Disney Film History: Saludos Amigos

Saludos Amigos poster

Despite his success since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and his perceived happiness to the general public, the time period following Snow White up until 1941 was a rough one for Walt Disney. With money in their pockets, Walt and his brother Roy moved their parents down to California in 1938, where they could see their grandchildren, but the home they moved into had some troubles and his mother soon died from fumes leaking into the house. Walt heavily blamed himself for her death and his father became frail because of it. At the studio, Walt had seen failures come out in Pinocchio and Fantasia. Not able to earn their money back, he was in debt with banks. On top of all that, a strike broke out at the studio. He had always believed he was one of the boys, but as some people felt they were underpaid and union workers had convinced them to strike, a large portion of “the boys” sat outside the studio instead of at their desks.

The onset of World War II had left the studio a mess due to not being able to make money in overseas markets, however World War II also brought opportunities to Walt Disney that potentially saved the studio and his happiness. He was approached by Roosevelt and the U.S. government to go on a Goodwill Ambassador tour of South America. At the time, South America was a region being clamored for by both the U.S. and Nazi Germany. It was an area crucial to have for the U.S. because they were neighbors and had close range if there ever were attacks on U.S. soil. Walt felt he wouldn’t be someone to send down south just to shake hands with politicians and go to fancy parties. He mentioned he might be better off going down there for research and creating a film out of it. The government agreed to it and in the summer of 1941, Walt Disney gathered up 18 of his employees that weren’t striking, as well as his wife Lily, and took off for Brazil.

The group from the Walt Disney studio was an interesting one. Commonly refereed to as “El Grupo Disney” by hotel lobby workers in Brazil, they consisted not just of animators, but of musicians, sketch artists, storyboard artists, producers, and directors. El Groupo had such legendary names in it as Lee and Mary Blair, Norm Furgeson, Ted Sears, Frank Thomas, and Herb Ryman. Many of these people would become Disney’s right hand men and women at the studio after the trip as they all bonded closely during it. It was a fantastic 3 month trip to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. El Grupo met with locals, drank at parties, danced, played with local musicians, and of course sketched the scenery they saw and the people they met.

Walt and El Grupo

When coming back to the studio in the fall, they arrived at a studio not on strike, but one that had been unionized. It was a different place, but Walt was the boss and the film they promised the U.S. government had to be made after such a trip. Energized and refocused at the studio, Walt Disney came up with the film Saludos Amigos, which means “Hello Friends” in English. The film was to be divided into several parts, much like their trip was. They wanted to showcase some of the things they had seen, like the beautiful scenery of Rio in Brazil or the gauchos they rode horses with in Argentina.

The issue arose that many of the people working on Saludos Amigos were not on the trip and turned what was supposed to be a serious film, bonding the North and South Americas, into a gag fest that didn’t display all of the things they saw and enjoyed. Only small portions of the things they did were seen. Take the Lake Titicaca portion for example. It displays beautiful scenery and touches on the markets of Peru, but the short eventually turns into a fight between Donald Duck and a Llama, which doesn’t really represent the region itself. Another cartoon Chileans got upset about was Pedro, the airplane delivering mail. He wasn’t seen as heroic, but more childish and clumsy, which was used for comedic purposes.

The portion of the film many critics will point out is the final segment called Aquarela do Brasil, or “Watercolor of Brazil,” which was based off of the popular Brazilian song written by Ary Barroso and showcases a sense of style and artistry not shown in the rest of the film. The animation is gorgeous and the short brings us a brand new character, and one of my personal favorites, Jose Carioca. Jose not only defines this film, but would also go on to star in The Three Caballeros (which we will get to in a few weeks) and he also makes several smaller appearances in films like Alice in Wonderland and several stints in Disney Channel’s House of Mouse. The suave care-free bird plays well off of Donald Duck, who also stars in the short, and also helps give a good impression of Brazil.

Jose Carioca and Donald Duck

Beyond the animation, the film also includes live action sequences from the trip El Grupo took, giving us a good idea of how some of these artists lived while there and what they saw that inspired them. We also get to see, for the first time, some of these Disney legends, not only at work, but also having fun on a journey of a lifetime, and one that helped change and save the studio.

The film first premiered in August 1942 in Rio de Janeiro as part of the Good Neighbor Policy. Several Disney characters were on hand and the film was made out to be a big deal. The film premiered in the United States in February 1943 with less fanfare. The film recieved mixed reviews from both the North and South Americas. South America felt it wasn’t authentic enough to them, however it helped the world see a bit of who they are considering they weren’t as largerly seen as the U.S. or some European countries. North Americans enjoyed the film for it’s comedy and modern day look at South America, but didn’t understand why they weren’t seeing a full length animated fairy tale from the Walt Disney Studio.

Despite critical reception, the film garnered profits for Disney and helped put the company back on it’s feet, considering what would come very soon with the military takeover of the studio. Saludos Amigos being a money maker also paved the way for the next several films. Walt saw it was quicker and easier to make a film that was chopped up into several segments instead of one continuous story. With the studio busy making propoganda films for the U.S. as well as the lack of markets overseas, the “package” film era begins with Saludos Amigos and several films filled with shorts would follow in the years to come. (We will get to all of them, don’t worry.)

What are your thoughts on Saludos Amigos? Do you love it? Hate it? Does this history lesson change your opinion? Also, have you seen the documentary Walt and El Grupo? (I recommend it for any film fan.) Leave your comments below and until next time, Adios Amigos!

Josh Taylor
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Next Film: Victory Through Air Power


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Posted on April 17, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I’ve only seen this film once, and I didn’t like it; I found it kind of boring. But to be fair, I can’t really remember it, so I’m sure it’s due a re-watch by me.

    I found “Walt and El Grupo” to be excruciatingly slow and boring that I couldn’t watch more than half an hour of it. But in terms of Disney documentaries, I loved “Waking Sleeping Beauty” and “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story”.

    • I’m a fan of this film but I understand it isn’t for everyone. Same with Walt and El Grupo, which focuses more on the artists that traveled than it does the history of the Disney company like the others did.

      I like both because it captures a time that I think many people don’t even know about in Disney History and a pivotal point. Had the government not stepped in, Walt could have been broke and the company could have gone under.

      It isn’t the greatest animation or storytelling, but it’s more about the back story and the time period for me.

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