Song of the South That Never Wasby Wade Sampson, staff writer
A series of Disney cartoon shorts showcasing the “Uncle Remus” stories? Uncle Remus as an animated character singing African-American spirituals? The political activist and blacklisted African American actor Paul Robeson as Uncle Remus? Eddie "Rochester" Anderson from The Jack Benny Show interacting with animated animals?
All of these possibilities and more were seriously considered for Walt Disney’s now controversial animated feature Song of the South and it is a fascinating look at the film that might have been.
With the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Disney Studios purchased (or had attempted to purchase) an option on a variety of family-friendly properties ranging from Peter Pan to Wizard of Oz. Walt did this not only to have a wide variety of subjects to inspire possible future films but to prevent other studios from obtaining these properties and making films that would compete with his productions.
One of these properties that interested Walt was the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris that he supposedly recalled hearing as a child.
“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,” Walt said in 1946.
Walt had two research reports done by the studio, Background on the Uncle Remus Tales (April 8, 1938) and The Uncle Remus Stories (April 11, 1938), to determine the feasibility of transferring these stories to the screen.
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.
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 of Song of the South, 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 including Brer Rabbit Rides the Fox and The Wuller de Wust (where Brer Rabbit pretends to be a ghost to scare Brer Bear).
Uncle Remus Stories was the title of a Simon and Schuster Golden Book published in 1947 in connection with the film Song of the South. There was a beautiful signed cover by Mary Blair and 23 Uncle Remus stories retold by Marion Palmer and illustrated by Bill Justice based on tales that were developed for the final film and possible sequels.
In the foreword to the original printing, Walt Disney wrote:
"Three generations of readers, young and old, have learned to love the laughter and the wisdom in the tales of Uncle Remus. The pranks of his Brer Rabbit have become a real part of American folklore, so much so that few of us are even aware of the original source from which they came....It is because of the universal appeal of these legends, and their place in the artistic heritage of this country, that the Disney studio has become interested in presenting them on the screen. During the preparation of material for the motion picture 'Song of the South' a great quantity of the early Remus tales were studied and adapted by the Disney staff. Unfortunately, only a few of them could be included in the short space of one film. Yet we feel that all of them are entertaining and that all of them should be kept alive."
One of the early story treatments from 1939 was more connected to the African American spirituals. Uncle Remus gathers the critters together for a prayer meeting and the efforts of them to 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 some of these tales that were developed later appeared in Disney’s children books and comics.
The final film is very loosely based on two of Joel Chandler Harris’s last Remus books: Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892) and Told by Uncle Remus (1905).
Walt’s brother, Roy, was doubtful about the project from the beginning but not because of any fears of racial sensitivities. He just felt the project was not “big enough in caliber” to warrant the time and budget for a full-length film. The decision to make the film mostly live action with animated segments was based on the hope that filming the majority of it in live action would keep the costs down both in terms of time and labor.
Unfortunately, since the Disney Studio had only limited experience with live-action filming and with the amount of precision necessary so that the live action would be staged properly to accommodate the addition of animation didn’t significantly lower the cost as much as hoped.
Song of the South cost approximately $2,125,000 to make and made over $60 million dollars worldwide by the time of its last theatrical re-release in 1986. However, that first year release only netted the Disney Studio a profit of $226,000.
Despite his reportedly dislike for sequels, if Song of the South had proven financially and critically successful, Walt considered it as just the first of a series of Uncle Remus pictures that would combine live action and animation.
As a professional actor myself, I realize that a performer can bring some unique contributions to a role. I also realize that the choice of a performer also effects the entire production because of the different interactions with other performers.
What if Ronald Reagan had been cast in Bogart’s role in Casablanca as rumored? Or George Raft took the part of Sam Spade in Maltese Falcon? Or Cary Grant accepted the offer to replace Rex Harrison in the Henry Higgins role in the movie version of My Fair Lady? It certainly would have made those films different from the ones we treasure today to say the least.
For me, it would be hard to imagine anyone other than James Baskett in the role of "Uncle Remus." He brought such warmth and sincerity and good humor to the part that it just seemed like the definitive interpretation, although others have argued that Baskett did not bring the “sharpness” of attitude that the character exhibited in some of the written stories.
Baskett had roles in such B-rated African American movies as Harlem in Heaven (1932), Policy Man (1938), Comes Midnight (1940), and Revenge of the Zombies (1943) where he was sometimes billed as “Jimmy Baskette.”
In California, Baskett met comedian Freeman Gosden of the Amos 'N' Andy radio program who invited him to join the cast of the popular radio show. Baskett's role was as the fast-talking lawyer Gabby Gibson, earning him a national reputation from 1944-1948.
In 1945, Baskett answered an ad to provide the voice of a talking butterfly in Song of the South.
"I thought that, maybe, they'd try me out to furnish the voice for one of Uncle Remus' animals," Baskett recalled.
Upon review of his voice, Walt Disney wanted to meet Baskett personally even though he was currently auditioning other actors for the Uncle Remus part. After seeing a three minute film test with Baskett, Walt was convinced.
Walt stated at the time: “In James Baskett, we found a great actor and the very image of Uncle Remus. He had, besides the presence and the manner for the role, the eloquent voice needed for the narration. I believe his impersonation will be accounted as one of the finest ever recorded on the screen."
However, Baskett was not Walt’s first choice for the role.
In February 1941, after seeing African American singer-actor Paul Robeson performing on stage in Porgy and Bess, Walt talked to him about perhaps playing the role of Uncle Remus and asked him if he was willing to review and offer suggestions on a possible outline for the script.
I couldn’t find further documentation if Robeson ever seriously considered that offer.
However, there is documentation that Walt talked with several other actors about portraying Uncle Remus including Rex Ingram, perhaps best remembered as the enormous genie in Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940).
A Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper article from Aug. 24, 1944 reported that Ben Carter turned down a role in the film, as did Mantan Moreland, Monte Hawley, Ernest Whiteman and Tim Moore.
On Oct. 4, 1944, a Los Angeles Times item stated that John Loder would be starring in the film along with Janet Gaynor and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.
On Nov. 8, 1944, the Hollywood Reporter noted that "John Loder has been signed by Walt Disney to play Uncle Remus in The Three Caballeros."
The character of Uncle Remus does not appear in The Three Caballeros and it doesn’t seem likely that Loder was seriously considered for the role of Remus but some sources have stated that he was being considered for a part supposedly listed in a draft as "John."
A Nov. 25, 1944 Pittsburgh Courier news item reported that Eddie Anderson would be unable to accept the part offered to him due to “personal appearance commitments.” Anderson was already trying to carefully maneuver the negativity from some of his peers who felt his portrayal of a servant on The Jack Benny Show could be considered demeaning.
According to the Jan. 6, 1946 The Daily Worker, both Clarence Muse and Rhythm and Blues band leader Tiny Bradshaw turned down roles in the film because they felt the picture would be "detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Negro people." Bradshaw declared it would “set back my people many years.”
Disney had hired Clarence Muse in 1944 to offer advice on the production. He was an African-American lawyer, writer, director, composer, and actor. Disgusted with the poor opportunities for black lawyers he then selected a show business career.
Unfortunately, Muse quit Disney early in 1944 after his ideas to portray the African-American characters in the film as more dignified and prosperous were rejected by Southern writer Dalton Reymond. Once Muse left Disney, he began to inform people about the nature of the Disney feature while it was still in the rough draft outline and before radical leftist screenwriter, Maurice Rapf had been brought in to make the script more acceptable.
Muse wrote letters to the editors of black publications that Disney was going to depict Negroes in an inferior capacity and that the film was "detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Negro people." So the pump was already primed for disaster.
In later years, screenwriter Maurice Rapf (who left the production also over a disagreement with Reymond) remembered that Walt "had a theory that the reason why the film was picketed and particularly attacked by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP was because the head of the local chapter was actor Clarence Muse. He knew that Walt Disney wanted to do a Remus story, and Muse wanted to play Remus. He was a standard serious black actor, but Disney got someone else. Now others said that couldn't be true, because Muse was a technical adviser on the film, though I think if that's true he didn't do a very good job advising."
According to the Los Angeles Sentinel, Helen Crozier was originally signed for the role of "Chloe." The February 1945 edition of the Los Angeles Sentinel added the following actors to the cast: Phil Jones (Coachman); Walter Knox (Gardner); and Daisy Bufford, Anna Marby, Theo Washington and Virgil Sanchies. None of these performers nor roles exist in the final film.
Hollywood Citizen-News claimed that Marylin Gwaltney and the B. C. Singers would be in the cast. A March 1, 1945 Los Angeles Times item reported that Mary Young had been cast in the role of "Aunt Margaret, a ‘meanie’, who is the bete noir of little Johnny," but no such character appears in the finished film.
A modern source notes that the cast included Ernestine Jones, who supplied the voice of a butterfly, while other sources state that Baskett himself eventually provided the butterfly's voice as well as the voice for Brer Fox. According to Disney writer and artist Russell Schroeder, Baskett also did a voice for a Brer Cricket who was eventually dropped from the final film.
However, here’s a final fun fact of a Song of the South version that never was. Remember those original African American spirituals that were going to be used when Song of the South was an all-animated project? The Disney Company still has “scratch tracks” of those songs with a professional singer doing the voice and singing for Uncle Remus on those songs.
The name of that singer?
Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards who provided the voice for Jiminy Cricket.