Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Song Of The South
I'll bet some of you thought I was going to skip Song Of The South, didn't you? If anyone who actually works at Disney reads these columns, they were probably hoping I would. Song Of The South is the studio's not-so-secret shame, the one movie above all others they wish would just go away. Whether or not it deserves this reputation is another story and, as far as Disney is concerned, kind of beside the point. They appear to have made their corporate mind up on the subject. In the process, they've given the film a horrible reputation it doesn't entirely deserve but is now impossible to live down.
Song Of The South's journey to the screen was almost as turbulent and controversial as its journey away from it. After the success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney went on a bit of a spending spree, buying the film rights to a wide array of properties. One of these was Uncle Remus, a collection of black oral folktales codified, collected and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist from Atlanta. Harris himself is a fascinating and divisive figure. But since the name of this column isn't Harris Plus-Or-Minus, you'll have to find his story another time.
At first, Walt wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do with Uncle Remus. He considered making a series of Br'er Rabbit shorts and even a full-length animated feature. But Roy Disney, Walt's brother and business partner, wasn't convinced. He thought Harris' original stories were too slight to justify the expense of a feature film. Roy successfully lobbied for a more limited use of animation.
Since the film would now be primarily live-action, Walt decided to find someone other than his usual team of cartoon story-men to write the script. He hired a writer named Dalton Reymond who had never written a screenplay before and never would again. His primary qualification seems to be that he was from the South. He had kicked around Hollywood for a few years, serving as "technical advisor" on such Tales of the Deep South as Jezebel and The Little Foxes.
Reymond's treatment left a lot to be desired. For one thing, it wasn't a shooting script. For another, it went a lot farther with its language and its racial stereotyping than the Hayes Office would allow. Walt knew Reymond needed help. His first choice was Clarence Muse, the distinguished African-American actor who had made a name for himself on vaudeville and Broadway. Muse was also a writer, having co-written the film Way Down South with the poet Langston Hughes.
Muse and Reymond did not get along and Muse quit the project in frustration over Reymond's refusal to accept his suggestions. Muse then became an outspoken opponent of the film, writing against Disney and Reymond in the black press. Walt had another take on the subject, claiming it was all just sour grapes after Muse didn't land the role of Uncle Remus. Whatever the case, Muse apparently got over it enough to appear in a couple of other Disney productions later in life.
After Muse's departure, Walt hired screenwriter Maurice Rapf, a Jewish, pro-union liberal and card-carrying Communist, to help temper Reymond's white southern sensibilities. The notoriously anti-union, anti-Communist Disney and Rapf sound like strange bedfellows but according to Rapf's autobiography, they got along quite well.
After Reymond inevitably had another blow-up, Walt took Rapf off the project and assigned him to work on another feature in development, Cinderella. Unfortunately, Rapf was never credited for his work on that film. By the time Cinderella was released, his career was essentially over thanks to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. The screenplay for Uncle Remus, which would soon be retitled Song Of The South, was completed by journeyman screenwriter Morton Grant.
Disney considered several actors as Remus (including Paul Robeson, which is wild to think about) before settling on James Baskett, who had actually answered an ad looking for voice talent. Baskett also came out of the Broadway scene where he had appeared alongside the likes of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Louis Armstrong.
In Song Of The South, he gives the kind of instantly iconic performance that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. It's a warm, folksy, magnetic appearance. It would also be his last. In 1948, James Baskett died of heart failure due to diabetes. He was just 44 years old.
Roy Disney had hoped that switching to live-action would help keep the costs of the film down. But so far, the studio had very little experience with live-action. Most everything they had shot was either limited to a soundstage (as in the musical performances in Fantasia and the documentary sequences of Victory Through Air Power) or just strolling around the Burbank lot (The Reluctant Dragon). This was their first time shooting on location, building period costumes and assembling a large cast of actors, so it was hardly a surprise when the project went over-budget.
But Disney was aware that audiences had been disappointed by the lack of animation in features like The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos. This time, he decided to get ahead of any possible complaints by playing up the live-action aspect in some of the initial advertising for the film. This original poster makes the movie look more like Gone With The Wind than any Disney movie to date.
In the end, Walt contented himself with just three main animated sequences, less than half an hour of the 94 minute film. A few of these fully incorporate Uncle Remus into the animated world. Baskett's entrance into that world at the beginning of the "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" number is a great, unforgettable movie moment.
The mix of animation and live-action in Song Of The South is a huge step forward from what Disney had accomplished just a few years earlier in The Three Caballeros. MGM had already advanced the state-of-the-art by having Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in 1945's Anchors Aweigh. For my money, the work in Song Of The South is even more impressive. One of the best examples finds Uncle Remus sitting down for a spot of fishing next to Br'er Frog. Bassett strikes a match, lights Br'er Frog's pipe, then lights his own with the cartoon flame, and puffs out square animated smoke rings. The level of subtle detail in this simple action is extraordinary.
Of the three animated sequences, the most controversial is certainly the Tar Baby. For those of you who don't know the story, Br'er Fox crafts a vaguely humanoid looking creature out of tar in an attempt to capture the gregarious Br'er Rabbit. Sure enough, Br'er Rabbit gets annoyed that the Tar Baby doesn't respond to his friendly greetings and gets stuck. The more he struggles, the more stuck he gets. He frees himself by pleading with Br'er Fox not to throw him into the treacherous Briar Patch. Sadist that he is, Br'er Fox hurls him in, only to realize too late that Br'er Rabbit lives there. As fables go, it's a pretty good one.
The problem is that the term "tar baby" has come to be used and taken as a racial slur. How this happened is absolutely beyond me. The story has roots in African folklore, specifically in stories of the trickster god Anansi. But at a certain point, "tar baby" came to be considered offensive mainly because it feels like it should be offensive. But there's absolutely nothing racist or offensive about the actual Tar Baby story. Disney's Tar Baby can't even be considered a racial caricature. There are plenty of offensive African-American caricatures throughout animation and the Tar Baby shares none of their characteristics. But today, the expression is offensive because ignorant people decided to weaponize the phrase and people who should have known better didn't fight to keep it.
In a way, this is the problem with Song Of The South in general. On the surface, it feels like it might be kind of racist. Therefore, it must be because digging any deeper might expose a minefield and nobody at Disney wants to deal with that. They aren't in the business of building conversations. Their entire reputation is built around escapist fantasy. Anything that challenges that is considered taboo, even if the cause turns out to be relatively benign.
For example, take the songs performed by the plantation workers, all versions of traditionally African-American music from the Deep South. There's the call-and-response of "That's What Uncle Remus Said", there's "Let The Rain Pour Down" (based on the blues classic "Midnight Special"), and there's a spiritual ("All I Want"). Every time I've seen this film, I've thought that these are some of the most white-bread, Lawrence-Welk-style versions of black music I've ever heard.
Imagine my surprise to discover that these songs were performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Hall Johnson himself was one of the most renowned arrangers of African-American spirituals in the world and an early inductee into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. By assuming these songs were performed by a white chorus, I was displaying my own ignorance and buying into a stereotypical idea of what "black music" should sound like. Be that as it may, it should also be pointed out that most if not all of the music was written by white songwriters. These songs could have been made a lot more authentic simply by hiring black musicians to write them.
At worst, Song Of The South is guilty of sending mixed messages and a lot of that is Walt Disney's fault. To his credit, he was aware of how delicate this subject matter was, even in the pre-Civil Rights era, and clearly did not want to make a movie with an explicitly racist agenda. Granted, that's a super low bar to set for yourself but still. The problem is that Walt was a lot more afraid of offending white Southern audiences than he was of what African-Americans might think.
Because of this, a lot of material that would have helped put the movie in context was dropped. For instance, it's never explicitly stated when it even takes place, which has led a lot of people to assume that the plantation workers are slaves. They're not. They're sharecroppers. Song Of The South takes place during the Reconstruction Era after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War but the audience is left to figure that out for itself.
At one point, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation entirely. Eventually we come to realize that he went to Atlanta to bring back little Johnny's absent father (more on this guy in a minute). The movie wants to build suspense and make us think he's leaving for good and that something might happen to him. From a dramatic perspective, that makes sense. But if the filmmakers left in dialogue about Remus being a "free man", able to come and go when he pleases, the intent would be clearer and Uncle Remus would come across as a stronger, more independent character.
The entire set-up of Song Of The South is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery. As the film begins, young Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, who will be back in this column several times) arrives at his grandmother's plantation with his parents for what he assumes will be a short vacation. But something's up between mom (Ruth Warrick) and dad (Erik Rolf). There's tension between them and it turns out that they'll be separating. Dad's going back to Atlanta while Johnny and his mother stay with Grandmother (Lucile Watson) and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel).
Now, because the tension between the parents is so palpable and no other real reason for it is offered, you'd be forgiven for assuming that Father is going off to war. You need to pay attention to the opening dialogue to realize that John Senior is a newspaper editor in Atlanta and apparently the center of some controversy. Since Uncle Remus creator Joel Chandler Harris worked as an associate editor under Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution during the time the movie is set, it's probably fair to assume that John Senior is based somewhat on one or both of them. Both Harris and Grady supported a vision of the "New South", stressing industrialization and reconciliation. Of course in real life, their politics were more complicated. But for a Disney-fied version of the New South, sure…John Senior was a unifier. Not that you would know any of that from the information supplied by the film itself.
Song Of The South does itself no favors by playing coy with this material but there are some problems that are built in to the film itself. Uncle Remus is basically the template for every Magical Negro character that followed. With his ability to converse to cartoon animals, he is literally magical. But is that this movie's fault? Or is it the fault of all the other filmmakers and storytellers who later decided to pick up the ball and run with it? Stereotypes don't become stereotypes without repetition and the first example is rarely the worst.
Song Of The South's depiction of African-American stories and characters absolutely received some criticism at the time of its release from both black and white critics. Protests were organized by the National Negro Congress, while the NAACP expressed its frustration that such a technically well-made picture could incorporate so many objectionable elements. But the movie also had its champions on both sides. Herman Hill, writing in the respected black paper The Pittsburgh Courier, said that the movie would "prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations". His response to the movie's critics was essentially, "Lighten up."
Perhaps what's most objectionable about Disney's treatment of Song Of The South is their apparent desire to pick and choose what elements of the movie they want to acknowledge. The Oscar-winning song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is still an integral part of the Disney Songbook. It has never not been included on one of their many compilation albums. It's still used on Splash Mountain in the Disney theme parks, as are Br'er Rabbit and the rest. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been even a suggestion that the ride needs to be redesigned.
Also lost in Disney's rush to disown the film is the fact that James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award for it, becoming the first black male performer to win an Oscar. Walt Disney personally campaigned for the award, although why it was an honorary award instead of just a regular nomination for Best Actor, I'm not quite sure. The Academy certainly had a history of singling people out for individual achievements that didn't fit their conception of what movies are supposed to be like. Regardless, Baskett's untimely death prevented him from capitalizing on his win during his lifetime. Disney's subsequent treatment of the film prevents his legacy from being celebrated or even acknowledged.
Even with the controversy, Song Of The South proved to be a sizable hit for Disney and not just in 1946. I'm old enough to remember seeing it during its re-release runs in the 1970s and 80s. It was back in theatres as recently as 1986, when it brought in over $17 million in basically free money for the studio.
The truth is that Disney's moratorium on Song Of The South is entirely self-imposed. Nobody has actually banned the movie. Disney is simply afraid of how the film might be perceived by modern audiences and can't be bothered to put it in any sort of context that would help explain it. Whoopi Goldberg, for one, has urged the studio to release the film in an edition with supplementary features for context. Ironically, one of the voices who argued stridently against the film ever being seen again was America's disgraced former dad, Bill Cosby.
No one is going to argue that Song Of The South doesn't have a complicated legacy. It is in no way a perfect film. Walt Disney could have done any number of things differently that would have made it better. But pretending it doesn't exist does a disservice to both the filmmakers and their work. With no evidence to the contrary, an entire generation has grown up believing that Walt Disney was nothing short of a white supremacist who made an animated Birth Of A Nation. Walt's politics and beliefs may not have entirely lined up with mine or yours but it's unfair to characterize him in such a negative light.
For the animators and effects team, Song Of The South represented some of their very best work of the 1940s. The combination of live-action and animation is stunning. It wouldn't be topped until Who Framed Roger Rabbit came along nearly 40 years later. This work deserves to be restored and seen by an appreciative audience.
Perhaps the biggest loser in all this is James Baskett. He's a tremendous screen presence. It's unfortunate that he never became a bigger star. It's a tragedy that his most iconic performance has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over racial representation on screen. It's a conversation that's almost impossible to have when you can't see what exactly you're arguing over.
In a way, I think Disney even realizes that Song Of The South deserves to be seen. They just don't want to be the ones who let you see it. It's very, very easy to find bootleg DVDs, typically sourced from a Japanese laserdisc release, on eBay or other online sources. Disney has a long reach. If they wanted to, they could shut these unofficial operators down in a snap. The fact that they haven't suggests to me that the studio doesn't want to get rid of the movie altogether. They've just thrown it into the Briar Patch. Like Br'er Rabbit, you're welcome to jump in after it.
VERDICT: It's a mixed bag, to be sure. But in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Disney Plus.
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