'Walt & El Grupo' Documents Disney Diplomacy In 1941, as Nazi Germany made diplomatic efforts in Latin America, the U.S. state department looked to Walt Disney for its counteroffensive. Walt & El Grupo tells the story of Disney's goodwill tour, and the impact it had on the studio's animation.



'Walt & El Grupo' Documents Disney Diplomacy

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In 1941, the U.S. government was concerned about diplomatic inroads that Nazi Germany was making in Latin America. So, the State Department looked to Hollywood for a counteroffensive. Specifically, they looked to Walt Disney. It is a little-known initiative, and it's now the subject of a new documentary called "Walt & El Grupo."

Here's our critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO: You'd think the Disney studio would have been riding high in 1941. "Snow White" and "Pinocchio" had been huge hits, "Dumbo" and "Bambi" were in pre-production. But world affairs were cramping Walt Disney's style, especially a war in Europe that was drying up foreign markets and capital.

(Soundbite of film, "Walt & El Grupo")

Mr. WALT DISNEY (Film Producer): The whole world was collapsing then, and so I just practically stopped my feature production. That's all I could do. That is when I had the strike.

MONDELLO: An animator's strike at the House the Mouse Built left the filmmaker seriously depressed. So when the Roosevelt administration came calling, urging him to make a goodwill tour of Latin America, he was eager to get away. Not eager to just shake a lot of hands, though, so he got the government to send his top animators with him and made it a working tour.

(Soundbite of airplane)

MONDELLO: The idea was to research future films by soaking up the sights and sounds of Latin America, and soak they did.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Ted Thomas is the son of Disney animator Frank Thomas, who made the trip. So he had access to a mother lode of documentary material: letters the animators wrote home, sketchbooks they filled and photos of them filling them, staring at, say, a live parrot as they created their cigar-smoking animated parrot, Joe Carioca.

(Soundbite of film, "Saludos Amigos")

Mr. JOSE OLIVEIRA (Voice Actor): (As Jose Carioca) Donald, I will show you the land of the samba.

Mr. CLARENCE NASH (Voice Actor): (As Donald Duck) Samba? What's samba?

Mr. OLIVEIRA: (As Jose Carioca) Ah, the samba.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: The rhythms captured on this trip were as much a revelation to the Disney group — El Grupo, as they called themselves - as the colorful foliage and animals were. This was an era when international travel was not yet common. And in 16-millimeter home movies from the trip, you can see the excitement as 1940s cities burst into gaudy state welcomes for the creator of "El Raton Mickey."

The State Department evidently got it right. More than a decade before Walt Disney became a familiar face on TV, the huge crowds suggest that this goodwill tour actually generated goodwill, and the documentary doesn't settle for showing that, it mixes in new footage, so the image can fade from a sketch of Donald Duck sitting on a balcony with a mountain in the background to a shot that is clearly that same balcony today with Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain in the background.

The filmmakers even found some of the folks who performed for Disney, including an ancient, almost toothless dancer who narrates footage of his 20-year-old self, stomping and twirling with Disney all those years ago.

(Soundbite of film, "Walt & El Grupo")

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

MONDELLO: He and Disney couldn't understand each other, he says, but Disney seemed happy.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: In his later life, Walt Disney would get a rep as a control freak with a dark side. But on this trip, he was not yet 40, still willing to wear a gaucho costume and twirl a lasso, just as Goofy would in a cartoon that emerged from the trip. The Oscar-nominated movies "Saludos Amigos" and "Three Caballeros" were the immediate result filled with stereotypes, yes, but comparatively friendly ones. The State Department was pushing a Good Neighbor Policy, remember? And in return for a guarantee, in case the films didn't earn their money back at the box office, which they did by the way, Walt and El Grupo were happy to promote the idea that it's a small world, after all.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You can see clips from the film at npr.org.

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