:: The articles in this series were originally published
:: in the online magazine Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


Blame it on Walt

How Ernesto Nazareth landed
in a Donald Duck cartoon.

Daniella Thompson

5 May 2004

Disney’s Aracuan and Z Carioca

Commenting on my article Z Carioca’s centennial, guitarist Joe Carter pointed out that in addition to starring in Walt Disney’s films Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), the animated parrot Z Carioca also made an appearance in Melody Time (1948).

Indeed he has. What Joe Carter failed to mention is that Z Carioca appears in a segment called Blame It on the Samba, and that the song accompanying the segment is none other than Ernesto Nazareth’s celebrated polka “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho,” fitted for the occasion with hackneyed English lyrics.

Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros were made during World War II as part of the U.S. government’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America. In Salsa Disney: The story behind two south of the border Disney films, animation historian Charles Solomon writes that several additional films with a Latin American flavor had been proposed at the time:

The Disney artists did preproduction work on about ten other South American ideas: the artists did sketches of Donald and Jose visiting a Cuban sugar plantation and attending the Carnival in Rio and playing the matchbox game shown in South of the Border with Disney (included on the Saludos Amigos disc). These projects were shelved at the end of the war. Brazilian Rhapsody was completed and used in Melody Time (1948) as Blame It on the Samba.

The three birds of “Blame It on the Samba”

Blame It on the Samba is a segment mixing animation and live action, a technical feat already seen in The Three Caballeros, where Aurora Miranda flirts and dances with Donald Duck and Z Carioca in the Bahian segment. In the new film, the cartoon characters are again avians, this time a trio: Donald, Z, and the Aracuan (aracu). The latter figure, a well-intentioned but crazy bird also called Clown of the Jungle, first appeared in The Three Caballeros. He’s based on the aracu, a bird common throughout Brazil. Flocks of aracus perch on trees, creating a tremendous racket at dawn and dusk, which is probably the reason for the bird’s reputation for naughtiness. In the Disney films, the Aracuan is usually busy driving Donald nuts. His song, adapted by Almirante from the public domain and used in The Three Caballeros, would be heard again in Braguinha’s Disquinho O Festival da Primavera (Aventuras do Aracu) (1969).

Ray Gilbert & Carmen Miranda

Disney, who had visited Brazil in 1941, involved in this production at least three other Brazilophiles. One was the artist Mary Blair, who had traveled to South America with Disney and would create the color and styling for Disney’s south-of-the-border films. Another was the studio lyricisit Ray Gilbert (1912–1976), who had supplied the English lyrics for “Baa” (“Na Baixa do Sapateiro”) in The Three Caballeros and a year prior to Melody Time won an oscar for the hit song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (1946). Ray befriended Aloysio de Oliveira during Carmen Miranda’s Hollywood years, and through him would come to know Dorival Caymmi and Tom Jobim and write English versions for some of their songs. In the early Sixties, Gilbert would co-found with Tom and Aloysio the publishing company Ipanema Music, much to the financial disadvantage of his trusting Brazilian partners.

In the drink: Ethel Smith with Donald & Z Carioca

On the musical side, Disney inserted the extravagantly hatted Hammond organist Ethel Smith (1910–1996). Ethel had discovered Zequinha de Abreu’s choro “Tico-Tico no Fub” while working in Brazil in 1941–42 (her seven-month engagement at the Cassino de Copacabana, where she replaced Eddy Duchin and his orchestra, coincided with the Disney party’s visit to Rio). In 1944, she made a huge international hit of “Tico-Tico,” all the while calling it an Argentine dancehall tune. Ethel had already played “Tico-Tico” in the 1944 film Bathing Beauty, and the tune had also been featured (as a samba) in the “Aquarela do Brasil” segment of Saludos Amigos. Thus for Melody Time, a new rapid-fire tune was required. What better than Ernesto Nazareth’s famous finger twister, “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho”? Ethel knew the tune quite well, having recorded it as a samba (on Brunswick 04048-A) in 1946.

Disney wouldn’t be Disney if he let Nazareth’s music alone. An adaptation to the Disneyan world was required. Thus was born a song that supported the storyline, which in turn allowed Disney’s animators to perform their wizardry. If the lyrics are ho-hum, and if the alcoholic motif is not the most appropriate fare for youthful audiences, so be it. Performing the song off-screen are the Dinning Sisters, whose 1943 recording of Ary Barroso’s “Brazil” may have been the reason for their being picked to sing in Melody Time (they had also backed Dinah Shore in “Lazy Countryside,” in the 1947 Disney film Fun and Fancy Free). In Blame It on the Samba the sisters are accompanied by chirping interjections from the cartoon characters.

Announcer: To the intoxicating rhythm of the samba, a talented miss serves up a musical cocktail with a true Latin American [beat?]. So if three boys who are birds of a feather fall under the influence of this torrid tropical tempo, don’t blame them, blame it on the rhythm of the samba.

Blame It on the Samba
(Ernesto Nazareth/Ray Gilbert)

If your spirits have hit a new low
And they long to hit a new high
One little musical cocktail
Will lift them to the sky

Mix a jigger of rhythm
With a strain of a few guitars
And a dash of the samba
And a few melodious bars

And then, and then...

You take a small cabassa (chi-chi-chi-chi-chi)
One pandeiro (cha-cha-cha-cha-cha)
Take the cuca (boom-boom-boom-boom)
You’ve got the fascinating rhythm of the samba

And if guitars are strumming (chi-chi-chi-chi-chi)
Birds are humming (cha-cha-cha-cha-cha)
Drums are drumming (boom-boom-boom-boom)
Then you can blame it on the rhythm of the samba

For there is something ’bout the beat you cling to
That’s the type of song you sing to
That’s the kind of thing you swing to
When you get to bouncing with the beat in your feet

But when you’re bouncing to the beat you’re reeling
With the carioca feeling
But if you want to hit the ceiling
Here is all you have to do

You take a small cabassa

And what takes place on screen while the song is being sung? I rely on still frames sent by Alexandre Dias of the Ernesto Nazareth website to illustrate the plot.


Donald Duck and Z Carioca, literally blue, are moping along a gloomy path, paved in the same pattern as the Copacabana promenade. The pair is espied by the Aracuan, working as a lone waiter at the Caf do Samba. The caf faade is a free-standing wall, whose brightly lit doorway beckons. the Aracuan pushes this wall open, revealing it to be the cover of a music score.

Having been ushered through the caf door, Donald and Z are oblivious to the Aracuan’s invitation to sit down. He ends up carrying them to a table and produces menus, again eliciting no reaction. As the first strains of the song are heard, the waiter tears up the menus and resorts to rhythm. He plays a cabassa, then a pandeiro and a cuca, as they are mentioned in the song. Gradually, the customers regain their natural colors and bounce happily to the samba rhythm.


The Aracuan now prepares a cocktail made up of the percussion instruments, which he slices and mixes in a shaker. He adds Donald and Z Carioca to the mixture and pours everything into a brandy glass that mushrooms to giant proportions. Removing his waiter’s coat, the Aracuan is down to his striped long johns. He dives into the glass, where Ethel Smith fades in, playing “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho” in rapid tempo, while the cartoon characters swim around her and dance on the organ before the Aracuan covers Ethel’s eyes with his hands.


Cut to a jungle scene, where the Aracuan and Ethel are playing African drums, and gigantic percussion instruments dance around Donald and Z. Organ notes enter the rhythm, and Ethel appears dancing inside a bubble blown by Aracuan. She metamorphoses into triplets, then quintuplets, and flashes her legs. The Aracuan turns Donald and Z Carioca into marionettes, which he dangles on a musical stave. The note heads become wheels that roll at high speed toward the end of the stave, where a hole drawn by the Aracuan awaits them.


Back underwater, Ethel plays the organ while the Aracuan lights a match and places a stick of dynamite under her moving feet. Startled by the smoke, Ethel plays ever faster. The organ explodes, keys fly about, but Ethel continues playing on the dispersed keys, never missing a note, until the organ magically reassembles itself. Now Donald and Z Carioca fall into the glass again, and Aracuan closes the scene by donning a top hat in front of the Caf do Samba, where the story began.

Taking their cue from Mary Blair’s ingenious color and styling, Disney’s animators more than make up for the trite lyrics. If the alcoholic metaphor is shopworn, its visual equivalent is nothing short of brilliant. In the end, we are left with the clear idea that the world is a cold and dark place without samba, or as Chico Buarque would sing sixteen years later, “Se todo mundo sambasse, seria to fcil viver.”

Since this article was published, Blame It on the Samba has been made available on YouTube.com. I’m reluctant to post it here for copyright reasons. Please click through to watch the video.

Copyright © 2004–2014 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.