Often, when Disney decides to base one of their animated films on a specific country or culture they organize a research trip to help gain information and inspiration. This practice goes all the way back to the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when, knowing he was about to make a film about the German fairy tale, Walt Disney took a vacation in Europe with his wife Lillian. These days the research trips are more of a corporate affair, with the studios arranging for the directors, producers, writers, animators, and other crew members to travel together on guided tours throughout Norway, China, Greece, or whichever country their film is set in. One of the most famous of all these Disney Studio research trip is the tour of South America Walt Disney took with 16 other staff members in 1941. Unlike other research trips, this was also part of an important political mission that Walt was sent on by President FDR, which marked the beginning of Walt’s frequent recruitment for help by the government during WWII. It also had a significant impact on the studio, helping Walt and others escape a difficult political climate at the studio and significantly impacting the work of many of the artists on the trip. Despite it’s unusual significance to American politics, like all Disney research trips this one eventually resulted in a film, the obscure and unique 1943 film Saludos Amigos. Marking the beginning of the era of package films, Saludos Amigos consists of four separate short cartoons inspired by different South American countries. What really makes this film interesting is that the four shorts are connected by 16mm home movie footage of the actual trip to South America, making it a film that is essentially about the research trip that was used to find inspiration for the film. It’s an interesting relationship that I find epitomized in this J.P. Miller drawing of Mary Blair sketching children in Peru, sketches which would then influence the “Lake Titicaca” short in Saludos Amigos.
The year was 1941, by the end of the year the U.S. would be fully involved in WWII. In the meantime, the Nazi’s were influencing countries all over the world towards their side, especially the countries in South America. Things were no better at the Walt Disney Studios, as the war had cut off all of their European markets, making it incredibly difficult for the studio to make money. To further complicate things, a tense and messy strike over unions had stalled production while the leader of one union began a smear campaign against Walt that left him devastatingly depressed over his employee’s new perception of him. Walt needed some time away from the studio, and the U.S. government made him a perfect offer to do so. FDR had recently created the Good Neighbour Program, whose goal was to create a better relationship with Southern and Latin American countries in order to prevent them from siding with Germany. The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (the CIAA for short) was created to enact this goal, and their motion picture branch soon looked to Walt for help. Disney characters were incredibly popular in South American countries, so Walt was asked to travel around the continent on a publicity tour. Walt asked if he could bring along some of his artists along to turn the trip into a research trip for new South American themed films. The government thought this was a fantastic idea and the trip was soon planned.
Walt then travelled around South America with 16 staff members. They began in in Rio De Janero , Brazil where they set up a makeshift studio in one of the hotels they were staying in. While there , Walt went to the Brazilian premiere of Fantasia, received special performances at many of the clubs in Rio, met important political figures, and spent the day on Coco Cabana beach. He then spent a few days in Montevideo in Uruguay where he again attended the premiere of Fantasia. His visit to the city was such a big deal that children in Montevideo were given a half day off from school and hundreds of them showed up to try to meet him. After that the group headed to Argentina and the City of Buenas Aries. Again they set up a makeshift studio in a hotel and Walt went to many of the same sorts of PR events as in Rio. They also received plenty of cultural demonstrations by the local Argentinian people, including a demonstration of traditional Argentinian folk dances. They also went on a trip to rural Argentina to meet some gauchos and experience their traditions. Walt got right in on things and allowed himself to be dressed in the traditional gaucho garb. For the last segment of the trip the group split in two, with one group, including Walt, going to Chile to experience the Andes Mountains and Santiago, while the other group went to experience Peru, Bolivia, and Lake Titicaca. After some more time spent going to important events, meeting important people, and experiencing new cultures, the crew reunited on a Pacific cruise up the coast back to California. Walt had spent a lot of time photographing and recording the trip, and once they returned to California, his footage became very important to the production of new films at the studio.
Although much of Walt’s time in South America was tied up in going to publicity events, the group of artists he brought with him had a lot more freedom to explore. They filled their days and nights with sightseeing, meeting locals, and learning various games, dances, and songs. Every day “El Grupo” as they were called, met in the lobby of their hotel to discuss their plans for the day. There they would be informed of any official events they had to be a part off. Otherwise, they would form together in little exploration parties to head to various destinations. While they explored, they sketched, painted, photographed, and took notes on everything they encountered. They were interested in everything, from the exciting cities to the more mundane foliage. To make sure they were working, Walt would periodically review their most recent sketches within their makeshift studio.
So who were the members of El Grupo? Well, they were some of the most well-known artists in the Walt Disney Studios at the time. First there was Norm Ferguson, who had started out as an animator at the Studio, but had been chosen to produce and direct all the films based on the South America trip. Though he was there as a director, Ferguson was still an artist at heart and he did plenty of sketching. He was a special favourite of many of the children in South America because he was famous for his work animating Pluto. The children he encountered asked him for plenty of sketches of the beloved character.
One other animator went along on the trip, Frank Thomas, one of the famous Nine Old Men. Although like everyone else Frank Thomas was there to do research for the new film, Walt had an ulterior motive for asking him on the trip. With WWII approaching Walt was starting to worry that his animators would get drafted. Since Frank was one of his top animators and one of the youngest, Walt figured if he went along with them he could avoid the draft. That doesn’t mean Frank Thomas didn’t do any work while in South America. He did plenty of sketching, and even came up with a few character ideas, including one of the stars of Saludos Amigos, Pedro the little Chilean airplane.
Also present on the trip was layout man Herb Ryman. He was responsible for one of the most important characters created on the trip. He started to make cartoonish versions of the parrots the group encountered in Rio, putting them in human clothes and poses. From these sketches the character of José Carioca born. Jose became one of the stars of Saludos Amigos and would later go on to have a role in two more Disney films, The Three Caballeros and Melody Time. Even today he occasionally shows up within cartoon shorts, merchandise, and in theme parks as one of the stars of the Grand Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros in Epcot.
Also present was the musician Charles Wolcott, who got several Academy Award nominations for the songs he wrote while on the trip. There were also storymen William Cottrell Jr., Ted Sears, and Webb Smith and story sketch artists James Bodrero and John Miller. Finally, the layout artist Lee Blair came along with his wife, Mary Blair. Mary Blair is probably the most famous visual development artist ever to come out of the Walt Disney Studios. This trip was a particularly significant part of her life that basically changed the course of her career.
Mary Blair was a water colour artist who had worked at the Walt Disney Studios since Fantasia. Unfortunately, her work , which was nothing like what she is known for today, kept getting cut from the final film and she was becoming disenchanted. When her husband Lee was asked by Walt to go on the trip to South America, she asked to tag along, hoping the change of pace would do her and her art some good. Well, she was completely transformed into the spectacularly imaginative artist that we hear so much about today. Inspired by the art, culture, and sights she saw in South America, Mary Blair began painting in unusually bright colours and interesting shapes. She seems to have especially fallen in love with the birds in South America.
Mary Blair and her husband eventually split off from the rest of the group and took some time to explore Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Mexico. As she continued to travel, she increasingly developed her new bold, simplified, and colourful style of art. It seems Peru really sparked her imagination, and two paintings she created of Peruvian children became particular favourites of Walt’s, becoming the only art work by a studio artist that he ever hung up in his apartment.
When she finally returned to California, Mary Blair’s work became incredibly influential on the film that would become Saludos Amigos.
Once the animators got back to the U.S., the union strike at the studio was finally over and it was time to fulfil the second half of their mission from the government, making a series of short films that would be distributed throughout North and South America. The animators had already come up with plenty of new characters to use in these shorts while they were traveling. There was of course the Chilean airplane Pedro and the Brazilian parrot José who I mentioned earlier. Mary Blair’s many paintings of llamas in Peru also sparked the animator’s imagination. They created the character of the dancing llama ( famously animated by Milt Kahl) in the” Lake Titicaca” short.
Another idea for a short came from combining the various sketches the animators made while visiting the gauchos in Argentina and the drawings they made of Goofy exploring South America. This became the “Gaucho Goofy” segment of the film. This short was also heavily influenced by the art of Argentine artist F. Molina Campos, an artist famous for his paintings of gauchos and the Argentinian pampas. The animators met Campos while on the trip and he was eventually made a consultant on the film.
Several sketches were also made on the trip of Donald in various situations in South American countries. These sketches eventually inspired his appearances in both the “Lake Titicaca” short and the “Aquarela do Brasil” short.
Eventually, the decision was made to take the best of the South American themed shorts and package them together in one feature film. While each short focused on one individual country, putting them together created one coherent feature that focused on South America as a whole. This allowed for a better image of international solidarity as well as an easier time making a profit off of the film. So the animators chose the four shorts that they felt were the best or were already the furthest along. Of course, not everything made the cut, as can be seen in one of the early poster designs for the film.
The armadillo at the top of the poster was a character proposed for a short featuring Pluto that was not included in the final version of Saludos Amigos. Instead the short was released individually a few months later as Pluto and the Armadillo (you can watch it here).
The monkey is another deleted character who was possibly intended to be in a short with Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This short never came to fruition.
When they chose the four shorts they were going to release together as a package, they realised they were still too short to qualify as a feature length film. Footage had to be added to reach the necessary 40 minute mark. Luckily, a solution was found in the form of the 16mm home movie footage taken by Walt and others during the trip. (Some of this footage had already been used in the non-fiction short South of the Border with Disney which you can watch here). Walt was admittedly reluctant to add his own footage into the film, as he felt he was a horrible cinematographer and his hands often shook the camera. Yet, he determined it was necessary in order to release the film so they took the best parts of the footage and used it as a way to transition from each short and each country represented in Saludos Amigos.
As I said before, the addition of this footage made Saludos Amigos a film that essentially becomes about telling the story of the very research trip that lead to its creation. It is incredibly self-reflexive in nearly every aspect. Almost every animation segment is lead into by real footage of artists drawing the very characters that are about to appear in the cartoon. In the animated sequences, Donald and Goofy almost seem to fill in for the artists’ own experiences within these countries. It’s a formula of story-telling that is unique to this film in the Disney cannon, making it incredibly interesting to someone like me, who is fascinated by all that went on behind the scenes at the Walt Disney Studios. Although the inclusion of this home movie footage was a last minute decision, it is very fitting for the film. After all, the animators seemed to have drawn each other traveling in South America almost as much as they drew the various new sights they encountered. Through their paintings and sketches they essentially established themselves as characters in the film even before they knew they would be.
So in a way, Saludos Amigos came full circle, becoming a film as much about the animator’s adventures in South America as it is about the adventures of Donald, Goofy, Pedro, and José. The film ended up being extremely financially successful, especially in South America and did quite a lot to foster good will towards the U.S. in the countries depicted in the film. Not only that, it also helped to educate North Americans on South American cultures, most of which were extremely unfamiliar to them at the time. So really, though Saludos Amigos is an obscure film today, it and the Disney trip to South America had many lasting effects on history. It began what would soon become a very complicated alliance between the Walt Disney Studios working for the U.S. government, the result of which lead to a the making of second Good Neighbour package film, The Three Caballeros, and several top -secret animated training films for the military. By exposing them to a variety of new cultures, the trip furthered the artistic development of many of the artists, musicians, and writers. This was especially true of Mary Blair who went on to become one of the most successful and influential Disney artists ever. It also created characters like José Carioca, who may not be very familiar to North Americans, but who had a lasting effect on Brazilians. Finally, it helped to preserve fascinating footage of many Disney staff members, including Walt himself, at work and at play in foreign countries, footage that we might have never seen if it weren’t for this film. I would like to finish off by recommending a documentary to anyone who found this article interesting. It’s called Walt & El Grupo and it was directed by the son of Frank Thomas. It’s full of information on the Disney trip to South America and covers way more than I possibly could fit in this article including many more sketches from this fascinating research trip.