The Song of the South Frequently Asked Questionsby Jim Korkis, staff writer
Santa has just brought two really neat stocking stuffers for both nice and naughty readers of this column.
An exciting new book that I have finishing writing, Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South And Other Forbidden Disney Stories, has just been released by Theme Park Press and is currently available for purchase at Amazon.com.
For the first time, the complete history of the infamous Disney feature film, Song of the South (1946), is documented from Walt Disney’s initial interest in making the film mere months after the successful release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to the current controversy still surrounding the film today.
In dozens of pages are recorded the stories behind the writing of the screenplay, the creation of the animation, the little-known facts about the live-action performers, how misunderstandings developed about the final film, the lavish premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, and so much more.
There is a lengthy foreword by Disney Legend Floyd Norman, Disney’s first African American animator and storyman, talking about his affection for the film and that he saw no indication that Walt or others who worked on the film were racist. Plus, there are seven more “controversial” Disney stories.
In addition, Theme Park Press has purchased the rights to publish my new revised Vault of Walt book (including five brand new stories). For those who have been frustrated that Vault of Walt has been out of print, you will be able to purchase the new edition soon.
As a brief preview of the type of content in Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South?, here are some answers to the most commonly asked questions about the film. The book itself goes into much greater depth answering these questions in the detailed and lengthy text.
What Is Song of the South?
Song of the South is a feature-length film released by the Disney Studios on November 12, 1946. It combines both live-action and animation. It was last shown theatrically in the United States in 1986.
What Is the Story?
The live-action story is about a young boy who is taken to live on his grandmother’s plantation in Georgia shortly after the Civil War. His parents are estranged and the boy has difficulty adapting to his new home. He encounters an old black storyteller named Uncle Remus who tells stories about Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear. These stories help the boy to learn some important lessons about life and are told in animation scenes done by six of the iconic Disney Nine Old Men animators.
Did Joel Chandler Harris Write the Film?
No. Joel Chandler Harris was a newspaper reporter for the Atlanta Constitution in the late 1800s. His wrote a column about a black storyteller named Uncle Remus who told tales of Brer Rabbit and the other animals. These stories were based on ones he had heard as a young boy from a dozen different storytellers at the Southern plantation, Turnworld. The newspaper columns were later collected into nine books.
The character of Uncle Remus and the three stories in the film were inspired by Harris’ work but the screenplay was entirely original. The screenplay was primarily the work of author Dalton Reymond who had a reputation as an expert on the “Old South” and had worked as a technical consultant on several other Hollywood films. This was his only screenplay and it includes contributions from writers Maurice Rapf and Morton Grant. The behind-the-scenes intrigue in the creation of the screenplay is covered fully in the book. The animated stories were storyboarded by Disney Legend Bill Peet, using the original Uncle Remus stories as a foundation.
Is the Film Banned?
No. Because of some concerns about the depiction of black characters in the film and the heavy use of dialect, the Disney Company feels that the film may be offensive to modern audiences. Disney has voluntarily pulled it from distribution in the United States for more than 25 years.
The film is still being released commercially in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. It has been shown several times on the BBC2 television channel in England. There have been no complaints in any of those countries.
Will the Disney Company Release the Film to Blu-ray as a Special Edition?
Disney President and CEO Robert Iger has been adamant for years that the film would not be re-released in any form in the United States. He stated at a Disney stockholder meeting in 2011 that even considering the context and the time period in which the movie was made that “there are elements in the film…it’s a relatively good film…that would not necessarily fit right or feel right to a number of people today.”
Even today, there are many vocal supporters of the film and signed petitions urging the Disney Company to re-release the film. The only way a person living in the United States can see the entire film is by purchasing an illegal bootleg copy or by obtaining a foreign release and finding a way to convert it to a U.S. format.
Does the Film Depict Slavery?
No. The film takes place after the Civil War and shows black sharecroppers (not slaves) working in the fields of the old plantation. At one point, an upset Uncle Remus packs his bags and decides to leave. If he were a slave, he would be considered the property of the plantation and not allowed to leave.
However, there are similar elements like black people in threadbare clothes working in the fields and singing spirituals that were common in Hollywood films like Gone With the Wind (1939) that attempted to tell the story of the time of slavery and may have led to some audience confusion.
It is important to remember that Song of the South was never intended to be an accurate historical documentary of a troubled time in America’s timeline. It was meant to be a light, fantasy entertainment, similar to other films produced during the 1930s and 1940s.
Well-loved actress Shirley Temple was partnered with talented black performer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in films like The Little Colonel (1935) and The Littlest Rebel (1935) meant for family audiences with young children. These movies presented an even more fanciful and inaccurate (as well as potentially more offensive) representation of the same time period depicted in Song of the South. These and other similar films like Gone With the Wind are easily available for purchase and viewing by everyone.
Is the Film Racist?
All the black characters in the film are warm, friendly and clever. Uncle Remus takes time to help a troubled young boy who is being ignored and misunderstood by his parents. Little Johnny, who is white, plays freely with his best friend, Toby, who is a back child the same age as Johnny.
Herman Hill's review of the film in 1947 in the black newspaper Pittsburgh Courier stated: "The truly sympathetic handling of the entire production from a racial standpoint is calculated…to prove of estimable good in the furthering of interracial relations."
However, also in 1947, Walter White, executive secretary of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, released the following statement on behalf of the NAACP to the newspapers: "The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recognizes in Song of the South remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North or South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts."
Other newspapers were also confused and thought the story was focused on slaves on a plantation like other Hollywood films and not during the time of Reconstruction after the Civil War. To be fair, neither the film itself nor the publicity material made the correct time period clear.
When Song of the South was released, the NAACP was acting as a legislative and legal advocate, pushing unsuccessfully for a federal anti-lynching law and for an end to state-mandated segregation. It was an emotionally charged time.
Perception was much stronger than facts and since the high-profile Disney film was based on the works of Joel Chandler Harris, which were considered controversial as well, the film was used as a rallying point to focus attention on how blacks were portrayed in all Hollywood films.
In the 1940s, black performers often were only given comic roles where their characters were described as lazy, slow-witted, illiterate, easily scared or flustered, subservient and worse. That image was what the American public was seeing and accepting as the norm.
Actor James Baskett, who played the role of Uncle Remus, was given an honorary Academy Award on March 20, 1948 for "his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world" by actress Ingrid Bergman. He was the first African American male to ever receive an Oscar.
In 1947, Baskett commented, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the Song of the South.”
Was Walt Disney Racist?
No. There is no evidence that Walt was racist. For a man of his time, he was remarkable in embracing different races, religions and cultures into his organization from the very beginning of the Disney Studio. He was also known for giving key positions to women that did not happen at other animation studios.
Disney Legend Floyd Norman wrote in the foreword to the book, “I survived three different managements at the Disney Company beginning in the 1950s when I worked as Disney’s first black animator and later as a storyman. My unexpected move upstairs to Walt’s story department was something I never anticipated. Not only was I privy to the Old Maestro’s story meetings, I had the unique opportunity to observe the boss in action. This included his management style and his treatment of subordinates. Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behavior Walt Disney was often accused of long after his death. His treatment of people, and by this, I mean all people, can only be called exemplary.”
Was the Film Shot in Atlanta, Georgia?
No. The Disney Studio claimed that because of “technical difficulties” the film had to be shot outdoors on specially made sets in Phoenix, Arizona, with some interior shots done at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood, California
Isn’t the Splash Mountain attraction at the Disney Parks based on the film?
Yes. Imagineer Tony Baxter was stuck in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway in Southern California in the mid-1980s. He began thinking about the America Sings attraction that was soon to be closing at Disneyland and that Dick Nunis, who was then chairman of the Disney Theme Parks, wanted a water flume ride for the park.
The America Sings attraction had dozens of singing Audio-Animatronic animals designed by Disney Legend Marc Davis, who was one of the main animators on Song of the South. Rather than store or destroy these creations, Baxter suggested re-adapting them for an attraction based on Song of the South.
The attraction officially opened at Disneyland on July 17, 1989. The attraction designer was John D. Stone, who worked closely with Bruce Gordon (show producer who wrote the new lyrics for the songs in the attraction) and Tony Baxter (executive producer). CEO Michael Eisner insisted that the character of Uncle Remus not be included on the attraction so Brer Frog, a friend of Remus in the film, became the narrator.
The storyline is that Brer Rabbit runs away from home and his caught by Brer Fox and Brer Bear. The tricky hare convinces the villainous pair to toss him into the Briar Patch, a watery drop of almost 50 feet that the guests get to enjoy as they follow along in a hollowed-out log ride vehicle the adventures of Brer Rabbit through the attraction.
The attraction was so popular that another one was built at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World that officially opened October 2, 1992.
Why Did Walt Disney Want to Make the Song of the South?
"It was a film he really wanted to do," recalled his daughter Diane Disney Miller. "My dad quoted so much from Uncle Remus' logic and philosophy."
“I was familiar with the Uncle Remus tales since boyhood," recalled Walt Disney when the film premiered in 1947. "From the time I began making animated features, I have had them definitely in my production plans. It is their timeless and living appeal; their magnificent pictorial quality; their rich and tolerant humor; their homely philosophy and cheerfulness, which made the Remus legends the top choice for our first production with flesh-and-blood players.”
In addition, Walt knew he had to diversify from just making animated films if his studio was to survive and grow.
“I wanted to go beyond the cartoon," remembered Walt in a 1956 interview. "Because the cartoon had narrowed itself down. I could make them either seven- or eight-minutes long or 80-minutes long. I tried package things, where I put five or six together to make an 80-minute feature. Now I needed to diversify further and that meant live action.”
Walt’s film distribution contract with RKO stipulated the delivery of animated features. However, the contract also stated that the films could be a mixture of live action and animation since some of the Disney releases like Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944) had live-action segments that helped keep down the production costs.
Walt felt that combining a live-action storyteller with short animated stories would be a perfect balance, both creatively and financially. In fact, if Song of the South had been the success that Walt expected, he had plans to make several sequels in the same format.
What is Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah?
It is an expression of happiness and joy, reportedly invented by Walt Disney himself who had a fondness for these types of nonsense words from "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." The song "Zip–A-Dee-Doo-Dah," written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert, won an Oscar for Best Song. It has been recorded by a wide variety of singers from Johnny Mercer to the Dave Clark Five to Doris Day to Louis Armstrong to Miley Cyrus to countless others.
What Are Some of the Unusual Things That Can Be Found in Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South?
Clarence Nash, the longtime voice of Donald Duck, was well known for his bird calls. He supplied the chirps for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder.
In 1956, as a high school student, to earn some extra money, Luana Patten (who portrayed the young girl Ginny in the movie) was working after school in the box office at The Lakewood Theatre in Long Beach, California when the movie house was robbed. The film playing at the time was the first theatrical re-release of Song of the South.
Brer Rabbit's laughing heard during the Laughing Place sequence in the movie is reused in The Jungle Book (1967) when Baloo tickles King Louie. That laugh was actually done by actor James “Uncle Remus” Baskett filling-in for the voice of Brer Rabbit, Johnny Lee, who at the time of the recording was on a USO tour and unable to do it.
Actor Bobby Driscoll didn’t know how to skip, so many people on location including legendary animator and director Hamilton Luske had to physically skip around to show Driscoll how it was done.
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