“Walt & El Grupo” documentary to premiere this Saturday in San Francisco

(Editors note: I’m the process of writing the review for the recent re-release of “The Three Caballeros” and “Saludos Amigos” on DVD. That DVD has a wonderful extra that just skims the top of Walt’s famous 1941 trip to Latin America. It has always left me wanting to know more about that trip. Now “Walt & El Grupo” has answered that call. I hope they’re able to bring it out to Central Florida for a screening sometime soon.

I want to thank Leo Holzer for sending in this great article about what sounds like an exciting new documentary concerning a very critical moment in Walt’s career. “Walt & El Grupo” is premiering at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Saturday, April 26, 2008. - John)

“Walt & El Grupo”

By Leo N. Holzer
Special to The Disney Blog

The loss of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and the birth of Mickey Mouse in 1928. The creation and release of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. The development of Disneyland and its opening in 1955.

All of these were important and challenging periods for Walt Disney and his company.

But there was another time when life as Walt Disney knew it would forever change, both personally and professionally. The year was 1941, months before Pearl Harbor, when Walt and his studio were embroiled in labor unrest with an animators’ strike and challenged by the shrinking international box office returns as the war in Europe expanded.

It’s this period of Walt Disney’s life — and the “godsend” he found with a U.S.-government-sponsored working trip to Central and South America — that documentary filmmaker Ted Thomas (“Frank and Ollie”) explores in his new film, “Walt & El Grupo.”

For 10 weeks in 1941, Walt Disney, his wife Lillian, and 16 colleagues from his studio visited several Latin American nations to gather story material for a series of short films with South American themes. Some of these films would be weaved together for “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.”

“Walt & El Grupo” uses the trip as a framing device to explore inter-American relations, provide a rare glimpse into the artists who were part of the magic of Disney’s “golden age,” and give an unprecedented look at the 39 year-old Walt Disney during one of the most challenging times of his entire life.

In a recent interview, Thomas said: “1941 is likely the pivotal year in his (Disney’s) life: The trip marked the end of the ‘small’ studio that produced Mickey Mouse, ‘Snow White,’ ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Bambi.’ The (government) loan guarantees that allowed him to make ‘Saludos Amigos’ and ‘Three Caballeros’ made it possible to stay in business, but the place (the Disney Studios) would never be the way it was before the war and the strike.”

“Walt & El Grupo” is premiering at the San Francisco International Film Festival and will be screened at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, April 26, at 6 p.m. Monday, April 28 (with an extended Q&A) and at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 30 at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco. Additional film festival screenings are planned in the weeks and months ahead in Seattle and other cities both stateside and abroad.

WALT & EL GRUPO is a presentation of the Walt Disney Family Foundation Films in association with Theodore Thomas Productions. For more information, a trailer and the latest on film festival screenings, visit www.waltandelgrupo.com.

The following is my Q&A with Thomas talking a bit about “Walt & El Grupo”; his father, famed Disney animator Frank Thomas; and his memories following animator Ollie Johnston’s recent passing of making the documentary “Frank and Ollie,” a must-see for any fan of the classic Disney films.

Q: Your father, legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas, was a member of El Grupo. Were his stories the genesis of this project? If not, where did the idea of this project come from?

A: I grew up hearing funny and fascinating stories about the trip, but the actual catalyst to make the film was a phone call in 2003 from Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller. She had a shoebox full of snapshots from the trip and wondered if we, as children of El Grupo, might be able to find a film in there. Five years later, here we are.

Q: What was it like to retrace your father’s footsteps and talk to people from other countries who have memories of him?

A: This could (probably should) be a another film or a book in its own right. It was discovering my father all over again, but this time as a young man (29), before he met my mother, and before the coining of the phrase “the nine old men.” This sense of reconnecting generations over six decades found its way into the whole thematic approach to the story material. The ways in which we rub off on each other are at the heart of the film.

Q: Why did Walt Disney and El Grupo’s mission in 1941 succeed when so many other trips featuring Hollywood celebrities arranged by the U.S. government’s “Good Neighbor” program fail?

A: The Disney group took the opportunity to heart from the very beginning. The studio did months of research and planning before the departure date, and they were sincere about engaging the different cultures and learning something about them. This certainly made a difference. Above all, however, was the selection of the people who went on the trip. They were all extremely talented and charming people, and their upbeat way of looking at things must of left a strong impression in what were pretty gloomy times.

Q: Were Disney’s short films and features like “Snow White” more popular with foreign audiences than productions from other Hollywood studios?

A: They were not necessarily more popular, but in addition to their quality they stood out because there was nothing else like them. Hugo Rocha, a journalist in Uruguay, told us that what impressed Latin American cinema lovers was that Disney and his crew were creators of a new art form, as opposed actors and other “pretty faces.”

Q: Everyone older than 8 or 10 when they met Walt Disney seems to have a pretty good memory of that experience. How do the people in South America remember Walt and members of El Grupo?

A: For those in their 70s and 80s who personally met Walt or El Grupo members, their memories and stories are vivid and fresh, and in each family the drawings or sketches that were done as gifts and mementos are valued heirlooms. And quite often, these detailed stories come from an encounter of just a few hours.

Q: Tell us a bit of the premiere of “Fantasia” in Rio, the scene and audience reaction.

A: RKO, Disney’s distributor in that period, timed the opening of “Fantasia” with the Disney party’s stay in each of the respective countries they visited. As a result, Walt was going to premiere after premiere. The one in Rio was the first, and the film was very well received. It was presented as a charity benefit for the favorite charity of the first lady of Brazil, Mrs. Vargas. Unlike the tepid response the picture had gotten in the U.S. on its initial release, it was a significant hit throughout Latin America.

Q: “Pedro,” a short in “Saludos Amigos” about this little airplane delivering mail over the Andes, includes a tribute to Jorge Delano — the name of El Grupo’s principal guide in Chile. His son, also named Jorge Delano, reportedly had formed an attachment to the artists. Were you able to interview him and what were his memories?

A: There have been three generations of Jorge Délanos. The first, Jorge “Coke” Délano (the host), was artist/editor/filmmaker, and distant cousin of FDR. The second Jorge was about 20 at the time of El Grupo’s visit, befriended Walt and El Grupo, and subsequently had a wartime Rockefeller Foundation grant to work in different Hollywood studios, including Disney’s. It is he who is singled out for the mailbag joke in “Pedro.” He remained lifelong friends with Walt, and died in 1976. It is his son, the third generation Jorge (who is an accomplished animator), who is our storyteller in the film.

Q: Walt Disney called the South American trip “a godsend” that gave him “a chance to get away from this God-awful nightmare and to bring back some extra work to the plant.” Tell us a bit about Walt’s “case of the D.D.’s — disillusionment and discouragement” and the strike that Walt left behind to take this trip.

A: The film has given us the opportunity to look at Walt Disney “the man”, and just how he dealt with adversity. 1941 is likely the pivotal year in his life: The trip marked the end of the “small” studio that produced Mickey Mouse, “Snow White,” “Pinnochio” and “Bambi.” The loan guarantees that allowed him to make “Saludos Amigos” and “Three Caballeros” made it possible to stay in business, but the place would never be the way it was before the war and the strike (competing unions wanted to organize the studio. The winning union called a strike rather than take an organizing vote by employees. Disney would not back down on his insistence on a vote, and the strike was only resolved by arbitration.) The trip is a window into Disney’s creative method, and how it was almost a necessity he have some outlet for his nonstop creative drive.

Q: Walt and El Grupo respected cultural lore and getting details like gaucho costuming and authentic folk dances just right in creating the shorts for “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.” Audiences — especially those in South and Central America — didn’t see those films until they were completed several months later. Were those films successful in Latin America and has that Disney goodwill carried over to today with visits to Disneyland and “brand loyalty” to Disney films?

A: Both of the “Good Neighbor” films were highly successful when they were first released in Latin America. Since then, there have been several ups and downs in inter-American relations, and we try to acknowledge that in our film. The trip took place in the days before marketing vocabulary like “brand loyalty,” and even before Disney products were considered an American cultural export. In many ways, the Americas are still getting to know one another, and I think that gives great relevance to the story we tell.

Q: Disney historian and author J.B. Kaufman is working on a book covering much of the same material at “Walt & El Grupo.” What’s the status of the book and your involvement in that project?

A: JB’s book is a fascinating look at the entire “Good Neighbor” period at Disney, and especially the films that were produced. His in-depth research was a significant help as we got started and, subsequently, our research and contacts have helped to add to his manuscript. Both have been made possible by the Walt Disney Family Foundation. The book is being prepped for publication, and hopes are that it and our film will come out more or less at the same time.

Q: As the director of “Walt & El Grupo,” what is it you hope people learn and take away from watching the documentary?

A: Art and politics are the two most powerful and long-lasting legacies of any culture. Ultimately, I think that art lasts the longest, and the energy, curiosity, optimism, and humor expressed by Walt and the artists of El Grupo continue to be an inspiration for us all.

Q: I know the film is screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival. You’re scheduled to participate in an extended Q&A following the 6 p.m. April 28 screening, moderated by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. Will you be attending all three screenings and take questions after each? Will Diane Disney Miller be joining you at any of the screenings?

A: I and my creative partner, Kuniko Okubo, will be at all three screenings. Diane’s schedule will probably not permit her joining a Q&A.

Q: Even with Walt Disney playing a central role in this documentary, is “Walt & El Grupo” a tougher film to sell than your lovingly crafted 1995 film “Frank and Ollie”? As a documentary filmmaker who has worked on several National Geographic specials since “Frank and Ollie,” is it simply difficult to market any film with Hollywood’s push for franchise properties and tent-pole movies?

A: They’re all hard. Even with the recent popularity of some documentaries, it’s more difficult than ever to squeeze in between the pictures that have huge advertising budgets and are on multiple screens, and then stay there long enough for an audience to come and see the film. Everyone who can should try and see “Walt & El Grupo” in a theater: the scope of the story, the quality of the cinematography and images, and particularly the musical score are all what going to a theater is about.

Q: Many artists and bloggers mentioning Ollie Johnston’s recent passing talked not only about his art and the books he and your father authored, but about the friendship you chronicled in “Frank and Ollie.” What’s your favorite memory of working with them on that documentary?

A: Two “Frank and Ollie” memories: The hours and hours Frank, Ollie, Kuniko and I spent discussing what should be in the picture — it was being part of their creative process. The second is much more direct: A break during the interview shooting in August 1992 — we were standing outside Frank’s house eating ice cream bars, and Frank broke a filling trying to eat the bar before it turned into a melted mess. The fact that it turned into a moment of great laughter tells you a lot about those two amazing men.

WALT & EL GRUPO is a presentation of the Walt Disney Family Foundation Films in association with Theodore Thomas Productions. For more information, a trailer and the latest on film festival screenings, visit www.waltandelgrupo.com.

Contact Leo N. Holzer at leoholzer@go.com.

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