Continuing our weekly trip down Disney memory lane, today’s Saturday Morning Cartoons entry will focus on the studio’s two trips south of the border: 1942’s Saludos Amigos and 1944’s The Three Caballeros.

These two films were elicited by the United States government during World War II to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ongoing Good Neighbor Policy, which was enacted to show support for and build strong alliances with Latin American nations. During the war, South America was considered particularly vulnerable to Nazi propaganda (considering that many Nazi officials fled to countries such as Argentina in the wake of Germany’s defeat, that concern was not too far off). Hollywood studios had been in the business of promoting patriotic American doctrine since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and Disney’s studio was similarly brought in to try to counteract the potentially dangerous influence of Nazism. Both films (Amigos more so than its successor) were thereby crafted as deliberate propagandistic statements intended to connect with Latin American culture via some of the United States’ most well-known cultural exports: Walt Disney’s stable of beloved animated characters.

Disney’s most famous character, Mickey Mouse, was 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. Combining elements of live action and animation, these films 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 subsidized in part by the government to boot), these two films helped the animation studio continue to produce programming for its audiences while saving time and money in the process. And though the six package films are not as well-remembered today as other entries in the Disney catalog, they are nonetheless vital to Disney history because they helped save the studio from foundering in the wake of financial losses from World War II.

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 forgettable, for the most part–the attraction here is the animation.

The individual vignettes are:

  • “Lake Titicaca,” featuring Donald Duck, a know-it-all narrator, and an amusing llama at South America’s largest (and highest) lake
  • “Pedro,” featuring the flying exploits of the title character, a Chilean mail plane undergoing his first mission

  • “El Gaucho Goofy,” as Goofy learns the ways of the Argentinian cowboys in his own unique style (similar to the character’s “How To” cartoons from the ’40s, wherein Goofy taught us everything from how to play baseball and football to swimming and even sleeping)
  • “Watercolor of Brazil,” a musical celebration of the country that introduces Jose Carioca, a dapper parrot (and again featuring Donald Duck)

Music plays an important part in the film, particularly in the final segment, in which Donald (and, by extension, many of his fellow Americans) is introduced to the samba, a uniquely Brazilian art form. In fact, the title track of that segment, “Watercolor of Brazil” (“Aquarela do Brasil” in Portuguese) became a smash hit in the United States after its use in this film.

As with many Disney features of the time period, 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 South America in the loose 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 this film is strung together by the semblance of a plot–Donald has received a big box gifts from his South American buddies, and several animated vignettes accompany his opening of the presents. His titular counterparts include Jose Carioca (here christened “Joe”) and Panchito Pistoles, a Mexican rooster.

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 Baia, a large Brazilian city, 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 Brazilian singer and dancer Carmen Miranda). The two cartoon characters erupt in mutual attacks of comedic lust at the sight of her (Donald more so than Joe, admittedly), and as Miranda and her friends break into a samba, Donald and Joe fight 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 who gives Donald a pinata and tells him the story of “Las Posadas” (a Mexican recreation of Mary and Joseph’s journey to find shelter before Jesus’ birth). Panchito then takes Joe and Donald to Mexico on a “magic serape” (yes, a magic serape) through yet another magical book. In the wake of their journey through the country, Donald, practically drunk on a multitude of kisses, enters a surreal scene in which he flies around pollinating flowers (take from that what you will) and chasing women, always interrupted by his fellow caballeros before he can “seal the deal” (so to speak). One almost wonders what the Disney animators were drinking–or smoking–when creating this sequence.

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. This discomfort continues to grow; 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 it’s a little difficult to listen to Panchito sing about being “three gay caballeros” without modern associations with the word “gay” coming to mind (I’ll admit that when re-watching this film for this entry, I giggled at that line in the song. I never claimed to be mature).

As with its predecessor, this film was nominated for Oscars for Best Musical Score and Best Sound, but failed to win either award.

Of the two films, I would vote Saludos Amigos as perhaps the more interesting of the two, at least in regards to the animation segments with Donald and Goofy. Both films nonetheless have their respective charms, and though they are far from the level of brilliance of other films from the early Disney period like Pinocchio and Fantasia, they are still enjoyable, fun-spirited with some marvelous songs.

Next week, Nikki will take a look at the next three Disney package films: Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time. And I will talk about the sixth, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the following week in conjunction with a discussion about 1946’s controversial Song of the South.

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