Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Song of the South (1946)

Directors: Harve Foster (Live Action), Wilfred Jackson (Animation)


This picture is perhaps the most controversial feature in the Walt Disney Company’s catalogue of films, sometimes with the Walt Disney Company acting as if the film never existed. What was originally intended as a tribute to an oral tradition of storytelling of Southern United States shared in a magical blend of live action and classic Disney animation, the picture had come to be viewed as a racially insensitive work that the company swept mostly under the preverbal rug of its own history. Never intended to be a source of conflict, the film is difficult to come by for modern audiences, as the picture captures a difficult period of perception in American history polished in Walt Disney charm.

Song of the South is a mixed live action-animated musical of an elderly African American who befriends a white child, spinning tales about a backwoods rabbit, to teach the boy life lessons. Set in the era of Reconstruction, a young boy of a well-off family, Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), struggles with transplanting to his grandmother’s plantation and temporarily separated from his father when he meets a kindly and ageing story-telling named Uncle Remus (James Baskett). Through Remus’ tales about Brer Rabbit, a trickster of a critter, who continually outsmarts the dangerous Brer Fox and his slow-witted sidekick Brer Bear, Remus helps Johnny become more comfortable with his new home and surroundings. Conflict arise between Johnny’s mother and Remus, upsetting Johnny and leading to a farm accident that threatens Johnny’s life. With Remus by his side Johnny recovers uniting the two friends to the joy of Johnny’s reunified family.

All politics aside, the picture is a technically sound picture with marvelous use of live action mixed with classic style Disney animation, including moments of mixed interaction between the two mediums, along with catching music and creative editing. The film has charm and solid entertainment when it is done right, but looking past Disney’s simple case for entertainment there is revealed layers of American perception that opens wounds that the nation has still yet to heal from.

The short animated segments about Brer Rabbit and his cunning prove to be less complex than the typical feature length Disney fair. What makes them difficult to swallow to many audiences is the thickly applied Southern stereotype layered upon its characters that paint this area of the country, most of all African Americans, in a less than desirable light. This style is nothing new for the Walt Disney Company, with examples of African Americans stereotypes in Fantasia having since been edited out, numerous anti-Japanese and anti-Germany propaganda during the company’s war contributions, and other unrelated shorts that pepper their history. But here in Song of the South it was not necessary delivered tongue in check, making it appear more hurtful for audiences sensitive to the social issues of the time when blacks were heavily segregated because of white views which were fed by stereotypes such as these.

The live action of the feature delivers the setting in which these segments are shared, bringing to life the fictional spinner of stories, Uncle Remus, in a romanticized Deep South following the Civil War. With the understanding of period, culture, and audience of the time the Uncle Remus stories were originally published brings somewhat an understanding to how these tales were constructed. However, as American culture has evolved it more becomes more difficult to understand the why in producing this feature that saw an unofficial banishment from the Disney canon.

Song of the South was a feature intended to utilize the knowledge acquired by Disney artists in the prior years to produce a new age of film enchantment for the studio. It was projected to open the studio up to a realm of live action pictures while rejuvenating higher quality of Disney animation in feature films. Replacing classic European based fairytales with American folklore, this film had all the correct intentions, but would soon learn its inherent major flaws.

Penned by author Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus and his stories were inspired by the oral tradition of storytelling by African Americans Harris had come to admire in America’s South. In his various books of Uncle Remus tales, Harris wrote in a manner in which he observed, adding to what he believed was authentic by adding drawls and many apostrophes to his dialogue. It was not his intention to demean a people in the way they talked and how they lived, but it did not help them either. If Twain was the pinnacle of American storytelling that capture the imagination of American boys during the late 19th and early 20th century, the tales of Uncle Remus was a close second in terms of style and popularity. Walt Disney happened to be one of those boys living his formative years in Missouri in the early 20th century. His fondness for the tales would lead to his pursuit of the Remus stories for his own adaptions beginning in 1939 until he finally acquired the rights in 1944.

Walt Disney’s attention toward the project diminished as he became more jaded with his animated studio following a swift expansion, government intervention during WWII, and a painful animators’ strike. Live action productions would be something the studio would begin to move into in order produce more inexpensive products quicker for easier profit for what was originally solely an animation studio. The portrayal of Uncle Remus as a live action character and his tales in cartoon form made creative and financial sense as the project moved forward in 1945, with World War II closing out and things began to return to a resemblance of normalcy.

Uncle Remus spends time with children, Bobby Driscoll pictured over his left shoulder.
James Baskett was an actor who had worked on Broadway with famed black entertainer Bill Robinson, better known to audiences as Mr. Bojangles. Baskett would move to Hollywood appearing in all-black motion pictures and would audition for voice work at Disney. Having once been featured as a crow in Dumbo, Baskett was attempting to do the same for a very minor butterfly character in Song of the South when Walt overheard his audition, eventually casting him as Uncle Remus, forever cementing the actor to this character. With his country charm, compassionate demeanor, and soothing singing delivery Baskett embodied everything Disney wanted in Remus.

Although Baskett was not welcome at the film’s premier in Atlanta due to the segregation in the Southern city, Baskett was praised by white critics. The white praise even resulted in an honorary Academy Award for his performance, the first ever a male African-American performer, second only to fellow cast mate Hattie McDaniel who received an award for Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone with the Wind. However, Baskett’s performance was scolded by black audiences as serving the white cause of joyful black stereotype all too happy to serve his former white masters. Voice work by CBS radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy talents Johnny Lee and Nick Stewart, who portray Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear aside Baskett’s Brer Fox also brought criticism to fan the flames of bigotry for the time. From the beginning Song of the South was a polarizing feature for American audiences torn by race relations.

Featured in a starring role as the young boy Johnny was nine-year-old Bobby Driscoll ushering in a new practice for Walt Disney Studio by signing exclusive contracts to child actors. Discoll’s ability to deliver his lines and appearance as an average fun loving boy appealed to Disney as a talent that was authentic. Discoll’s best known contribution to Disney would come only few short years later as he would serve as voice actor and life model for titular character in the timeless animated classic Peter Pan (1953), helping to introduce a new generation of animated classics for Walt Disney Studios.

Song of the South premiered in grand fashion, similar to Gone with the Wind did in 1939, with a gala event in Atlanta, GA. Upon wide release the film gained mixed critical success with meager financial gains. The most impactful measure of the film was its music, delivering the Academy Award winning Disney tune “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Today the song is a timeless classic and held in nearly as much honor by Disney as “When You Wish Upon a Star” in terms of delivering the ideals of Disney “magic” and fun to its family audience.

Song of the South lives on in plain sight in Splash Mountain.
Even though Song of the South played in several towns with protestors outside of the theaters and was criticized by black organizations including the NAACP, Walt Disney studios would re-release the picture many times, banking on the anniversaries Uncle Remus publications and the picture’s 40th anniversary. However, in the 1990’s with the rise of home video release Disney saw possible risk of continuous negative press from a wide home release of the picture in America. Disney would release the film on video in markets such as Europe, where the romance of the American South charmed audiences, but quietly self-banned American distribution to avoid controversy in a nation still healing from social injustices.

This film has been pushed deep into the Disney vaults with hope that the film would fade from American consciousness. Bizarrely enough the animated sequences of the film have inspired the popular Disney theme park attractions of Splash Mountain in California and Florida. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” also remains a strong pillar in the Disney musical catalogue. Song of the South is a film that the Walt Disney Company would like to forget, despite producing some good along with plenty of bad. Its fingerprints are left on popular culture, although many may not know it.

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