The Great Disney Blogathon: Saludos Amigos (1943)
|March 12, 2013||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Saludos Amigos is a bit of an odd duck, if Donald will excuse the term. As touched on in most of my previous posts, the early 1940s was a rough time for the studio – there was a bitter animators’ strike in 1941 that led to a permanent rift between Walt and his staff, plus only two of Disney’s five feature films turned a profit on their initial release. More importantly to the genesis of Saludos Amigos, World War II had cut off the lucrative European market (and remember, Disney needed box office sales not just for its feature films, but for the many shorts they were cranking out at the time).
Luckily for Walt, the U.S. government chose that time to come calling. There were a lot of Italian and German expats and their descendents down South America way, and the pro-Axis rumblings from that region were making Nelson Rockefeller, the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, nervous. Would Walt be willing to make a goodwill visit to our neighbors in the south and remind them of the glories of democracy/capitalism/Mom’s apple pie?
No, actually. Walt didn’t think he would be good at sociopolitical glad-handing. But when the government offered to provide financial guarantees for both the trip itself and four or five shorts that might emerge from it, he changed his mind – especially since taking a long trip away from the strike might be good for him and the negotiations in Burbank.1 So he gathered up a bunch of artists and musicians who weren’t striking, and headed to South America.
Sure enough, the artists found fertile ground for four new shorts, including one featuring what would become a major international star. Walt also happened to bring his camera along, and the resulting live action footage became a framing device for Saludos Amigos, stringing together the shorts, since it was feared that if released separately, the shorts would only be popular in “their” country. The upshot is a very short (43 minutes) feature film, half animated and half live action. But it did what it was intended to do; Walt and his crew were feted everywhere they went, and the finished film broke box office records in every South American country in which it was released, putting Disney firmly in the black (and saving them from cashing in on those governmental guarantees).
Let’s run through the shorts themselves real quick:
Lake Titicaca: Yes, get your giggles out now.
The live action footage and voiceover narration take us to Peru, where we’re shown footage of the town, the market, the fishermen, and the llamas. Some quick sketches and concept art transition us into the animated section, where Donald Duck, “America’s most celebrated tourist,” is gleefully exploring. (Donald was chosen as an ideal character for this sort of project because, since he’s almost as incomprehensible to people who speak English as people who don’t, the animators had developed a whole array of tricks to get his meaning across without the viewer having to understand the precise words.) He gawks at the Peruvians, has a few sailing mishaps on the lake, and barters with a little boy for a llama that’s been trained to answer to flute signals. Together, Donald and the llama find themselves on a suspension bridge high over the village, and the requisite tomfoolery ensues.
This is a pretty standard Donald Duck short, really. Donald is one of my all-time favorite characters, but there’s not much to this one beyond basic slapstick. He’ll have a better role towards the end of the movie.
Pedro: Pedro is a baby mail plane who lives with his mother and father – also planes – in Santiago, Chile. When one day his parents are both unable to fetch the mail from Argentina, it’s up to Pedro to fly over the Andes and fetch it. It’s a perilous journey, but he pulls off a miraculous save at the last second, Disney-style, and brings the mail home. All in all, it’s a very Disney story, with an anthropomorphized underdog making good, but it’s been told better many times before. Sorry, Pedro.
El Gaucho Goofy: After some footage of Buenos Aires, the live action moves to the pampas, where the animators are clearly more interested in gaucho culture than urban Argentina. We transition from some wonderful charcoal sketches to full animation to see Goofy as a stereotypical Texan cowboy. He’s suddenly whisked off to the pampas and given the ensemble and gear of the gaucho. The short follows the basic format of Goofy’s popular “How to” cartoons, which contrasted instructions from a pompous narrator with Goofy’s well-meaning ineptitude. Once Goofy has demonstrated the gaucho’s dress, tack, bolas, cuisine, music, and dancing, he’s whisked back home.
As mentioned, I’m a Donald girl, but this one works better than “Lake Titicaca.” Maybe it’s because the narration is really going all out, maybe it’s because of Goofy’s bizarrely coquettish horse, but I find “El Gaucho Goofy” a lot more entertaining.
Aquarelo do Brasil (“Watercolor of Brazil”): This is the best of the lot. First we get some live action shots of Rio and Carnival. Then the lovely title song, written by Ary Barraso and sung by Francisco Alves, plays as an animated paintbrush brings the flora and fauna of Brazil to life with sparse, syncopated brushstrokes, simple dabs of paint turning flowers into birds and sending waterfalls coursing through the jungle. One flower turns into a very familiar bird – Donald – who watches in amazement as the brush paints the world around him. (He even steals a dab of wet paint to draw his own crude figure, for which the paintbrush knocks him into a pool of just-painted water.2)
Eventually the animator paints in José Carioca, a dapper green parrot voiced by Jose Oliveira who absolutely freaks out when he realizes that he’s meeting the famous Donald Duck. He lets out a stream of excited Portuguese while a baffled Donald flips hastily through a stack of Portuguese/English dictionaries, embraces Donald like a brother, and finally switches to English to invite Donald to see the town. They head down to Rio, where José gives Donald a glass of cachaca, teaches him the samba, and takes him clubbing, and we fade out on a reprise of “Aquarelo do Brasil.”
They definitely ended the movie on a high note here. The music is great (“Tico-Tico no Fuba” is also heard), the animation is stunning, and José, though taking a much more limited role here than he will in The Three Caballeros, is charming. (More on him in a bit.) It was a wise choice to close out the movie in Brazil.
So. All that said, now comes the obvious question: How racist is this movie? After all, it’s literally a film about a bunch of white people flying down to South America to gawk at the locals and their strange traditions and sultry music. That’s a pretty problematic setup.
The answer: Not as racist as it could be, and it depends on the short in question. “Lake Titicaca” is by far the most problematic. The Peruvians, though obviously normal human beings in the live action sections, are extremely caricatured in both the quick sketches and the finished animation (big noses, perpetually closed/squinty eyes, etc.). The narrator prattles on about the “strange and exotic music” and “native costume,” and in general there’s an aura of “hey check out these mysterious, primitive people.” (Though there is one really fascinating moment that confronts this: Donald is creepily following a woman who is carrying her baby on her back and taking a million pictures of them. Suddenly, the baby leans out, holding a giant camera, and snaps a picture of a surprised Donald. Strangeness is in the eye of the voyeur, Mr. Duck. I just wish that idea had been carried through the whole short – hell, the whole movie.)
Meanwhile, “El Gaucho Goofy” takes pains to draw parallels between American cowboys and Argentinian ones. There’s certainly an element of “oh those gauchos do such weird things,” but it doesn’t feel racialized; a lot of the gags are similar to “How to Ride a Horse,” except Goofy’s in English dress there.3 I was also happy that Disney took pains to show Buenos Aires and Rio as thriving modern metropolises; in fact, those images surprised a lot of U.S. viewers with their modernity and contributed to a significant shift in U.S. impressions of South America. On the other hand, Chilean cartoonist René Rios Boettiger was offended that Chilean culture was pretty much represented as “annoying baby plane” and “next to Argentina,” and in response created Condorito, a major Latin American cartoon character.4
Finally, there’s José. I’m not going to deny that there’s a bit of the stereotype in José; his personality is pretty much just “friendly and cool” in Saludos Amigos, but it would eventually develop into “slick, perpetually broke womanizer.” That said, he quickly became wildly popular in Brazil, and continues to appear regularly in comic books there alongside an extended supporting cast. If the nation of Brazil loves him, who am I to say otherwise?5 And truth be told, I love him too. José is an incredibly engaging, charismatic character who comes very, very close to stealing the limelight from Donald. He’s the kind of guy you just really want to party with, especially since he can play a mean tune on the umbrella, and always knows where the booze is.6
Saludos Amigos is a cute, if unexciting film, and it helped the studio out at a time when they desperately needed it. That said, it’s so short, and the gags are, for the most part, such typical Donald/Goofy/Silly Symphonies-style gags, that it leaves you with a sort of unfinished feeling, especially since we iris out on a short instead of returning to the framing narration. Disney was wise to package this on DVD alongside the equally-short and similarly-themed The Three Caballeros, which definitely feels like the second half of Saludos Amigos. We’ll discuss this more entertaining – but definitely more problematic – semi-sequel next time.
- Spoiler: It was – the strike was settled in his absence – but relations between Walt and his initial crew of animators were never the same, leading to the rise of the famous Nine Old Men. ↩
- I should note that this was more than a decade before Chuck Jones’s great “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy Duck is tormented by an unseen animator. ↩
- The usual caveat applies, of course: I am not of South American descent in any way and I could very well be missing unfortunate tropes in this movie. Please let me know if I’m talking out of my ass here. ↩
- Chile got the short end of the stick in part because Walt wasn’t allowed to film there, but I take Boettiger’s point regardless. ↩
- Jose has certainly been part of of problematic things, though, as we’ll see next time with The Three Caballeros – and the cringingly offensive accompanying ride at Epcot. Good lord, Disney. It’s much more targeted at Mexico than Brazil, though. Poor Panchito. ↩
- Oddly, while on my DVD collection Disney awkwardly removed a cigarette from Goofy’s hand at the opening of “El Gaucho Goofy,” leaving him staring awkwardly at the camera for a little too long, José was allowed to keep his cigar, which he actually lights with the fire from Donald’s alcoholic breath. I guess José was seen as more of an “adult” character/less of a role model? Or maybe it was just too difficult to edit that shot. ↩