In Walt’s footsteps


Near the end of the 1930s, the Nazis were making inroads in Latin America. To quell that momentum, President Roosevelt named Nelson Rockefeller head of a special agency -- a veritable international chamber of commerce and cultural exchange agency -- that sent various Hollywood celebrities to visit these countries to, in effect, win the hearts and minds of the people. Hollywood was even asked to include Latin American themes in its movies to bolster good will.

One such celebrity ambassador was Walt Disney, who traveled the area during the late summer of 1941. Disney saw the trip as an opportunity to look for “new songs, dances, plots and personalities for our cartoons.”

The documentary “Walt & El Grupo” chronicles the trip. Shot in five countries, the documentary travels in Disney’s footsteps and features personal letters, interviews with historians and survivors both here and in Latin America, and never-before-seen photographs and film footage.


Before Disney ventured south, several other celebrities had been sent down to the Americas without much success.

“Errol Flynn did the legendary bedding of every senorita he could find,” says “Walt” director Theodore Thomas (“Frank and Ollie”), son of animator Frank Thomas, who was among the team that accompanied Disney on the journey.

The trip came at a time when Disney’s life was in turmoil, marked notably by financial troubles at the studio and an animators’ strike.

“It was really a volatile time all around,” says historian J.B. Kaufman, who is featured in the film.

Kaufman has also written a new book, “South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948.” The book and the film were done in tandem through the Walt Disney Family Foundation.

“The strike really was an important crisis in Disney history,” Kaufman says. “Up until that time, he thought of the studio as one big family.”


Thomas says that even though he grew up “Disney,” the strike was sort of a blank spot in his history.

“There was an awful lot riding on the success of this trip, both in terms of helping Walt find his creative bearings again and also in terms of providing a financial lifeline.”

The research trip to Latin America was paid for by the government. Disney’s contract also called for the production of 12 short films culled from the trip.

“The finances of the film were the typical go get a loan at the bank,” Thomas says. “But the bank was kind of wary of Disney having such a huge debt and then going off to make films about Latin America. The Rockefeller agency said not to worry, if the films don’t make back their budget we will guarantee the loan of the banks.”

But the two features Disney ended up making -- 1942’s “Saludos Amigos” and 1944’s “The Three Caballeros” -- were both big hits.

Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller was the catalyst for the book and film. When she learned from Kaufman that he had been given a box full of pictures from the trip by the daughter of another Disney animator, she called Thomas.


“She said to me, ‘I don’t know if anything can be done with these. Why don’t you take a look at them and see if there is a film in there,’ ” Thomas recalls.

Miller, who was 7 in 1941, says her parents “would tell stories about so many characters on that trip. It was quite a good trip. It was good for our relationship with those countries.”

Still, Kaufman says, “everywhere he went, there was some opposition, because the Nazi power base that was trying to get established in South America knew he was coming. They were prepared to attack -- there had been some advance hostilities from the labor community because of the strike.”

But everywhere Disney went, “the opposition was swept away because the people were dying to meet Walt Disney,” Kaufman adds. “They were crazy about the films he was making. He became kind of a rock star.”

Ill-fated lovers

Elsewhere: Criterion Collection has released the hauntingly romantic 1941 film “That Hamilton Woman,” starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as the ill-fated lovers Adm. Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. Alexander Korda directed.