For nearly four decades, I have written articles about Disney and animation for magazines, books and websites.
Sometimes the character or film has been written about so many times that it is difficult to find a new perspective or a new piece of information rather than just regurgitating the same familiar stories.
Sometimes the character or film is more obscure and the challenge is to find any information at all about something that has rarely or never been written about anywhere else.
One of my most difficult assignments several years ago was to write an article about the movie projector that appears in the Disney feature film The Three Caballeros (1945) for a foreign publication. They had a special section in each issue devoted to the props in Disney animated films like Peter Pan’s pipes or Michael’s teddy bear.
For fun, I thought readers of this site might enjoy my “rough draft” of the article. I revised this piece before sending it in although an editor went through and made some changes. I never saw the revised version nor the magazine where the article appeared.
I not only watched the film countless times but pulled up information on movie projectors of the same time period. Here are my insights:
The reliable little greenish brown 16mm projector in The Three Caballeros (1945) that is given to exhuberant Donald Duck on his birthday was inspired by a decades long tradition quite familiar to the animators at the Disney Studio.
Beginning in the 1920s, several companies offered for sale 16mm cameras and movie projectors as an inexpensive and more managable alternative to 35mm used by professional movie studios so that eager novices could capture “home movies” of their families and special events like birthday celebrations.
Walt Disney himself was one of the earliest enthusiasts to utilize this extraordinary opportuntiy and with his battered camera filmed his family right up to the last summer of his life, eventually ending up with over eighteen hours of “home movies”. Some of those movies were things like a shot of a crab scuttling across the sand on a beach.
It was fortunate that Walt decided to record his adventures in South America while searching for inspiration for animated cartoon shorts with his reliable 16mm camera because later, it was decided to combine several of those shorts into a feature film entitled Saludos Amigos (1943).
However, the challenge was to find some way of connecting those disparate stories into one cohesive narrative and the solution was to use Walt’s home movies to link everything together.
When the time came to make The Three Caballeros, the same challenge existed of bringing together a number of different short cartoons into one narrative.
Walt never liked to repeat himself so in a clever twist, it was decided to use animated home movies sent to Donald Duck for his amusement to showcase the individual shorts.
“The picture would begin with a large gift box sent to Donald Duck by his friends in Mexico. And what of The Cold Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito, already completed in 1942 – how to intergrate them into this gift box? This problem was solved with ingenious simplicity: the first package to be pulled from the box is a gift wrapped projector and a supply of film. (‘Oh boy, home movies!’ Donald cries. ‘Just what I wanted!’)” stated Disney historian J.B .Kaufman in his book South of the Border With Disney (2009).
Inside Donald’s massive surprise package is a deceptively small pink package wrapped tightly in a light blue ribbon that erupts into a movie projector, stand and several reels of film with the projector’s power cord waving wildly in the air at first like the tail of a happy puppy dog.
Clever Donald enthusiastically bypasses the time consuming and sometimes frustrating task of properly threading the projector by reconfiguring the strip of film into a geometric jigsaw shape that miraculously matches perfectly the required pattern.
Later, it is revealed that this was not entirely succesfully and frustrated Donald finds himself knee deep in piles of film that overflowed the take-up reel just as it sometimes happened to people who used such projectors at home.
The compact durable metal projector with a 75 watt projection lamp animated in The Three Caballeros was the most common style used in the 1930s and 1940s with two forward spindles. Beginning in the Fifties, 16mm projectors with two overhead spindles would become the favorite not just for individuals but for public schools and private companies.
It was standard practice that these projectors either came with a stand or had to be placed on a table or desk to get the proper projection ratio on the screen. It was important that the projector be positioned so that the reels (anywhere from 400 to 2,000 feet of film) cleared the edge of the surface.
The interstitial scenes of Donald and the projector were directed by Jack Kinney who appreciated that these scenes needed little modification even though the four major segments of the feature were constantly being shifted and changed during production.
The scenes with the projector eases the transition from one segment to another, especially by including Donald’s reaction shots to the home movies and makes it feel as if it is part of one complete film story.
Much of the animation in these scenes was done by Hal King, a talented but little publicized animator who provided outstanding work on many Disney animated features including the scene of Wart as a squirrel dangling precariously from an overhanging tree branch in The Sword in the Stone (1963). His animating career at Disney began with Donald Duck shorts in the 1940s and lasted until the 1970s on such films as Robin Hood (1973).
While the projector does not talk or take on an anthropomophic appearance, it is still mischievously playful, illuminating Donald’s plump rump with the “Ave Raras” title of the first sequence and later providing a lighted pathway for the Aracun bird to venture out beyond the screen to greet Donald.
Sadly, Donald abandons this steadfast projector for more colorful pop-up books and magical photo scrapbooks to learn about Mexican culture but its spools, lens, motor and audio amplifcation speaker patiently awaits the opportunity to share even more cinematic treasures whenever Donald returns to reality.