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Thursday, August 01, 2019

Two To Go Below The Equator

The Right and the Wrong South American Way

If you’re flying down to Rio from Hollywood, how many miles would that be? Google says 6,299, as in fourteen hours and twenty-five minutes getting there. I’d not stand that even if Rio’s airport was holding 132 minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons for me (actually, of course, I would). Imagine us coddled babes faced with 40’s travel, delays compounded by wartime. Folks then had not “devices” to smooth the trip. It needed more good will than I’ve got to stand a Good Will junket to South America, but there’s where Walt Disney, and later Orson Welles, went to cement relations between the US and neighbor republics also courted by interlopers scheming the southern hemisphere for Axis headquarter. It took popular American faces to charm officials that might tilt the enemy’s way. There was also ripe opportunity to sweeten below-border revenue for domestic product. With so much European cash cut off, where was there to look but south? FDR famously asked Is This Trip Necessary? to curb non-essential travel, but here was necessity+essential, as what better ambassadors could be sent than film-folk known globe-wide? To a nation’s call, no celebrity demurred, even where staying months away from home was the mission, and at places seemingly a planet distant from whence you came. Duty called, and that was that. Best then to make, if possible, a productive thing of time spent, and bring back ideas, hopefully useful ones if not a finished movie, to speak for the long absence. To that end, Disney and Welles tried, one to succeed, the other to fail ruinously, but what adventures they had, and what riveting chapters in their celebrated lives these were.

Disney was approached in mid-1941, a time he’d be receptive to whatever might get him out of the country on someone else’s dime, in this case the Office of Inter-American Affairs. Who more ideal than Walt Disney to strengthen a firewall against German influence in Latin America? His output depended least of anyone’s on verbal interplay, Donald, Mickey, and Pluto speaking a most universal language because they barely spoke at all. Walt needed translators, but not his cartoon creations. Gravy off Snow White was a trickle by 1941, once-flush WD back in hock to the banks after spending for a new studio and over-spending on features he now could not get into European markets. Pinocchio and Fantasia were thus rocks in his shoe, effort to regroup blocked by gone-on-strike staff, pushed by, Walt said, Communist influencing. US officials, Nelson Rockefeller at their helm, pledged help to fix the mess while Disney served American interests southward. Here was a trip with benefits to both, expenses paid for Disney and creative assist, with subsidy besides for Latin-themed subjects they’d make upon return, this as backdrop to a most-marquee of names making America’s case for a closer tie between hemispheres. Time given negotiation and last details allowed Disney staff to develop concepts so South American ground could be hit running, a model of organization and happy retreat from studio gates blocked by up-turned cars and marchers soured on their chief.

Jump then, to February 1942, and another Good Will/Working trip to Latin shores, this time for Orson Welles with RKO backing to do a movie for which there was no script and barest idea of content. Welles was invited to the party (Rio’s annual Carnival) soon after Pearl Harbor by Rockefeller and Inter-American Affairs co-chair Jock Whitney, of previous film experience (an investor in GWTW). They made it Welles’ obligation to go, a venture he did not seek, but one embraced quicker than he would later acknowledge when recalling fiasco that came of it. Others, like then-editor at RKO Robert Wise, said Welles “was happy to go down there (Brazil) and get out of the draft.” This happened during final shoot days of The Magnificent Ambersons and further Welles immerse in Journey Into Fear, plus a radio series. What if he had turned Rockefeller and Whitney down? Retaliatory action might have put him on a troop train the next day, an outcome Welles wanted far less than months in Rio. He left Ambersons done, but not edited. Journey Into Fear, begun in any case by another director under Welles supervision (Norman Foster), would get along without him. Where flights touched down at least, Welles seemed even with Disney, but outcomes would differ, Disney to thrive on the culture, then import it successfully to US audiences, Welles to meet disaster that would wreck a screen career so far built.

Disney coming off the plane was rushed by Brazilian press for whom protocol was hopeless to maintain. Populace couldn’t believe Walt was actually visiting their country. And what a regular guy he was, game for endless receptions, state meals, conferring with artists, musicians, inviting not a few to visit when in perceived paradise that was Hollywood. Big advantage was what Disney brought as a calling card, the lately wrapped Fantasia, for which techs rigged Fantasound at key dates where Disney pleased kids by drawing on stage, as best he could, and why not? They figured he was pen, ink, and paint behind all of cartoons bearing his name. Loath to let youth down, Walt even walked on his hands at one appearance. Crew assist meanwhile kept busy gathering local color for future enhance to films. Disney skill at people-pleasing left Inter-American Affairs giddy, no one seemed good as him for cross-hemispheric glad handing. He had less time, much less than hoped, to develop South America themes to support a feature, the best recourse pastiches that were Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, plus single reels spun off Latin settings. Lesser US talents achieved that minus flights down, inauthenticity of result not a concern. Disney was antidote to previous slights, a cross-cultural gift for at least trying to get details right (El Gaucho Goofy as instance of this). Latest Disney headlines ran alongside news of Brazil sending home a German ambassador, fair enough sign of a mission being accomplished.

Rivals weren’t napping, or taking easy routes. 20th Fox had gone Down Argentine Way the previous year, at least second-unit Technicolor cameras, the rest seeming real even where it wasn’t. They also had foresight to import Carmen Miranda before others caught south wind, her to sustain a profitable half-decade for Zanuck. That Night In Rio was cut from cloth that was Follies Bergere in the 30’s, but location didn’t matter to this yarn, an outlet to which generic comedy and Latin-flavored music could easily be plugged. Disney put energy to finding and buying songs while below-borders, one re-named Brazil a to-be evergreen covered by innumerable bands and singers once on US soil. A happiest of versions would open The Gang’s All Here for Fox in 1943, Carmen Miranda making the tune hers to keep. A US war between radio and song licensing left inroads for Latin sound to conquer popular charts, tuning so vibrant as to outlast a war it was largely brought over to assist.

Orson Welles left for South America at a worst possible moment, for which he’d lose virtually everything in consequence. By touch-down, Welles had germs of an idea, a sort of combination travelogue, musical celebration, and recount of a heroic odyssey made by poor fishermen to secure rights from the Brazilian government, all this to serve propaganda interest, theirs and ours, the umbrella title to be It’s All True. He was barely in time to shoot Rio’s annual Carnival in February 1942, he and RKO crew using Technicolor, but how to get vantage amidst such mobs? And why Welles for such a commission? --- him a verbal counterpart to Disney’s visual edge. Even crash-coursing Portuguese language went but so far, especially as Welles lost no time going native and sampling every flesh dish served. To this myriad of personal indulgences (OW often absent when shooting crews needed him), Welles at age 27 was Goofus to 40 years old Disney’s Gallant. It came down to maturity, or lack of it. Welles was distracted also by The Magnificent Ambersons, which he was trying to cut by long distance, even as dire previews suggested need of a massive overhaul. Welles ducked RKO demands to explain delay and waste, RKO the more fed up with Ambersons smelling like a flop. It’s All True looked bound for same shoals what with Welles chiding hosts for poverty conditions among Brazilian minorities. Worse was staging his fisherman story,"4 Men On a Raft" with selfsame four that did the actual deed and seeing one of them drown, a mishap for which Welles got much blame.

Caballeros Come Back in 1977
Walt Disney made his three months productive, arriving back to Burbank in October, 1941. The strike was by then settled, not to his advantage, so the studio as big happy family would not be that way again. By December, in fact the day after Pearl, soldiers marched in and took over the strategic locale Walt’s factory was, but sweetened the siege by hiring him and artists to make military instruction shorts, a massive undertaking as things turned out. War work for hire may well have saved Disney from closure, or selling out. Even after World War II, when things were better, he and Roy considered a merge with RKO, which would have meant cede of power. Two features came of the South American trip, the first a 42 minute scrapbook with cartoon asides, the travel scenes blown up from 16mm. Audiences and some critics may have thought it was their patriotic duty to like Saludos Amigos (it played combo with other RKO product at most venues), but segments broke apart OK for later TV use. The Three Caballeros was second, and better, thanks to an energized latter third, but Radio City Music Hall turned it down flat, according to Michael Barrier’s Disney bio. Caballeros tube-played in the 50’s, and a shortened version came back to theatres in 1977 to surprise and delight of animation buffs digging deep into Disney legacy. Maybe a liveliest product from Disney-Gone-South was a portion of his 1948 Melody Time called Blame It On The Samba, where Donald Duck and Latin friends touched new levels of get-up-and-go, a best souvenir from the trip, and in only seven minutes.

By the time Orson Welles arrived back in the USA on August 22, 1942, his Mercury staff had been fired off the RKO lot. Expelled was the word many used. He had spent six months on a project that yielded nothing anyone could use. Not even a useful short subject could be wrung from miles of footage. RKO tried selling the pile, but no one was interested. Welles said years later that the company wouldn’t let him finish It’s All True because they wanted a tax write-off. $1.2 million had been spent, according to one account, which admittedly conflicts with others. The one settled truth was major studios being done with Orson Welles, except in actor capacity, thus a star part in Jane Eyre, from which fee he hoped to buy the South American footage, but that didn’t work out either. Welles urged RKO to combo It’s All True with Saludos, Amigos, but no soap. For one thing, Saludos had Rio Carnival highlights, just a couple of minutes admittedly, and shot on 16mm, but probably as much as audiences cared to see on the topic. What Welles shot for It’s All True was presumed lost until the mid-80’s when cans, many cans, of nitrate was discovered at Paramount, ownership having devolved to them. A documentary was made, much of "4 Men On a Raft" pieced together, and there was great photography there, if not much else that entertained. End result was lots of evidence of how, and maybe why, Welles’ Latin venture was such a bust. Could be the filmmakers that made a most practical and profitable use of South America themes was 20th Fox, and they didn’t even to go down there, other than dispatch of camera crew before the war started.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

If I'm not mistaken, RKO did salvage a tiny something from IT'S ALL TRUE -- atmospheric shots and process scenes for THE FALCON IN MEXICO!

12:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've read that RKO used IT'S ALL TRUE for background on several features.

1:11 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Saludos Amigos" and "Three Caballeros" live on, and not just in recyclings of the original films.

Jose Carioca was featured in comic strips and comic books in America, but was far more popular and long-lived in Latin American publications. His character was a mildly rakish ne'er-do-well, usually playing off his girlfriend's rich and disapproving father.

In 2007 the Small World-type boat ride in Epcot's Mexico pavilion was tweaked to include the Three Caballeros. The film loops of Mexican landscapes and attractions were reshot with animation of Panchito and Jose Carioca trying to catch Donald Duck in time for a concert:

A new animated series featuring the Three Caballeros has already been run abroad. So Disney definitely made that trip pay.

Trust you know about "Walt & El Grupo", an authorized documentary feature.

4:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I've watched "Walt & El Grupo" several times. It's really good.

5:30 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Here is an original ad from Argentina for THE THREE CABALLEROS.

Both Orson Welles and Disney went to Argentina as well, and Orson did at least one radio show in Buenos Aires. Disney was able to supervise directly on location the Spanish dubbings of his film while there although after 1945 the dubbings began to be produced and replaced in Mexico instead (but the one for PINOCCHIO, made by Luis César Amadori, is still the official one)-

11:25 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

THE THREE CABALLEROS works best on a BIG screen. The bigger the better. That orgy of color at the end is what spectacle is about.

I have IT'S ALL TRUE and enjoy it.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

"Greetings...from Carmen Miranda's underpants."

Chicky-boom, chicky-boom.

3:11 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

The Disney/Latin American music connection was mystifying to me as a kid because I was born too late to know of the "Good Neighbor Policy" first hand.

4:03 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

"If Carmen Miranda isn't the best dancer in Hollywood, I'll eat her hat,"-Bob Hope

9:27 AM  

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