What's the Deal with the Song of the South?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
November 12, 2019, marked the 73rd anniversary of Song of the South's world premiere at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Georgia. That date also marked the premiere of the Disney+ streaming video service that supposedly was going to open the vaults to previously unavailable Disney movies.
Not surprisingly, Song of the South (1946) will not be one of them even though the streaming service has included the disclaimer "This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions" on some of the other films it is showing.
Because I wrote a book titled Who's Afraid of the Song of the South that covers the making of the film and the controversy surrounding it, I have been contacted by different outlets recently to talk about the film and why Disney+ did not include it in its offerings, especially with Karina Longworth's six-part podcast Six Degrees of Song of the South that was broadcast last November that attracted a lot of attention.
However, long time MousePlanet readers know that I have already answered many questions about the film as far back as December 2012.
The story of why Song of the South has not been re-released in the United States, and the controversy sparked by its initial release to movie theaters, is a saddening mixture of insensitivity, misunderstandings, and urban legends. It is a much more tangled "can of worms" than many people realize, and the film sparks heated emotions from its defenders, as well as it opponents.
The film is not banned, but voluntarily removed from circulation in the United States by the Walt Disney Company. It has been available commercially for decades in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Argentina, and Brazil without any complaints.
For American audiences, it is important to remember that Song of the South came out in 1946 and there were no media images that featured intelligent and well-off black families, or even real-life prominent African American leaders, like Sidney Poitier and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to counterbalance the stereotypes that had existed for over a century.
African American performers in the media often portrayed comic roles, where their characters were described as lazy, slow-witted, easily scared or flustered, subservient and worse. That image was what the American public was seeing and accepting as the norm.
Also remember that, in 1946, the United States was still a highly segregated country with separate facilities for non-whites. The brutal torture and lynching of African Americans was so commonplace that the National Headquarters of the NAACP would fly a black flag out its window when news of a new lynching was confirmed.
So perhaps it was with a naive unawareness of this racial situation of inequity that Walt Disney thought that making a film of the fables of Uncle Remus would help the Disney Studios' precarious financial situation after World War II by expanding into live-action, and bringing the colorful and much-beloved American folktales to life in animation for the first time instead of merely adapting yet another European fairy tale.
In a publicity release connected with the film's premiere, Walt Disney stated:
"I was familiar with the Uncle Remus tales since boyhood. From the time I began making animated features I have had them definitely in my production plans. But until now, the medium was not ready to give them an adequate film equivalent, in scope and fidelity.
"I always felt that Uncle Remus should be played by a living person, as should also the young boy to whom Harris' old Negro philosopher relates his vivid stories of the Briar Patch. Several tests in previous pictures, especially The Three Caballeros, were encouraging in the way living action and animation could be dovetailed. Finally, months ago, we 'took our foot in hand', in the words of Uncle Remus, and jumped into our most venturesome but also pleasurable undertaking.
"So while we naturally had to compact the substance of many tales into those selected for our Song of the South, in Technicolor, the task was not too difficult. And, I hope, nothing of the spirit of the earthy quality of the fables was lost. 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."
As early as 1938, Walt explored the story possibilities of making a film based on Joel Chandler Harris' classic tales. At one time, there was discussion of a series of animated shorts. Then, there was the idea of making a full-length animated feature film.
Finally, for a number of reasons, including financial and amount of production time considerations, it was decided to do it as combination live-action and animation. The contract with RKO to distribute its films allowed the Disney Studios to include live-action, as long as there was still a significant portion of animation as well.
In fact, Walt had other Brer Rabbit stories prepared for the possibility that if the film was a huge success that he would produce feature length sequels with a live-action Uncle Remus telling some of his other tales of the critters in animation.
Almost immediately, there were rumblings about the film. Some felt it was inappropriate to use "Uncle Remus" in the title of the film because of its connections to the era of slavery.
Others were concerned that the live-action script was being written by Dalton Reymond, who had a self-generated reputation as an authority of the Old South and was an uncredited adviser of several Hollywood films, including The Little Foxes, Saratoga Trunk and Jezebel.
Reymond's work always seemed to perpetuate some racist prejudices that were just part of his experience growing up in the South. It was one of the reasons that Walt brought in writer Maurice Rapf to assist with the script.
"I said he shouldn't make that movie, anyway, because it's going to be an 'Uncle Tom' movie. And I told Disney that and he said, 'That's exactly why I want you to work on it—because I know that you don't think I should make the movie. You're against 'Uncle Tom-ism' and you're a radical. That's exactly the kind of point of view I want brought to this film'.
"Disney didn't make it clear that the final film wasn't about slavery and that it was set during Reconstruction. In my script, I had the white family poverty-stricken, and that's a lot different from what you see on the screen. Their house in the film is immaculate, very white—it's a white mansion on a plantation. The women wear different dresses every time you look at them. I indicated in my script very clearly that they should be threadbare, because they lost the war.
"Also the whole reason for the father leaving the kid in the first place is very different in the final script from mine. In mine, he leaves because they haven't got enough money to pay the people who are working there; he goes to Atlanta to earn some money so he can pay the blacks who work on the farm. That's different.
"He [the father] even says [in Rapf's script], 'We gotta pay these people. They're not slaves.' So when Remus is told he can't read any more stories to the boy, he picks up his things. He's mad. He's not going to get the father; he's leaving. He says, 'I'm a free man; I don't have to take this'."
Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, Rapf left the production and his replacement, Morton Grant, felt overwhelmed by Reymond and so many of Rapf's additions were eliminated or softened under Reymond's supervision.
However, while it is not clearly stated in the film, some of those concepts remained. The film does not take place during the Civil War with happy slaves. It takes place after the war. and the African Americans working in the fields are sharecroppers.
At one point, Uncle Remus does pack up to leave. It is something only a free man could have done. A slave would have been considered a piece of property belonging to the owner and would not have been allowed to leave. There is no white foreman or any slave driver overseeing the work in the fields.
Basically, the African American characters are wiser, happier and more sympathetic and productive than the other characters who are emotionally distant, bullies, or have a variety of other dysfunctional issues.
Walt used the vibrant color palette of artist Mary Blair to create a live action Old South that only existed in the world of fantasy, like the rest of Walt's early films. The outdoor scenes were shot in Phoenix, Arizona because there would have been challenges having a mixed racial cast film in the Old South itself.
In fact, none of the African American cast were invited to the premiere in Georgia because they would not have been allowed to participate in some of the festivities, including entering the theater itself.
Several critics pounced on the production as if it were a documentary. Based solely on seeing an early draft of the script by Reymond and from complaints by esteemed African American performer Clarence Muse who had been hired as an adviser on the production (but when Reymond ignored his input, Muse left the film), the NAACP condemned the film without seeing it.
Neither the NAACP nor the American Council on Race Relations had any opportunity to review the project before the press screening. Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, telegraphed major newspapers around the country with the following statement:
"The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 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."
That telegram was widely quoted in newspapers and encouraged small groups of picketers to protest at a handful of theaters that were showing the film.
"We want films on Democracy not Slavery" and "Don't prejudice children's minds with films like this" were some of the slogans that decorated the signs of a racially diverse group of protesters who marched outside of the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, Calif. The protesters included African Americans and whites, men and women, old and young.
At the film's New York premiere in Times Square, dozens of black and white picketers, including African American servicemen recently returned from fighting in World War II, chanted: "We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom." Local chapters of the NAACP called for a total boycott of the film and The National Negro Congress declared that the film "is an insult to the Negro people because it uses offensive dialect; it portrays the Negro as a low, inferior servant; it glorifies slavery" and called on Black people to "run the picture out of the area."
Upon the film's release, groups such as The National Negro Congress, The American Youth for Democracy, The United Negro & Allied Veterans and the American Jewish Council organized racially integrated pickets at theaters in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, as well as other cities. In New York, Broadway actors such as Kenneth Spencer and Sam Wanamaker joined the picket lines.
Needless to add, most if not all of these protestors never actually saw the film. In retrospect, some historians believe that Walt Disney was just the most visible target that would generate the most publicity for people united against Hollywood producing films that demeaned African Americans and their heritage. Certainly, there were many Hollywood films that were indeed offensive, not only in retrospect, but at the time of their release.
In a February 1947 interview, printed in The Criterion, Oscar-winning African American actress Hattie McDaniel, who appeared in the film, defended it by saying, "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein."
In the same article, James Baskett, who played the role of Uncle Remus, 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."
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 time of slavery with Robinson in a clearly subservient role to the little white girl without any repercussions. These and other similar films like Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation are easily available for purchase and viewing by everyone.
The reviews for Song of the South were decidedly mixed, although in general there was high praise for the animation. However, many reviewers, despite liking James Baskett's Uncle Remus, found the rest of the live-action performances underwhelming with some referring to them as "bores."
Variety said: "Story of misunderstood Johnny gets away to an ambling start and only picks up when the live Uncle Remus segues into the first cartoon sequence…the rest of the story, including the confused and insufficiently explained estrangement of the parents, overbalances the three cartoon sequences…these cartoon sequences are great stuff."
African American Herman Hill's review in the black newspaper The 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."
The review discussed the negative statements made by Ebony magazine and Clarence Muse and found their comments to be "unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days."
Song of the South was innovative for its time not only for its blending of live-action and animation (such as Remus lighting Brer Frog's pipe) but for its depiction of black and white children playing together as equals and a story where the African American characters are wise and caring while the White characters are often cruel, insensitive or dysfunctional.
At a time when most Hollywood films showcased African American performers in separate segments that could be deleted when the film was shown in Southern theaters, Walt Disney portrayed a world where everyone lived together.
The last time the film was released theatrically was in 1986, its 40th anniversary, decades ago. At that time, it was the highest grossing re-release ever from the Disney Company. Once again, there was no rioting in the streets nor did Disney stock drop.
The fear, of course, is that the appreciation of the film and the works of Harris can be misinterpreted as acceptance of old-fashioned stereotyping. Others point out that understanding and openly discussing the mistakes of the past is the best way to insure a positive future.
One of the major complaints has been that Song of the South is more insidious a film than Gone With the Wind, since it is generally considered a film for children who would not be aware enough to understand it is "just a story." It is set in a brightly colored, tuneful, romanticized version of the Old South of the Reconstruction with none of the terrors and heartaches that categorized that period including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
As one wit described it, it should be called the "Song of the NEVER WAS South".
In the same 1946 publicity release quoted at the beginning of this article, Walt Disney wrote:
"Out of the past of every nation has come its folklore: Simple tales handed down from generation to generation and made immortal by such names as Aesop, the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. But no folk tales are better loved than Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus. And if, now in Song of the South we have succeeded in a measure to help perpetuate a priceless literary treasure—my co-workers and I shall, indeed, be very happy."
Here is the best site that I recommend highly for information about the film. The Disney animators who I have interviewed over the decades who worked on the animated segments consider it some of the best work they ever did and that they had the most fun doing it. They were unanimous in their praise for Baskett for his work as the voice of Brer Fox in addition to his portrayal of Remus.
The exciting and frustrating thing about Disney history is that there is always something new being discovered often by accident. For the 1948 Academy Awards, James Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. Walt had personally lobbied for such a recognition for the actor who his daughter Diane told me was "one of his favorite performers".
According to columnist Hedda Hopper's autobiography (Hopper was a vocal advocate for Baskett to receive the award, along with actress Bette Davis and others) that I recently read, the Academy Board of Governors was opposed to the award because "Baskett played a slave and the feeling was that Negroes should play only doctors, lawyers and scientists" in order to be recognized with an award.
Jean Hersholt, the president, argued in Baskett's favor until 4 a.m., at which point he gave his ultimatum: "If he doesn't receive an Oscar, I shall stand up tomorrow night and tell the world the whole disgraceful story." The board gave in and actress Ingrid Bergman gave Baskett his Oscar.
This story does not appear in my book and since I wrote the book, I have learned lots of other things about the film as well. As I often say, there is always more to the story.
Despite the desires and actions of the Walt Disney Company, Song of the South simply refuses to fade away and die.