The Sad Song of the Southby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
On Wednesday, March 23, 2011, at the Disney Annual Stockholders Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, the very final question asked of Bob Iger, just minutes from concluding the meeting, was the annual query: When might the Disney Company release the live action/animated movie, Song of the South, to DVD?
After all, November of this year marks the 65th anniversary for the film that has not been seen legally by most Americans for decades, even though it has run on BBC2 television in the United Kingdom recently without causing rioting in the streets. The film has never been officially released in the United States on videotape or DVD even though it has been done so in several overseas countries.
Although he was smiling, Iger seemed a little irritated that the question keeps coming up at every Disney Stockholders meeting. He replied:
“I said last year at our shareholder’s meeting that I had watched Song of the South again… and even though we’ve considered it from time to time, bringing it back, I didn’t think it was the right thing for the company to do.
“It was made at a different time. Admittedly, you could use that as the context. Just felt 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. Just felt it wouldn’t be in the best interests of our shareholders to bring it back even though there would be some financial gain. Sometimes you make sacrifices on the financial side to do what you believe is right and that is an example of that.
“I just don’t feel that it is right for us to use company resources to make it available whether it’s wide or whether it’s narrowly available. It is a strong belief that I have. Consulted with other top executives in the company… they all agree. Remember it as it was and don’t expect to see it again at least for awhile…ever.”
Obviously, the Disney stockholders were not asked whether they would like to see the film released. Many would probably like to replace the easily obtainable bootleg copies of the film in their collections with a pricey Blu-Ray limited-edition package that would have background discussion by Civil War historians, African American leaders, animation historians and others that could make this a wonderful learning opportunity. Many of the legendary Disney animators feel the film contains their best animation work.
Entire generations of Disney theme park guests have enjoyed the “Splash Mountain” attraction without ever seeing the original film or sometimes not even knowing that the ride and the merchandise were based on a Disney film.
I’ve written about “Song of the South” many times before for MousePlanet. Check out some of these past columns written under my pseudonym of Wade Sampson including: The story of the Song of the South comic strip, The Song of the South Atlanta Movie Premiere, and The Song of the South storylines and actors that were never used in the final film:
In fact, I have just completed a 45,000-word essay on the entire history of Song of the South (based on an earlier article I wrote for the magazine Hogan’s Alley) from Walt’s first interest in the project to the controversies surrounding the film today. It might be the centerpiece of my next published book. Any interested publishers? (Of course, all of you have a copy on your bookshelves of the book I wrote and released last year, The Vault of Walt, available in paperback or on Kindle).
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.
It is important to remember that Song of the South came out in 1946 and there was no balance of media images that featured the noble Huxtable family of The Cosby Show or the dynamic John Shaft or even prominent African American leaders like Sidney Poitier or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. African American performers 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 for African Americans.
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 Studio's 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.
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 production time considerations, it was decided to do it as combination live-action and animation. In fact, Walt had other stories prepared for the possibility that if the film was a huge success that he would produce feature length sequels with Uncle Remus telling some of his other tales of the critters.
Almost immediately, there were rumblings about the film. Some felt it was inappropriate to use “Uncle Remus” in the title of the film. 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,’” Rapf said.
“Disney didn’t make it clear that the film wasn’t about slavery and that it was set during Reconstruction," he added. "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.
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 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 an 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, 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."
The reviews for the film 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, 25 years 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 Klu 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.”
As Robert Iger emphasized, don’t expect to see it again…ever.
In the meantime, here's the very best location for information on Disney’s version of Song of the South from the film itself to merchandise to music to much more.