Saludos, amigos! So begins Disney’s war-time feature efforts, more propaganda work than pushing the boundaries of animation and storytelling. Compared to classic, boundary-pushing works like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, Saludos Amigos falls far short of those high bars.
At a mere 40 minutes, Saludos Amigos is a series of four 10-minute shorts that follow Disney animators as they explore four South American tourist hotspots: Lake Titicaca, Mendoza (Chile), Argentina and a mash-up of several South-American locales set to the music of Brazil. Each segment is strung together with home movies shot by the crew while they were exploring.
The trip was sponsored by the U.S. State Department, though, not Disney. The U.S. government feared that many South American countries were developing Nazi sympathies and a good will tour would help to bring them closer to the Allies. President Roosevelt appointed Nelson Rockefeller to head up a special agency the L.A. Times described as “a veritable international chamber of commerce and cultural exchange agency.” Walt Disney was quickly tapped as a cultural ambassador from the United States to Latin America.
By all accounts, the trip was enormously successful. But, set against the rise of Nazi Germany and the labour unrest in Walt’s backyard, the tone of the film seems almost ironic. In fact, the high-drama strike at Walt’s U.S. studios and growing international tension provides a far more intriguing story than Donald Duck smashing Incan pottery ever could. In 2009, it was the subject of a documentary called Walt and El Grupo. In that film, historian J.B. Kauffman explored the political reasons for sponsoring Walt Disney’s South American tour.
Kaufman says, “everywhere he went, there was some opposition, because the Nazi power base that was trying to get established in South America knew he was coming. They were prepared to attack — there had been some advance hostilities from the labor community because of the strike.”
But everywhere Disney went, “the opposition was swept away because the people were dying to meet Walt Disney,” Kaufman adds. “They were crazy about the films he was making. He became kind of a rock star.”
Mission: Befriend the South Americans was marked “accomplished.” Despite it’s lackluster artistic and technical achievements, Saludos Amigos received three Academy Award nominations, for best musical score, best original song and best sound recording. This shouldn’t be surprising, though. Helping the war effort was a sure shot with the Academy in 1942 and 1943. Casablanca nabbed best picture and best director when the awards were handed out in 1943. To better illustrate the effect the war had on cinema, these are the films nominated for best feature documentary in the 16th Academy Awards:
- “Baptism of Fire” United States Army
- “The Battle of Russia” United States Department of War Special Service Division
- “Desert Victory” British Ministry of Information
- “Report from the Aleutians” United States Army Pictorial Service
- “War Department Report” United States Office of Strategic Services Field Photographic Bureau
Note the credited filmmakers. The same is true for shorts produced at the time. Saludos Amigos — presented as an animated tour of South America, with quick overviews of local cultures using familiar characters like Donald and Goofy — in retrospect feels like the iconic boorish tourist, wandering into a culture they know nothing about and, in their ignorance, smashing what little they’re able to grasp. Donald destroys bridges, pottery and boats. Goofy takes on the costume of locals and does his normal Goofy thing trying to imitate their pastimes.
But the live-action portions of the film showed some things that few Americans had ever seen before: a vibrant, industrial and modern South American society. Tall buildings, street cars rolling down the street, fashionably dressed citizens, modern music halls and government buildings. It was like looking at themselves, and provoked a lot of interest in South American tourism. Alfred Charles Richard Jr., an American historian, wrote that Saludos 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.”
It was met with generally positive reaction on its U.S. release. The New York Times called it a “gay forty-minute potpourri” that children are sure to love and includes characters and humour right in line with the Disney tradition. Recognizing the source of the film, though, it closes by saying:
As a matter of fact, the total effect of “Saludos Amigos” (or “Hiya, Pals”) is one of ascending enthusiasm. It isn’t what you would call a factual film, but it certainly does well by South America — or, as the boys say, sells a bill of goods.
Saludos Amigos was about politics, not art. But Walt didn’t have time to make art anymore. He was busy fighting a war. Those efforts would distract the studio from truly inspired film-making until 1950s release of Cinderella.