August 17, 1941: Walt Disney, his wife Lillian, and colleagues step off the plane in Rio de Janeiro at the start of a nine weeklong trip through Latin American countries. (l-r) Hazel Cottrell, Bill Cottrell, Ted Sears, Lillian Disney, Walt Disney, Norm Ferguson, Frank Thomas. The studio’s insurance policy prohibited more than six of Disney’s colleagues to travel on the same plane with him. Photo credit: courtesy of Cindy GarciaThe year was 1940 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, was in a fix. FDR knew that America’s involvement in what was rapidly being called World War II was only a matter of time. While his country, at least for the moment, preferred to stay out of the conflagration between the United Kingdom and its Allies and the Axis parties, Roosevelt’s sources said that Germany, Italy and Japan were making in roads into various South American countries.
FDR needed a special man to help turn the tide against the Fascists and their dreams of world domination.
At the same time, Walt Disney was having some serious problems of his own.
His last two films, “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” didn’t perform as expected at the box office. A major reason for this was European distribution was severely curtailed by the War. The storm clouds looming over the other side of the Atlantic were also affecting domestic revenues.
“I think everybody was too preoccupied by the war clouds that were gathering,” Ted Thomas opines. “It was a matter of time before the U.S. was involved. People weren’t interested in a story about a wooden boy.”
If Ted Thomas’ last name rings any bells to aficionados of Disneyphilia, that’s because he’s the son of the legendary old man, Frank Thomas.
Now getting back to everyone’s Uncle Walt. His last two features not returning on their investments wasn’t his only problem. He laid off animators because of his financial setbacks. The remaining animators, in turn, were more than a tad upset not only over this treatment, but also from a vague but unfulfilled bonus they never received for the incredible amount of free time they had given during the production of the exceedingly successful Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs. Facing a union so tough that it forced Max Fleischer to flee to Florida, Disney now confronted a major strike of his own.
Then Mr. Roosevelt came a calling, with a proposition that in the long run, did an incredible amount to reset the Disney empire.
Walt Disney in full gaucho dress at an asado hosted by the cartoonists association of Argentina during his 1941 visit. The joke of the day was that he looked more “gaucho” than his Argentine hosts. Photo credit: courtesy of Brian LansburghHe proposed putting Disney and a number of his crew on a flight to South America, to meet and parlay with the talent down there. Walt and company weren’t the only ones going. No less than Orson Welles would party hardy in Brazil to the point where his studio, RKO (oddly enough Disney’s distributor) would use it as an excuse to fire Welles. There were many others.
Yet one of the people who also went with Disney on this junket to spread the American way was Frank Thomas.
“At the time my dad took the trip, he hadn’t even met my mother,” explains Thomas. “He was 28. He had his 29th birthday during the trip. I was born in 1951.
“That entire troop that went to South America was pretty young. There were actually two groups. There was the group that was really young, that including my dad, Lee and Mary Blair, Larry Lansburgh. They were all in their late 20’s. Walt was all of 39. There were also some that were in their 40s, but when you sit and think about it, a lot of the people on that trip hadn’t even cracked 30.
As one can imagine, the younger Thomas has some rather amazing tales to tell about his elder.
“When I was growing up he would tell some hilarious stories that had become kind of staples,” Thomas recalls. “One was he was so busy working in Brazil that by the time he would get back to his hotel, the buffet would be closed. The only thing he could eat was the cherries in the maraschino in the bottom of Old Fashions. This went on for two weeks.
“Anyway, a three-week diet of Old Fashions and the cherries made his digestive system such a mess that when he went to Argentina, which was the next stop of his trip, he got this horrible case of hiccups; great big, raucous hiccups. They sounded like he was tearing up paper. So there was one time he had to visit this museum, and his hiccups were so bad one of the curators thought he was tearing up the art.”
Thomas has actually just completed an even more amazing tale, one that his father alone couldn’t fully tell. On September 11, his documentary Walt & El Grupo will be getting some reasonable distribution. It’s not just a tale for animation buffs. It’s also an incredible side note on the history of World War II, both for how an animator and his young compatriots did their more than their share to fight the good fight, but the even more amazing consequences that came from that tour.
What kicked it off was a group of photographs. Thomas came to possess a series of photos of El Grupo south of the border. The thing was sussing out the stories inside these snapshots. Diane Disney Miller, descendant of Walt and in charge of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, became equally intrigued, and felt it was worth financing Thomas’ documentary on these photos.
As part of the 1941 research trip to gather story material, Walt Disney joins the dancers from Andrés Chazarreta’s folkloric group on the rooftop of Buenos Aires’ Alvear Palace Hotel. The dancer on the far right, Miguel Gramajo, was found during research and shares his memories of that afternoon in Walt & El Grupo. Photo credit: courtesy of Disney“It was like putting together a gigantic jigsaw puzzle,” says Thomas. “Each photograph would provide a little clue but never a whole answer. Bit by bit, you got to recognize people. Then you would say, ‘Just who else is in this photograph?’”
Thomas’ approach to the matter was quite logical. Then again, this is a man who did his share of documentaries, not only for Disney, but also for National Geographic.
“What we had to do was first reassemble the itinerary of the trip,” he said. “From there, we got to know that on one certain day, they met with so and so. Also, from the photograph you could learn what day it was, so we were able to figure out what vicinity they were in at that time. It was a process of narrowing down until you came to the right conclusion.
“All the first generation, the people who made the trip, are gone. So I had to rely on descendants, spouses or children whose memories and stories were just as vivid as the one’s I heard from my father growing up. What also helped was a lot of them had saved letters.
“In those days, almost everybody wrote letters while on the trip. How they managed to do it I have no idea because their itinerary was dawn ‘til midnight. It was very, very packed. Yet they managed to find time to write gorgeous letters—in beautiful penmanship—with great insights and humor. We then were able to use those letters, or at least the ones that survived.
“Now in the Latin American countries, we were able to reconnect with the families of the people who hosted Walt and El Grupo. There were some few instances where we were able to meet some first generation who were actually involved in it. There was still three or four left and we were able to interview. If not, we were able to interview their descendants.”
The end result? Well, for Disney it gave him the inspiration for the films Saludos Amigos and Three Amigos. Not only did that movie introduce the characters Joe Carioca and Panchito and the incredible samba “Brazil” to the American public, they—along with “Dumbo”—helped put Disney solidly back in the black. Whether it was the American public preferring the comical sketches in these two films more than the more serious ones of Fantasia, or as Thomas said it was the tenor of the times, Disney would follow this formula with further films such as Melody Time. There was even going to be a third South American-themed film, but the war ended and Disney moved from samba to Benny Goodman in his future music films.
“It was going to be called ‘Carnival,’” says Thomas. “It might have had a Brazilian spelling. One of the shorts was completed. It was called ‘Blame It on the Samba.’ It ended up being folded into one of the other films Walt would later do, ‘Melody Time.’”
“They got into a formula. When they got into their contract with the government, it was originally for 12 shorts. Then when they started completing them, their distributor, RKO, said they would make more money if they put the shorts together as a feature film. So when they completed their first four shorts, those became ‘Saludos Amigos.’”
As for completing his own project? Thomas, whose work also included a documentary on his dad and his dad’s best friend, “Frank and Ollie” (as in the last of the Nine Old Men, Ollie Johnston), is quite satisfied.
“I find it exciting that we can all dream big and somehow, someway, sometimes make it all happen,” he said. “I mean at times, there was discussion about whether we should have made “Walt & El Grupo a multi-part TV series instead of a standalone film.
“We had major support from the Walt Disney Family Foundation. Diane Disney Miller was the one who gave us the funding support so we could do this. What it does have is terrific production values. Because it was film, we were able to do our shooting on Super 16 millimeter film. To do a nonfiction project on film today is a great luxury. Most projects have to scale down to some flavor of digital video. We were able to make a gorgeous film with a terrific soundtrack and even some incredible special effects in such a way that you seamlessly go back between 1941 and the present.”
Thomas also wants to point out the film did have a very important cultural message.
“The big picture is the value of cultural diplomacy,” Thomas states. “I don’t know if you’d expect me to say that, but I will tell you why. That’s because art and politics are often in opposition to each other, but they are the only things that really last in any culture.
“Here was a time when our government wanted to put our best foot forward, to share the best of our country with people of other lands. What do they do? They call on Walt Disney and other artists to go on this trip.
“What’s different is Walt said ‘I’m not a hand-shaker. If I go I gotta do something besides that. Something real!’ So FDR made this arrangement where Walt would be researching films, and even helped pay for the ticket in the form of a guaranteed loan. Actually, FDR paid for the trip, but the films were paid for by a guaranteed loan from a bank. If the bank didn’t make its money back, the U.S. government would have paid the difference. As it happened, ‘Saludos Amigo’ was a hit, so the government didn’t have to pay anything. Then ‘Three Caballeros’ turned a profit.”
Maybe a certain current administration could take a tip or two from this film, too.