Saludos Walt

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Walt Disney definitely needed a vacation in 1941. He was in debt to Bank of America for more than $3 million. World War II had closed the European markets to his animated features, so films like Pinocchio suffered financially. There was an acrimonious labor strike going on at the Disney Studios in Burbank that Walt took as a personal attack and always suspected the strike was Communist inspired.

While the United States was still about a year away from the attack on Pearl Harbor that would push America into the global conflict, there were still underlying anxieties that permeated the mood of the country.

In addition, there were widespread fears that many of the immigrants in South America had sympathy to their former homeland and supported the Axis cause, which could make South America a potential threat to the United States. As a result, goodwill ambassadors from actors like Errol Flynn to politicians were sent unsuccessfully to tour those countries to help build support for the United States and its allies.

“War was raging in Europe and was about to envelop the entire globe. A closer union of friendship and understanding with our Latin neighbors to the south was not only desirable but imperative,” remembered Disney artist Herb Ryman. “Walt Disney and his films were known, respected and loved universally. So it came to be that Walt Disney was recruited to help further such a friendship with our Latin neighbors.”

Walt told a reporter that he welcomed the opportunity to get out of the studio at that time because “you get in a rut. You begin to get tired. But this thing—it's like a new lease on life. I was asked by the government to go to South America as a kind of cultural thing and I went down with some staff to see if we couldn’t make some film about the countries down there. At first, they wanted me to go on a hand-shaking goodwill tour and I said I didn’t go for that. And they came back and said, ‘Well, you go down and make some films about these countries’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s my business. I can do that.’”

Jock Whitney, director of the Motion Picture Division for the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, proposed that Walt use the unique opportunity to gather material to make animated cartoons about South American culture with the final result being that United States citizens would have a better appreciation of their neighbors south of the border.

The government offered to pay up to $70,000 in expenses for the tour, as well as guarantee $50,000 each for up to five short cartoons based on the trip. If the films made a profit in theatrical release, the generous subsidy was to be refunded to the government.

The final South American films made by the Disney Studios “were successes in both the Americas. The government never lost a nickel on them. We paid for our own trip and the pictures, too,” proudly stated Walt many years later.

The story of that once in-a-lifetime trip has been captured in two recent outstanding contributions to Disney scholarship.

First, the film documentary Walt and El Grupo, written and directed by Ted Thomas, the son of the legendary Disney Nine Old Man animator Frank Thomas who went on the trip himself. This is the first film produced in association with the Walt Disney Family Foundation, runs about 104 minutes, and tries to capture the spirit of that goodwill trip through home movies, newly shot footage and interviews. More information at this link.

Walt and El Grupo is having a limited run in selected theaters far from me (and probably you as well) and I eagerly await its eventual release on DVD.

Second, a new hardcover book titled South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948 by J.B. Kaufman covers some of that same material from a different perspective and in much greater detail. Kaufman is one of my favorite Disney historians and always does a great deal of original research to come up with information never before revealed. I consider his Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney book co-written with Russell Merritt one of the finest examples of Disney scholarship ever written.

I have seen neither of these Walt in South America projects, but based on my knowledge and experience with these creators, I will unreservedly recommend both of them to those who are interested in Disney history.

The Disney Latin American excursion resulted in two animated compilation features: Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. In addition to these features, the trip also inspired several theatrical short cartoons, as well, including Pluto and the Armadillo (1943), The Pelican and the Snipe (1944 ) and Blame It on the Samba (1948 ).

For those readers not familiar with the goodwill trip, here is a quick snapshot of information that may pique your curiosity to explore the two projects I recommended.

According to a studio press release at the time that was distributed wherever the group stopped, the Disney artists would research a series of films that would “utilize properly, in the medium of animation, some of the vast wealth of South American literature, music and customs.”

One of the often items not mentioned in that release was that Walt was also informally looking at the possibility of setting up a South American branch of the Disney Studio.

Walt handpicked his entourage and talked to each person personally to invite them to accompany him. Walt designated specific responsibilities for each person, although those designations often blurred once they arrived at their destinations.

Norm Ferguson would be the producer-director. (Ferguson was famous for his animation on the legendary Pluto and flypaper sequence.). Webb Smith, Bill Cottrell and Ted Sears would develop stories. Jack Miller, Jimmy Bodrero and Lee and Mary Blair would help conceive possible characters. It was Blair’s exposure to the vibrant colors of Latin America that transformed her sense of color for which she became justly famous.

Chuck Wolcott was in charge of music (and would write the title song for Saludos Amigos and be nominated for three Oscars for his musical work on these pictures). Herb Ryman would do studies of landscapes, buildings and people. Larry and Janet Lansburgh would work on animals and characterizations.

Frank Thomas would work with Ferguson on animation possibilities. Supposedly, Thomas was invited along to keep him from being drafted into the service. Then three weeks prior to the group’s departure, a new law made Thomas less vulnerable to be drafted and Walt told him he didn’t need to go.

“But I wanted to go anyway, and I did, though I didn’t have an official job,” Thomas remembered.

Jack Cutting, who could speak Spanish, would check on authenticity and consult on the foreign language versions. Cutting had been to South America once before to supervise the Spanish and Portuguese versions of The Reluctant Dragon, Dumbo and Bambi. John Rose would handle administrative matters.

In addition, Walt would be accompanied by his wife, Lillian, and Cottrell by his wife, Hazel, who was Lillian’s sister.

You can see many of these artists in the 30-minute documentary South of the Border With Disney that was released to movie theaters in 1942 using 16mm film footage shot by Lee Blair, Larry Lansburgh and Walt himself to take advantage of the publicity surrounding El Grupo’s trip and to generate anticipation for the upcoming cartoons. This documentary appears as a bonus feature on the Saludos Amigos DVD.

“I had to use a lot of 16mm stuff which I personally shot so my bad photography and nervous hand enters into the situation,” explained Walt in a letter to producer David O. Selznick.

For the Thomas documentary, the 16mm material has been cleaned up considerably so that it is as clear as the newly shot footage.

The narrated film not only spotlighted some of the artists, including Blair playing a matchbox game, Norm Ferguson sketching endless pictures of Pluto, and Ryman drawing in the tight confines of the plane but gave a tantalizing preview of new characters like Jose Carioca.

It is frustrating that much of the material shown in the documentary never made it into any of the final cartoons.

Prior to the trip in 1941, the Disney studio spent weeks preparing voluminous research books, indexed by country, which included facts on trees, cacti, birds, animals, festivals, popular games and dances, traditions, folklore, and even research on famous singers and artists. In addition, research was done on the popularity of Disney cartoons in each country.

Walt was notorious for studying a country and its history before visiting it on vacation, sometimes resulting in Walt being more knowledgeable than the local tour guide.

The excited artists jokingly referred to themselves as El Grupo supposedly because they were called that term by the local bellboys. They left Los Angeles in August 1941 in a DC-3 aircraft (which lacked air conditioning so at each stop cold air was pumped into the cabin), and had to make three refueling stops in the United States on its way to Miami. They were accompanied by press conferences at each stop promoting the trip, before their first stop in South America at the city of Belem in Brazil, near the mouth of the Amazon river.

“We landed for refueling in some little place cut out of the jungle in Brazil,” Cottrell said, “And there were hundreds and hundreds of school children there to greet Walt. They knew who Walt Disney was. They might not have known who the president of their own country was, but they all knew Walt Disney!”

Then El Grupo went on to Rio de Janeiro where they were entertained by President Vargas at a lavish dinner. Walt presided over the Brazilian premiere of Fantasia at a charity benefit hosted by Vargas’ wife.

In Brazil, El Grupo’s days were spent visiting farms, zoos, schools, art galleries, and beaches. Then, in the evening, they attended nightclubs and festivals to study dancing, hear native music and sample some of the local food and drink.

“Walt Disney is far more successful as an enterprise and a person than we could have dreamed. His public demeanor is flawless. He is unruffled by adulation and pressure. He just signs every autograph and keeps smiling,” wrote Whitney to his superiors.

After three weeks, El Grupo journeyed to Buenos Aires in Argentina where they established a temporary animation studio headquarters in the Alvear Palace Hotel roof garden.

The Disney group met composers, popular singers, poets and painters and attended even more nightclubs and festivals, as well as learning to dance several of the native dances. All of this non-stop activity was to totally immerse them in the culture of the country and generate story ideas and art concepts for future films.

The local Nazi newspaper, “El Pampero” editorialized against this Yankee infiltration of Latin America and called particular attention to the Jewish name of one member of the group but gave up the attack when it quickly discovered that it could not counter Disney’s considerable popularity in Argentina.

In Buenos Aires, the members of El Grupo were the guests at lavish barbecues (known as asado) and watched experienced gauchos rope and break wild horses. Walt was outfitted in a black gaucho costume and it was commented that he looked perfect for that part.

Walt later complained he hated being dressed up as a gaucho and shown off but viewing footage of him, he certainly must have been a great actor because he truly looks like he is enjoying the situation from trying to strum a guitar to using a knife to carve off a slice of barbecued meat.

“Wherever we went, we were welcomed with open arms by all the presidents, leaders and dignitaries we encountered. We were all together, absorbing the spirited music, the flamboyant dancing, the colorful costumes, the background, the folklore and the history of these countries,” Ryman said.

“Mainly we were constantly wined and dined all over the place and it was real hard to find time to do any work,” Thomas added.

After a month in Buenos Aires, El Grupo split up for new adventures:

Jim Bodrero, Thomas, and Larry Lansburgh headed for the gaucho country of Northern Argentina to gather material that was later used in the cartoon El Gaucho Goofy with bumbling American cowboy Goofy learning how to be a gaucho.

Lee and his wife Blair, Ryman and John Miller traveled to La Paz, Bolivia and the Lake Titicaca region that would later inspire a cartoon segment of clueless Donald Duck as an irrepressible U.S. tourist in a dispute with a stubborn llama.

While some others flew directly to Chile, Walt, Norm Ferguson, Cottrell and Ted Sears flew to Mendoza in Argentina before taking a flight over the Andes on the same route the little animated mail plane Pedro would in Saludos Amigos.

In his personal appearances before audiences of children in South America, affable Walt usually gave a chalk talk where he and a few artists drew the Disney characters. In Mendoza, the surprised Disney group found itself without paper, easels, chalk or anything. There were nearly 2,000 excited children in the audience and Walt could not speak their language.

Through an interpreter, an apologetic Walt told the children about his unfortunate predicament and said the only thing he could do for them was to stand on his head which he did to thunderous applause and was reported as a humorous anecdote in several newspapers. Fortunately, Walt had also brought along some Disney animated cartoons to show as well.

Rather than fly home, most of El Grupo favored a slower method of travel which would allow more time to work out story ideas and sketches.

“I was so worn out by the time we reached Chile that the boat trip home was the only way I could get any rest,” claimed Walt about the 17-day sea voyage home on the Grace Lines’ Santa Clara.

The work of compiling the sketches, paintings, stories and music into storyboards was begun in a glassed-in section on the boat’s deck. The liner made several stops, including one at a small Colombian town where Walt and others took a steamer ride 30 miles up a river and into a thick rain forest.

Some of his companions suspected that this experience may have helped inspire Walt’s idea for the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland more than a decade later.

Walt and his party continued from Colombia up through the Panama Canal where they got off the boat so Walt could attend the Panama City premiere of Fantasia. They then journeyed up the Eastern Seaboard to New York for the premiere of Dumbo and then back home to Los Angeles by plane.

Sadly, during the trip, Walt’s father, Elias died at the age of 82—still mourning the loss of his wife, Flora. Walt who hated attending funerals did not return for the one for his father, but shared with one of his El Grupo companions, “I only wish that Roy and I could have had success sooner, so we could have done more for my mother and father.”

“When the Office of the Co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs asked us to make Saludos Amigos we had one purpose: to make a picture both Americas would like so that in the end they would like one another better,” stated Walt who accomplished that purpose. ”While half of this world is being forced to shout ‘Heil Hitler’ our answer is to say, ‘Saludos Amgios’.”

If this brief look has whetted your appetite for more, then track down Walt and El Grupo or order Kaufman’s book South of the Border with Walt Disney to get a much richer insight into this whole adventure. I am sure they will give you a much greater appreciation of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, and maybe even get you to wonder about the third unmade film that Walt was planning before war broke out that would have featured a fourth caballero. I wrote about that story (The Lost Caballero, August 2006) here.