On Sunday, March 15th, Turner Classic Movies will open the Disney Vault for another night of rare programming. As part of the evening’s celebration, TCM will air the 1944 film The Three Caballeros, followed by the 2008 documentary Walt & El Grupo, which tells the story of how the preceding film came to be.
It’s an interesting tale, to be sure. In 1941, the United States government approached Walt Disney with an idea: to take a goodwill tour of Latin America in the hopes of fostering better relations in the region–something that was not being accomplished by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s much-touted Good Neighbor Policy. It was an area of great concern within the government, for with World War II raging in Europe, South America was considered to be particularly vulnerable to Nazi propaganda (and seeing as how some Nazi officials fled to countries such as Argentina in the wake of Germany’s defeat, that worry was perhaps not too far off).
For his part, Disney jumped on the idea … at least, after the government sweetened the pot by throwing in some film subsidies and agreeing to cover the cost of the trip. Walt was dealing with his own troubles at the time: a recent strike had decimated the studio’s workforce, leading to the mass firing and resignation of some of the company’s most talented animators, and a disheartened Disney lamented the breaking-up of his “big happy family” of employees. With things so tense around the studio, an international tour must have seemed like the perfect escape. In due time, Disney put together a team of trusted artists, later christened “El Grupo,” and set off for South America on an extended working vacation.
It may have seemed like an unusual marriage–Walt Disney and the United States government–but it was hardly a new arrangement. Practically since the dawn of moving pictures, film and propaganda have gone hand-in-hand, and indeed, Hollywood studios had been in the steady business of promoting patriotic American doctrine since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Disney’s mission here was simply to use his beloved cartoons to try to counteract the potentially dangerous influence of Nazism (but, you know, no pressure, guys). The end result of the trip was a pair of films, 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros, both crafted as deliberate propagandistic statements intended to connect with Latin American culture via some of the United States’ most well-known cinematic exports. But Disney’s most famous character, Mickey Mouse, was ultimately not a part of these two films; instead, the lead role of Official United States-Latin American Cartoon Liaison was handed off to Donald Duck, who was actually more popular than Mickey at the time (still, it’s hard enough to understand Donald when he’s speaking English–so whose bright idea was it to have him spouting off in intermittent, barely-intelligible Spanish??).
Combining elements of live-action and animation, Amigos and Caballeros are the first in a series of six “package films” released by the studio during the ’40s. These package films filled the void until Disney’s next complete full-length animated feature, Cinderella, debuted in 1950. Relatively cheap to produce (and with those sweet government subsidies to boot), these two films helped the animation studio continue to produce programming for its audiences while saving time and money in the process, even if the results were decidedly hit-and-miss both with critics and the movie-going public (and even though, in retrospect, these movies do tend to feature some unfortunate, if indeliberate, stereotypes and generalizations about Latin American culture).
The first package film, Saludos Amigos, contains four animated features strung together loosely by montages of Disney animators as they travel the continent, researching and sketching ideas for the film. The live-action segments are historically interesting, but rather dry, for the most part; the true attraction here is the animation (particularly the episode featuring Donald’s dealings with a mischievous llama at Lake Titicaca) and the lively soundtrack. In fact, Saludos Amigos was nominated for Academy Awards in Sound, Musical Score, and Original Song (for the title track), though it ultimately failed to win any of these.
The tamer aura of the travelogue-esque Amigos gives way to a more–shall we say, enthusiastic celebration of the joys offered by Latin America in the loose, surrealistic sequel The Three Cabelleros. As Donald says, this time around, it’s all about “romance … moonlight … beautiful girls … ahh.”
Again, the animation is combined with live-action, though in Caballeros, the live-action actors actually interact with the animated characters. Unlike Amigos, this film is strung together by the semblance of a plot: Donald has received a big box gifts from his Latin American buddies, and several animated vignettes accompany his opening of the presents. His titular counterparts include Jose “Joe” Carioca, the suave Brazilian parrot introduced in Amigos, and Panchito Pistoles, an excitable Mexican rooster. [As with its predecessor, note that the appealingly musical Caballeros was also nominated for Oscars for Best Score and Best Sound, but again did not win either award.]
The vignettes in this film loosely center around the individual gifts Donald receives. The first present, a film projector, shows us a mock-documentary on “Aves Raras,” or “Strange Birds,” beginning with a look at the story of Pablo, a penguin who longs to live in a warmer climate (incidentally, this section is narrated by Disney favorite Sterling Holloway). This segues into an introduction of several other new species, including the annoying Aracuan, whose song will get stuck in your head for days on end (the Aracuan reappears throughout the film at various times, intent on causing mischief). The stories of birds then give way to the tale of the “Flying Gauchito,” a little Uruguayan boy who finds an adorable flying donkey/bird he names Burrito.
The second present is a magical book on the Brazilian state of Baia (Bahia), given to Donald by Joe Carioca. Joe shrinks Donald and takes him inside the book, where live-action mingles with animation as they meet Aurora Miranda (sister of famed Portuguese-Brazilian singer and dancer Carmen Miranda). The two cartoon characters erupt in mutual attacks of comedic lust at the sight of her, and as Miranda and her (human) friends perform a spirited Brazilian standard, “Os Quindins de Yaya,” Donald and Joe fight the backup dancers/musicians–and each other–for her attention.
The final present moves the action north from South America to the sunny skies of Mexico, introducing us to Panchito, a pistol-packing, singing rooster. Panchito gives Donald a pinata and explains the tradition of “Las Posadas” (an annual recreation of Mary and Joseph’s attempts to find shelter before Jesus’ birth) and the story behind the Mexican flag. Panchito then takes Joe and Donald on a journey through Mexico on a “magic serape” (a Latin American flying carpet, of sorts).
This premise sets up the wildest and most purely inventive scene of Caballeros. After chasing bathing beauties on the beach in Acapulco, Donald becomes enamored with the lovely Mexican singer Dora Luz and, thoroughly drunk with sheer lust, falls into a surreal daydream sequence in which he flies around pollinating flowers (take from that what you will) and chasing women, although he’s repeatedly interrupted by his fellow caballeros before he can steal a kiss. One almost wonders what the Disney artists were drinking–or smoking–when creating this scenario, but there’s no denying that it’s a marvelous, eye-popping bit of animation.
The underlying sexual themes of The Three Caballeros are hard to ignore–it’s like Disney Spring Break, “Ducks Gone Wild” edition. Donald is, as Joe calls him, a “wolf,” and his pursuit of the beautiful women he encounters (“Hiya, toots!”) produces an odd combination of laughter at his antics and slight discomfort with the blatant sexuality attached to them. Later, the Three Caballeros’ spying on the sunbathing beauties on Acapulco Beach from their flying serape smacks of leering voyeurism, and Donald’s love-drunk meanderings are filled with the phallic imagery of rigid cacti and the not-so-subtle sight of opening flowers. And let’s not even get into the implications of the oh-so-suggestive (and literal) cockfight that breaks out between two male dancers during the Miranda sequence.
Odd fowl sexual innuendo aside, while Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros may not be as popular today as other entries in the Disney catalog, they do have their respective, if limited, charms. Not quite on the same level of cinematic brilliance as other films from the early Disney period like Pinocchio and Fantasia, they are still enjoyable, fun-spirited romps with some marvelous songs. And on a broader historical note, though the 1940s package films are not nearly as well-remembered as other entries in the Disney catalog, it’s vital to acknowledge their overall importance to the Disney brand, if only because these films helped save the studio from foundering in the wake of financial losses from both the ’41 labor strike and World War II.
Sources and Further Reading
Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2007.
Barrier, Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. New York: Oxford U Press, 1999.
Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1987.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Columbia: U of Missouri Press, 2001.