and forth over its animation frames to see how it was lovingly drawn and how the jokes were put together. I'm not otherwise a huge Disney fan, as television made me more of a Looney Tunes/Hanna-Barbera kid, but this was one product of the House of Mouse that I adored, thanks to Fisher-Price.

And I'm surely not the only one. While there were dozens of Movie Viewer cartridges, I think Lonesome Ghosts hits that nostalgia sweet spot for a lot of us in Generation X. In an in-depth 2016 post on Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, Rik Tod Johnson writes: "A bond was formed between myself and Lonesome Ghosts since childhood because of that machine, that in many ways goes beyond most other Disney cartoons. ...  Lonesome Ghosts is a prime example of just how luxurious Disney could get in even a short release. That haunted house really does feel well lived in and used, and feels like spooks really did show up and scare away the owners badly enough that they would have left most of their belongings behind."

If you subscribe to Disney+, you can watch the original Lonesome Ghosts in its entirety as a Halloween month treat. And, if not, maybe you have a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer and 1970s cartridge sitting around in the basement or attic. Just watch out for ghosts when you go looking for it.

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