The Persistence of Disney, Part 7: The Three Caballeros (1944)

| August 21, 2016

It can be supposed that somewhere, sometime, at some point we’ve all seen the entirety of The Three Caballeros even if we didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end.  This is the movie the Disney folks routinely chopped up into small bite-sized segments and slipped in between the shows on The Disney Channel or mixed in as shorts during The Mickey Mouse Club.  That is how I experienced it.  Truth be told, until the advent of home video, I didn’t even know it was a movie.  I had seen so many bits and pieces of it here and there that I assumed it was a TV show running on a channel that I didn’t get.  I remember as a kid scanning the TV Guide trying to find it.  It looked like so much fun that I thought I was missing out.

I have only recently come to watch The Three Caballeros in its entirety and while I found it fun, it also kind of wore me out.  It’s a party, a celebration of all things Latin America, at least within the parameters of a Hollywood musical.  It’s bright, colorful, the animation is second-to-none and there’s energy to spare.  My problem may be that there’s too much of it to enjoy, which is the exact opposite of the problem I had with its predecessor, Saludos Amigos.  Maybe I just can’t be satisfied?

The Three Caballeros is effectively a sequel to Saludos Amigos.  The earlier film was so successful that Disney decided to build on it and further the Goodwill project that he was given by The United States government.  During the Second World War, the studio was given subsidies by the government to go down to the ABC countries (Argentina, Buenos Aries and Chile) and make a picture that would promote the culture and educate American moviegoers about their neighbors to the south.  Politically, it was also a maneuver to end the so-called “Banana Wars” and to stave off the influence of expanding Nazi power.  For Disney it was a project of financial importance.  Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi had been disappointments at the box office so the studio needed money, plus the war had effectively cut off European distribution and a cash flow from Latin America would help.  On top of that, Walt was dealing with a lingering labor strike at his own studio.  Good will was hard to come by during the war so the task was given the Walt Disney to spread it.

The subsidies from the government would not cure what ailed Walt but it wouldn’t hurt him either.  Saludos Amigos had been a success so he decided to expand the idea to include not only South America but also a celebration of the culture of Mexico.  The earlier film had been only 42 minutes long (40 minutes is officially considered a feature) and there was a feeling of the work being a little restrained, so here he allowed his production team to go all out and, admittedly, they did.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, this film is a little more coherent and quite frankly, a lot better.  It has a framework for the segments so the purpose is a little more solid.  Donald Duck receives a package on his birthday (Friday the 13th, no less) from his friends in Latin America and the package contains three presents, each one is a presentation about some place or story dealing with Latin America.  Let’s look at them individually:

The first present contains a movie projector and when Donald sets up the film he discovers that it is a presentation of three shorts called Aves Raras or “Strange Birds.”  The first bird is “The Cold Hearted Penguin”, a cute story narrated by the invaluable Sterling Holloway who takes us waaaaay south, down to the South Pole in fact, and reminds us that it is land of two things: ice and penguins.  Our story concerns Pablo, a penguin living with a large population along the frozen coastline of Patagonia.  The other penguins seem happy with their surroundings but Pablo has a yearning to be elsewhere, specifically the warmer climates of places like Acapulco, Carrasco, and Viña del Mar.  So he decides to leave the frozen tundra and head out for Cape Horn accompanied by his best friend, a stove named Smokey Joe.  The second bird is “The Aracuan Bird” all about a crazy bird with a funny song who is never-the-less able to step off the movie screen and greet Donald and then off of our movie screen and greet us.  The last bird is “The Flying Gauchito,” the story of a Uruguayan boy whose best friend is a burro named Burrito whom he discovers can fly.  He enters the burro in a race only to be found out when the audience discovers that he’s been cheating.

Donald’s second birthday present is a giant pop-up book by his Argentinean friend Jose Carioca (who was introduced in Saludos Amigos) who takes him on a tour of Baia, capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia.  Here Donald and Jose spend time dancing with the locals (played by real people) while Donald falls in love with a beautiful Samba dancer played by Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen).  The surprise here is the mixture of live action and animation.  Surprisingly this was the third time that the Disney studios had mixed live action and animation after Song of the South and The Reluctant Dragon.  Of course, it’s not seamless but it is quite good.

Donald’s last present is simply called “Mexico” and here Donald and Jose meet up with their third “Caballero”, Panchito Pistoles, a trigger-happy Mexican whose full name is Panchito Romero Miguel Junipero Francisco Quintero Gonzalez III (no political correctness here) as he takes them on a trip via a flying serape to places like Acapulco, Veracruz and Pátzcuaro.

The sites are breathtaking, but there is time for a break when Jose and Donald and Panchito settle in for a religious parable.  Living at a time now where religion in films is sectioned off to “religious films” for fear of offending anyone it was surprising to see it in a mainstream picture.  The story is “Las Posadas” and it features a group of Mexican schoolchildren who celebrate Christmas with a reenactment of the journey of Joseph and Mary as they search for an inn so the baby Jesus can be born.  The story ends with a celebration by Donald, Jose and the kids as take to the tradition of breaking a piñata.

The finale takes over the last half hour of the movie.  It is an overextended segment of music, dancing and animation in which Donald receives a kiss which sets him off into a surrealistic fantasy to the tune of “Love is a Drug.”  The animation here is wonderful, especially in the fact that it is mixed with live action.  It’s as strange and trippy as the Pink Elephants number in Dumbo especially when Jose and Donald try to break Panchito’s singing solo by (playfully) pelting him with firecrackers, but the whole segment goes on and on and on and on.   The animators are obviously trying to capture the spirit of being at a fiesta but it seems to go on forever and after a while it gets tiresome.

A major chunk of the movie’s third act, seriously, is Donald chasing beautiful women.  When he isn’t in raucous pursuit of the opposite sex, he settles in for a romantic interlude, leading to a bizarre bit called  “You Belong to My Heart” a trippy romantic interlude over the skies of Mexico as the duck pines for the affection of a woman who seems to be part of the celestial furniture.  That over, it’s back to girls, girls, girls.

What I focused on in the last segment is a trope that has always kind of fascinated me, the ravenous male pursuit of beautiful women.  It is an element that was common in cartoons of the time; a male encounters a beautiful woman and spins off into a libidinous whirlwind of exaggerated poses – his eyes pop out and he beats himself over the head with a mallet.  This was common in Disney cartoons, Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, the shorts of Walter Lantz and especially Tex Avery.  Food and sex seem to be the two major appetites for male characters in cartoons of the 40s and 50s.  The pursuit of food was obvious but the pursuit of sex was always a bit tricky.  While the male character was always defined, the female was always somewhat vague, a stock character with curves and a pretty face yet no name, no personality, no appetites and no obvious pursuits of her own except to either be pursued or to repeatedly tell the antagonist to take a hike.  Very rarely was it the other way around.  If the woman pursued the male she was generally unattractive.

In The Three Caballeros, the function of women is simply to dance and look pretty and be pursued by a horny duck.  This is a curious positioning of women at the time.  The movie was released in 1944 while the United States was still at war.  The reality for women was much more intense than Hollywood might have allowed.  During the war, most American women were busy working in factories putting together ships, planes and tanks to help with the war effort, then pulling double duty by keeping the kids in line and the home fires burning.  On that, it is important to note that women working in Disney’s studio were given menial tasks in the Ink and Paint department and made far less than male employees.  Latino women at this time broke down their cultural barriers, moving away from the home to help with the war effort and venturing out on their own for the first time.  Bilingual skills were sought after and they found work as interpreters.  They serves in the WAACS and Marine reserves.

On the screen women of any culture were not likely to be seen as employed or even employable but rather as an image fitting for the Madonna/Whore complex.  They can be seen as sex objects or maternal figures.  Women were objects of beauty though not always of power.  There were exceptions, you could see the positives creeping around the corners but the story was more likely to end with the woman falling into the arms of the leading man.  This was the norm in the age of The Hays Code, that awful nanny state of the early 20s century that was set in place to keep movies clean and wholesome and to basically separate the viewer from reality.  They were tasked with changing words, characters, plots and anything even remotely objectionable.

In cartoons however, the rules weren’t quite as harsh although the ideas were often curtailed to keep the pursuer from attaining his goal.  The penance was often loneliness or some other gruesome fate.
There were dozens of cartoons that fit this trope, but the one that springs immediately to mind is Tex Avery’s “Red Hot Riding Hood,” a reconditioning of the Little Red Riding Hood story updated to the New York jazz scene of the 1940s with the wolf pursuing a busty showgirl.  At the end, he gets so roughed up trying to evade her sex-starved grandmother that he declares that he’d rather kill himself than lust after another woman.  Then Red Riding Hood appears again and he kills himself only to come back as a ghost and continue his lust-crazed ways.

Cartoons represent an exaggerated form of the world which is appropriate because they can leave the space we live in and stretch and squash the world into any form they want to take.  That’s what makes them work.  Yet, they are also representative of our hidden appetites.  Donald Duck can chase a group of beautiful women up and down a beach in Peru but if a human male did that he’d likely land himself in jail or a hospital.  Yet, what does this say about the film.  Donald spends the last third of the movie chasing women and in one case falling in love.  The women are seen as part of the scenery, and more of a smorgasbord than anything else.  At one point, the three title characters swoop down on a beach populated by bathing beauties and the women scatter like gazelles.  The lust-crazed trope is still in effect here.  However, given the context it is an element that I’m not sure I get.  The movie was employed as a good-will tactic so that Americans could get a better understanding of Latin American culture, but what does this trope suggest?  Go to Peru and chase women up and down a beach?  Is it comedy?  Is it suggestive?  I’m not sure that I get it, but I suppose that tourism of Latin American countries in this film could be exaggerated as well.  It is seen as a singing, dancing, non-stop party in which everyone is having a great time.

Disney pictures have always had a complicated relationship with women, even to this day.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the image of woman in their animated films has always been a bit of a sticky subject.  It fluctuates back and forth between the helpless damsel and the evil wench.  It is a subject that gets more interesting and more complicated as time goes on.  We’ll get more into that as we approach the Fairy Tale era of the 1950s.

The Three Caballeros in the meantime is complicated as well.  It’s a fun movie for the most part and you can feel that it was put together with loving care.  The production team went a lot of effort to make the visual look of the film into something special, which is why I regret complaining about the length.  While it’s beautiful to look at, I eventually got tired of looking at the volley abstract images.  The movie wants to be a non-stop party but there are moments when I needed a break.

I said earlier that as a kid I didn’t know this was a movie because I had always seen the animated bits chopped up and attached to the beginning or ending of the features.  Having seen the entire movie, I’m not so sure that breaking it up into pieces wasn’t such a bad idea.  It is twice as long as Saludos Amigos and it is very similar.  The segments are fun as segments but when pulled all together it can be a struggle to sit through.  Is that fair and balance criticism?  I’m not really sure.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.