May 15, 2008

Disney Canon #6: Saludos Amigos (1942)


ADAM That was totally meta. That was crazy. People paid money to see that in a theater?

BETH That’s what I was thinking.

ADAM I found it really entertaining, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be entertaining as anything other than a curiosity.

BROOM It was like something to show to schools. It was a promotional travelogue.

ADAM Do you feel more warmly disposed toward South America, having seen that?

BROOM Honestly, I would say yes.

ADAM Okay.

BROOM I especially found the last sequence very inviting. When they were walking in a watercolor world, I thought, “that does seem like a nice fantasy – and maybe it would be like that, if I were in Brazil. A little bit.” It made me think about how I like to be outside when the weather is nice. When it painted that cafe for them, I thought, “it would be nice to be there.”

BETH Yes, the cafe was nice.

BROOM Yes, I think it did its job on me. Also, it was about specific South American things that I hadn’t been overexposed to. It wasn’t tired material. Lake Titicaca, and gauchos – I’ve never had this particular stuff shoved down my throat before, so I’m perfectly happy for Disney to show me some cartoons about it.

ADAM I imagine most people don’t have a very differentiated sense of the countries in South America. Maybe they know that Brazil is Carmen Miranda, but before seeing this they probably didn’t have a sense of Bolivia versus Argentina.

BETH I’m not sure they’re going to after seeing this.

ADAM I don’t know. Well, Chile we didn’t get a very clear sense of. That one was the least successful.

BROOM Why, because it was just about airplanes? You at least got a sense that Chile was a narrow strip bordered by very tall mountains. If I had seen this movie as a kid, I think that I would attach many more associations to those countries than I do. Even if they were mostly inaccurate. You have to start somewhere! But what do we think about the fact that this is what Disney did next? That it appears in this canonical list?

BETH If they were commissioned to do it, then I don’t understand why it’s in their canon. I thought it was going to be a feature, not a bunch of shorts.

BROOM They seem to consider it their sixth feature.

ADAM What did the State Department think they were getting?

BROOM I might be wrong about it being commissioned by the State Department. It was some kind of government thing.

ADAM There should probably be an editor’s note here. (Ed.: how’s this?) Were Donald Duck and those guys popular in South America at this point?

BROOM I don’t know but José seemed pretty happy to see him.

ADAM Presumably yes. I’ve heard the term “Pato Donald” before. That’s what José Carioca says to Donald when he presents his card. It would be funny if they screened this in South America as a way of showing South Americans that Americans were thinking about them. I was at a conference of Latin American law professors, in Peru, where the dean of my law school spoke and terribly offended everyone when he told them that the secret of understanding Washington’s attitude toward Latin America is that Washington only has room to think about two countries in Latin America at any given time, and one of them is Cuba.

BETH Wow. That’s really offensive.

ADAM Dean Koh told them that there was Cuba and one other, and right now it’s Venezuela. So Washington thinks about Hugo Chávez, and they think about Castro, and that’s it. And that’s probably true, but everyone there was profoundly offended. But this movie sort of says the opposite; it suggests that Americans take many countries in South America seriously.

BROOM I appreciated that it knew all along that it was just a tourist movie, made by tourists, about the tourist’s attitude toward things. Donald was just a tourist, obsessed with taking pictures and getting superficial experiences of things, and that’s what the movie offered.

ADAM Well, he mostly has mishaps. He didn’t really make going to Lake Titicaca seem that appealing.

BROOM Yes, I know, he got a ringing in his ears. I found the movie pretty charming. But it’s totally not in the category of “feature film.” For obvious reasons.

BETH I thought it was really great, actually.

ADAM Which segment did you like most and least?

BROOM My favorite thing in the whole movie was when Goofy got caught on the wipe. That was really funny to me.

BETH I also liked the transitions in that. I think that might be my favorite one.

ADAM And what was your least favorite?

BETH What was the first one again?

BROOM Donald at Lake Titicaca. It was the least well-conceived of them.

BETH It was the least memorable.

BROOM We were all chuckling at the cutesy airplane one. We all had a good time watching that. Stupid as it was.

BETH Yeah, I did enjoy that.

BROOM But they knew it was stupid too; that narrator knew.

ADAM None of the planes had any dialogue, it was just that voice. That’s the narrative voice that often fucks with the characters.

BROOM I think it’s the same guy who narrates all the Goofy shorts. “There, that wasn’t so bad!”

ADAM Yeah, he provides ironic contrast to whatever Goofy’s doing by saying something like “Behold the majestic athlete!” while Goofy’s doing some idiot thing.

BETH What was your favorite?

ADAM I liked the José Carioca one, because it was the catchiest, the most rousing.

BROOM That was my favorite segment too, and I feel like the movie knew it too. When I said what my favorite “thing” was, a minute ago, I just meant that one moment, but the Brazil segment was the best overall.

BETH That’s true. I did like the watercolor stuff.

BROOM All that stuff with the watercolor and the paintbrush – I liked when Donald used a little bit of ink to do his own drawing. Everyone’s in a joyful mood. And that’s such a catchy song, as you were saying before we started recording.

ADAM Right, I was saying that I recognized the tune immediately but didn’t realize it was from this – or from Brazil, for that matter.

BROOM I had been aware that the song “Aquarela do Brasil” was from Saludos Amigos – but then they said that it had been the hit of Carnaval that year. So it wasn’t “from” this movie.

ADAM But rather popularized by this movie.

BROOM I guess so.

ADAM Was it a novelty to U.S. audiences in 1942 to see color travel footage?

BROOM I don’t know. It had that Technicolor-y look.

ADAM It looked like early National Geographic photos.

BROOM It looked like postcards.

BETH Would other things with footage like this have existed in theaters at the time?

BROOM Well, there would have been newsreel segments about all kinds of stuff, but they would be black and white.

BETH But would they be about tourism?

BROOM Yeah, you know, like, “Let’s take a look at the Eskimo!”

BETH But wasn’t this wartime?

BROOM I’m pretty sure it was 1942.

ADAM I actually don’t know anything about the geopolitical attitude of South America to World War II, except that Argentina sheltered Nazis.

BROOM Afterward.

ADAM Afterward, but presumably implying that there was some sympathy there.

BROOM I don’t know what the political motivation was such that they thought Disney, or anyone else, should be a goodwill ambassador to South America.

ADAM I think of goodwill toward South America as being a late-50s, early-60s thing. Like, when did they rename 6th Avenue?

BROOM You mean “Avenue of the Americas?”

ADAM Right, and you’ve seen the placards up and down Avenue of the Americas, right? They have flags of every Latin American country on the lampposts. And where Avenue of the Americas dead-ends into Central Park, there are statues of Simón Bolivar and people like that.

BROOM Well, on this DVD, there’s a documentary about “Disney South of the Border” that surely answers all our questions, but we’re not going to watch it now.

ADAM Is this movie a thing that we would tell people to watch?

BETH I would tell them to watch it if they see it on television.

ADAM You would not tell them to buy the DVD.

BETH I would not.

BROOM I gotta say, I am delighted to own this. I was watching it and thinking, “if I have kids, they’ll watch this.” I may watch it again some day, when I’m feeling like I want to curl up and watch something.

BETH Yeah, sure, it’s a good rainy day movie.

BROOM It’s very comforting, light fare.

BETH Very low-commitment.

ADAM Yes. You knew that the plane was going to live.

BROOM But you guys both seemed truly dismayed when the plane fell. That plane thing was so stupid and yet very effective.

ADAM Beth, for the record, was also stressed out when Donald and the llama were hanging from the suspension bridge.

BETH It did really stress me out.

BROOM I have something to say about that sequence. In 2000, Disney made The Emperor’s New Groove with a long, elaborate sequence of comically crossing a suspension bridge with a llama and falling into the gap. They do exactly the stuff Donald was doing – but I didn’t realize until now that there was a Disney precedent for that scene.

ADAM There are only so many Inca memes, you know.

BROOM I didn’t realize they’d gone Inca before. Not that that’s interesting.

ADAM I’m trying to think if I’d seen any clips of this before.

BROOM The only clip of this that I recognized at all was when Donald and José were walking down the stairs and the brush was painting each stair in front of them. The rest I had absolutely never seen before.

ADAM I was also under the impression that José Carioca was the same character that appears in the Tiki Room.

BROOM That is not correct. But José Carioca will reappear in The Three Caballeros. The third caballero represents Mexico.

ADAM Who is the second?

BROOM Donald Duck.

ADAM Oh, I see. I was interested in the way that all the stories in this movie were told before they were told. They made it very clear that these were just filmed anecdotes. They show the artists thinking up the plane before they show you the plane. Which was weird.

BETH That was neat.

BROOM I thought those “meta” aspects were cool. I liked when they showed the first moments of the script, so that, in fact, instead of seeing what they had scripted, you were seeing a picture of the script.

ADAM Well, it did make it easier to take, because there was no real suspense about what would happen to the plane. It was just whimsical storytelling on the flight to Santiago.

BROOM I’m looking at Wikipedia where it says “According to Jack Haley Jr.’s documentary Life Goes To War, the United States Department of State commissioned this movie during World War II to be shown in Central and South America to build up relations with the Latin American populace. Several governments (e.g. Argentina) had close ties with Nazi Germany and the most popular US figure there was Mickey Mouse.” Or so Wikipedia says.

ADAM Wikipedia’s probably right.

BETH Okay, I’m going to bed now.

BROOM Just a comment about what I just read, in relation to the “meta” thing: it makes sense to show the people behind the film and make them an important aspect of the film, if the real purpose of the film is to show that the sentiment should represent relations with the actual populace of the U.S., rather than just with Mickey Mouse.

ADAM Yes, it certainly showed Disney artists loving South America and feeling warmly received and warmly sent off.

BROOM And the movie was called “Saludos, Amigos!”

ADAM Last question: do we think that there is a place for such blatant propaganda in our current propaganda battles? Should the U.S. Government be doing this today? Was this a diplomatic success, do you think?

BETH I doubt it could have hurt anything.

ADAM Should Dora the Explorer visit Saudi Arabia?

BETH Well, “Deal or No Deal” went to the Philippines. As we saw earlier tonight.

BROOM Do you think if Thomas the Tank Engine had a tour of Iran, and then we showed it to Iranians, they would find it reassuring?

ADAM I don’t know. It’s a funny concept when you put it that way. Iran’s not a good example, but what if it was touring our allies, like Turkey or Jordan?

BROOM Right. I would watch it!

ADAM It seems like the bigger problem in the world today is Americans’ ignorance of other places, not other places’ ignorance of our goodwill towards them.

BROOM I like the concept behind this, that benign superficial tourism and just the beauty of a country can be sold as a reason that we should have good relations with that country.

ADAM I think if Americans knew how beautiful China was, if there was a way of widely popularizing the gorges, or something…

BROOM I have not outgrown my positive impression of China from “Big Bird in China.” That worked!

ADAM I don’t know if I ever saw that.

BROOM It’s good.

BETH So these things do work.

BROOM They work on me! If you showed me beautiful pictures of Iran, I would feel much more like we need to find common ground with them. I’m sure there are great beauties there.

ADAM I’m sure there are. Okay, I agree it’s time for bed.

BROOM Okay. This was an interesting thing to watch in the middle of the night. Thanks for watching it, guys.

ADAM Mary, you should watch it.

BROOM Mary, you would like it but I’m sure you’ve seen it. You probably watched this movie over and over when you were a kid. It’s right up your alley. Hope you’re doing well! Bye.


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