The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, 1944: Carmen Miranda, The Three Caballeros and the Good Neighbor Policy
Introduction and Approach
With the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon it was always my feeling that there was, and is, only so much of any given time period that one can truly discuss given the confines of a blog post. Truly if you’re looking at an artform such as film one that was so fruitful at this time, and already a global enterprise, then it becomes doubly impossible to accurately encompass the landscape at the time.
Therefore, I felt that the best way to tackle this year was to find an entry point. An entry that would allow me to discuss the topic I chose to focus on through the guise of one film. The Good Neighbor Policy, due to my being a dual citizen of the United States and Brazil, was always a topic that fascinated me. Therefore, I found my “in” in 1944’s (due to its premiere date in Mexico) The Three Caballeros.
Ideally, I would’ve loved to have taken in more retrospective viewings of various artists leading up to this post. As fate would have it, this blogathon fell around a time where the blog was very busy and my viewings are slight. Therefore, I hope it will inspire future viewings. In the meantime, however, there are insights one can glean from this title, and some things I do know to be true about how a pacifist, isolationist policy of non-interference did open up Hollywood to new names, voices and cultures.
The film that is the centerpiece of this article is one that comes towards the end of The Good Neighbor Policy’s era. An era commonly defined as ending in 1945 with the threat of the Cold War looming following the end of the World War.
The policy was intimated at Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1933:
“In the field of World policy, I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor, the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others, the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a World of neighbors.”
This policy was later formalized as any number of occupations and treaties were altered to reflect said intention, and later the formation of the Office of the Coordinator Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) in August of 1940 and appointed Nelson Rockefeller to head the organization. The Great Depression’s necessities aside, it was a policy a long time coming, whereas two such examples of US involvement in Brazil were attempts to free the Amazon waterways for trade and siding with Bolivia with politically, and with additional kinds of support if necessary, in a dispute over a piece of land that now forms the state of Acre.
The Policy’s Impact on Hollywood
It was the CIAA that pushed the Good Neighbor Policy into the entertainment field. Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox participated; RKO can be said to (though Welles never finished his documentary, and his being sent to Brazil has been generally cited as an excuse to wrest control of the edit of The Magnificent Ambersons away from him).
The question of how much influence entertainment has is always something open to debate, however, there’s no question that when seeking to improve an image in the American consciousness the World’s Fair of 1939 was one step, but the motion picture would reach many more hearts and minds.
With regards to Carmen Miranda, who representing Brazil, rose to stardom earlier than Disney could get their efforts to the screen; it illustrates the double-edged sword of a nation being brought out of its shell and into the consciousness of another for the first time.
Miranda received lavish praise and early stardom here in the US and eventual backlash in Brazil that was ultimately rescinded, just prior to, and upon her untimely passing. Essentially, the difficulty, and the issue is, that no one person is a monolith. She is not a monolith, she is not “The Brazilian bombshell,” but a Brazilian; one Brazilian. While the studio system of the 1940s was the perfect time to bring about some stars generated from these policies due to the amount of films generated and the star-specific packaging many titles employed, it was also a time sure illustrate some issues in the way global figures were handled in pre-globalized world.
Now I grant that I’ve seen footage of Miranda but not the films, but I know her playing an Argentine in Down Argentine Way is a stretch, so I take some of the same issues with that concept as they did.
Essentially, I view Miranda as a unique personality and persona that seemed to have been shoehorned into almost anything Latin in her time at Fox. The failure of Fox is a lack of specificity, which is where Disney excels in their treatment of Brazilian subject matter.
The road to the creation of The Three Caballeros really begins with the release of Saludos Amigos two years prior. Where the Three Caballeros stands out is adding another new character to the mix and expanding the what we knew of one character. And it is worth noting that being ahead of the curve by about 70 years these films premiered in Brazil and in Mexico, as mentioned above, respectively a few months ahead of hitting US theaters.
Saludos Amigos features four segments (Lake Titicaca, Pedro, El Gaucho Goofy and Aquarela do Brasil) the first features Donald in classic form struggling on a journey through the mountains; the second an anthropomorphized airplane on an adventure through Chile; thirdly, as one might expect from the title, it’s Goofy flubbing through the ways of the South American cowboy; then via the newly-introduced José Carioca, or Zé Carioca as he is known colloquially, Donald is given a musical medley, metamorphosing watercolor tour of Brazil.
The Three Caballeros
The Three Caballeros is similarly constructed in a composite style. However, as opposed to Saludos Amigos it gets into full-blown feature film range (71 minutes) as opposed to Saludos Amigos‘ technically-feature-film-but-really-a-short film range (42 min).
This film puts Donald Duck front and center as opposed to just having a segment. Donald not only makes it a humorous film, but is also perhaps the most representatively American character to go on a South/Latin American tour. Not only that but the precedent of bird characters had already been set with José Carioca being introduced last time, and Panchito Pistoles joining the trio this time.
The framing mechanism in this film is birthday presents to Donald. The great thing is that the first segment is going to Bahia, a part of Brazil it turns out Zé only knows by reputation, which is a move I appreciate because it tips its hat to how big and regional a country Brazil is.
Next there is The Cold-Blooded Penguin segment which is a great way to incorporate going all the way up the Pacific coast of South America. There is a quick interstitial with some rare bird species introduced that it also used to transition, and there’s also a hilarious tongue-in-cheek reference to Professor Holloway voiced by Sterling Holloway.
Whereas the last film there was an Argentine gaucho tale here there is a Uruguayan gaucho one with tale of the flying donkey, The Flying Gauchito. While being influenced by the Good Neighbor Policy and at time didactic by nature there is also a good bit of naturalness where things are sometimes just said and not instantly translated, or translated at all, and just left to incite further curiosity.
With the tour of Bahia there is beautiful scenery, which I’d like to see restored. Implementation of live-action and animation co-exisiting. It also allows the music to speak for itself. Music which for this film, in Portuguese, was written by the famous Brazilian sambista Ary Barroso.
So in his two-film stint Zé Carioca gets a decent tour of Brazil in. Owing to the fact that Mexico is our neighbor to the south, and that this is Panchito’s lone appearance, I understand how and why Mexico gets a much more thorough tour. It starts with the introduction of the history of the piñata and a Mexican Christmas custom of Posada; continuing with the Story of flag/Mexico City; there’s a song accompanied by montage; a Favorite dance illustrated, a trip to Veracruz for the Lilingo; Acapulco beach; the second live action/animated sequence: “You Belong to My Heart” that leads into a long very Disney, with Berkeley allusions; a metamorphosing montage concluding in literal fireworks, and a trilingual “The End.”
Zé Carioca still survives, and, in fact, thrives in comics in Brazil. Being an originally by Disney he’s a obviously canonical, but is a testament to the power that the Disney characters have in that medium. In fact, in the Brazilian comics his own universe has expanded to include many supporting characters and cousins that represent different parts of the country. Aside from that he has resurfaced in American comics in stories by Don Rosa; on television, in Mickey Mouse Works and House of Mouse and in film as one of the many cameos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the Disney Parks, the addition The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros reintroduces them to many.
Panchito Pistoles, aside from being a mascot on some Mexican WWII aircraft, he has not had much life outside American-made Disney products.
Funnily enough, while there were mixed feelings about Brazil’s first breakthrough thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, the cartoon no less, that has had a bit of staying power and seems to have offered a less controversial representation. It’s well documented, even in a documentary that I’ve not yet seen, but want to; that Disney and/or his team spent a bit of time in Latin America therefore they got a good sense of the culture and at least on parts I can attest to didn’t go off half-cocked. and created some lasting, lovely tributes to a people and a culture that have stood the test of time.
It’s pretty interesting to have happened upon this topic now. I recently discussed both the breakthroughs and the lamentations I had about the globalization of casting. My impetus was another, but the discussion of current Brazilian actors and the roles they are afforded in American films for global consumption is oddly not that different that this one.
A progressive governmental impetus was a great breakthrough for Latin culture in the American cinema. Not to be overly-reductive, but it’s sad the Cold War retarded whatever progress could’ve been built off that momentum for a number of years, and when you consider that McCarthyism would soon be in play and careers and lives would be ruined it’s not too far from accurate. As best as I can figure there would not be another Brazilian-born actress breaking through into American films in any significant way until the mid-eighties [Marília Pêra in Mixed Blood (1984) and Sonia Braga in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)].
However, I do have hopes regarding the ever-digitizing and -shrinking world that both the long-overlooked past will not be ignored and that mistakes of the past will be righted in the future. There’s a hilarious Carmen Miranda gag on Family Guy where Carter says: “Am I a singer or a dancer? No one knows, they just remember the fruit.” Which is the sad truth with regards to the past. As for the future, the bottom line is that when you go outside what’s known there are new and interesting stories to be told. The Three Caballeros is testament to that, which is 70 years old. Maybe one day we’ll learn from that.