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“Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program” book is a really great read

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“Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program” book is a really great read

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Do you have a Disney fanatic in your family? Then this must be the time of year that you dread most. When you’re expected to come up with a suitable holiday gift for this problematic family member.

Not to worry, though. Jim Hill Media is here to help. Over the first four Wednesdays in December, we’ll be walking you through this season’s best choices when it comes to Disney-related books. And then – on the very last Wednesday of 2009 – we’ll be showcasing a volume that every animation fan will want to own.

But – for now – let’s start with one of the very best Disney history books of this past year, J.B. Kaufman’s “South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948” (Disney Editions, October 2009).

South of the Boarder with Disney book cover
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Now that I know that – over the past few months – many JHM readers have had the chance to see Ted Thomas & Kuniko Okubo’s excellent new documentary, “Walt & El Grupo.” Which admittedly covers much of the same ground that J.B.’s newest book does (i.e. that trip to Latin America that Walt Disney took in the latter part of 1941 with 16 of his most trusted & talented studio staffers).

So having just seen the movie version of this fascinating aspect Disney Company history, why should you now spring for a 336-page hardcover? It’s simple, really. While Ted & Kuniko’s film does an amazing job of recapturing what that trip was like, the many beautiful spots that Walt & El Grupo visited, Thomas & Okubo’s story pretty much stops when Disney gets back to Burbank and actually starts making those Good Neighbor films that the CIAA (No, not the CIA. The Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) hired the Studio to make.

Whereas J.B.’s take on this tale … Well, Kaufman starts his story earlier. Way earlier. He dates Walt’s exploration of the storytelling possibilities found in Latin America back to 1928 and the second Mickey Mouse cartoon released theatrically, “The Gallopin’ Gaucho.” Not to mention Donald Duck’s first cartoon as a headliner, 1937’s “Don Donald.”

Walt Disney dancing during the Chazarreta tourpe's performance at the Alvear Palace roof garden
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Also – because J.B. isn’t trying to get his entire tale told in just 106 minutes – he can take the time to illuminate some of the lesser known aspects of Disney’s Good Neighbor pictures. Like – for example – how that footage from 1945’s “The Three Caballeros” that was supposed shot on Acapulco Beach was actually filmed in the Studio parking lot.

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at the photo below. You can clearly see the hills of the Burbank portion of Griffith Park towering over this outdoor setting. During this week-long shoot, Walt had his employees park their cars out along Riverside Drive while the Studio’s asphalt-covered parking lot was then buried under tons of pure white sand.

And all those women that you see frolicking in their swimsuits? Those have to be some truly talented & dedicated actresses. Given that they had to convincingly play people who were lounging in the hot sun on some tropical beach. When – in actuality – they’re standing outside in still-rather-nippy weather (for Southern California, anyway) in late January / early February of 1944.

On the "beach set," Harold Young and crew film a crane shot that will simulate the caballeros' aerial view.
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

That’s what I enjoyed about “South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948.” J.B.’s keen eye for finding that one detail that really fleshed out a story. Take -- for example -- this side-by-side comparison of a concept painting by Lee Blair and a frame of film from 1942’s “Saludos Amigos” …

Lee Blair's story sketch for the opening scene was followed closely in the finished film.
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

… which shows how closely Disney’s artists & animators hued to the research that had been done in the field back in 1941.

Kaufman also find ways to make some of the more well-known stories associated with Walt’s trip to Latin America seem brand-new. By that I mean … Most animation fans already know about how Mary Blair really came into her own while she was part of El Grupo …

Janet Martin and Mary Blair as caricatured by their colleagues on their return from South America
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

… eventually becoming Disney’s favorite artist on staff. But only J.B. Kaufman can tell you how much Walt truly valued Mary’s talent. Do you see the painting of a little girl that I’ve posted below?

This girl, painted by Mary Blair during a visit to Peru was ramed and displayed in Walt Disney's home
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

This is one of a pair of paintings that Mary did while her portion of El Grupo split off from the main group to go explore Peru. Now what’s significant about these two paintings is that Walt eventually had them framed and then put on display at his own home. And these were the only pieces of studio art that Disney ever displayed there. Which obviously makes them pretty significant.

Yeah, J.B. takes you through all the way to the end of the Good Neighbor project. To be specific, the third Latin American film – alternately titled “Cuba” or “Cuban Carnival” -- …

Fireflies spell out the word Cuba in this title card
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

… which Disney had in active development when World War II came to a close. Kaufman shares concept art for this aborted project (Including this story sketch of Jose Carioca in top hat & tails enjoying Rio’s exotic nightlife) before explaining how Walt left all of these CIAA productions behind as he struggled to get his studio on a post-war footing.

Joe Carioca, resplendent in evening wear, enjoys the night life in a Carnival story sketch
Copyright 2009 The Walt Disney Family Foundation Press, LLC. All Rights Reserved

The end result is that “South of the Border with Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948” is that rare book that skillfully mixes Hollywood behind-the-scenes stories and world history to bring a bygone era back to life. If your family’s Disney fan is a real history buff, then I honestly can’t think of a better book to give them this holiday season.

Speaking of history … I’d like to thank Andrea Wang of the Walt Disney Family Museum for sending me a review copy of J.B. Kaufman’s latest … And speaking of the holidays: The WDFM has just begun screening Don Hahn’s latest film, “Christmas with Walt Disney.” Which – by using archival footage, Disney family home movies as well as clips from the Studios’ motion pictures, cartoons & TV show – reveals how the Old Mousetro made merry this time of year. This 51 minute-long documentary is being shown daily in the Walt Disney Family Museum Theater now through January 4th. For if you're looking for a special  treat while you're up in the Bay Area this holiday season, be sure and swing out to the Presidio to check this documentary out.

And speaking of the holiday season … If you’re looking to any Christmas shopping on Amazon.com this year, could you please do JHM a favor and – before you get started shopping online – click on the banner above?

If you do that … Well, Jim Hill Media then gets a teeny tiny chunk of whatever you spend. Which would be a nice way to say “Thank You” for all the great stories that you’ve read on this website over the past year.

Happy Holidays!

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