This is probably my 10th draft of this blog post. I have gone through so many different emotions about these two movies, and this post has taken so many forms. I just hope I can at long last come to a conclusion and accurately state all of the things I hope to tell you all about Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. At first, this post was going to be the same “semi-disappointment + artistic significance” formula that a lot of my posts have been about because, no, I did not particularly enjoy these movies. But, more than any other Disney animated movies ever, these two films have an incredible history. I had heard nothing about this story until I started this project, so I would bargain that many of you know nothing about it either. So yes, I have gone through many variations of this blog post since I watched these two movies back in late December, but it is because along the way I have been finding out more and more, and doing some extensive research on why these movies were made and the curious circumstances that produced them.
Here are the basics. Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are joint films. The Three Caballeros has been called a sequel, but the stories don’t really have anything to do with each other. This is mostly because there is no “story” to these movies. Like Fantasia, Saludos and Caballeros are collaborations of short films, but they also include documentary-ish clips from the artists’ trip to South America and quasi-educational bits on the heritage and culture of South American countries.
Now let’s step back a bit and remember the strike that happened at the Walt Disney Studios in 1941. I wrote a lot about this in my Dumbo post, but as a recap: Walt was threatened with a strike, Walt refused to side with the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild without a vote from his team, and so a strike ensued, lasting five weeks. In my research of this strike it was mentioned in passing that Walt left for a “goodwill” tour of South America and stayed there during the mediation of the strike. It was on this trip to South America that Walt and his team created Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. Very little information is readily available on the strike or the goodwill tour; in fact, one of the only sources I found is a documentary called Walt & El Grupo. This documentary, which I highly recommend viewing in conjunction with the two goodwill cartoons, is an account of the Disney team’s trip to South America and gives more details on what they did there, what inspired them, and what political events affected the creation of Saludos and Caballeros.
What was made exceptionally clear in this documentary is that the artists strike was second only to the death of his mother as one of only two events in Walt’s life that affected him in a negative and hugely impactful way. It makes sense to me that it would have felt this way to him. Walt struggled and fought against great adversity to create his dream, Snow White. I imagine he thought of his team as family, but that as the company grew he was relatively unaware of the unhappy grumblings of some of his employees. Basically, when the strike broke out he was betrayed, and he never truly recovered from it. The trip to South America, as stated in Walt & El Grupo, was a way for Walt to get away from the mess in Los Angeles and focus on growth with a team of artists, musicians, and technicians from the company whom he trusted.
It was convenient timing that the US Department of State should commission Walt and his team to do this goodwill tour just as the strike started. This was before US participation in WWII and would serve the secondary purpose of squashing the burgeoning Nazi influence in South America. Initially, Walt was asked to simply do a few press conferences and meet and greets in South America, but he insisted that if was going to do the trip he would also make films from it. It was Walt’s hope, and the hope of President Roosevelt, that the films and the tour itself would serve the purposes of both the country and the needs of the studio.
There were a few highlights of the trip, in my opinion, that were explained in Walt & El Grupo. These moments exemplify how big of a name Disney had become worldwide and how impactful his trip to South America was. One such instance was when the group had a screening of Fantasia in Montevideo, Uruguay. Walt and his team were not aware that all the schools in Montevideo had been given the day off in Walt’s honor. Hundreds of school children came to see Fantasia and a group of them played music from Snow White for their “honored guest.” In a newspaper report of the event it was heavily implied that a German ambassador who was scheduled to be in Montevideo was cancelled on in favor of Walt.
Similar acts of favoritism for Walt over German political figures appeared repeatedly in the documentary. Many newspaper clippings were shown, all headlining Walt’s appearances and minimizing the ads for Nazi rallies. Entire spreads showed Walt’s face surrounded by Disney cartoons, and in the bottom corner you would see mention that, oh yeah, Nazi’s were meeting up there, too. From the documentary it was clear that Roosevelt’s goal of distracting the South American population from the Nazi’s allure worked. And the amount of revenue made from Saludos and Caballeros proved that Walt’s goal of getting back on his feet was also achieved.
Another notable shining star from the goodwill tour is artist Mary Blair. If you have heard of Mary Blair, it is probably because you’ve heard of or seen her most famous piece of work: the “It’s a Small World” attraction at Disneyland. Blair was one of the chief designers for the attraction, but also did extensive work on Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. But before all of that, she was begging Walt to let her go on the goodwill trip to South America. Mary was married to another Disney artist, Lee Blair, who was personally invited by Walt to be one of the artists on the trip. Mary had the gusto to go to Walt and ask to be invited on the trip, and he agreed. Before the tour it was said that Mary and Lee shared a very similar artistic style. In fact, when looking at a painting, one usually could not determine whether Mary or Lee had painted it. It was on the South American tour that Mary cultivated her distinctly unique style of artwork that would consequently be featured throughout Disney history, and still exists today.
While I am fascinated by the history of these two films, I am less enthusiastic about the films themselves. To be honest, I am getting a little discouraged at this point. Seven movies in and I have only really enjoyed about three of them. After watching Saludos and Caballeros, I found myself thinking ‘Do I really like Disney?’ I knew when I started this project that I would have to trudge through a lot of weird mush to get to the films that I was actually excited to write about, but now it feels as if I just hate some of the most prominent films in Disney history. While I have been able to find something valuable in each movie, I can’t help but wonder how these (arguably) terrible films made Disney a success that was able to last and produce the movies I did like.
Both films are not what you think of when you think of a Disney film. I was really excited to see these two because I had never seen them before, although I knew the song, “The Three Caballeros” by heart because it was featured on one of my old Disney Sing-A-Long VHS tapes. The two films seemed random and out of place to me, and that is because… they are. They don’t have a main character or even one set story; they are compilations of different shorts that were inspired by different landmarks or locations in South America. Saludos Amigos in particular is similar to a documentary. An unnamed narrator talks to the audience about what the Disney painters see and what they are drawing. He describes what gives the artists inspiration and then the focus will turn to a short film that was later developed.
There are three shorts featured in Saludos Amigos. The first is about Donald’s vacation to Lake Titicaca, the second features a small airplane name Pedro, and the third is a Goofy-How-To clip where Goofy learns to be a gaucho. Personally, I really enjoyed the story of Pedro the airplane, and was mostly bored by the Donald and Goofy segments. Goofy How-To shorts were very popular by the time Saludos Amigos was made (most notably “How to Play Baseball”), so naturally they decided to incorporate a multicultural version of the format for the film. I have never been a huge fan of Goofy (The Goofy Movie being the only exception) or How-To shorts, so it was not a surprise to me that I didn’t enjoy “El Gaucho Goofy” very much.
The real gem of Saludos Amigos (in my opinion) is the story of Pedro the airplane. Inspired by the geography of Chile, the Disney artists came up with the tale of a family of airplanes who deliver mail across the Chilean mountains. When his father is too sick and his mother proves too weak from “high oil pressure” to deliver the mail, Pedro has to step up to the plate and deliver the mail for his first time ever. Pedro is an endearing, childlike character and while the story has no real depth to it, you root for him to succeed. Pedro gets caught in a windstorm and runs out of gas on his way home. Everyone believes he must be dead (a pretty depressing outcome for a five minute short) until Pedro comes plummeting out of the sky. It isn’t really explained how Pedro survives and makes it home after he runs out of gas. The narrator literally says, “Well, don’t ask me how he did it!” Actually, the narrator is one of the most interesting and stylistic parts of all three shorts in this film. For example, in Pedro’s story, there is no dialogue aside from the narration and the narrator gets increasingly more intense throughout the clip. When Pedro starts to fall to his death, the narrator is almost screaming, saying things like “You’re in the clear Pedro!” and “No! Pedro, no!!!!!!!!!!!!” It is a weird device, although pretty common for short animated films in that time.
The Three Caballeros concentrates less on the Disney artist’s day-to-day activities in South America and instead uses Donald Duck as the focus of the film. It is Donald’s birthday and his good Brazilian friend Joe Carioca brings him a variety of gifts that teach him things about exotic South American birds. For example, Donald hears a story about Pablo the Penguin who dislikes the cold climate of the South Pole and uses a bathtub to sail to the tropics. Next comes “The Flying Gauchito”, a story about a boy who finds a flying donkey and uses him to cheat at the racing tracks. Another one of Joe’s gifts to Donald contains Panchito, the gun slinging Rooster, who enters the scene with the famous song “The Three Caballeros”.
After Panchito arrives, the whole movie falls apart. The three birds go on a complete mind trip featuring explosives, a tour of Mexico on a flying carpet, and beautiful women’s heads singing out of large flowers. It is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen and by the end of the movie I had no idea what I had just watched or why it even existed.
Overall, even though I hated the movies I am really glad I know about them. I’m glad this project forced me to watch them because without watching them I would have never been so confused, and without that confusion I never would have discovered the amazing history behind the movies. The story of the goodwill tour makes these movies a little bit more bearable because it is so freaking fascinating. If I can give you one recommendation it would be to watch Saludos and Caballeros for the sole purpose of being able to appreciate Walt & El Grupo, because it is an incredible documentary and it is worth watching. All else I can say is that the movies can only get better after this point.
Next up: Make Mine Music
Money spent so far: $75.66