April 11, 2015 posted by

The Projector from “The Three Caballeros” (1945)


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).

donald-presentsHowever, 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.

Donalds-projector275Clever 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.

donald-film-messIt 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).

donald-ava-riasWhile 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.


  • Oh, boy; do I remember those 16 m.m. projectors from junior high school in the early 1950s! I was on “audio-visual service” all during my three years at John James Audubon Junior High in the Leimert Park district of Los Angeles from 1952 through 1955. (A beautiful old Spanish-style structure that I still remember fondly today; unfortunately condemned & torn down after an earthquake made it unsafe, after I graduated. I discovered many s-f anthologies & novels in its school library, and its English classes first enabled me to start my own s-f collection with the teacher-approved early s-f paperbacks of Ballantine Books like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”.) I got to go around to the classes scheduled to see an educational film with the 16 m.m. print and a Bell & Howell projector on a big cart. I grew very skilled at threading up those projectors, which was “easy once you knew how”, but continually took some expertise to keep one film loop or another from being too large or too short. It surely was a lot more complex than Donald makes it look in “The Three Caballeros”. I saw lots of educational films like “Walt Disney presents The Story of Menstruation”; and the Seven Dwarfs fighting Malaria Mosquitos in Central America (who won? Well, they still have malaria in Central America [in the early ’50s], but you don’t see the Seven Dwarfs around any more!). Later, in high school, I got to show those gruesome Driver’s Ed films about what happened to the students who didn’t practice Driver Safety.

    • I like to think I belong to that LAST generation that got to witness projectors in the classroom during the 1980’s and 90’s. By then, the model of choice among elementary/high schools was the Singer Insta-Load. I can see why. Of course they never had an A/V Club for me to join in high school so I missed out on that fun. Colleges often used B&H or Eiki models.

  • Bell & Howell and Victor Animatograph (later known as Kalart-Victor) both made 16mm sound projectors in the 1930’s and 1940’s that had overhead reels. Many silent 16mm projectors had the reel spindles located out the front though.

  • Donald’s projector appears to have no sound head, and the way it feeds and takes up film from the wrong side of the reels looks like a goof, until you notice it is built “facing left” (in relation to where the operator would be), which is non-standard to say the least.

    • Oh well, if the audience wasn’t going to question the presence of an exciter lamp, why ask? 😛

  • Other projectors:
    — Donald Duck uses a similar projector to run cartoons for the nephews in “At Home With Donald Duck”, an episode of the anthology series (it can be found on Youtube). Mr. Mork’s comments apply to this model as well.
    — Woody Woodpecker grappled with something approximating a 16mm sound projector in the opening of his TV show.
    — Popeye’s silent projector in “Cartoons Ain’t Human” is not remotely realistic, but it’s still a nifty cartoon.
    — When the Saturday morning Bugs Bunny Show incorporated the Road Runner Show, they followed the classic BB opening number with a new shot of Bugs pointing at a home movie screen upon with the RR title sequence played. A projector was implied, anyway.

    • Earlier episodes of The Simpsons sometimes had Krusty the Clown turning on or off a projector when he showed an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, though I’m sure that was more an homage to what was done before.

  • The footage of Donald using the projector was used in the 1970’s incarnation of the Mickey Mouse Club, albeit with more “modern” music added.

  • In early episodes of the Woody Woodpecker TV show, Woody apparently took up residence in the Bell & Howell Filmosound 285 in his boss’s office.

  • The projector in the Woody Woodpecker tv series is a Bell & Howell model 285 16mm sound machine.

    • Practically the same projector I recall getting for free from a friend of my mother’s once!

  • It took a little detective work to find it, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy this account of Walt Disney’s early encounter with the Victor Animatograph Corporation in Davenport, Iowa.

    I’ve always liked the Victor machines despite their eccentric back-to-front threading, though my friend Jim Maloy in Texas, a 94-year-old retired projectionist, describes them as “the only projector ever made that can frighten a nun!” The “facing left” construction Mr. Mork mentioned may have been non-standard, but not unheard of. In the 40’s, there was a fairly popular make of 16mm projector called a Natco; made in Chicago and also sold by Sears, Roebuck as the Tower projector.

    By the way, I think the “75-watt lamp” referred to in the article should in fact read 750 watts, which was standard equipment on a lot of 16mm projectors, both silent and sound.

    • I’m no gearhead, but I’ll make an exception for film projectors. There are so many ways to design a machine to do one thing: move a ribbon of film through a gate and shine a light through a lens. Some of these designs look like they could have come from another planet – witness this Pathe 8mm hallucination:

  • My first 16mm projector was an old DeVry that looked quite a bit like like Donald’s. Thanks for the memories!

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