Saturday, January 26, 2019

Song of the South

Song of the South was Walt Disney's first foray into doing a full fledged live action story, with a little help from animated segments. The studio had made other hybrid films before this, but the live action segments acted as bumpers. What began as a nostalgia-fueled film about Uncle Remus and his tales of Br'er Rabbit for Walt, ended up being the studio's most controversial and infamous movies that they ever made. Though Disney has re-released it in theaters a few times since it premiered in 1946, the last time being in 1986, the studio has never released it on home video in the U.S. That in itself makes the movie infamous, as the only way you can watch it is on bootleg versions of the various overseas versions that have been released. Disney itself has basically acted like the film never existed, though it continually uses the popular song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" in its media and has a ride based around the animated segments of Song of the South at its theme parks around the world. So what is all the fuss about? What could be in this movie that would cause the powerhouse that is Disney to decide to lock away in the vault for the foreseeable future? Well, it all started with a man named Joel Chandler Harris.

Story Background

Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia in 1848 to an Irish immigrant mother and a father that he would never know. His father abandoned the family shortly after he was born, and Joel would carry the shame of being an illegitimate child his whole life. Though Harris went to school a short time, he would quit to work at a plantation in 1862 as an apprentice in printing for the newspaper, The Countryman. It was here that he was first introduced to the animal tales that the slaves told after long days of work. Harris would spend most of his free time at the plantation in the slave quarters taking in all the stories, language, and inflections of the slave story-tellers. His employer had encouraged him to read and write as much as possible, so once he left the plantation he was well equipped to find a job at other newspapers as a writer. Not long after his professional career started, he began to write down the animal stories that he had heard while working at the plantation. He did this to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementos of a period that would no doubt sadly be misrepresented by historians of the future". His collected stories, the first volume being called Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, which released in 1880,  told the adventures of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear, among other animals, through the wise, old former slave, Uncle Remus, who tells his stories to a young white boy. Br'er Rabbit being weaker and smaller than Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, would have to find ways to outsmart his much larger foes. The tales were told in the dialect that Harris had heard from the slaves at he plantation he worked at, in a way to add authenticity to the stories. Harris had transplanted the animal tales he had heard and put there settings in the Reconstructionist South. Harris would go on to release seven total volumes of Uncle Remus tales, and would become one of the most widely read authors of his time, behind Mark Twain. Harris would pass in 1908 before his 60th birthday, but his tales would remain popular for quite some time into the 20th century. While authors like Mark Twain has lasted the test of time, Harris has largely been forgotten. His reputation and legacy took hits over the years after the general public began to re-assess the use of slave dialect in the stories, the problematic character of Uncle Remus, and the plantation setting. Harris's reputation would later be tied to Walt Disney's version of his stories, called Song of the South, which unfortunately didn't do him any favors.

Production Background

Walt Disney was a very nostalgic person, especially when it came to growing up in the Marceline, Missouri in  the early 1900's. Walt even based Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland on his boyhood home, recreating the small town America that he had remembered. Walt, like many growing up in his time, read Harris's Uncle Remus stories and the tales had stuck with him through his life. He had long wanted to adapt the stories, but didn't have a good way of doing it, as he felt that Uncle Remus and the young boy he tells his stories to should be played by live actors. Walt purchased the rights to the Uncle Remus stories in 1939 and set about a way to tell the story to his satisfaction. With The Three Caballeros successfully mixing both live action and animation, Disney felt he finally had found a way to tell the stories. Though Walt was confident in the picture and its potential, the production was not without its bumps. Roy, Walt's brother and co-founder of Walt Disney Pictures, didn't like the idea and didn't think that it was bankable enough to be spending over a million dollars on the production. The Walt Disney Studios had just dealt with a major labor strike in 1941 and the war had significantly affected the studio's output in the early 40's. Too many financial misfires could put Disney into hot water if they weren't careful. Walt also had trouble with the writers of the live-action portion. He hired Southern-born writer Dalton Reymond to write the screenplay, though Reymond wasn't a professional screenwriter, so Walt also hired Maurice Rapf, who had been writing for live-action films at the time. Reymond wrote up a treatment for the film, but Walt needed Rapf to turn it into something shootable. Rapf was also hired because he was to be the ying to Reymond's yang. Walt feared that the southern Reymond would insert some bias into the film, and Rapf, who was an outspoken left-winger and someone who feared that the film would be too "Uncle Tomish", seemed to be the best person to keep him in check. Rapf ended up only working on the film for seven weeks until a personal dispute with Reymond would see him being removed from the production. Filming of the live-action scenes were done either at Samuel Goldwyn Studios or, interestingly enough, Phoenix, Arizona.


Walt went through many people to portray the titular Uncle Remus, including Rex Ingram, Eddie Anderson, and Tiny Bradshaw who all turned it down because they found the character to be too demeaning. The eventual choice for Uncle Remus was actor James Baskett, who was only replying to an ad in the paper that was looking for a voice for a butterfly. After hearing his voice, Walt wanted to meet Baskett personally and have him audition for Remus. Not only did he get the role of Remus, but also provided the voice of Br'er Fox and even Br'er Rabbit in the Laughing Place scene when Johnny Lee was called away to do promotion for the film. Disney was extremely fond of Baskett and considered him to be "the best actor, I believe, to be discovered in years". Baskett played much older in the film, as he was only 41 at the time of filming. When doing the voice for Br'er Fox, animators had trouble with syncing up Baskett's voice to the animation because he talked so fast. Baskett was also the first African American hired by Disney to act on screen for them.

Rounding out the rest of the animated cast was the aforementioned voice of Br'er Rabbit, Johnny Lee, a singer, dancer, and actor who would later go on to play Algonquin J. Calhoun in the TV and radio versions of Amos and Andy. Br'er Bear was voiced by Nick Stewart, who would also go on to play a character on TV's Amos and Andy. Stewart would be asked after the film had come out if he felt degraded for playing Br'er Bear. He responded that he did not and that Disney had treated all the colored actors like gold. Stewart would  go on to start the Ebony Showcase Theatre with the money he made from the picture, which helped black performers get better roles than servants.

For the live action actors, the other main characters were Johnny and Ginny, voiced by Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, respectively. Bobby and Luana would go on to be in numerous films for Disney, but this was both of their first times with Disney. Bobby and Luana had both also been in films before this point, but were noticed by Walt himself and they became the first two actors to be contracted by Disney. Glenn Leedy played Toby, his only acting credit. He was chosen for the part after being seen by a talent scout while he was playing at his school playground in Phoenix, Arizona. The only other significant member of the cast is Hattie McDaniels as Aunt Tempy. McDaniels famously portrayed Mammy in Gone With The Wind, a role which won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first African American to win an Oscar.


The most famous song from Song of the South is "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". Sung by Baskett to help introduce the audience to the first animated segment, it also shows how far Disney had come in its technical wizardry. There is some disagreement on where the term came from, as some claim that Walt came up with it himself, though the more believable explanation is that it was influenced by the pre-Civil War folk song "Zip Coon", a "Turkey in the Straw" variation: "Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day".Composed by Allie Wrubel with lyrics by Ray Gilbert, the song would go on to win the Oscar for Best Song at the 1948 Academy Awards. The song has become a staple for Disney in general, being used for the opening of The Wonderful World of Disney, among many other videos and promotions. The two other songs sung during the animated sequences are less well known, unless you've been on Splash Mountain at one of the Disney Parks. "How Do You Do?" and "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place" are just as catchy as "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" but haven't had as much play outside of the movie. All three are present on various Disney Sing-Along Songs VHS tapes. Other songs from the movie are sung by either the Hall Johnson Choir, or the Disney Studio Choir. Besides the infamy surrounding the movie and the theme park attraction based off the movie, about the only other thing keeping the film in the public consciousness is the songs, mostly "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah".


Song of the South tells the story of Johnny, a little boy who is visiting his grandmother's plantation in Reconstruction times. Soon after arriving he meets Uncle Remus, a former slave who tells him stories about Br'er Rabbit and his antics trying to outwit Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. Through these tales he learns valuable lessons about life and is able to apply them to his own experience. The three main stories that Uncle Remus tells Johnny are Br'er Rabbit Runs Away, Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, and Br'er Rabbit's Laughing Place. In Br'er Rabbit Runs Away, Johnny learns that you can't run away from trouble, thus realizing that he should not run away from the plantation to seek out his father in Atlanta. In the second story, Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, Johnny learns that cleverness can be a saviour for the small and weak, helping him outwit the neighborhood bullies. In the final animated segment, Br'er Rabbit's Laughing Place, Johnny learns how to find his happy place after the bullies ruin his birthday party.


The film premiered on November 12th, 1946 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Walt himself was present at the premiere and even made a few remarks before the film, but left right after as he didn't like to see unexpected audience reactions to his films. James Baskett was not able to attend the premiere as Atlanta was racially segregated and he wasn't even able to get a hotel room. To help promote the film, the comic strip Uncle Remus, distributed by King Features, was launched a full year ahead of the film's debut. While Disney had done this in the past for film's like Snow White, those were one-off publicity stunts. Uncle Remus would end up running weekly until 1972.

The film would only end up grossing $3.3 million in its first run against a $2.125 million budget. The film was not the smash hit that Walt had been hoping for, and most of that had to do with his timing, though naivety may have also played a part. The film was released in the wake of the Double V campaign, which sought to promote victory over racism in the U.S. and its armed forces, and victory over fascism abroad. Americans were becoming more sensitive to race and didn't take kindly to Disney's southern-living nostalgia film. Walt had been warned that due to the subject of the film that he would be threading the needle and was likely to upset a lot of people. Walt had known to some degree that the film would be controversial, as he sought out prominent African American writers to give advice on the film. The Hays Office, which dictated what was allowed to be in films during this time, even pressured Walt to include a title card that elaborated that the film takes place after the Civil War to avoid further controversy, but apparently Walt didn't take the advice to heart. Due to this, there was enough confusion about when the film took place that Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, telegraphed major newspapers decrying the film for portraying dangerous slave condition stereotypes. The NAACP would go on to boycott the film, and many movie houses were picketed by both blacks and whites. All this bad publicity led to the less than stellar box office return. Walt had planned on making it into a whole series of films based off of Uncle Remus and his stories, but the reaction to Song of the South made it impossible.


Criticism of the film were centered on Uncle Remus's characterization, his relationship with his former owner, and his servile manner in general. The idyllic relationship between the former master and slaves drew the most ire, harkening back to the major tenant of The Lost Cause, that slaves liked being slaves and had good relationships with their masters. Though the temporary screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, had tried his best to eliminate the "Uncle Tommish" characterization for Uncle Remus, it still shows pretty prominently. Uncle Remus has also been found in more modern times to be an example of the "Magical Negro" archetype, which is defined as a stock African American character who uses special insight powers or powers attributed to the supernatural to help the white protagonist get out of trouble. What gives this evaluation more credence is the fact that the film ends with Johnny miraculously surviving being gored by a bull after Uncle Remus tells him another story about Br'er Rabbit and his Laughing Place. The inclusion of the "African-American English" dialect in the animated segments also drew ire, something that was equally rallied against in Harris's books as time went on. Even the animated segments weren't spared from outrage. The inclusion of the "Tar Baby" rubbed many the wrong way, and it's existence has only been replicated twice since then, as a very fast cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the "House of Scrooge" episode of House of Mouse. The other problematic animated segment was Br'er Rabbit Runs Away, in which the overall lesson is that you should be happy exactly where you are in life and that you can't run away from trouble. Suffice to say, there was no shortage of reasons for audiences to find the movie offensive.


Though Song of the South didn't end up being the smash hit Walt was hoping for, he was still going to market the hell out of it. Besides the numerous comic strips that came out of the movie, there was also a Giant Golden Book called Walt Disney's Uncle Remus Stories in 1946, and comic books that would be released over the years. While the film itself proved controversial, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" was an insanely catchy tune and nothing was going to keep it from winning the Best Song Academy Award in 1948. Walt and several others in the industry would argue for James Baskett to get an acting Academy Award, which he would ultimately get, though it was a special Academy Award "for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the world in Walt Disney's Song of the South". Baskett would pass away from a heart attack brought about by diabetes only a few months later at the age of only 44. Luana Patten and Bobby Driscoll were in talks to receive Academy Juvenile Awards, but the Academy decided not to award any that year. Unlike the other categories at the Academy Awards, the Juvenile Awards were only given out on special occasions.

Disney re-released the movie in theaters in 1956 for the movie's ten year anniversary, in 1972 for the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney Productions, in 1973 as a double bill for The Aristocats, in 1980 for the 100th anniversary of Harris's first Uncle Remus collection, and for the last time in 1986 for the 40th anniversary of the film's release. Starting in the 70's, the movie didn't do too bad in theaters, thanks to the young generation who had grown up with the Giant Golden Book, listening to "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" on records, and episodes of Disneyland showcasing the animated segments. There was a sort of nostalgia that blinded the overt offensiveness of the film and caused it to gross a total of $65 million over it's numerous releases. Though Disney was brave enough to release the film in theaters over the years, they had decided not to release the movie on home video, and still haven't to this day in the U.S. It was released on VHS in the U.K. in 1982 and 1991, and on VHS and Laserdisc in Japan in 1985, with another Laserdisc addition in 1990. The film has also never been released for home video in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Most bootlegs of the film have come from the U.K. release, though there are other versions floating around in other languages thanks to the distribution in other European, Asian, and Latin American countries.

Disney has gone back and forth on whether they would eventually release the film, but currently they have kept it locked up for fear that the film could tarnish their reputation. Many film archivist, historians, and even celebrities have called for Disney to release the film. Most recently, Whoopi Goldberg, giving a speech at the D23 Convention in 2017 after becoming a Disney Legend, asked the Disney Corporation to release the film so we could start a dialogue about the film, where it came from, and why it came out. While many who advocate for the release of the movie want it for educational reasons, there are others who want it released because they find nothing wrong with the film. People on the other side claim that the movie would be too damaging to impressionable young minds and the company has been right to keep it locked away. If you feel so inclined you can watch the film at

Today the film lives on through the controversy, various Disney Sing-Along Songs releases, and strange enough, a log flume ride. Splash Mountain, located in many of the Disney parks around the world is uniquely themed to Song of the South, though only its animated segments. The ride was dreamed up by Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter in 1983 as he was trying to think of a ride for the often empty Bear Country area of Disneyland. The idea of having a log flume ride int eh parks had been floated around for years, but nobody could think of a good theming idea to keep it from being too much like regular theme park offerings. Disneyland had just closed the attraction America Sings, and was looking for a place to put all the animal animatronics that were collecting dust. Baxter realized that Song of the South would be a perfect fit for the Bear Country area and would be easy to theme around a log flume ride, so the Imagineers got to work on was to be called Zip-A-Dee River Run. The name was changed to Splash Mountain after Michael Eisner's ignored request to use the ride to instead promote the movie Splash. The ride does not include the Uncle Remus character in any way, instead focusing on the familiar Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear, among other animals. While the different scenes of the ride were based off the movie, one element had to be changed. In the film, Br'er Rabbit is captured after engaging with the "Tar Baby". Disney wisely decided not to include this aspect of the movie and changed it to a beehive full of honey that Br'er Rabbit gets stuck in. The dialect from the movie is also noticeably toned down in the ride. While both Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are currently voiced by African-Americans (in Disneyland's case, they used the original voice of Br'er Bear, Nick Stewart), Disney chose to have veteran voice actor Jess Harnell voice Br'er Rabbit, and even Br'er Fox at first (Harnell is most known for providing Wakko Warner's voice on Animaniacs). The ride also features the songs "How Do You Do", "Everybody's Got A Laughing Place", and of course, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". The ride is among one of the most beloved in the parks and has avoided controversy thanks to Tony Baxter and the Imagineers. The most interesting thing about the ride is that many that ride it believe the animated characters to be original to the park, when instead they are part of a movie that may never officially see the light of day ever again.

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