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Disney Film History: Song of the South

song of the south poster

The great thing about these articles is the fact that I’m not really reviewing a film. I tend to look at how the film was made, it’s significance to the Disney company and popular culture during the time period it came out, now, and the future. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs changed how we saw animation. It wasn’t just about cartoons being funny. This was an A level form of art and entertainment. Saludos Amigos changed how World War II may have turned out, solidifying the North and South Americans as partners instead of South America joining the Nazis. Song of the South was a milestone in many ways. It gave the Disney company it’s first true live action film. It gave us the first ever African-American academy award winner, and ultimately it gave us controversy. Controversy to the point that Song of the South will never be available for sale at any local Best Buy, Target, Walmart, or anywhere in the United States. One film revolutionized the Disney company during the 1940s and that film was Song of the South. It’s a powerful look at one of America’s worst wrong doings, as well as a show of equality and a lack of seeing colors. Song of the South really touches hearts and showcases something beyond slavery. Let’s not jump too far ahead though. Let’s go back to this stories roots and how Walt Disney became so fascinated with telling the stories of Uncle Remus.?

The Uncle Remus stories were actually created by Joel Chandler Harris, a white man living in the post Civil War South, or the New South. (Uncle Remus was not a real person and these were not original oral stories from black slaves to the contrary.) Harris wrote for newspapers during the late 1800s and was an associate editor for most of his career. He took up writing serials about Uncle Remus and Br’er Rabbit not long after taking up his editing job and grew fond of telling the stories. He declared that he was writing the stories to preserve a point in our history that may be sadly misinterpreted by historians of the future. The serial became a book by 1880 called Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. This book became a favorite of Walt Disney’s and Walt always knew he wanted to make a film based on Harris’s book but didn’t know when or how.

Disney had approached the Harris family about using the stories in 1939 and had started to storyboard everything in 1940. He visited Atlanta, the former home of Harris, to get the feel of his stories and who Uncle Remus really was. Roy Disney was skeptical of the undertaking and thought that the film may be a bit over their heads for a large budget considering the stories weren’t as well know as Snow White or Pinocchio. Never-the-less, Walt always got what he wanted and what he wanted were live actors mingling with animated characters.

Walt always felt that the humans in the film, particularly Uncle Remus and Johnny, should be real people. After all, it seems unjust to tell a story of slavery with cartoons. So Walt sat on the stories until he felt that the technology had caught up with him to do a live action film with animated characters. Several films previous to Song of the South had proven that the studio was ready. The Three Caballeros, the previous film to Song of the South was a true test that a film mixing live people and animation can be successful and live up to Walt’s artistic vision as well.

Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit

Filming for the picture began in 1944 and sets were built in several different locations. James Baskett tried out for the voice of a butterfly but upon hearing his voice, Walt had to meet him. Walt thought that he had found one of Hollywood’s best actors and cast him, not only for the butterfly, but for the voice of Br’er Fox and Uncle Remus. Bobby Driscoll was hired to play Johnny, the young protagonist of the film. Driscoll became the first actor to be signed to a contract with Disney and starred in several films later including So Dear to My Heart, Treasure Island, and many other films we will later be discussing as we head into the 1950s and onward. Driscoll became a big star for the Disney company and found his start here with Song of the South.

Much praise has to go to the cast as the actors weren’t given much direction in terms of character development, especially Baskett, but more in technical production as their movements had to sync with the animation. This was also a company that primarily worked with animators, not actors, so directing live action was a first for the studio in many ways. Regardless, the film was edited, canned, and released on November 12th, 1946 in Atlanta, the home of Joel Chandler Harris. Due to Atlanta’s segregation laws, James Baskett, a black actor, wasn’t allowed to come to the premiere and Walt Disney himself didn’t see the film at the premiere either as he was afraid of what audience reactions might be. Can you blame him? This was a huge attempt at portraying a white south in a town that was heavily segregated during the year 1946.

Despite a shaky premiere, the box office cash came rolling in and Song of the South made $3.3 million in it’s first run. The film cost was just over $3 million to make and advertise so it wasn’t a landslide victory, but it was a better success than many of Disney’s previous films, especially considering the giant risk of a live action film about slavery.  Critics gave the film a not-so-favorable rating, picking up on the fact that Disney is in the art of animation, not live action, and that it doesn’t seem like the whimsy and artistry they had come to know from Disney and his animated films.

The film prompted several promotions like a comic strip, which ran until 1972, and a book based on Walt Disney’s retellings of the Uncle Remus tales. Audiences loved the film and bought into the stories. Years later we would get theme park attractions and merchandise that would prove that many of the Br’er characters were as popular as ever.

As far as this films legacy and controversy go, that isn’t a new subject. Many of the people working for Disney during the making of the film were worried about what light the film would be seen in and if the company would be seen as racist by some due to the material they were showcasing. The film rides a fine line between family friendly and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s tough to guage how much you can show an audience before it gets to grotesque and real or how much you don’t show and misinterpret the darker history of the United States of America. Regardless, they would probably offend someone no matter which side they leaned towards, especially during a period in America where segregation was still a big role in popular culture.

Why the film is so controversial is Disney decided to try and appeal to as many people as possible. The film then gives the impression that masters and slaves were friendly to each other and that slavery wasn’t the gruesome dark past it had been. Unfortunately for most, that’s what they see on the surface with this film. Personally, I don’t seen the controversy here.  Yes, slavery isn’t shown in the light it should be, but the story isn’t about slavery. Song of the South is about equality and the connection that people have regardless of the skin color or what their social status may be.

songsouth2

To top that off, the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Fox, and Bear are also seen as controversial, but I highly doubt that any of us have a problem with Bugs Bunny sticking dynamite in the pants of Elmur Fudd. It’s all within context to the story and a true representation of the time in which the story was written.

Some people peg Walt Disney’s enthusiasm for the film as racist but that is also untrue. He fought the Academy tooth and nail to get James Baskett an academy award for his role as Uncle Remus. Baskett was the first African-American to receive the award and it was due mostly to his truthful portrayal of the character, even without much direction from the studio. (The film also received Best Song for Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.)

In 1989, we finally received a Song of the South attraction at the Disney theme parks. Uncle Remus is replaced by a frog and the attraction makes no reference to slavery or to the tar baby story. Instead, Splash Mountain is the telling of the Laughing Place story. It’s a fitting representation of the film without the controversy and the attraction’s laughing place story fits wonderfully into the Happiest Place on Earth. It’s just a shame that many children will never know where these characters came from or the history they represent.

So what is the tragic legacy of Song of the South? Well, it’s the unfortunate realization of Joel Chandler Harris. He had stated that he wrote the book of Uncle Remus so that we may never forget our past. Now, Song of the South seems to be a forgotten film. It’s  a tragedy because the film really gave us a deeper, more serious Disney film, some very lovable characters, and a great history of the company. I think both Harris and Walt would be disappointed to see the film be tucked in the corner, never to be seen again, and I would completely agree. Is this a film you plop on your television and let your kids watch while you do house chores, NO, but it is a film that represents a time in history we should never forget, and should be a family film showcasing the lessons our history has taught us and what we can take away from it is a more equal world where no matter your age, sex, or race, you are treated as a human and a creature of this world.

What are your thoughts on Song of the South? Have you seen it? Is it racist or not? Should it still be a film we can purchase or is the ban necessary? Leave your comments below and keep this conversation about the film and it’s controversy going.

Josh Taylor
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