Walt Disney fought Nazism in South America? It’ a fact. Walt Disney and a team of artists and producers spent three months in Chile, Argentina and Brazil in 1941 ostensibly to learn the Latin culture and make movies under the US government’s Good Neighbor Policy.
In reality, it was a government sponsored goodwill mission intended to sway pro-Nazi sentiment in South America to the Allies. All this is revealed in Ted Thomas’ documentary Walt & El Grupo: The Untold Adventures, a painstaking and fascinating look at what happened in those three months.
Thomas’ father Frank, one of Disney’s core aninmators – the Nine Old Men – was on that historic trip. Monsters and Critics spoke with Thomas from Los Angeles.
What was your father’s involvement?
He went along as the only animator who was chosen to go. In addition to story sketch ideas he was called on again and again to drawings for publicity whether it was for the cover for a charity benefit, banquet, or a poster for something, he drew a lot of Mickeys and Donald Ducks and Goofys.
One hilarious story where he and Walt and Norm Ferguson were all going to do a “chop talk”, that is, drawing a character on an easel and describing the process. This was in front of 1200 orphans in a theatre who had been brought there to watch this wizard from North America.
Walt complained to my dad that he could only draw Mickey and not very well. So my dad said ‘Okay, we’ll draw it lightly and you can just chalk over it’. Little did they know that Grand Prize winner got to sit on stage and watch them and saw him tracing the characters! They were cracking up!
Did you meet Walt? What were your impressions?
I met him on a handful occasions, nine or ten times. He struck me as the kind of guy children like. They can tell immediately whether an adult is sharp or not, also if the adult is paying attention to you or not. And he was. Yet at the same time I felt that he had a lot of things to do and he was politely making time to say hello.
It could be a burden as he was so busy and it only got worse the bigger the studio got with time. When my father started there were 300 employees and when they went to South America there were 1300. That was less than a decade after the release and success of Snow White.
How did this project come to be made?
The genesis of it was that I had grown up hearing all these stories, and was familiar with the movies The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. I talked with film historian J.D. Kauffmann and Diane Disney Miller and found out there was a shoebox full of travel photos.
I took a look at them and recognized Sugarloaf Mountain in Brazil. So I wondered where they were and who these people were with my father. So I began to ask questions and there was a story. The more I got into it, the more I realised what had happened.
The US government sent Disney on a mission as part of the Good Neighbor Policy but it was more than that, wasn’t it?
Like a lot of things, looking into it, I realised there were historic facts I didn’t learn in school. This whole period of the Good neighbour policy is something that I never knew about. It was a very important period in the relationship between North and South America and it was the lasting impact of this trip.
In general, there was a decade of improved relations between the hemispheres that you didn’t have previously or in the 50s and 60s. It was astonishing, the pro-Nazi support there.
People high up in the government were pro-Nazi and some Argentine officers came back from serving in Italy and were behind Mussolini and Fascism.
Disney always acknowledged the darker side of life in his work and that’s one reason it’s so interesting.
Everybody around him who worked with him commented about how he was always thinking and always talking about how we can use this, tell this story. He understood long before other people that animation is a remarkable medium for sharing ideas. They weren’t just entertaining; people watch them with more open minds. And they made propaganda films. They kept the doors at Disney open that way. The War took a toll on the studio.
I think that when I began this project I wasn’t aware how crucial this trip and its films were to Disney and Walt personally. They were in such tough financial shape I don’t know how they would have stayed open without these films. Then the US entered the war and the government and military descended on the studio and commissioned them to make training and propaganda films.
Those films really run the gamut. One is about an Education for Death about growing up in the Hitler youth and at the other end of the scale, there was the slapstick Der Fuehrer’s Face, where Donald Duck has a nightmare that he is a slave labourer a munitions factory.
Disney was nearly crippled by financial losses during WWII. What happened?
Snow white was the only film that was a huge hit. Pinocchio was not a hit. Ollie Johnson and my father said Americans were too close to war and no one wanted to see a fairy tale about wooden boy. Fantasia was not a hit domestically, but it was successful in Latin America and it wasn’t seen in Europe.
Shortly after September 1939, theatres closed. When Hitler invaded Poland governments started changing their monetary policies and entertainment wasn’t high up on their lists. A lot of theatres just closed.
What did you most appreciate about making the documentary?
The colour 15 mm film to me is a great treasure, the amazing chronochrome erases decades between then and now and it’s so unlike the colour we see today. You can reach out and touch it. And I can talk with my Dad, it’s an astounding feeling.
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