TO SEE “SONG OF THE SOUTH” AGAIN
In 1985 I was flown down to the Disney Studio in Burbank with one of our story people to discuss our doing a project for them. We were soon at work on the project following further meetings and visits that were as enjoyable as they were successful. They were enjoyable enough that I brought up a subject that might have been considered taboo. At one meeting, which included a high-up Vice President, I said that it was time for their feature SONG OF THE SOUTH to be reissued to theaters. There was the expected oh-we-can’t-do-that knee-jerk reaction, and we then spent quite some time on the subject. About six months later I got a phone call saying that my arguments were thought through and the film would be returning to theaters, as it did throughout North America in 1986 and was successful at the box office. I think it is time to see the film again, at least on video and DVD if not theatrically.
SONG OF THE SOUTH was a major motion picture in 1946, certainly a major one for Walt Disney. In 1946 the stories of Joel Chandler Harris were as well-known as those of Dr. Seuss or A.A. Milne today, or those of Aesop, the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson were to earlier generations. The stories are told through the fictional yarn-spinner Uncle Remus, who tells tales of the critters Brer Rabbit and other fictional characters from the Old South.
Walt Disney decided to bring these tales to life through animation, which some say is the best his studio ever produced. Ollie Johnston told me it was the film he most enjoyed animating on, but more of the animation later. The animation segments are surrounded with a live-action story. They are set in the times in which they were written, the antebellum south following the civil war in the USA. Uncle Remus lives on a plantation where, in a retirement mode, he is content to tell stories. To this plantation comes a couple and their little boy, whose grandmother owns the plantation. The father is not staying on. The parents are about to begin a separation, which forms the emotional underpinning of the live-action story. This is a dark and un-Disney story. The boy does not comprehend the separation’s reasons, which seem to be about the father’s newspaper editorials, unexplained in the film. The boy is withdrawn and miserable, the actual separation scene heart wrenching to witness as the boy cries and pleads with his parents. Later his mother forces him to return a puppy to the local bullies who clearly state they want to drown it, in another traumatic scene. The mother is caring but cold and strict. His only consolation is a new friendship with another young boy on the plantation, and Uncle Remus, both black.
There was a huge premiere in Atlanta, almost as big as the one seven years earlier for GONE WITH THE WIND. The film was first-class all the way. It was shot in Technicolor, when only a handful of films were each year. The cinematographer was Greg Tolland, who had shot CITIZEN KANE. Ruth Warrick, whose first film was as Kane’s wife in that classic film, played the mother. Today she has one of the longest-running roles in TV history as Phoebe on the daily soap opera ALL MY CHILDREN. The grandmother who owns the plantation is played by Lucille Watson who brought intelligence to any film she played in. Her scenes with Uncle Remus are solid as they commiserate that the opinions of old people “don’t count for much these days” as they see the mother going about things wrongly.
The boy is played by Bobby Driscoll in his first Disney film. He went on to do SO DEAR TO MY HEART and TREASURE ISLAND lead roles. He was in the live intro to PECOS BILL in MELODY TIME and was the voice of PETER PAN. He is, as always, superb. He would win a deserved Academy Award ® three years later. Hattie McDaniel, who won one herself as Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND, has a lighter role here, where she even has a song, called SOONER OR LATER, a torch song if you listen closely. A song from DICK TRACY, sung by Madonna, with the same title would win an Oscar for Disney years later. The little girl is played by Luanna Patten, who would appear with Bobby Driscoll in MELODY TIME, was in FUN AND FANCY FREE, and all grown up in Disney’s JOHNNY TREMAIN in a lead role and But the amazing talent of the film is James Baskette, a longtime radio actor, who plays Uncle Remus. He shows his versatility not only in his doing a great job with that role, but also voices the super fast talking Brer Fox in the animated stories. They are two separate and totally different performances.
James Baskette was given a Special Academy Award for SONG OF THE SOUTH, and until Sidney Poitier won his Oscar in 1964 he and Hattie McDaniel remained the only two black actors to receive Academy Awards. There was a second Oscar awarded for SONG OF THE SOUTH, for its most popular song, Zip-A-Dee-Dooh-Dah, a feel-good song. The music and many songs from the film are wonderful, from the pop standard Oscar winner and torch songs mentioned above, to the black spiritual songs of fun (“Uncle Remus Said’) and faith (“More and More Faith in Him.”) The musical score was nominated for an Oscar as well, but did not win.
The animation stories are simply wonderful entertainment as Brer Rabbit, even when caught by Brer Fox and Brer Bear in each one, still manages to escape their clutches by “using his wits instead of his foots.” It’s as if the Coyote catches the Roadrunner each time, but the trick is how the latter escapes. The first animated story has Brer Rabbit running away from home only to be caught as a result. The second is the most famous of all the Harris tales, The Tar Baby. You can hear it referred to quite regularly on CNN where every so often a politician will say some problem or other may turn out to be a tar baby for the President. Again, Brer Rabbit is caught, this time due to his arrogance and overconfidence. The third animated story is The Laughing Place. At our studio in Montreal, the story room had a sign someone put on the door, “The Laughing Place” and I’ve seen it on a few other doors over the years at various companies.
But even better than these fully-animated sections are the sections which combine live action with animation. The Zip-A-Dee-Dooh-Dah song is sung during a Jolly Holiday MARY POPPINS-type section when Uncle Remus enters the cartoon world. Ub Iwerks had invented the optical printer for Donald Duck and his friends to cavort with live-action actors the year before for THE THREE CABELLEROS, but the invention was really used with invention here. The live people and animated characters truly interact. When Uncle Remus lights his pipe, then leans over to light that of Brer Frog with a live match that has an animated flame, it is perfect. When their animated fishing lines fall into the water below, the effect is more astonishing, better than the water reflections in BAMBI as the deer walk single file beside a pond during the autumn sequence. At the end of the film, the system is reversed. Instead of a dream sequence when Uncle Remus enters the cartoon world, at the end the animated characters enter the actual non-dream state live-action world for a really fun ending and Zip-A-Dee-Dooh-Dah reprise, where characters cause live-action effects, a dog races an animated character and so on.
The character animation is just great. No wonder Ollie Johnston enjoyed doing his part it so much. The characters are as varied as they are fun. Brer Rabbit is cocky. Brer Fox is so fast talking and animated, both his mouth movements and physical action are almost all done on “ones”. It must have been a big challenge to keep it going and keep it from being jerky. Brer Bear, voiced by Nicodemus Stewart (who died recently in his ‘90s) is the total opposite—slower than molasses! What a pair—coordinating their actions must have been a whole other challenge! To see the animated sections is to see animation timing at its most exciting. Tex Avery must have learned a lot from SONG OF THE SOUTH.
So why is the film a taboo subject at Disney? It is still a favorite of many people. I can honestly say that I get an email at least every two weeks from some stranger asking what’s up with Disney on SONG OF THE SOUTH or asking if I have books or photos or something they can have since Disney isn’t providing anything they can buy. Actually, the Splash Mountain rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are themed on Song of the South. Uncle Remus sayings are found on walls throughout the ride’s boarding area. Audio animatronic Brers Rabbit, Fox, and Bear and other characters from the film are seen during the ride, and when you finally take that long plunge, it is into the briar patch where Brer Rabbit lives. But just look at the blank faces of the people taking the ride, especially the young people. They knew who the characters were in the Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh and other rides, but who the hell are these characters? You can see bewilderment in their faces.
The same fear of being politically incorrect that is having some schools ban TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and HUCKLEBERRY FINN from their libraries is behind Disney’s reluctance to reissue this film in some ways. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD brought more people of different races together than any book since UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN was another of those landmark books in which black people were people first, and black second, unheard of in literature 120 or so years ago. But they used the “N” word and so the books must now be banned in our times. Never mind the spirit behind the books or their message. People must talk as we do now or books are banned
The crows in DUMBO are caricatures of black jazz musicians of the day and well done. They are heroes in the film and help Dumbo fly. But just the idea of doing black musicians as subjects in the first place is today considered “bad”. Similarly, Uncle Remus can be the hero and smartest of all the people in the film, but if he talks in the language of 120 years ago when the tales were written, and says “dem” and “dose”, that’s not good enough. He must talk as a highly educated black man of 2002 or it is “bad.” Some have said that the sharecropper blacks in the film and Uncle Remus live dirt-poor, but so do the white people in the film. Except for the plantation home, everyone lives in shacks like the boy’s white girlfriend does. The war physically devastated the south and that is shown and also that helps the point—when the girl says her laughing place is her home, and runs toward this old run-down shack that shocks us today, it is still on its rickety front porch where her father scoops her up and they laugh, and the human family message and values of the film shine through. She has what the boy can’t have with his father, and the mother can’t emotionally provide.
I think this the time for the film to be seen again in North America. People in Europe and Japan can buy videos and until recently laserdiscs of SONG OF THE SOUTH any day of the week, but not in North America. Surely we can rise above the pettiness of social politics and engineering to see the value of the creative arts for their artistic value, mindful of the times in which they were made. (Shakespeare and BIRTH OF A NATION come to mind.) The two races are on equal human standing in the film. The white boy and the black boy are genuine friends in the film, and the grandmother, when she leaves them in one scene, pats them both with affection. In 1956 the film was released in theaters again. It was not allowed to be shown to anyone under 16 in Quebec because it showed the two races (the boys) “in an aspect of familiarity.” There are always those who cannot see the overall messages of films and pick on aspects of the messenger. Let people see the film again and judge for ourselves. As for those with their thumb up their ass, for them that’s just where it belongs.
Peter Adamakos is an animation producer and director who founded an animation company 31 years ago. Peter has also been a collector of original animation artwork for over 35 years. His collection has formed the basis of major museum exhibitions in cities like Montreal, New York, Toronto, Tampa, Paris, Atlanta, Brussels and many more. He also teaches in animation.
Peter can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by snail mail at: