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.

Political Background

FDR Inauguration 1933

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

carmen1702

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.

1944

SaludosAmigosLC

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

ThreeCaballerosTheLC3

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.

Snapshot 2014-01-14 13-50-34

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.

Snapshot 2014-01-14 13-53-28

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.”

Aftermath

Snapshot 2014-01-14 13-59-50

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.

Conclusion

Kiss of the Spider-Woman (1985, HB Filmes)

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.

Advertisements

March to Disney: The Rescuers in More Ways Than One

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

One of my more recent revisits in the Disney library were the two Rescuers films. There are a few interesting things to note about this series, especially when one considers the seemingly unusual fact (due to how overlooked the films seem to be) that this was the first Disney animated property to spawn a sequel, and a theatrically released one nonetheless.

Now, the soft spot I have for these titles it does turn out is for more reasons than just the fact that in some territories these films are referred to as Bernardo and Bianca.

The first thing that both these titles share in common is that they truly embrace the “It’s a Small World” ethos that Disney incorporated in its parks, but didn’t truly exemplify in its films until later on. The Rescuers Down Under is the first non-package film that takes place outside a fictitious kingdom that’s vaguely European or in Europe itself. As much as I love Saludos Amigos and the Three Caballeros, there’s a very “Hey, let’s all go to South America” feel to it, rather than just naturally incorporating the location into the tale. Also, Bianca, voiced by Eva Gabor, in the first film serves in a mouse version of the United Nations and does represent Hungary.

The first film’s adventure, saving a girl named Penny from jewel thieves, is US-based, but is a trip down to the bayou that’s wonderfully exploited by Disney’s artists who in the 70s were vastly underrated. Many people find the movies that came out of this decade a bit subpar, but to me there was a flair and artistry, a painterly finesse to the backgrounds and a still-present fluidity that leant itself wonderfully to the stories they were putting out.

The sequel, as the title would indicate, takes the narrative to Australia. While the films succeed in complementing one another, they do have shortcomings individually. Taking the best from both would make one truly masterful work. In the sequel, there’s a more developed victim in need of rescuing whose story needs a cap. The villain is more motivated in the second film and less cartoonish.

Whereas the first film’s title is very apropos it really is about The Rescuers above all other characters, here in the second film its more split.

What The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under both did aesthetically was set the table for the decade to come. More so than any sequel footnote, each film seemed to encapsulate the aesthetic and sensibility of the decade prior and push towards the future. The Rescuers in certain scenes is the apex of the ’70s style, but pushing the boundary toward the more polished, less sketchbook ’80s feel and then The Rescuers Down Under with its aerial animation and action sequences was a precursor of the more dynamic swooping crane-simualtions and action shots in things like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The Rescuers, it would seem, was a fitting title in more ways than one.

March to Disney: From Snow White to Cinderella

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

It’s interesting to note that Cinderella was released in 1950. If you count the hybrid films (Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart) and the package films (Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros) it was the 12th animated feature that Disney had released. In a way it was like the circle closing after having started with a princess tale and embedded Silly Symphonies, Disney’s name for their early musically-inclined shorts.

In both the case of Cinderella and Snow White the anthropomorphism of the animals manifests itself by their interaction and communication, non-verbal in the former and verbal in the latter, that the protagonist shares with them. What Snow White possesses is much of what would become staples of Disney fare such as the great heightened moments. The innovation of technique in Snow White to an extent masquerades the embedding of familiar, albeit more defenestrated, tropes of earlier shorts. If you compare the narrative movement of Snow White to the films that follow, the progenitor of the Disney films ends up feeling like a cozy, quaint dream that, aside from the inherent value of the story and its bolder moments, isn’t tremendously riveting on a purely narrative level.

Cinderella is not entirely dissimilar with its asides to the mouse subplots, but is differentiated by having more parallel action. The ball is introduced early on and the Stepmother is a terrifying, yet very real, and down-to-earth villainess. The witch’s transformation and magic mirror are bold, tremendous images that stand out more than does anything in Cinderella. Cinderella’s coach, and, of course, the iconic castle are the standout visuals there.

This isn’t really to knock either of the two films. Of course, I still enjoy them both. Between the films I think Cinderella may work better and definitely has a slightly more forward pre-feminist-movement Disney princess.

The experiments that Disney went on after Snow White and before Cinderella, were highly interesting and for the most part wildly successful. In 1940 there was both Pinocchio and Fantasia. In narrative terms on opposite ends of the spectrum, but both really push the frontiers of what they could do with visuals.

While the Silly Symphony aspect of these films stands out, the musicality of Dumbo is well-embeded. Not only that but in terms of narrative it can’t move fast enough, the tempo of the music pushes the pace of the edits and allows the story to flow perfectly. There are many beats, and much emotion wrenched out of just barely an hour in Dumbo, which makes it even more staggering.

Bambi created a world devoid of humans, allowed real fears and traumas to sneak in still managed to tell a charming uplifting story with very little dialogue and not a lot of fat either.

The last untouched upon films pre-1950 that are all-animated would be the aforementioned package films, which are a pastiche of shorts so it by definition they have a more storybook, anthology feel to them. The sensibility is overgrown, related shorts.

So between 1937 and 1950 Disney about ran the gamut of what could be done at the time, and with Cinderella seemed to be consciously setting down a milestone with a similar tale. As if to say, “Thirteen years ago we were there, now we’re here and moving upward and onward.”

Review- Rio

Rio (20th Century Fox)

For any viewer, regardless of your experience, academic acumen or whatever other qualifications you may have, there will invariably be occasions where a film plays into a sensitive area for you where it’ll either excel with flying colors or fail miserably, perhaps to a greater degree than it would otherwise, due to your personal experience. In the case of Rio it was targeted on my radar early on for two reasons: first, and the lesser of the two reasons, for my love of birds and conversely my loathing of smuggling but it hit home more because it’s set in Brazil, a nation of which I am a dual citizen.

Having been one who grew up cinematically with only Carmen Miranda and the anti-Lambada propaganda film The Forbidden Dance as major reference of American interpretations of Brazil onscreen my apprehension is understandable. Not that there’s anything wrong with Carmen Miranda but any icon can be turned into a stereotype in the wrong hands.

Suffice it to say that most of my concerns are addressed by the fact that one of the film’s writers and its director is a Brazilian, Carlos Saldanha. Yet, you also do not get a Disney-fied Saludos Amigos or Three Cabelleros rendition of Latin America, you have in the narrative of this film a setting which actually plays a role, which is rare but also one that is presented without frills and bereft of commentary. You see the glitz and glamor of Rio, the natural beauty, the beach life, the skyline at night, carnaval but also the favelas and in a minor way, crime. It’s a subtle but accurate portrait that doesn’t impose itself above the story. It shows the good and the bad. So with that personal concern overcome I can begin to address the rest of the film.

When dealing with animation set overseas there are invariably headaches of logic. There’s always the minor bugaboo of when do you float a word in said foreign language that English speakers will readily recognize? How many Brazilians and/or actors of Hispanic descent do you include in the cast? Now, there’s only one Brazilian in the principal cast, however, considering that many Brazilian actors have recently been cast as either Hispanic or “Vaguely Foreign” characters (such as Rodrigo Santoro himself in Love Actually) it all comes out in the wash.

In fact, quite a lot the voice talent does quite well either toeing that line or just being convincing that it makes you forget. Jesse Eiesenberg conveys the stressed, caged bird in the wild well and also has the unexpected task of struggling/learning to embrace his newfound culture. Anne Hathaway, perhaps more than any other name actor in the cast, vanishes behind the veneer of her character. Thankfully she is given license to sing and the few seconds of Portuguese she’s asked to speak sounds good.

The rest of the voice cast does rather well as a whole also. One of the most distinctive and hardest voices to overcome is George Lopez’s but his shtick with his wife is funny enough such that you eventually forget. While Tracy Morgan always sounds like himself it works in tandem with his character so well that it doesn’t matter. Will i. am provides the most consistent comic relief and perhaps the most overlooked voice work belongs to Jake T. Austin, perhaps best known for his work on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, he convincingly comes across as not only a Brazilian kid but also one who’s younger than he is.

The story of this film resolves itself quite neatly. It gets just the right amount of complication what with the smuggling plots getting aided with a scene-stealing performance by a Cockatoo (Jemaine Clement, who thankfully is also allowed to sing). Events head for the collision course you hope they’ll have and while there are dueling love plots and a heist everything thing has its proper priority within the infrastructure of the narrative. There’s more going on here than meets the eye with many of the villains not willing to do their own dirty work, such that you can see how it may be described as a mess but it truly does all work towards one end.

And that end is truly one of the more graceful and visual I’ve seen in some time. You realize the film is all but over and there are at least three questions/open ends you’re wondering about that are addressed in a few shots and wordlessly, without any lengthy denouement. It’s a thing of beauty of behold.

Moreover, it’s a musical that’s actually musical, meaning there are a few musical numbers where characters breakout and sing but not once does it seem random and forced. The score is tremendous and very present and when it’s not there it’s replaced by source music, which is usually a new take on a Brazilian standard. It’s another example of the synergy of location. The score is indigenous without feeling forced or trite. Even incorporating Samba beats the score and source music still underscores the action tonally.

I typically leave the 3D commentary for near the end when I do see something in 3D. I did see it as such and my general feeling is that right now animation, specifically animation by the biggest studios (Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky) is usually your best bet for getting the most bang for your buck 3D-wise.

The animated feature film has become more of a box office and aesthetic presence than it ever was. It has truly grown in leaps and bounds over the history of cinema as something that was virtually a one-studio specialty to a medium that has become, at long last, a bona fide Oscar category. Having said that the category has been virtually monopolized. It’ll be very hard to justify that this year with Rio entering the fray I think.

As I may have said before, I now treat sitting through the end credits like a standing ovation. Considering the fact that I was so apprehensive about seeing it in the first place, I truly did not expect to watch this film all the way to its literal conclusion. Rio is a tremendously effervescent film that actually manages to capture some of the spirit of the city in a very honest way.

10/10