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The working titles of this film were Surprise Package, Latin for a Day, Latino por un dia, and Let's Go Latin. The names of Panchito, Joe Carioca and Donald Duck, who are "The Three Caballeros," appear onscreen above the title. Norman Ferguson's onscreen credit reads "Production supervision and direction."
The Three Caballeros was the second entry in the Walt Disney Studio's "Good Neighbor" project, the first of which was the 1943 release Saludos Amigos. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, studio records contained in the Walt Disney Archives and information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, The Three Caballeros combines live-action footage shot for the picture and previously developed short cartoons with Latin-American themes. Two of the shorts, "The Flying Gauchito" (or "The Remarkable Donkey") and "The Cold-Blooded Penguin" (or "Pablo Penguin"), were produced simultaneously with Saludos Amigos. "The Flying Gauchito" was based on material that studio artists had gathered in South America during their 1941 trip. After its completion, Disney had planned to release it as part of a series of short cartoons about gauchos, but none of the other shorts were completed.
In August 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that producer Walt Disney was planning to make a film on Mexico, although the news item did not specify whether the film would be a feature or a short, or consist solely of animation. A group of studio artists visited Mexico from late 1942 through early 1943, auditioning Mexican performers and making sketches and paintings to be used as reference material. On July 14, 1943, Hollywood Reporter noted that production supervisor Norman Ferguson was leading studio artists on another tour of Mexico City to gather Mexican reference materials, which were eventually used for The Three Caballeros. In addition, at the request of the U.S. government, the studio produced a series of non-theatrical shorts, for distribution in Mexico and South America, demonstrating how to combat illiteracy, malnutrition and various diseases. According to an February 18, 1945 Los Angeles Times article, Disney had also intended to produce a third "Latin-American film," entitled Cuban Carnival, but that picture was not produced.
The Three Caballeros contains a significant amount of live-action footage, which was shot at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, CA. Although Disney had previously combined live-action and animation in both shorts and features, The Three Caballeros marked the first time that they were fully integrated into extended sequences. According to modern sources, for some sequences, the live performers were photographed in front of rear projection of the animated characters, while for other scenes, the live actors were photographed first and the animation was added later. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, the live-action footage of the Mexican performers was shot between April 1943 and February 1944. The last major live-action sequence to be filmed for the production was "Acapulco," which used aerial shots photographed by the second unit in Mexico, but was otherwise filmed in the Disney Studio parking lot. The live shots of the bathing women were filmed in January-February 1944, then combined with animation of Donald Duck. Although Harold Young is credited onscreen only with direction of the Mexican second unit, studio records indicate that he assisted Ferguson in supervising the "beach" sequence at the studio. Only brief location shots of Mexico, filmed in Patzcuaro, Veracruz and Acapulco by Young, are seen in the finished picture.
An August 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Mexican singer Carlos Ramirez, who was borrowed from M-G-M for the production, was scheduled to "voice the part of one of the caballeros, and sing 'Mexico.'" In the finished film, however, Ramirez only sings "Mexico." The voice of Panchito was provided by Joaquin Garay, who had been signed in November 1943, after Disney scouts heard him singing in a San Francisco nightclub, according to a November 1943 San Francisco News item. A September 1944 article in Popular Science noted that more than one hundred actors were tested before Garay was selected for the part. Studio press materials include Eileen Herrick, Carla Boehm, Marjorie White and Alma Pappas in the film, but their appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed.
Extensive promotion for The Three Caballeros included the appearances of Dora Luz and Carmen and Vicente Molina at celebrations of Mexican Independence Day held in Los Angeles. Special recordings of the film's score were made, in three languages, and distributed worldwide. Hollywood Reporter noted in August 1944 that over one thousand discs had been pressed for the promotion. Numerous commercial recordings were also made of some of the songs featured in the film. On some of the records, "Os quindins de Yay," was retitled "Angel-May-Care." In addition, a variation on the samba, called the "Samba-Jonga," which is performed in the film, was promoted by the Dancing Masters of America.
The world premiere of the film took place under its Spanish title, Los tres caballeros, on December 21, 1944 in Mexico City. Carmen Molina and Dora Luz appeared onstage at the premiere. According to a June 7, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item, the picture was "doing the biggest business of any feature ever released in the Latin American market" and would gross "in excess of $700,000 in that territory or double the gross" of the Disney Studio's 1938 feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Three Caballeros received Academy Award nominations for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound Recording.
Although the film has not been theatrically re-issued in its original form, as many other Disney animated features have been, the "Flying Gauchito" segment was issued as a separate short in 1955. In 1976, a re-edited, shortened version of the feature was theatrically released. In 1995, the rough animation drawings and soundtrack created for the unfinished "Laughing Gauchito" sequence were used to reconstruct the short for a laserdisc edition of The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. The unfinished Brazilian short "Caxanga," which was another South American short developed after the 1941 trip, was also reconstructed for the laserdisc.