Disney's B'rer Rabbit Hops Into the Funny Pagesby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Disney's B'rer Rabbit Hops Into the Funny Pages
I don't want to keep harping on all the Disney anniversaries big and small that the Disney Company missed celebrating last year but I am going to mention one more because I am helping a friend on a special research project about Song of the South and ran across a Disney anniversary that I had forgotten.
In 2007, it was the 35th anniversary of the end of the Disney Sunday comic strip, Uncle Remus and His Tales of Brer Rabbit. The strip began on October 14, 1945 and ended on December 31, 1972. That's right, every week on Sunday for more than 27 years, it was possible to read in full color Disney's interpretation of the famous Joel Chandler Harris characters. That's quite an accomplishment.
By 1945, it was commonplace for the Disney Company to promote an upcoming film with a comic adaptation either in the newspaper comic pages or in magazines like Good Housekeeping. One of the things that makes Uncle Remus and His Tales of Brer Rabbit unusual is that it first started appearing more than a year before Song of the South was released to audiences in November 1946.
The first installment appeared via King Features, the syndicate that was distributing the other Disney comic strips including both the daily and Sunday versions of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Uncle Remus was written by Bill Walsh, a multi-talented Disney staff member who joined the company in 1943 as a writer for the Mickey Mouse comic strip after a career than included writing gags for Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Walsh would later become a Disney Legend thanks to his many credits as a writer and a producer that included the first Disney television shows, as well as Mary Poppins and The Love Bug.
The strip was drawn by Paul Murry, who had been an animator on Song of the South among other features including Dumbo and Saludos Amigos. Dick Moores and Bill Wright inked the strip over Murry's pencils.
At first, the material was a reasonably faithful adaptation of the animated sequences in the movie. Then, original adventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear and their friends began to appear. Uncle Remus was only seen as a silhouette on the title panel, although he provided necessary narration through captions and the moral that appeared in a box in the final panel.
Murry left the Studio during the spring of 1946 with his last Uncle Remus Sunday page appearing on July 14. Ironically, he traded doing comic strip work for comic books and his first issue was Dell Four Color No. 129, where he penciled three stories featuring Uncle Remus and friends, all of which were written by Chase Craig. Other Uncle Remus stories followed in 1947 including some in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories and also a Cheerios Premium comic (you can see that premium comic at this link).
Dick Moores took over as the artist when Murry left. In October 1946, George Stallings, who had worked on the story for the Song of the South feature film, took over the writing, and introduced characters such as Molly Cottontail who would become Brer Rabbit's girlfriend.
Like Murry, Moores also left the strip and was hired by Frank King in 1956 to assist him on the Gasoline Alley dailies. In 1959, King retired and Moores assumed writing and drawing duties for the daily strip. Moores continued doing both the daily and Sunday Gasoline Alley until his death in 1986.
Writer Stallings launched his own comedy sports comic strip for newspapers, Soapy Waters about a country bumpkin named Soapy Waters who made it to the major league as a baseball pitcher. He was a dim but good-hearted fellow and constantly in jeopardy of losing his job. Soapy Waters ran from February 7, 1955 through April 20 1957 and was syndicated by Mirror Enterprises. Interestingly, according to Disney comic strip expert Alberto Becatini, Moores did inking and lettering for the strip.
The Sunday-only Uncle Remus strip ran a loose story continuously until February 1949 when it became a self contained, gag-a-week strip. Others who worked on the strip over the years included Riley Thomson (1951-59), Bill Wright (1959-62), Chuck Fuson (1962) and finally John Ushler (with scripting by Jack Boyd) who worked on the strip for nearly 10 years until the strip was discontinued December 31, 1972.
Brer Rabbit and friends also made another appearance in the newspaper thanks to the annual Disney Christmas comic strip that appeared daily for the three weeks or so leading up to Christmas Day.
In the 1980s, the talented and self-effacing Floyd Norman was given an opportunity to write the annual Christmas story strip for newspapers. Floyd, an African-American animator and storyman who worked at the Disney Studios when Walt was alive, has continued his impressive career at other studios including Pixar.
He decided to write Brer Rabbit Christmas Story with Johnny and Jenny coming to Uncle Remus since they are worried there will be no snow for Christmas. This problem prompts Uncle Remus to tell a Brer Rabbit tale of hunting for a white Christmas. Floyd even removed the Southern dialect from the main characters, although the "critters" retained their colorful language.
To learn the full story in Floyd's own words of how the editor was horrified when this strip was submitted, you can read his essay at Jim Hill Media.
Disney historian Paul Anderson shared with me this unusual story about the Uncle Remus comic strip that never was from Disney Legend Mel Shaw. Working with Shaw on the proposal was George Stallings, who would later work on Disney's Uncle Remus strip. It would seem that this version would have been more influenced by Harris' original stories than the Disney animated adaptation, Song of the South.
At the time of the Disney strike, many Disney staff members found themselves without work as projects were postponed, and then during the war years more projects were set aside as the Disney Company devoted itself to military training films. So, artists began to develop some side projects of their own.
Here is Shaw's previously untold story:
"And at that time, I had started to work on 'Uncle Remus,' which turned out to be 'Song of the South' after, when they opened up again. And while I was working on 'Uncle Remus,' I started doing my sketches in a style similar to Frost if you remember his illustrations of the Uncle Remus [stories]. And George Stallings was working on the story with me, and we got the idea that you could do a comic strip in that style, with the Uncle Remus tales. Each one could be a separate tale. So, being that the studio was closed down, I went to Roy and I said, 'Could I have the rights to this thing? You're not going to do anything with it right now', and Roy said, 'Yeah, go ahead and do a comic strip on Uncle Remus if you want.' And I said he would get 5 percent and would retain the rights. And he agreed to that.
"Anyway, George Stallings and I got the thing up. I drew the Uncle Remus things. We had a series, and we gave them to King Features and King Features, in two weeks, bought the whole series. Then the studio ... because of the negotiations kind of thing, for every man we would take that didn't go on it, they had to take two of the strikers.
"And Roy got the idea. He said, 'Mel, why don't you come back and work on the Uncle Remus thing and work in the cartoon department? Then I don't have to take two strikers back into the other part.' And I said, 'Well how about the strip that we just sold?' And he said, 'Well, I can't go through with that.' He said, 'I can't go through with the deal. We don't give a percentage to anybody.' And it really burned me. And about that time, Hugh Harman had lost his contract with Rudy [Ising]. Rudy had gone into the army. So Hugh didn't have a partner. And Hugh didn't have any experience in doing features, so he asked me if I would be interested in being his partner, and he was going to do King Arthur. So I agreed to that, and we started on the King Arthur thing."
An interesting sidebar is that there was another Brer Rabbit Sunday comic strip distributed by the McClure Syndicate that first appeared in newspapers on June 24, 1906. The artwork was by J.M. Conde, who was well-known for his illustrations in the original Uncle Remus books. The series ran until October 7, 1906 for a total of 16 episodes.
The Disney Company in its hesitation to release Song of the South on DVD doesn't realize how popular the Disney versions of Harris' characters have been for decades. Segments from Song of the South were showcased on the first two Disney Christmas television specials for NBC and CBS. There were books of the Disney version with covers by Mary Blair and interior illustrations by Bill Justice adapting the stories from the Disney film, as well as stories that would have been in a sequel.
As I have spotlighted in this column, the comic strip ran for almost three decades in Sunday morning comic sections in hundreds of newspapers across the country. It would be wonderful to see a book or reprints (especially of the Murry and Moores episodes). I'd even like a book reprinting the Disney Christmas strips. Being a big fan of Disney's Peter Pan, I already have a good Xerox of the strips of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell helping Santa save Christmas.
Even today, merchandise based on the Disney Song of the South characters sells quite well. Of course, it might sell even better if modern audiences had a chance to see the film rather than hunt for illegal bootlegs of it on eBay.
Walt's enthusiasm for the Song of the South film was reflected in this quote from Walt from 1946:
"There is something endlessly appealing and satisfying in Joel Chandler Harris' droll fables of animals who behave like humans, and in character who narrates them. For a long time, they have been an open challenge to motion picture showmanship.
"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."
If you are a fan of Song of the South, then you might want to visit SongoftheSouth.net. Unfortunately, this fun Web site doesn't contain information about the Uncle Remus comic strip, so I thought I should document what I know about the strip for future researchers.
Since I am writing about Disney and comics I want to acknowledge the many years of research in this area by folks like Alberto Becatini and David Gerstein. Without their efforts and their dedication to accuracy, many of the names and credits of talented writers and artists who worked in Disney comics would be lost today. Thank you, gentleman, for all your efforts.