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What Walt Disney Learned From South America


In 1941, Walt Disney headed south of the border. It was the eve of America's entry into World War II, and President Franklin Roosevelt enlisted the creator of Mickey Mouse.

The president sent Disney to Latin America, where the influence of Nazis and fascists was growing. So Disney went with 16 of his artists on an extended trip to Brazil, Argentina and Chile. One of the artists was Frank Thomas, the legendary animator who made the seven dwarfs cry and Pinocchio sing. His son Ted has written and produced a new documentary about that adventure. It's called "Walt & El Grupo." He joins us from our studios at NPR West. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TED THOMAS (Filmmaker, "Walt & El Grupo"): Real good to be with you.

DEL BARCO: In your documentary, we see Walt Disney and El Grupo, the group, dancing with the locals and riding horses and sightseeing and going to an awful lot of parties. I know that they met with local artists, and they learned about the folklore of the regions. It was actually, frankly, an adventure I would have loved to have been on myself.

Mr. THOMAS: Me, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Well, you included this comment from Walt Disney in your documentary.

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

Mr. WALT DISNEY (Animator): These are souvenirs of a memorable occasion, a time a group of us, artists, writers and musicians, toured South America. It was our first expedition of that kind, a sort of a search for new songs, dances, plots and personalities for our cartoons.

DEL BARCO: I know that at the time, there were other cultural emissaries who traveled on behalf of the Good Neighbor Policy, like Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and even filmmaker Orson Welles, who captured Brazil brilliantly, I thought, but I wanted to find out from you how much diplomacy actually got done by Walt Disney and El Grupo at the time.

Mr. THOMAS: People-to-people diplomacy - I think an awful lot. In terms of being de facto diplomats, less, of course. He did meet Getulio Vargas, who was the president of Brazil at that time, and he also met the president and vice president of Argentina. This was a year before Peron came to power.

By the time he got to Chile, he made it clear that he only wanted to meet with fellow artists. He had had enough of the handshaking with elected officials.

DEL BARCO: And at the time, they didn't just shake hands, but they did a lot of illustrations of the people and the scenery during that trip, and I know that it inspired at least one cartoon of El Pato Donald, Donald Duck, who meets up with a Brazilian parrot.

Mr. THOMAS: Ze Carioca.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Ze Carioca) I will show you the land of the samba.

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

Unidentified Man #1: (As Ze Carioca) Ah, (foreign language spoken).

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: That's great.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, you know, and of course, some of the artists on this trip who could imitate Donald - I can't, you know, I can't…

(Soundbite of duck noise)

DEL BARCO: That was pretty good.

Mr. THOMAS: But the people who can, you know, were immediate celebrities. The fact that they could draw quick sketches, that was good, but if they could talk like Donald Duck, wow, it was over the moon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: But at that time, Disney animators in Burbank back at home were on strike, and I'm wondering how that impacted the group's reception in Latin America.

Mr. THOMAS: Some of the fascist newspapers, particularly in Argentina, were sort of laying in wait for the Disney party to show up because they wanted to show that Disney was an insensitive, capitalist boss because his workers back in California were on strike. But time and again throughout their tour of South America, whenever the Disney party showed up, it just swept aside the fascist demonstrators who, you know, tried to make a big deal out of it.

The popularity of the Disney films of that time in Latin America was really phenomenal. From the very beginning, the Disney studio did a great job of finding a comparative voice in another culture, in another language that fit the character of whoever it was in the film, and I think that contributed an awful lot to the success of the pictures.

DEL BARCO: You, yourself, are a jazz musician, I hear.

Mr. THOMAS: Yeah.

DEL BARCO: I love Brazilian music in particular, and I know it was also a very important part of that trip. Can you talk about some of the music that they discovered in South America?

Mr. THOMAS: Sure. Well, you know, the first stop, and I think the one that made the biggest impression on them, was Brazil, and it was different and colorful and a riot of sound. I really think it knocked their socks off. And at that time, no one back in the States had heard the samba. It really wasn't known across the country yet, and when the Disney group heard the samba, they knew right away that that was something that they wanted to integrate into one of the stories that they were going to do.

By the time they got to Argentina, they knew that their focus would be a folkloric one rather than a contemporary one. So they were very interested in gaucho lore and folkloric music and dances.

DEL BARCO: I wish we had more time to talk about your film, but you know, we'll have to have people watch it themselves. I just wanted to go out of this segment with some of the music that is just so great. I mean, some of the classics like (foreign language spoken) and of course, "Brazil."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2 (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

DEL BARCO: Well, thank you so much Ted Thomas. He wrote and produced the documentary "Walt & El Grupo." The film is playing in New York and Los Angeles, and it will open in different parts of the country. You can check out the movie release schedule just by turning to TELL ME MORE at npr.org. Ted Thomas, thank you so much.

Mr. THOMAS: It's so great to talk with you.

DEL BARCO: Gracias.

(Soundbite of music)

DEL BARCO: Coming up, a plan to improve Latino health by watching television. We'll hear about telenovelas that feature health tips. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Mandalit Del Barco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.