Saturday, 11 June 2016

Walt's Era - Part 3: The War Years (1942-1946)

War had come to America, and Disney was in the thick of it.

Since 1939, Europe had been at war between the Allied forces lead by the British Empire and the Axis lead by the Nazis. In July of 1941, the Soviet Union was drawn in against the Axis, and on December 7 of the same year, the hand of the United States was forced by a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 8, the American military moved into the Walt Disney Studios, further straining an already beleaguered company.

The loss of European markets right when they were needed to recoup the costs of Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi hurt Disney sorely. Then came the animator's strike of 1941, and finally the military occupying the studio grounds. Everything Walt had managed to build with Mickey Mouse and Snow White looked like it was about to collapse.

Still, there was hope. Before America entered the war, the government sent Walt and 18 artists off to Latin America as part of the Good Neighbor Policy. The goal, as far as the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs was concerned, was to counteract Nazi sympathy in Central and South America by building a healthy, neighbourly exchange with the United States. For Disney, it was an opportunity to get new material for cartoons and to help build the Latin American film market (much needed after Europe's inaccessibility). The result was two of Disney's best films of the Forties, and a string of Latin American-themed shorts.

Walt learning the dances of Argentina.
Disney also secured a contract with the government for 32 propaganda films, which helped chase off the spectre of bankruptcy. These included training films, various Donald Duck and Pluto shorts, and shorts like Education for Death (1943). Animators and artists also did various and sundry odd jobs, like designing logos and mascots for different military units.

Then, shortly after the war, Disney made a bold (but ultimately infamous) experiment in fusing animation with live-action in a film that would become one of its most enduring favourites despite modern controversy.          

Saludos Amigos
August 24, 1942
42 minutes

Regardless of the setbacks of box office failures and global war, Walt's spirit of experimentation never ceased. That becomes extraordinarily apparent with Saludos Amigos. Though figuring out the right formula for success with Snow White, Dumbo, and Bambi (nearly), he still went off to South America and made this odd number that has more in common with Fantasia and The Reluctant Dragon. The trip taken by Walt and "El Grupo" to Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Chile became the framing device for a string of cartoon shorts set in those respective regions. Something about it must have worked this time, because Saludos Amigos clicked with audiences. It did well, contributed to its mission of counter-acting Nazi propaganda in South America, and altered Americans' perceptions of their southern neighbours.

One of the things that Saludos Amigos does well is to hide its lower budget with some beautiful artistry. This is the first time we really see the hand of Mary Blair at work (literally!). Her unmistakable images of the Andes and its people give the relatively cheap production an air of mid-century sophistication. The mighty mountain Aconcagua - the largest in the Western hemisphere - looks truly ferocious. Rio de Janiero looks gorgeous in its watercolour glory and lively in its nightlife.

The comedy and the characters are also done very well. Goofy and Donald become the American audience's proxy, acting as the tourists on our behalf. Donald first appears making a fool of himself as a typical tourist around Lake Titicaca. It's a role he fills often, as in shorts like Grand Canyonscope (1955), and it's easy to see from that role how Donald became popular as an exaggerated everyduck. Goofy the cowboy gets transplanted to the Argentinian Pampas to act as a gaucho in another short similar to the "how to" cartoons. Then Donald surfaces again in the film's final number where he meets one of the new characters, José Carioca. The other new character, Pedro the baby airplane, is a little cutesy and it is unsurprising that he's been largely forgotten. smooth-talking, cigar-chomping, samba-dancing José is an instant classic though.

That final sequence, Aquarela do Brasil ("Watercolour of Brazil"), leads to the other two great strengths of Saludos Amigos. One is the authentic music, in this case Aquarela do Brasil by Ary Barroso and Francisco Alves and Tico-Tico no Fubá by Zequinha de Abreu. Any decent Samba music will make you wiggle in your seat and these pieces are no exception. The other strength is the sometimes downright insane, fourth-wall breaking moments: transitions where characters are being pushed off the screen, the artist's brush painting characters and scenes around them, abstracted forms of musicians and dancers, and so forth. Disney's artists are still pushing what can be done with animation as an artform, even on the cheap.  

South of the Border with Disney
November 23, 1942
32 minutes

This short documentary (only 10 minutes shorter than Saludos Amigos itself) produced under the auspices of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, is surprisingly dull for a Disney behind-the-scenes picture. The Reluctant Dragon set-up the concept of a Disney documentary as a show unto itself, largely contrived but very entertaining. Aside from a few gags, South of the Border with Disney is played remarkably straight. Dull narration shows us the raw footage from Disney's trip through Latin America, much of which was used in Saludos Amigos for its live-action segments.

For Disney fans, this raw footage is gold... We see Mary Blair and Norm Ferguson at work while Walt whoops it up for the camera. We also see clean, cosmopolitan images of Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, and Mexico, devoid of the security warnings that plague tourists today. We also see pencil tests not only for Saludos Amigos, but also Pluto and the Armadillo (1943) and the upcoming Three Caballeros (1945). The scope and the material gained from the South American tour is surprising considering what little we saw in the one feature film thus far.

The contrast between South of the Border with Disney and The Reluctant Dragon calls into question what really matters in a Disney behind-the-scenes film. The actual production of animation is an unglamorous process of endless sketches, inks, colours, and photography frame-by-frame. Showing us the footage of the trip which inspired Saludos Amigos is a little more interesting, but still fundamentally misses the boat. The most important glimpse "behind the scenes" is inside the minds of the artists themselves... How they perceive their own work, how their own interior creative process works, how they move from inspiration to finished product. Given how Saludos Amigos integrates the thoughts of the artists with the animated sequences, moving from live footage to animation, panning from a sketchpad to a moving character, showing the artist's brush painting in the landscape that Donald and José are walking across, it would be fair to say that Saludos Amigos is its own behind-the-scenes. It doesn't just give us a finished work, but shows a creative process unfolding. 

Victory Through Air Power
July 17, 1943
70 minutes

With the clarity of hindsight, Victory Through Air Power is a difficult film to watch. This propaganda film extolling the military benefits of long-range aircraft operations is essentially Walt Disney promoting the mass industrialized slaughter of human beings. A careful attempt was made to show bombers only attacking factories and ports, but we know how this technology was used in practice. America's dominant strategy in World War II (and indeed, through much of American military history from the Indian Wars to Iraq) was the deliberate destruction of civilian populations to make the human cost of war too much for the enemy to bear. Indiscriminate long-range attacks on civilians during WWII resulted in the firebombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, and Osaka, and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is chilling to watch "Uncle Walt" put his stamp of approval on the strategy of killing as many Japanese people as necessary until the government of Japan surrenders. This does not, of course, excuse the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes, but does highlight that in war, there are really only two sides: those who wage the war and the rest of us who are made to suffer by them.

Putting aside moral judgments on history, Victory Through Air Power gives us another example of the Disney-style documentary and specifically Disney's first techno-documentary. I'm getting ahead of myself, but Man in Space, Our Friend The Atom, and Magic Highway U.S.A. have their genesis here, not only in subject matter but in the form of presentation. Victory Through Air Power begins with an animated history of flight, followed by the introduction of the expert - in this case Alexander P. de Seversky - who walks the viewer through the technical concept in a relatively breezy fashion with the aid of animated vignettes. This exact same formula was durable enough and engaging enough to work again and again on television, whether it is Heinz Haber talking about atomic power or Wernher von Braun talking about rocket-powered space flight. Given the contextual specificity of Victory Through Air Power, the sequence on the history of flight was the only part of the film to be seen after the war. It is also the most entertaining and unproblematic.

As a propaganda device, Disney certainly makes a good case for long-range aerial bombardment and investing in military air superiority. This is a much more subtle propaganda film than something like Education for Death from earlier in the year. That 10-minute short crosses the line into being such overt emotional manipulation that it calls attention to itself, undermining its ability to stir patriotic outrage. Here they find the right balance to make a compelling case without straining credulity or insulting the audience.  

The Three Caballeros
February 3, 1945
72 minutes

The second film to come out of the Good Neighbor tour of Latin America is, without a doubt, the weirdest film Disney ever made. It's like watching 70 minutes of the same feverish imagination that came up with the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence of Dumbo, amplified from the fourth-wall breaking moments of Saludos Amigos, peppered with the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor from Fantasia. From beginning to end it is unrelenting, magnificent insanity.

Three Caballeros is roughly divided up into three segments, corresponding to three presents received by Donald on his birthday (Friday the 13th, naturally). The first present is a projector with a film explicating on the birds of the Southern Hemisphere. Sterling Holloway narrates a cartoon about Pablo the penguin who yearns for warmer climes, the Aracuan bird is introduced, and we see the story of Little Gauchito and his flying donkey Burrito. All three characters are an improvement on the too-cutesy Pedro the airplane from Saludos Amigos. Little Gauchito and Burrito have the quality of genuine characters from folklore... One could easily imagine the gauchos of Uruguay and Argentina telling the story of a donkey with wings who wins a big race and flies off never to be seen again. This short is "fakelore" on par with Paul Bunyan (invented 1916), Pecos Bill (invented 1917), and Casey at the Bat (invented 1888).

The second present is a pop-up book staffed by José Carioca, who shrinks Donald down and takes him on a tour of the Brazilian state of Baía. This and the next sequence are a fun play on the Disney trope of an opening storybook used to start a film. Donald is literally pulled into the book. The sequences starts off with the hauntingly beautiful song Baía and a multiplane tour of the state's capital of Salvador. Though limited in its animation, its longing and romance make me want to book a trip right now. We then have another poppy, insane sequence with the Aracuan bird before we are introduced to Aurora Miranda, sister to the Brazilian actress Carmen Miranda whose fame in America was leveraged as an ambassador for the Good Neighbor Policy. Some of the tricks are rudimentary, but this is the first major interaction between animated characters and live actors since Disney's Alice's Wonderland shorts of the early Twenties. Donald and José vie for Aurora's affections, in competition with a bevy of male admirers. The sequence is shockingly lusty at times, as some of the admirers give glances that teeter on creepy, Donald can barely keep it in his pants (not that he wears any, the pervert!), and a cockfight breaks out between two of the dancers. The two men morph from shadows to animated roosters in a cock-fight, and back to shadows in a dance-off, much to Aurora's pleasure. It is definitely playing on the Latin reputation for charged sexuality. Donald and José can't even seem to decide what gender they are, as they both morph from male to female as necessary for a gag.

The third present is a piñata that erupts into the third Caballero, Panchito, and the title song-and-dance number. I love seeing each Disney artist given a moment to really shine... We've seen Mary Blair's work a couple times by now, and here we see my favourite Disney artist of all doing his thing. The title number is all Ward Kimball, and it shows his exuberant imagination exploding all over. It is pure animation, not bound by any stricture of realism or logic. It is hilarious. It is mad. And I love it!

Since Mexico was not included in Saludos Amigos, Three Caballeros calms down for a bit and takes us on a tour of the great country. Mary Blair shines again in a storyboard about the Mexican Christmas tradition of Las Posadas. Then, on board a flying serape for another integration of live action footage from Mexico and animation. This round is move involved, as a libidinous Donald chasing after bathing beauties on Acapulco Beach actually interacts with his environment. Water splashes when he dives into it, a teeter-totter is used to launch him into the air, and he has weight as he is bounced around on a blanket. It's really marvelous to watch this kind of technical sophistication.

Finally it all goes off the rails again, and delightfully so, for the last 10 minutes. If the title number didn't make one wonder what Disney's artists were on when they did this film, the final 10 minutes would. All sense, reason, and semblance of a movie break down. Pure colour and animation rule once more. For the pure insanity of the film, besides the wonderful glimpses of other cultures, their music and dances, The Three Caballeros is one of my favourite Disney films. Like Fantasia it is daringly experimental, and unlike virtually anything before it, it is unadulterated stream of consciousness as only traditional animation can allow.

Make Mine Music
April 20, 1946
76 minutes

A mere bureaucrat, a pencil-pushing producer more concerned with shareholders than revenging themselves on unconquered hills, might look back at Fantasia and pledge never to try something like that again. That person would not, however, be Walt Disney.

Make Mine Music is another run on the same basic idea as Fantasia: an anthology of cartoons set to different pieces of music. It even begins with a piece of animation originally intended for Fantasia. A moonlit bayou slated to accompany Debussy's Claire de Lune opens the current edit of the film as Blue Bayou, sung by the Ken Darby Singers. The difference this time around is that instead of a piece of high concept high art, Make Mine Music was advertised as a  "happy comedy musical" with popular music of the day and more straightforward cartoon fare. It was also done more cheaply, since the war had only just ended and Disney was still hurting financially from it.

Segments like Blue Bayou, Without You, Two Silhouettes and After You've Gone fill the artsy side of the programme, and do so quite well. All The Cats Join In, capturing a glimpse of Forties youth culture around the jukebox, does some neat things with animation it picked up from Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. The main body of the film and its most memorable parts are some good cartoons that have stood the test of time on their own. Foremost is Peter and the Wolf narrated by Sterling Holloway. Immortalized as an excellent introduction to the symphony, it is charmingly visualized by Disney. Casey at the Bat (narrated by Jerry Colonna), Johnnie Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet (sing by the Andrews Sisters), and The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met (all voices by Nelson Eddy) ably round it out. I wish I knew exactly what was going on with The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, since it's a bit of a downer and ends the whole film off rather bittersweetly.

While each has endured as a standalone cartoon, the linking motifs in Make Mine Music really add to them. There are excellent Art Deco themes recalling Broadway aesthetics and a reversion to the opening book as an introduction, only this time it is a musical score rather than a bejeweled storybook. It graces the film with a theatrical air in spite of its meager means. It's a pleasant surprise when one is more used to seeing the cartoons on their own rather than as a single piece.

At just over an hour, Make Mine Music also manages to stay well within the patience of most viewers. It doesn't really compare to Fantasia in its execution, any more than pop music really compares to classical, but it does what it does well as a digestible little movie. It's actually grown on me a bit as I've watched it again for this series.

Song of the South
November 12, 1946
94 minutes

Discussion about Song of the South invariably begins with addressing the controversy that surrounds it. Even when starting a series of posts on the original Joel Chandler Harris stories on which the film is based, I had to pen this rejoinder about how the live-action segments...
fuel most of the controversy, for portraying the complicated era of the Reconstruction with all the pleasantry and frivolity of a Disney movie. Though the African-American characters portrayed by James Baskett, Hattie McDaniel, and Glenn Leedy are friendly, positive, and full of song - acting as the well-adjusted foils to the broken family of the white plantation owners - Disney nevertheless "Disneyfies" a difficult time in American history, in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, when African-Americans were technically free but had nowhere to go, dealing with the trauma of slavery while racism was still rampant. It is offensive exactly because it is so inoffensive.
Concluding that it may simply be impossible for a society still dealing with the trauma of slavery and racism 150 years later to portray that time without courting controversy.

The biggest fault of Song of the South in that regard is being a consummate Disney movie. It has real heart, and compelling characters (animated and otherwise), and good music, and fun animated sequences. Even in a culture that has not legally been able to watch it for 30 years, its essence still endures in one of Disney's most popular theme park attractions. The animation sequences are as good as the best cartoons from the package films, and a sight better than many others. I wish that, if Disney refuses to release the complete film, they could at least release the animated vignettes. The live-action sequences don't quite have the same scope as a comparable classic like Gone With the Wind but it still carries that same Southern charm, quaintness, and moments of grandeur. Ruth Warrick is resplendent in her gorgeous period dress, doing a slightly softer Vivien Leigh. Hattie McDaniel reprises basically the same character from Gone With the Wind, and like always it is fun to watch. It is too bad that James Baskett's wonderful, Oscar-winning performance as Uncle Remus is locked away in the Disney vault though. The allure of the forbidden aside, and despite some maudlin moments, Song of the South genuinely is one of the better whole movies I've watched thus far in this series.

Artistically, it is notable for how well it improves on integrating live-action and animated characters and for how well it sets Disney up for doing pure live-action films. Unlike The Three Caballeros, the animated and live-action sequences are much more clearly delineated. The live-action is live-action and the animation is animation, and save for the transition between them the twain hardly meet. Those transitions, as when "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" erupts onto the screen around Baskett's head, are much improved over The Three Caballeros. So much so that this will pretty well be the last time we see this kind of sustained attempt at it until Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Though making use of more modern technology, Roger Rabbit uses the same essential techniques as Song of the South. This is about as good as the integration of animation and live-action gets.

Outside of documentaries like Victory Through Air Power and pseudo-documentaries like The Reluctant Dragon, this is also our first sustained attempt by Disney to film a live-action movie. It wouldn't be nearly as good without the animated sequences to carry it, but Song of the South is just as much of an experiment as prior films, in its own way. Instead of an experiment in animation, it's an experiment as to whether Disney can do without animation. It will still be a few years before they brave a completely live-action movie without any animation at all, but it's coming on fast.

And that's a story for our... Oh, you know the drill by now...


  1. The interesting thing about The Three Caballeros is how much more I appreciate it now as an adult than when I was a child. Back then, it was all "Ha ha, silly Donald Duck!" I didn't really know what to make of it because it was unlike any other Disney feature film I was familiar with. I didn't know it had ever had a theatrical release and I think I assumed it must be a straight-to-video compilation of pre-existing material. As an adult, I am much more familiar with the oeuvres of individual Disney artists. Watching it for the first time in 20 years, on DVD, my sister and I both instantly recognized Mary Blair's style in the Las Posadas sequence.

    On a more general note, I always want to ding people alongside the ear when they complain about the package-era films being "cheap." Would they have preferred the studio to go out of business?

    1. I agree... When I say "cheap", that's to signify budget, not quality. Three Caballeros is one of my favourite Disney films, and it was on the cheap too. What's amazing is what Disney could do on a low budget!