Walt Disney is a certifiable genius. Walt Disney Studios has made more contributions to American popular culture than just about any other entity I can name. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the most prominent characters of its cartoon universe, are damn near universally recognizable. The Disney name has been on some of the best and most important films in United States history, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Toy Story. The studio has had their ups and downs, but there’s no denying their greatness or their importance. This is obvious.
But you know what comes next. Disney films have a well-documented history of casual racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and a few other repulsive ‘isms; a checkered past of Aryan heroes, ethnic villains, shuckin’, jivin’, and passive princesses. The studio wasn’t alone in the early days of Hollywood: Ignorance was sort of par for the course, and Looney Tunes were just as bad, if not worse. Disney, however, has persisted. By 1992, Disney had locked Uncle Remus in their famed vault, but they still saw it fit to release this famously hateful gem, used to describe an Arabian city in the opening narration of Aladdin: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home.” For shame, Robin Williams, for shame. Generations of Disney-bred youth have learned to deal with this contradiction. Though their work is inconsistent and reliably politically incorrect, the best of it is so good that we look the other way. It’s part of the deal. We admire the beauty of the films and acknowledge their less-than-progressive content.
No, despite urban legends, there are not actually any sexual or Satanic subliminal messages in Disney films, as 6 far 6 as 6 I know. There is, however, propaganda! What generations of Disney-bred youth may not know is that during World War II, Disney was drafted as an official propaganda machine for the United States government. I’m not so cynical as to suggest a relationship between patriotism and racism, but given the studio’s nationalist history, it was a perfect fit.
From 1941 to 1945, Disney was commissioned to produce films for each and every branch of American military and government. They produced well over one hundred#. These included educational films (of which the Navy requested 900,000 feet!#), pro-American films (taxes are great, let’s hear it for taxes! Buy bonds!), historical films, and anti-Axis films, which presented the countries of Germany and Japan as alternately silly and immoral. Many government and military personnel were even stationed in Disney’s Burbank studio as it became an important cog in the American war machine.
Though most of Disney’s propaganda films were educational shorts for use within the government, several featured established characters like the Three Little Pigs and especially Donald Duck. Der Fuehrer’s Face, in particular, is remembered as one of the greatest cartoons of all time#. In it, Donald is subjected to a comical Nazi nightmare and Hitler is depicted getting pelted with rotten tomatoes. The titular silly song by Oliver Wallace became popularized in a recording by Spike Jones. Donald Duck’s other adventures in propaganda included Commander Duck, Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros.
In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, he committed to “the policy of the good neighbor” in an effort to repair relations with Latin America, which had for a long time been treated as part of the United States’ “sphere of influence.” These relationships were of particular import as the country joined World War II and, thought Nelson Rockefeller (who also recruited Orson Welles on a similar trip#): Who better to improve them than Walt Disney? Central and South America loved Mickey Mouse. In 1941, Disney and some of his men were sent by the State Department on a tour of South America in the name of the Good Neighbor policy. 1943’s Saludos Amigos and 1945’s The Three Caballeros were the result.
These “package” films -- so named for their “packaging” of several distinct shorts as one feature film -- took Donald Duck on adventures to places like Bahia, Acapulco, and Lake Titicaca (making Donald Duck, I believe, the first American ambassador not to wear pants). Both featured live action segments -- Caballeros, in fact, was one of the first films to have live action characters (including stars like Carmen Miranda’s sister Aurora) interact with animated ones on screen (a proud Disney tradition). The films did their best to introduce American audiences to the cultures and customs of Latin American countries.
They may not be the most measured or culturally sensitive films of all time -- Donald “Draper” Duck can hardly keep it in his lack-of-pants most of the time while he ogles the women that these films would have you believe are this region’s chief export -- but Amigos and Caballeros were the first exposure many Americans had to the cultures of their southern “neighbors.” By that measure, they were successful. The films included a segment on indigenous birds, told folk stories, and even examined religious customs. One critic claimed the films “did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years.”# At the very least, they introduced American audiences to a couple new Disney characters: an excitable, gun-totin’, sombrero-wearin’ Mexican rooster named Panchito Pistoles and a friendly, cigar-chompin’, suit-sportin’ parrot named José Carioca.
However you want to slice it, The Three Caballeros is top notch entertainment, despite that Disney sheen of ugly ‘isms; it’s the kind of film that they only made in early Hollywood. The lively musical segments really do transport you to another world, artificial though that world may be. The animation is top notch -- after all, these are the same animators that worked on such Disney masterpieces as Pinnochio, Bambi, and Dumbo. There’s even a scene that rivals the trippiness of the latter’s infamous “Pink Elephants” sequence, which, seriously, if you don’t sit through the whole thing, you at least have to fast forward to. Stop short of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid, but if there has to be propaganda (and there’s always going to be propaganda), have to let it be as artful as this.