You might say Walt Disney helped fight World War II. Armed with art supplies and a smile, the iconic mustachioed animator led a mission in 1941 to combat Nazi sentiment in South America and wound up producing two Academy Award-winning movies based on the trip.
You might say Walt Disney helped fight World War II.
Armed with art supplies and a smile, the iconic mustachioed animator led a mission in 1941 to combat Nazi sentiment in South America and wound up producing two Academy Award-winning movies based on the trip.
A new documentary, called “Walt & El Grupo,” tells the story of the two-month expedition through Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile. The movie will play at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at MADCAP Theaters in Tempe.
“They went to South America to conduct a goodwill tour, but the group was mainly made up of artists, and they were gathering artistic and musical impressions of every place they visited. That’s where the (Oscar-winning) movies ‘The Three Caballeros’ and ‘Saludos Amigos’ came from,” says J.B. Kaufman, a Kansas film historian and author of the recently released book “South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948.”
Kaufman, who is on the staff of the Walt Disney Family Foundation — the same group that backed the documentary — will attend the screenings, presenting the movie before the lights go down and answering questions as time allows.
He says the U.S. government initiated a “good neighbor” program in 1940 to build unity among nations in the Western Hemisphere. It hoped they would stand together against Axis powers abroad, who were increasingly permeating Western countries with Nazi propaganda.
“In Buenos Aires, there was a pretty strong Nazi presence at that time,” says Kaufman. “The country was officially neutral, but there were established Nazi newspapers in print. Some of the theaters would play a Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck short to pull audiences in and then show a Nazi propaganda film.”
When the government pushed for Hollywood studios to use star power in the effort, Disney was a natural choice. The studio’s cartoon characters were popular in South America, and Disney himself was a celebrity.
“Walt Disney’s image has been trivialized in recent decades,” says Kaufman. “We tend to think of him as a purveyor of family entertainment. But in the 1940s, he was at his peak, and he was regarded around the world as a major artist. He really defined an art form, and when a new Disney film opened, it was a big deal. He had earned the respect of artists around the world, and he was the darling of the intellectuals. When he came to your country, it was an event.”
Disney’s cachet with dignitaries and cultural luminaries helped boost political relations, but another factor made him a good choice for the ambassador role: the Disney standard.
“When I went to Disney World, I was amazed to learn that it didn’t have to meet the same electrical codes and things as the surrounding communities, and that’s because their standards were so much higher than everything else that was already in place,” says Kaufman. “They prepared for this trip the same way. They spent three or four months boning up on each culture, and they really understood that each of these places were separate countries and identities. They were nice to people. They didn’t demand royal treatment. They tried to speak the language. Consequently, they were able to make a good impression and do a lot of good.”
The trip was also a boon for the studio, leading to the creation of new characters José Carioca and Panchito and several projects designed to generate feel-good spirit between the continents.
“The artists who went with him were out there with the locals, sketching flora and fauna and interesting sights, making paintings. The musician of the group, Chuck Wolcott, was soaking up the musical culture, and a lot of this authentic stuff made it into the movies,” says Kaufman.
The documentary runs 1 hour, 46 minutes. Kaufman, who worked in the last decade as a writer and researcher at Arizona State University’s Hispanic Research Center, will sign copies of his book at the screenings.