Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Three Caballeros

The Three Caballeros original theatrical release poster

The war years were proving to be some of the hardest times Walt Disney had faced to date. His staff had been reduced, thanks to both an acrimonious labor strike and from men going off to fight overseas. The lucrative European markets had been closed off to him for years. The company was barely getting by on the strength of its contract work. Disney needed cash but he didn’t have a project ready to go. And even if he had, he didn’t have enough theaters to screen it.

But the government-sponsored goodwill tour of Latin America had opened up a new market for Disney’s work. Saludos Amigos had been a surprise hit, not just in America but south of the border as well. Since it was less than an hour long, Disney still had plenty of leftover live-action footage from the tour. He also had a couple of unfinished cartoon ideas that he could dust off. Walt padded this skeletal framework by focusing on Donald Duck, whose sequences had been the most popular parts of Saludos Amigos, and lo and behold, Disney’s first sorta-kinda sequel was born.

If Saludos Amigos seems like an unusual candidate for a sequel, The Three Caballeros itself is a most unusual sequel. This is one of the strangest movies Walt Disney ever produced. There’s a lot to unpack here, so you may want to get comfortable.

Unlike Saludos Amigos, which presented itself as a fairly straightforward travelogue, The Three Caballeros goes to the trouble of establishing a framing device excuse for its various bits and pieces. Donald’s birthday is coming up (on Friday the 13th…not that anything comes of the bad luck association) and his new friends from Latin America have sent him a bunch of presents! He excitedly tears into the first package and finds a projector and some “home movies”. This flimsy excuse provides the set-up for practically the entire first third of the movie.

These first segments all revolve around a rough theme: “Birds of South America”. First, “Professor” Sterling Holloway, already well on his way to becoming a Disney favorite, introduces us to Pablo, a little penguin who can’t stand the cold. So he contrives a way to leave Antarctica and settle on a tropical island. That’s it. The end. There’s no real story to speak of and the gags are pretty basic but at least the penguins are cute.

Donald’s next movie is all about rare and unique South American birds, including the most unusual of them all, the Aracuan Bird. The Aracuan Bird, who continues to pop up throughout the picture, has more in common with the dodo from the classic Looney Tunes short Porky In Wackyland than with any Disney character. The Aracuan Bird breaks multiple fourth walls, jumping out of Donald’s movie to introduce himself and later strolling right off the edge of the frame of our movie. The appearance of the Aracuan Bird is your first clue that this is not going to be your typical Disney movie.

In the third segment, Fred Shields, another familiar Disney voice thanks to Goofy’s How-To shorts, tells the story of a little boy in Uruguay and his winged, flying donkey, Burrito. They enter a horse race, which they manage to win despite some initial hiccups. The segment ends on an odd, ambiguous note when Burrito flies away, with the little Gauchito dangling from the leash, never to be seen again. It wouldn’t surprise me if this cartoon was cut from Saludos Amigos because they couldn’t come up with a satisfying conclusion. They still couldn’t but I guess it didn’t matter so much anymore.

Donald’s second present is a pop-up book about Brazil sent by, and actually containing, his old amigo, José Carioca. Continuing his work as spokes-parrot for the Brazil Tourism Board, José is here to extol the many pleasures of Bahia (misspelled “Baia” in the film…whoops). The first part of this segment is actually one of the most tranquil and lovely sequences in the movie with a beautiful color palette and a great song. It’s a welcome moment of calm and serenity before the chaos to come.

After repeatedly asking Donald if he’s ever been to Bahia (he has not), José shrinks Donald down and brings him into the world of the pop-up book. After a quick train ride (which is almost derailed by that pesky Aracuan Bird), they arrive in Bahia. Donald immediately falls head over heels in love with a cookie seller played by Aurora Miranda, Carmen’s younger sister.

Yes, some 40 years before the arrival of Howard The Duck, Disney was a pioneer in the field of interspecies romance. Much of the movie’s second half revolves around Donald’s insatiable attraction to human women. There’s nothing remotely subtle about it but I guess you can’t blame a sailor on vacation for wanting to get lucky on his birthday.

Apart from the weird sexual tension between Donald and Aurora Miranda, the Bahia samba sequence is notable for its pioneering mix of live-action and animation. The technology was still developing but there’s something charming about the lo-fi version on display here. For the long shots, they simply projected the finished animation onto a screen and had Miranda dance in front of it. The illusion is far from seamless but it works.

After returning from Bahia, Donald has one present left to open. It contains the third caballero, Panchito Pistoles from Mexico. Panchito bursts into the movie with a rousing rendition of the title song before sharing a piñata and a Mexican Christmas tale called Las Posadas. This is the only Christmassy thing about The Three Caballeros but it was enough for Walt to later justify airing an edited version of the movie on his Disneyland TV series as A Present For Donald. All he had to do was switch the occasion from Donald’s birthday to Christmas and poof! Instant Christmas special.

Title card for the Disneyland episode A Present For Donald

Panchito’s magic serape then whisks the Caballeros off for an aerial tour of live-action Mexico, with special attention paid to its beaches and their lovely señoritas. Donald’s sexual frustration nears its peak here, so when Dora Luz appears singing “You Belong To My Heart,” it’s little wonder than he’s instantly smitten.

Donald’s obsession with Dora Luz takes us into the film’s madcap climax, Donald’s Surreal Reverie. The Disney animators really go for broke here. If some Disney Archivist discovered a missing scene that has Panchito, José and Donald heading into the Mexican desert to drop peyote, it would go a long way toward explaining this non-stop barrage of music, sound, color and visual trickery. There’s some genuinely cutting-edge work here, especially in the combination of animation with live-action. As a technical achievement and as a creative exercise, it’s all very impressive. As an entertainment, it’s more than a little exhausting.

Like all of Disney’s package films, The Three Caballeros is a mixed bag. The various segments sit uncomfortably alongside one another. The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito both play better on their own, which they did when they were re-released as individual short subjects a few years later. And while the character and effects animation are both up to Disney’s usual standards, Walt decided to save money on the backgrounds by essentially eliminating them entirely. Donald opens his presents in a formless void against bright, solid colors. After the lush backgrounds of Bambi, Pinocchio and others, The Three Caballeros feels like a low-rent, no-frills affair.

But the movie’s biggest problem is simply that it’s relentless. It wants to show you a good time so badly that it doesn’t know when to let up. Animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were a lot better at pulling off this kind of sustained wackiness than anybody on the Disney lot. And they were smart enough to realize that audiences couldn’t really take much more than seven minutes of it. The Three Caballeros just won’t quit. It’ll pause occasionally to catch its breath but then it goes right back into the crazy. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Just calm down, Caballeros.

The Three Caballeros did OK business when it was released in February of 1945 (it had premiered in Mexico City the previous December). It received nominations in Disney’s usual Oscar categories (Best Sound and Best Original Score) but it didn’t win anything. Almost none of the songs were completely original compositions, so it failed to grab an Original Song nomination. Even the memorable title song was based on a popular Mexican ranchera song. Only the lyrics by Ray Gilbert were new and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the original words.

But The Three Caballeros proved less popular than Saludos Amigos, which probably explains why the Caballeros didn’t ride again for many years. José Carioca will make one last appearance in this column before long and both he and Panchito Pistoles went on to appear in Disney comics. But the trio effectively disbanded after their maiden adventure until the 21st century.

Recently, Disney has taken to using the Caballeros in shows like House Of Mouse and the current incarnation of DuckTales. In 2007, Disney opened the Gran Fiesta Tour ride at Epcot’s Mexico Pavilion and in 2008, they were added to the refurbished It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland. And in 2018, José, Panchito and Donald finally got their own show, Legend Of The Three Caballeros.

It makes complete sense that Disney would want to revitalize the Caballeros. With the Latino market more important than ever, why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s not like they have an overabundance of minority characters. José has always remained popular in Brazil. And as a representative of Mexico, you could do a lot worse than Panchito. Just ask Speedy Gonzales.

But the Disney studio has always been hesitant to engage with The Three Caballeros. Its only theatrical reissue was a badly hacked-up version back in the 1970s. They haven’t exactly tried to hide it, like some movies I could mention, but it has never been a priority.

I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity and everything to do with how utterly strange this movie is. In many ways, it’s Disney’s most off-brand release, a madcap, hyper-sexualized romp with nothing on its mind other than fun. That is both its greatest strength and weakness. The Three Caballeros provides a unique, exhilarating rush but it’s really easy to overdose on its manic energy. Use only as directed.

VERDICT: Any Disney movie that leaves you wondering, “What the hell did I just watch?” must be considered some kind of success, so Disney Plus but only just.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Saludos Amigos

Original theatrical release poster

If there’s one word the Disney Marketing Department loves to toss around, it’s “timeless”. Not without some justification, of course. So far, this column has looked at six films made around 80 years ago. All but one of them has continued to enchant and delight audiences around the world to this day.

During this time period, Walt only seemed to know how to make two kinds of movies: timeless classics and hyper-specific oddities that make almost no sense when you take them out of context. Falling squarely into the latter category are such films as The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos.

The backstory of Saludos Amigos is almost more interesting than the movie itself (in fact, it’s the subject of its own Disney-produced documentary, Walt & El Grupo). In 1941, Disney was in a bit of financial trouble. Walt had opened an expensive new studio in Burbank, his features were struggling at the box office, and his animators had gone on strike. So when Nelson Rockefeller, President Roosevelt’s newly appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, called to commission a feature, Walt wasn’t exactly in a position to say no.

Rockefeller was on a diplomatic mission, strengthening ties between the US and our Latin American neighbors and counteracting the Axis propaganda that had been flooding these countries during the early days of World War II. To do this, Rockefeller met with a number of celebrities and artists, appointing them Goodwill Ambassadors and sending them off on cultural tours of Latin America. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters went on tour and recorded Latin music with Xavier Cugat. Orson Welles hosted the radio show Hello Americans and started work on the film It’s All True. And Walt Disney assembled a team of artists and musicians to sketch their way through Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. But unlike Welles, Walt was able to finish his movie.

It probably didn’t hurt that Walt’s movie really stretches the definition of what’s considered a feature film. At just 42 minutes, Saludos Amigos makes Dumbo look like Lawrence Of Arabia. Watching it today, it’s hard to believe that it actually played in cinemas on its own. I can’t imagine most audiences left the theater feeling like they got their money’s worth. It almost feels like an extended teaser for some other movie. Live-action footage introduces the premise that Walt Disney and his team are traveling south of the border to do research for an upcoming picture. The movie’s almost over before you realize that this is that picture.

The live-action footage continues throughout, linking four new animated segments. This wasn’t really Disney’s first “package” film. Prior to the release of Snow White, Disney had strung together five Silly Symphonies and released the compilation to theaters under the snappy title Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons. Fantasia had been a highly prestigious package film and The Reluctant Dragon had padded out its animated scraps with extensive live-action footage. But in the years to come, Disney would rely more and more on package films like this one to keep the doors open. They were cheaper, they were faster, and they could be easily chopped up and sold for parts.

Saludos Amigos kicks off with tourist Donald Duck exploring Lake Titicaca and having some trouble crossing a suspension bridge with a llama. Next, we meet the young Chilean airplane Pedro. Disney would essentially revisit this concept some 70 years later in the Cars spinoff Planes. Goofy, always a welcome presence, shows up in the third segment to demonstrate the ways of the Argentinean gaucho. Finally, Donald reappears to help introduce another new character, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca.

José “Joe” Carioca (voiced by Brazilian musician José Oliveira) was positioned as the breakout star of Saludos Amigos. His segment is certainly the most exciting, both visually, breaking the fourth wall of animation by having the animator’s paintbrush creating backgrounds around the two birds, and musically.

The song, “Aquarela do Brasil”, had been around for a few years but didn’t become a hit until Oliveira performed it here. Today, of course, everyone knows it as simply “Brazil” and it’s one of the most instantly recognizable samba songs ever recorded.

Saludos Amigos soundtrack album

José Carioca did in fact become a beloved, heavily merchandized star in Brazil but he never quite took off here in the US. Though that wasn’t for lack of trying on Disney’s part. We’ll see José in this column again soon.

Saludos Amigos isn’t really a bad movie. It’s far too slight and inconsequential for that. In fact, it’s barely a movie at all. Unlike some of Disney’s other package films, the segments here are extremely forgettable. Pedro is a little wisp of a cartoon and El Gaucho Goofy is far from the Goof’s funniest showcase. Donald fares slightly better. It’s always fun to see him in obnoxious tourist mode and the musical and visual flair of the finale ends things on a high note. But the whole thing’s over before you’ve even finished your popcorn.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Saludos Amigos is that the damn thing worked. There was no way the movie was not going to make money. The whole project had been bankrolled by the government and guaranteed with federal loans. But audiences actually turned up for this mini-movie. For many Americans, this was their first exposure to South American culture and they liked what they saw. More importantly, they liked what they heard. Latin American music became the hot new sound and its popularity continued to explode throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Saludos Amigos was even nominated for three Academy Awards, albeit in the traditionally overstuffed categories of Best Sound, Best Original Song and Best Original Score (Musical). Still, that’s the same number of nominations as Bambi. The movie’s best songs, “Brazil” and “Tico Tico”, weren’t original, so that left the title tune to compete in the Best Original Song category. It didn’t win any of the awards it was up for. But the fact that the Academy even recognized this as a feature and not a short subject is fairly impressive.

At best, Saludos Amigos was a minor success. It certainly wasn’t a dream project for Walt or anyone else at the studio. But Walt needed something to stay afloat. If that turned out to be a government-sponsored piece of South American boosterism, so be it. By turning his talents to propaganda, Walt would make it through World War II.

VERDICT: Disney Minus seems a little harsh, so let’s call it a Disney Neutral.

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Bambi

Original theatrical release poster

Whatever else one might say about Walt Disney, nobody could accuse him of making the same movie twice during his first half-decade or so of feature production. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo are all very different films in style, in tone, in story and in characters. Disney had pushed the envelope of animation farther than anyone before him and he still wasn’t done. With Bambi, he wanted to hit a new level of realism in animation. It would be his last truly great film of the 1940s and arguably one of his last bold experiments with animation.

Bambi was based on a novel by the Austrian writer Felix Salten (we’ll see his name in this column again, as Disney would go on to produce two more movies based on his work). Significantly, Bambi was not considered a children’s book. It had been a major international bestseller and was even banned as a subversive political allegory by the Nazis. Any movie version of Bambi would have been seen as an A-list prestige picture.

Originally, that movie was to have been made by Sidney Franklin, a producer and director at MGM who apparently had a thing for deer. In 1946, he’d produce the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling starring Gregory Peck. But in 1937, Franklin decided that making a live-action version of Bambi would be next to impossible. So he sold the rights to Walt Disney, who planned on making it his follow-up to Snow White. This turned out to be a seriously optimistic goal, as both the story and the animation took a long time to get right.

Today, the story beats of Disney’s Bambi are so familiar that they seem inevitable. But Disney and the story team led by Perce Pearce and Larry Morey would make some big changes to Salten’s book before it made it to the screen. Disney’s movie certainly has some intense moments but the book is an even darker affair.

In the book, Faline has a brother, Gobo, who goes missing following the hunt that (spoiler alert, I guess, although I can’t imagine why you’re reading this if you’ve never seen Bambi) kills Bambi’s mom. Later on, Gobo returns. Turns out that a man found Gobo, took him home and nursed him back to health. Strong and overconfident in his belief that he knows more about the ways of man than the other deer, Gobo is eventually shot and killed in a particularly horrifying scene that would have scarred young psyches waaaaaaay worse than Bambi’s mom’s off-screen demise.

The death of Bambi’s mother is a stunning sequence and a testament to the genius of Walt Disney. For generations of kids, this scene was probably their first experience with death. Did Walt realize that would be the case when he was making the film? It honestly feels as if he might have. Everything about the sequence, the pacing, the colors, the music and sound design and the sudden absence of sound when the Great Prince appears, has been carefully thought out and perfectly executed. The impact of that loss has real weight. It hits audiences harder than most fictional deaths.

A newer generation may have had a similar experience with The Lion King, a movie this column will get to eventually (a couple times, as a matter of fact). The Lion King owes more than a little bit to Bambi but I’d argue that the movies treat their respective parental deaths very differently. Mufasa is killed by an act of treachery. It’s a plot point in a story arc that most of us will never live through. Bambi’s mom is killed by a hunter with a gun. It’s a threat that these animals have to deal with every day of their lives. It could happen at any time. Mufasa reappears in cloud form to give Simba some fatherly advice. When Bambi’s mother is gone, she’s just gone. It’s no wonder Bambi continues to leave an indelible impression on young audiences.

While Disney may have been striving for realism with Bambi, it’s a mistake to describe this as realistic animation. The animals may not be as heavily anthropomorphized as they are in other cartoons insofar as they’re not wearing people clothes. But you’re still not going to find a rabbit who looks and acts like Thumper or a skunk who behaves like Flower in nature. Nature itself doesn’t look the way it looks in Bambi. The backgrounds by Tyrus Wong are stunningly gorgeous and thoroughly impressionistic.

Somehow, all of these non-realistic elements blend together perfectly to create a world that feels very real. There are shots of deer leaping through the forest and Bambi’s mother entering the meadow that look absolutely lifelike. That doesn’t mean they look like a photograph. That’s something Disney seems to have forgotten in their wave of CGI remakes like The Jungle Book and The Lion King. It simply means they have the illusion of life.

Bambi re-release poster

By this point, Disney movies were routinely nominated for Academy Awards. They had been particularly dominant in the music categories, a trend that continues to the present day. Bambi was no exception, earning nominations for the score by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb and for the song “Love Is A Song”. The music in Bambi is particularly interesting. On the one hand, it probably has more music than any other Disney film. The movie is practically wall-to-wall music and the two moments that have no music at all are very noticeable.

But Bambi isn’t really a musical, at least not in the sense that Disney’s previous films had been. There are only three or four songs in the entire movie and none of them are sung by characters. “Love Is A Song”, the sublime “Little April Shower”, and the rest are all non-diegetic songs that comment on the movie rather than help move the story along. Dumbo had done a little of that with sequences like the Stork song but it still left room for more traditional musical numbers. Back then, the Oscars split the Original Score categories into musical and non-musical divisions. The year before, Dumbo had won the award for Scoring of a Musical Picture. Bambi was treated like a drama and nominated in the category’s non-musical equivalent.

(“Love Is A Song” didn’t win, by the way, but I doubt anyone expected it to. It was up against a little number by Irving Berlin called “White Christmas” from the movie Holiday Inn. It’s pretty hard to argue that the Academy made the wrong call in this case.)

Walt may have been more excited by Bambi‘s third Oscar nomination: Best Sound Recording. That may not sound worth getting fired up over but it was the first time that an animated film had been nominated in the category. Although Bambi didn’t win (it lost to Yankee Doodle Dandy), it was further validation that the Hollywood establishment was taking the art of animation seriously.

Bambi was released in August of 1942, already a much different world than the one that had greeted Dumbo less than a year earlier. America had officially entered World War II, so it probably wasn’t the best time for Walt to turn his back on fantasy and embrace realism. Like many of his other films of the period, Bambi would take years to turn a profit.

But the legacy of Bambi is undeniable. Walt Disney proved that animation was capable of tackling mature, serious themes just as well as it could handle fantastic and comedic stories. It places the audience deep into the heart of the forest, making us truly empathize with these animals more deeply and fully than any live-action film ever could. I imagine Bambi has provoked more deep, meaningful conversations between parents and their kids about life, death, the environment, even vegetarianism, than most other movies, animated or live-action.

In some ways, Bambi represents the pinnacle of Walt Disney’s animated art. Thanks to World War II and the financial disappointments of his recent films, Walt would now be forced to cut back. It would be years before he could make another animated feature as ambitious as his first five had been. But even if the studio had gone bankrupt and Walt had never made another feature film, he’d be remembered today for these early classics. Bambi remains a high-water mark in animation, the culmination of a remarkable run of unbridled creativity.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

An Honor To Be Nominated: West Side Story

THE CONTENDER: West Side Story (1961)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Best Picture (Robert Wise); Supporting Actor (George Chakiris); Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno); Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins); Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Lehman); Cinematography, Color (Daniel L. Fapp); Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven, Victor A. Gangelin); Sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon E. Sawyer); Scoring of a Musical Picture (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal); Film Editing (Thomas Stanford); Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff)

Number of Wins: 10 – Everything except Adapted Screenplay (sorry, Ernie)

Before I expanded the parameters of this column to encompass all Oscar-nominated films in all categories, the rules were very simple. To be included, a movie simply had to have been nominated for Best Picture and lost. Using those guidelines, I never, ever would have included West Side Story.

West Side Story is by far the winningest movie we’ve covered here to date. It came very close to a clean sweep, with only Abby Mann’s screenplay for Judgment At Nuremberg standing in the way of 11 for 11. Its soundtrack went on to become the best-selling album of the 1960s. Not just a year, the entire decade. It has been referenced and/or parodied in everything from The Muppet Show to The Simpsons to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Anchorman. And somehow, the closest I had ever come to seeing it before now was in seconds-long clips in award show montages.  

The Academy’s attitude toward musicals seemed to be changing in the early 1960s. The genre had been part of the Oscars pretty much since synchronized sound became the norm. Most years found at least one musical nominated for Best Picture. But only a handful had actually won, starting with The Broadway Melody all the way back at the second ceremony. But that changed in the 1960s, as musicals came to dominate the Best Picture category, winning more frequently than they ever had before or would since. It would be their last hurrah.

As Hollywood fought the encroaching medium of television in the 1950s, the movies got bigger. Fancy new processes were created to help embiggen the public’s love of movies, with fun futuristic-sounding names like CinemaScope, Cinerama, VistaVision and Todd-AO. The Academy embraced the Age of the Epic with open arms, handing out trophies to movies like Around The World In 80 Days and Ben-Hur as if they couldn’t sculpt the statuettes fast enough. It was an age when even a small movie, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, looked huge.

It didn’t take long for musicals to embrace the possibilities of widescreen cinematography. Movies like White Christmas, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, and many more pushed the boundaries of the screen. Of course, all this extra space meant filmmakers needed more stuff to fill it with. So sets got bigger, costumes got more elaborate, and the number of dancers on screen at any given moment multiplied like rabbits. It was just as well that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were aging out of the genre. By 1961, the idea of paying to see just two people dance elegantly on screen was hopelessly outdated and quaint.

In many ways, West Side Story was the culmination of all this change. The play had debuted on Broadway in 1957, the brainchild of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins recruited playwright Arthur Laurents to tackle the book and composer Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Eventually, Stephen Sondheim was brought on board to write the lyrics, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of talent.

When it came time to bring the show to the big screen, the director’s reins were handed to Robert Wise. Robbins had wanted to direct himself but the money folks at The Mirisch Company balked at his total lack of experience with filmmaking. At the time, Wise must have seemed an odd choice. He had started his career as an editor, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on Citizen Kane and was notoriously put in charge of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons after RKO fired Welles.

As a director, Wise had bopped from horror (The Curse Of The Cat People) to noir (The Set-Up) to westerns (Two Flags West) to sci-fi (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to pretty much any other kind of movie you can think of but he’d never made a musical. So it was agreed that Jerome Robbins would stay on as co-director to handle the musical and dance sequences. But Robbins’ insistence on multiple takes led to the production going over-budget and, eventually, his firing. He never directed another feature which, as near as I can tell, makes him the only one-and-done Best Director Oscar winner in history.

What Wise, Robbins, cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, and all the other filmmakers were able to accomplish with West Side Story was nothing short of extraordinary. Watching the movie, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that this material could ever be contained on stage. The sets are too big, the movement too expressive, the colors too vivid. It’s dynamic and exciting in a way that’s unique to film. And unlike too many other bloated epics of the period, West Side Story moves. It’s a long film, clocking in at around two-and-a-half hours, but there isn’t a wasted second in it.

It’s a little hard to judge the actual performances in West Side Story. Certainly the dancing and physicality is remarkable across the board. But this was a time when movie stars didn’t really have to sing in musicals if the producers didn’t want ’em to, so we end up with these odd Frankenstein performances with lip-synched vocals. The movie’s big name is Natalie Wood, who had already been a star for over a decade. She was still a teenager when she’d earned her first Oscar nomination for Rebel Without A Cause a few years earlier. 1961 ended up being a very good year for her. In addition to West Side Story, she’d garner her second Oscar nod for her other movie that year, Splendor In The Grass.

Even though Wood’s singing voice was dubbed by go-to ghost singer Marni Nixon and even though she’s no more Puerto Rican than I am, her performance as Maria is delicate and lovely. She hits just the right blend of sweetness and sensuality, really selling the emotion and pathos of the character. Richard Beymer as Tony isn’t quite as successful. He’s handsome and charming enough but his inexperience comes through occasionally. He just doesn’t yet have the depth as an actor to really connect with the songs he’s not singing (Jimmy Bryant dubbed his voice). He’d find it by the time he played Ben Horne on Twin Peaks (and as a Twin Peaks fan coming to West Side Story late, I should add that seeing Beymer and future Dr. Jakoby Russ Tamblyn together in this does result in a moment or two of cognitive dissonance) but back then, he seems a little out of his depth.

That is definitely not the case with Oscar-winning supporting actors Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Both stars had an intensive dance background and both were sort of struggling to find their place in Hollywood when West Side Story came along. They made the most of the opportunity, especially Moreno who practically explodes off the screen. Moreno got to do most of her own singing and Chakiris did all of his, possibly just because he doesn’t get any big solo numbers. Their Oscar victories are even more impressive when you consider who they were up against. Chakiris’ competition included Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, while Moreno was in her category opposite no less than Judy Garland.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with either Moreno or Chakiris. Rita Moreno found herself unemployed for seven years afterwards, not making another movie until The Night Of The Following Day in 1968. Eventually of course, she’d go on to be one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and an all-around national treasure. As for Chakiris (who, again, not a Puerto Rican, but certainly believable and acceptable as one), he made some pretty forgettable movies throughout the 60s before becoming a prolific TV actor in the 70s.

The only nominee who went home empty-handed that night was screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Lehman was one of the great Hollywood script writers. If he’d done nothing else, his place in film history would be secured by his screenplay for North By Northwest, essentially the platonic ideal for the contemporary mystery thriller. Lehman would be nominated for six Oscars over his career, winning none. Perhaps he was overlooked this time because the Academy figured the movie was so faithful to the play that Lehman hadn’t really done much. In any event, he would go on to become the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Academy Award for his body of work in 2001, by which time he had long since retired.

It’s hard to make a case against any of West Side Story‘s Oscar triumphs. At the time, the technical awards were still split into two categories, color and black-and-white. Odds are this arrangement benefited the black-and-white movies more than West Side Story, which probably would have dominated no matter what it was up against. In the Best Picture category, its only real competition was the star-studded but somber Judgment At Nuremberg. Of the other nominees, The Hustler was likely too small to make much of a dent and The Guns Of Navarone was probably dismissed as just a popcorn epic. As for Joshua Logan’s Fanny, another movie based on a stage musical that perversely decided to eliminate all the songs…nobody remembers Fanny.

As they are wont to do, Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from West Side Story. Musicals continued to get bigger and busier, eventually becoming so expensive to produce that they priced themselves out of existence. It didn’t help that musical tastes were changing rapidly in the 60s, turning big Broadway-style productions into dinosaurs. But West Side Story captured the form at its best, with a perfect storm of talent working together to bring a timeless story to life. The Romeo & Juliet template is essentially foolproof. It’s a classic, endlessly malleable story that everyone relates to on some level. When you apply this level of craftsmanship to a story this universal, the results will almost always be timeless.

West Side Story is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Viva Villa!

THE CONTENDER: Viva Villa! (1934)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Best Picture; Writing (Adaptation) (Ben Hecht); Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer); Assistant Director (John Waters)

Number of Wins: 1 – Assistant Director

Viva Villa! has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results to pop up are likely going to be for a chain of Taquerias or some other Mexican restaurant of the same name. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and wound up nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture. It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (needless to say, a different John Waters than the one you’re probably thinking of). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.

This was not Mr. Waters’ first crack at this award. He’d been nominated the previous year at the 6th Academy Awards, the first year for this short-lived category. Like a lot of categories in the early years of the Oscars, it seems as though there was a lot of figuring this thing out as they went along. That first year, Best Assistant Director appears almost like an Employee of the Month category. There were six winners and no fewer than 17 nominees, none of whom were recognized for a specific film. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the “nominees” were simply an all-inclusive list of every A.D. in Hollywood at the time.

For his work on Viva Villa!, if Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing the thing, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.

Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but odds are today most people know him, if at all, only as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder-filled exploits.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. When we do so violence on-screen, it usually involves whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. The filmmakers’ whip fetish comes back into play later when an incensed adult Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.

Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.

A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities but I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement. And odds are, most of the credit for that belongs to Academy Award winner John Waters.

Viva Villa! is available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.