Film Review: Saludos Amigos (1942)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Lee Blair – himself

Mary Blair – herself

Stuart Buchanan – flight attendant

Pinto Colvig – Goofy

Walt Disney – himself

Norman Ferguson – himself

Frank Graham – himself

Clarence Nash – Donald Duck

José Oliveira – José “Joe” Carioca

Fred Shields – narrator (hard to believe he was also Bambi’s father!)

Frank Thomas – Himself

Sources of Inspiration – Disney’s 1941 Goodwill Tour around the countries of South America

Release Dates

August 24th, 1942 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (premiere)

February 6th, 1943 in the USA (general release)

Run-time – 42 minutes (the shortest Disney film to date)

Directors – Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske and Bill Roberts

Composers – Edward H. Plumb and Paul J. Smith (Charles Wolcott directed the music)

Worldwide Gross – For some reason, grosses for the package films are impossible to find

Accolades – 1 win and 3 Oscar nominations


1942 in History

Failure of the German attempt to take Moscow, Operation Typhoon

Nazis formulate their “Final Solution”

Bełżec extermination camp opens; up to 500,000 Jews are believed to have been killed here

Sobibór also opens – at least 250,000 more Jews died there

The Battle of the Coral Sea occurs; the two opposing fleets never sighted one another

The first African-American seamen are taken into the US Navy

Anne Frank makes her first diary entry on her 13th birthday

The Battle of Stalingrad begins

The Manhattan Project is begun

Casablanca premieres in New York City

Births of Stephen Hawking, Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney, Harrison Ford and Jimi Hendrix


 

Well, here we are at the start of the Package Era, with Disney’s sixth classic, Saludos Amigos. It’s technically considered a “feature” by the Disney Company, despite running less than three quarters of an hour in length, making it the shortest in the entire canon, and probably one of the shortest in history. The film, along with its follow up, The Three Caballeros, was the result of a “Goodwill tour” of South America undertaken in 1941 by eighteen members of the Disney Company (obviously not among the strikers). The tour was the idea of Norman Rockefeller, who was then the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs and went on to become the Vice President under Ford. During World War II, there was a lot of Pro-Axis feeling in South America; many of the countries had large German and Italian populations, so Rockefeller’s idea was to have the Disney Company head down there to act as ambassadors for the USA, in support of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy.

Ultimately, Walt felt that rather than getting enmeshed in delicate politics (which he didn’t feel he would be very good at, anyway), it would be more useful to make a film or two based on their experiences down south, showcasing the finest art and music that Latin America had to offer. It was also widely believed that Walt’s absence would be instrumental in solving the bitter strike that had broken out that same year, and it was in fact resolved while he was gone.

Due to the expensive failures of most of their recent features, the Disney Company weren’t doing very well financially and couldn’t fund the films by themselves, so the government gave them federal loan guarantees to ensure the films were completed. The crew visited almost every country in South America (at least according to the featurette which accompanies the DVD) and amassed a vast collection of sketches, knick-knacks and other tourist paraphernalia which inspired a variety of different stories, the best of which made their way into one of the two finished films. The customs officer in the featurette looks staggered at the mass of baggage the group brought back!

So, let’s see what Disney’s shortest feature has to offer – given the unusual structure of the package films, I’ll be using my Fantasia format of reviewing each segment in each of them, rather than going through them as single films.

 

Lake Titicaca

The title song, written by Charles Wolcott and Ned Washington, is sung with great gusto by the Disney studio choir as we enter the film. Interestingly, there is a lot of live-action footage used to link the segments in this (as well as most of the other package films), lending it the feeling of a travelogue. Using live-action footage in these films cut their costs and took the strain off the few animators who hadn’t been drafted into the war effort. These parts are actually pretty enjoyable, like watching seventy-year-old home videos – mind you, it makes me laugh to think of the animators having to re-shoot themselves boarding the plane to fly out, as they forgot to film it the first time! They all dressed up in the same clothes they wore that day and filmed themselves clambering back on board, pretending to be setting off on the adventure they’d already had.

Boarding shot
Check out the nifty 1940s fashions

The star of the Lake Titicaca segment is Donald Duck, and he really was the perfect choice for it. We see him here at his most American, playing the tourist and snapping pictures everywhere while trying his hand at all manner of local crafts and activities, without much success. He was apparently chosen to star in the segment because his famous muffled speech solved the issue of language barriers – Donald can barely be understood in his native English, never mind Spanish or Portuguese! There’s also a lot of llama-based humour, arguably even more fun for the internet generation than it was for audiences back then. Donald’s funniest moment here comes during the bridge scene – the initially unflappable llama seems to be enjoying Donald’s panic at first, but soon the duck’s manic attempts to prevent the bridge from collapsing leave even the llama hanging on for dear life. The narrator is the icing on the comedy cake, peacefully instructing poor Donald not to lose his temper, until the frustrated fowl finally yells for him to “SHADDAP!”

Llama and Donald

The representation of the foreign cultures of Bolivia and Peru (the lake is politically divided between the two) are generally quite respectful and appreciative for the time, although there is a touch of “othering” with comments like “their music is strange and exotic.” The narrator even pokes fun at the stereotypical tourist in the form of Donald, noting that the local people are quick to make sense of his “crude sign language.” There is also a lot of concept art displayed throughout this segment and the rest of the film, something which I’d really love to see more of in modern films, but I do understand why that wouldn’t work in a more narrative-driven work. Overall, the segment has held up well, although it’s definitely not of the same cinematic quality that audiences had come to expect of Disney by then.

 

Pedro

The second segment of the film is the only one to star entirely original characters, created for the film. Pedro’s story was inspired by a flight over the Andes during the trip, during which the artists got a glimpse of a downed plane on the slopes of the mighty Mt. Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia at approximately 6,961 metres. Trivia titbit for you: about forty years after the film’s debut, future president of the Disney Company, Frank Wells, actually climbed Aconcagua as part of his bid to complete the famed “Seven Summits” mountaineering challenge – one has to wonder if he had this film in mind!

Pedro

Pedro is a “baby” plane whose task in the segment is to collect and then deliver the mail while his parents are incapacitated, which involves a solo flight over the Andes. Pedro’s parents are little more than sexist stereotypes in the manner of the Three Bears – “Big, powerful mail / male plane,” seriously? – but Pedro himself is quite likeable, demonstrating a lot of pluck and a loveable tendency towards distraction. The artists personified Aconcagua somewhat by giving “him” an angry-looking face and talking him up before he appears, thus enhancing his screen presence – funny that he never gets mentioned on Disney villain lists. Only Disney could lend a mountain such character – just take a look at Lava from 2014 to see what I mean!  We get some creative angles and shots for the character, as Pedro peers up at him through his windscreen “eyes,” terrified by the storm.

Aconcagua

The real highlight of the segment, though, is the narrator, Fred Shields, whose infectious enthusiasm is what really sells the story. It’s hard to believe this is Bambi’s dour, serious father, as he begins screaming “CLIMB PEDRO! CLIMB!” towards the climax. Despite his investment in little Pedro’s fate, he seems to lose faith in him pretty quickly, gasping “He’s gone!” while the poor kid is still in sight. Of course, this being Disney, Pedro does indeed make it through with his precious cargo – only for it to turn out to be a daft little postcard! It is addressed to Jorge Délano, who was a prominent Chilean cartoonist and filmmaker that the Disney group met on their travels; it was largely down to him that they got to visit Chile, which explains the tribute to him here.

The segment was popular enough that RKO rereleased it in 1955 as an independent short, but not everyone shared their love for it. Another Chilean cartoonist, René Ríos Boettiger (more commonly known as Pepo) felt that Pedro was an insulting representation of his nationality, with the plane depicted as rather incapable and helpless. In 1949, he therefore created the famous character Condorito in response – the little condor has proved an enduringly popular figure, and is apparently getting his own film later this year, Condorito: La Película, starring Omar Chaparro as the titular bird. I find it enjoyable enough, mainly because of the melodramatic narration, but on the whole I think this is the weakest piece in the film.

Condorito

 

El Gaucho Goofy

The third segment was partially inspired by the likes of popular gaucho-themed works such as The Gaucho (1927), a silent featuring Douglas Fairbanks, as well as the backgrounds of F. Molina Campos, an Argentine illustrator and painter whose works centred around life on the pampas. Before it begins, we’re treated to some lovely shots of 1940s Buenos Aires – these apparently had quite an effect on US audiences at the time, as many people still held dated perceptions of South America as a rural backwater. Seeing the modern, stylish cities filled with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents did more to improve American understanding of their southern neighbours than any of the animated segments managed on their own. It’s fascinating to get a glimpse of life at the time, especially when we see the Disney party enjoying a lively dance and examining the equipment of the gauchos.

Buenos Aires #1Buenos Aires #2Buenos Aires #3

The segment opens in Texas, where we find our American cowboy, Goofy, minding his own business smoking a cigarette (or not, depending on whether that part has been cut in your version or not!). The narrator wistfully comments that the region is “untouched by civilisation” as we pan over a field of oil derricks – clearly, he’s as out of touch as ever. Goofy is then picked up and flung down to Argentina, where he must adjust to the life of a gaucho. Although Goofy’s antics are fun, as he struggles in his unique way to adapt to the new clothes and skills, the star of the show is truly the horse. The expressions he makes are pure gold – he greets his new master with a big, wet smacker on the cheek and later even turns up in a dress to act as Goofy’s dance partner! (This whole scene has me in stitches, especially Goofy’s unusually melodic singing, which turns out to be a record player – a classic gag.) The “ostrich” (actually a South American bird properly known as a rhea) has some fun moments, too, as the narrator rightfully points out that he doesn’t share the luxurious tail feathers of his African cousins, causing him to jump in surprise as they’re promptly plucked out. Upon realising that he’s being pursued by the inept gaucho – “Did he say bolas? Caramba!” – we are launched into one of the funniest scenes in the film, as we get a Wile E. Coyote-style slow-motion replay of the chase, which includes the narrator’s voice. First he’s dragged down into a lazy drawl, as we watch Goofy and his horse flailing about all over the place, completely out of sync with one another, before getting faster and faster, until he’s screaming like a hoarse chipmunk while the animation goes wild.

Goofy and the horse

The segment manages to mix a little cultural education with a great deal of humour and it works splendidly; I really enjoy this piece, and it’s probably my favourite from this film.

 

Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolour of Brasil)

The film’s last segment, with its lyrical title and lively samba music, is easily the most artistic of the four. The look of it was largely influenced by the sketches of Mary Blair, who would play a key role in the art design of many of Disney’s films over the coming decade or so. There’s some wonderfully creative animation in this segment, with the backgrounds blossoming before our very eyes – one particular moment I’ve always liked is when a bunch of bananas is changed into a flock of toucans with a simple touch of an animated “paintbrush.”

This segment is also notable for introducing us to José “Joe” Carioca, a popular Disney character of the 1940s who often turned up in films and in comics as a companion of Donald’s. Like much of the rest of the scenery in the segment, he doesn’t just arrive: instead, he is “painted” in, even shaking some off his feet at the end. He’s very spirited and greets Donald with a flood of Portuguese, which Donald desperately tries to translate in real time by flipping through a number of phrasebooks at top speed – only for Joe to translate it all as “let’s go see the town.” This they do, and how: at one point, they’re even sipping cachaça and getting very drunk! Golly, those kooky 1940s. Joe’s a great character, with just enough energy to match Donald without stealing the show from him. Apparently, he was based on a real parrot named Sonia, who is seen briefly in the live-action footage (though she is unnamed), and was chiefly inspired by his voice actor and namesake, José Oliveira. His surname, “Carioca,” is a Brazilian noun/adjective referring to anything related to Rio de Janeiro, which was the nation’s capital at the time (it was replaced by Brasília only in 1960).

Donald and Joe

The segment features some of the best music of the film, too, with 1917 hit Tico-Tico no Fubá by Zequinha de Abreu, and Aloysio de Oliveira, who wrote the original Portuguese lyrics. Oliveira also performs Ary Barroso’s Aquarela do Brasil, which is where the segment gets its name. I’ve always loved the infectious beat of a good samba song, so I found this a perfect way to close the piece – although it’s a little strange seeing Donald in silhouette, “jiving” with a clearly human lady! This “womanising” theme continued into the next film, perhaps the most dated aspect of both works beside the changes in fashion.

 

Final Verdict

First released in Brazil, this was Disney’s second film to have a foreign premiere, after Bambi’s London debut the same month, obviously an extra attempt to ensure the film’s positive reception in South America. At the time, at least, it worked well – the film was well received throughout the continent and was also a big hit in the US when it finally appeared there, six months later in early 1943. The Latin American market was vital to the Disney Company at the time, and not just for political reasons; with the European market still cut off due to the war, they needed some way of recouping production costs after a string of losses.

Film historian Alfred Charles Richard Jr. has commented that Saludo Amigos “did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years.” Despite this apparent success, it’s interesting that there seem to be no records of the worldwide gross of this, or any of the package films. Since Dumbo is usually described as the only real financial success of the decade, it can be assumed that while the film did well, it didn’t do phenomenally well. It was only reissued once, in 1949, alongside Dumbo during that film’s first reissue, although several of the shorts have been rereleased both theatrically and on home media as individual works.

To sum up, Saludos Amigos is basically a child of its time, and this dated feeling combined with its miniscule run-time might be why it is so obscure today. It’s worth a watch for any Disney fans out there, but I doubt this will be a new favourite for many. Still, it’s likeable enough and its intentions are good, so why not give it a try – it’s not like it’ll take very long!

My Rating – 3/5

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3891585 – credit for Saludos Amigos

By Apparent scan made by the original uploader User:Surge79uwf., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13070741 – credit for Condorito image

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saludos_Amigos – wiki page

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036326/ – IMDB profile

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