Walt and El Grupo
by George Sax
Hollywood’s agreement to aid in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1940s Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America was more of a diplomatic success for FDR than an artistic one for Tinseltown. Orson Welles, for instance, left off work on his second feature film, The Magnificent Ambersons, to make a documentary in Brazil about some Amazonian Indians. Meanwhile, RKO took control of the uncompleted film and assigned Robert Wise to recut it and shoot an ending, with results that cineastes still regret. According to Theodore Thompson’s new documentary, Walt and El Grupo, Bing Crosby’s arrival in Uruguay had very limited diplomatic and entertainment consequences. The crooner was more interested in playing golf than in either singing or diplomatic engagements. Thompson’s film contrasts that with Walt Disney’s simultaneous and reportedly triumphal visit to Montevideo, part of an exceedingly well-received ten-week, four-nation good will mission arranged by the US State Department. On the other hand, its concrete achievements in popular art or politics seem to have been inconsequential.
Disney was evidently as eager to escape from his distress and anger at the bitterly contested strike at his Burbank studio as to engage in a politically and aesthetically high-minded effort. Thompson visits the Buenos Aires hotel where Disney and his retinue of 18 set up a makeshift studio in a reception room, and he intercuts some moderately charming 16 mm Kodachrome movies showing a goofy, geeky Walt trying to learn Argentinian folk dances on the terrace. But for all that, the only tangible products were two animated shorts, “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros,” made later back in the States.
Walt and El Grupo was financed by a Disney family foundation and it has the self-indulgent earmarks of an elaborate, expensive vanity project. Thompson binds his vintage and contemporary footage together with skill, interweaving interviews, stills and audio recordings. But this sentimental, repetitious, surface-skimming movie can only appeal to Disney aficionados. The only interestingly dissonant note involves a mostly implicit and probably inadvertent irony. The renowned genius of sweetness-infused escapist art needed to fly away from Burbank and the labor rebellion by employees whose concerns he neither understood nor wanted to address.
Watch the trailer for Walt & El Grupo
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