The Song of the South Premiere

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

The Song of the South Premiere

"It wasn't yesterday nor the day before, but it was a long time ago... back when the critters, they were closer to the folks and the folks, they was closer to the critters—and if you'll excuse me for saying so, it was better all around." – Uncle Remus in Song of the South

The story of why Song of the South has not been released on DVD in the United States and the controversy sparked by its initial release is a saddening mixture of insensitivity, misunderstandings, and urban legends. It is a much more tangled web than many people realize and I am helping a well-known Disney historian slowly untangle that mess with the definitive article on Song of the South that is scheduled to be printed in the upcoming 16th issue of Hogan's Alley (link).

I know that whenever I write about any aspect of Song of the South, like my recent column on the Sunday Uncle Remus comic strip (link), it is sure to generate plenty of mail in my mailbox from people writing about fond memories of the film or wanting to know when Disney will release the film.

So while we are all waiting for the definitive article to appear this summer, and for the re-release of the film who-knows-when, I thought it might be fun to share some little-known information about the film—including its premiere in Atlanta.

Walt Disney bought the rights to the Uncle Remus stories from the Harris family in 1939. Disney got the rights to all the Remus characters for $10,000 and that was a sizeable sum in those days. However, adding in the revenue of all the books, comics, records, toys and more associated with the film, the Disney Company received more than $300 million in return for its $10,000 investment before the 20th century had ended.

Walt stopped in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 1939 to meet with the Harris family and as he told the entertainment press "to get an authentic feeling of Uncle Remus country so we can do as faithful a job as possible to these stories."

According to the program for the world premiere, the Harris family had hoped for many years that Disney would dramatize the "Uncle Remus" stories, perhaps as two-reel animated shorts, but "during the years of discussion leading up to final negotiation [in 1939], the idea of full-length animated cartoon pictures interested the Disney studios and later gripped the public." Pre-production news items indicated that Disney originally intended to produce the film as an all-animation feature, but by the time production began, it was decided to have the picture feature live action.

Through 1938 and into the early 1940s when the film was still being considered as a full-length animated feature, many individual animated segments were being developed from the Remus stories including "Brer Rabbit Rides the Fox" and "The Wuller de Wust" (where Brer Rabbit pretends to be a ghost to scare Brer Bear).

One of the early story treatments from 1939 was more connected to the African-American spirituals. Uncle Remus gathered the critters together for a prayer meeting to help them build a church so that peace could finally exist between the prey animals and the predators. Another storyline showed Brer Rabbit doing battle with the temptation of gambling. Versions of all these tales being developed later appeared in Disney's children books and comics.

However, the expense of doing an all-animated film after World War II was not possible. The closure of foreign markets for its animated films duringthe war years had choked off a vital source of income for the Disney Studios. In addition, while a handful of animated shorts had been produced during the war years, the majority of the labor and creative energy at the studio had been funneled to the production of military training films that were made only covering the actual production expenses with no profit.

Fortunately, re-releases of Snow White and Pinocchio helped prevent the Disney Studio from showing losses in 1945 and 1946 but that did not prevent the studio from laying off almost half its total work force in 1946.

Walt had wanted to diversify but his contract with RKO specified that he produce animated features or features that combined animation and live action like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

Over the years, Walt had considered several projects combining animation and live action including a feature film that would have showcased a live-action girl interacting with an animated world in Alice in Wonderland. In fact, when Song of the South was in production, Walt announced it might be his next feature with Luana Patten from Song of the South playing Alice.

So Walt decided to take a risk and experiment by combining live action and animation in Song of the South. The live action should be less expensive than the animation and filmed more quickly. The animation would only appear in less than one-third of the film. Supposedly, Walt himself chose the final three animated sequences to include in the film.

Plans for the world premiere began long in advance of the scheduled premiere, November 12, 1946. The Disney Studio contacted prominent movie critics and arranged for them to travel to Atlanta.

Four reporters from Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal visited the studio in early October 1946 to begin a series of stories that would run daily in Atlanta newspapers until the premiere.

Many recording artists released versions of the film's music in advance of the premiere, including Dinah Shore, the Merry Macs, Woody Herman and the Modernaires, according to a Sept. 25, 1946 The Hollywood Reporter news item.

The State of Georgia agreed to have a joint holiday, celebrating Armistice Day and a tribute to Joel Chandler Harris since it was in Georgia that his stories had first gained recognition.

Arrangements were made for Walt to dedicate an Uncle Remus cabin at Wren's Nest, author Harris' former home. About two weeks before the premiere on November 1, 1946, artists Fred Moore and Dick Mitchell, along with "production expert" Frank Bresson and Clarence Nash (the vocal artist who was the voice of Donald Duck) opened a "miniature studio" at the Belle Isle Building Arcade in Atlanta.

The exhibit included Moore and Mitchell drawing sketches for visitors, demonstrations of the animation process and showings of a preview of the picture and scenes from the 1941 Disney film "The Reluctant Dragon," because it contained a tour of the actual Walt Disney Studios.

They were later joined by Pinto Colvig (Goofy) and Adriana Caselotti (Snow White).

On November 11 (Armistice Day), a gigantic parade moved down Atlanta's Peachtree Street. There were bands and slow moving floats, some of which featured characters from the film. Children were cheering since they had been given a school holiday. Flags adorned the buildings. There was a luncheon at the Capital Club and a tea at the Wren's Nest, where a crowd of autograph-seekers got out of hand and knocked Walt Disney to his knees.

The world premiere was set for 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 12, 1946. The premiere itself was sponsored jointly by the Atlanta Junior League and the Uncle Remus Memorial Association. Celestine Sibley, who covered the event for the Atlanta Constitution, called it "D Day" in honor of Disney.

Prior to the screening of the film, radio shows participated in the film's premiere including "Queen for a Day", "Bride and Groom," Art Linkletter's "GE Houseparty" and "Vox Pop," which conducted interviews on the Fox Theater stage. More than 5,000 people attended the premiere, which benefited charities overseen by Atlanta's Junior League and the Uncle Remus Memorial Society's renovation of Wren's Nest.

Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten and Ruth Warrick represented the cast. Walt and Lillian Disney were there accompanied by Disney Studio staff including Perce Pearce, Milt Kahl, Bill Peet, Ken Anderson, Claude Coats and Wilfred Jackson. Other celebrities included Bill Williams and Barbara Hale and Cliff ("Jiminy Cricket") Edwards.

The film was shown at the majestic Fox Theater, the South's largest theater which seated more than 5,000 people. Not since Gone With the Wind had all of Atlanta turned out for a Hollywood movie.

On the night of the gala, Disney took the stage at the Fox and welcomed the sellout audience of 5,000 in the voice of Mickey Mouse with a Southern accent: "How are you-all?" As soon as the film began, he ducked out of the theater and waited across the street at the Georgian Terrace Hotel, chain-smoking and biting his fingernails.

There was some dissension in the Atlanta papers because "Uncle Remus" wasn't in the title. The Atlanta Journal movie editor saw a preview and wrote that people shouldn't worry because it was Uncle Remus' picture from start to finish and that he was faithfully portrayed. According to the paper, it "was a film that is certain to take its place alongside Gone With the Wind as a celluloid piece of Americana."

However, the celebration and good feelings were overshadowed by a dark secret. Song of the South's African-American cast members were not able to join Walt Disney and the white cast members at the movie's premiere in Atlanta because Atlanta was a segregated city. African-Americans could not enter the movie theater or any other public buildings downtown.

In describing the premiere, local newspapers recounted the actions of Atlanta's mayor, William B. Hartsfield, who urged Disney to wire actor James Baskett with news of the city's appreciation for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. Although some Southern newspapers stated that Baskett could not be present due to his commitment to the "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show where he performed as fast-talking Gabby Gibson, none of the African-American cast members attended the premiere.

In an October 15, 1946 article in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, columnist Harold Martin noted that to bring Baskett to Atlanta, where he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities because of the highly strict segregation laws, "would cause him many embarrassments, for his feelings are the same as any man's."

There is an urban legend that no Atlanta hotel would give Baskett accommodation because white-owned hotels denied rooms to blacks. That assumption is not entirely correct since there were several black-owned hotels in the Sweet Auburn area of downtown Atlanta at the time, including the Savoy and the McKay. However, even if the African-American cast stayed at those hotels, they would have still been denied access to other areas that would be frequented by the white cast members, including restaurants and the theater itself.

The reviews for the film were decidedly mixed although in general there was high praise for the animation. Many reviewers, despite liking James Baskett's Uncle Remus, found the rest of the live-action performances underwhelming.

Local reviews in Georgia, including a notice in the African-American newspaper, the Atlanta Daily World, were largely positive, but nationally the film was not well received

Time magazine called Uncle Remus "a character bound to enrage all educated Negroes, and a number of damn Yankees" while still referring to the film as "topnotch Disney." It added that: "it could have used a much heavier helping of cartooning" claiming that except for the two youngsters "the live actors are bores."

Others found the film mawkish, "slipshod," and "inconsequential."

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 and could be cut...these cartoon sequences are great stuff."

New York Times: "The ratio of 'live to cartoon action is approximately two to one, and that is approximately the ratio of its mediocrity to its charm.... The Disney wonder workers here just a lot of conventional hacks when it comes to telling a story with live action instead of cartoons."

PM Magazine: Disney "was not trying to put across any message but was making a sincere effort to depict American folklore, to put Uncle Remus stories into pictures."

Time magazine: "Artistically, Song of the South could have used a much heavier helping of cartooning. Technically, the blending of two movie mediums is pure Disney wizardry. Ideologically, the picture is certain to land its maker in hot water."

The Afro-American, an African-American newspaper, declared that the reviewer was "thoroughly disgusted" by the film.

Herman Hill's review in the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier: "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 found the comments to be "unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days."

In 1956 during the film's first re-release, actress Luana Patten, who played the part of "Ginny" in the film, was a high school student working after school in the box office at The Lakewood Theatre in Long Beach, California, when the theater was robbed. The film playing at the time was the first theatrical re-release of Song of the South.

That same year, Patten revived her film acting career and along with other credits, appeared in two Disney films: Johnny Tremain (1957) and Follow Me Boys (1966). She died in 1996.

The re-release in 1972 was two years after the Disney Company claimed in a statement in the February 25, 1970 issue of Variety that the Disney Studio had put the film "permanently on the shelf as offensive to Negroes and present concepts of race." During its 1972 reissue, the picture became the highest grossing Disney re-release up to that time.

The film was re-released two more times in 1980 and 1986 (the film's 40th anniversary). The 1986 reissue included a November 15, 1986 "re-premiere" held in Atlanta to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. By gubernatorial proclamation, the day of the premiere was declared "Song of the South Day" in Georgia. Proceeds from the 1986 premiere, which was attended by actress Ruth Warrick, benefited the preservation of Wren's Nest.

Then, at least for audiences in the United States, the Disney Company locked Song of the South away in its vaults.