I turn my focus to the notorious Disney classic, Song of the South. In truth, this is well trodden ground and I have found it difficult to approach the subject from a new angle. Almost every mention of the subject is accompanied with the same rote recitation of factoids, which makes it very difficult to craft an original synthesis of information. But, since it is already generally considered that the 1946 Disney interpretation of Joel Chandler Harris’ Nineteenth Century plantation tales was artfully impactful (for good or ill) and, more recently, topically controversial, I would like to tread new ground and now argue that the film adaptation was culturally significant in its own way, as well as informative in the development of Disney’s brand and practices.
It must first be understood that the nature of the film, as delivered, was the result of an earnest effort to translate a (contemporary) children’s literary classic for the enjoyment of a new generation already developing new consumer habits. While the original Uncle Remus stories, as penned by Harris in his Wren’s Nest, were literary in the purely material and commercial sense, they were, nevertheless, part of a many-generation-old oral tradition and were typically received by children as a live reading by an adult. Children would also be the passive recipients of Song of The South’s fabulous moralizing and so the film, being canonically sound, I think, represents a genuine evolution of the orthodox continuity. If so, the film shares its cultural/historical significance with the literary and oral tradition and is a good starting point for determining the importance of Disney’s movie to following generations. It is at least as important as the books and tales were to the children of previous generations. As a vehicle for the delivery of a body of material, it is at least as valuable as the content delivered. In ballistic terms, the film maintains the impactful momentum and, perhaps, imparts a new energy for greater cultural penetration.
So, how important were the original Joel Chandler Harris stories? Oh, very.
The original tales of Uncle Remus were the inspiration for most of the anthropomorphized talking animal stories we have today. Strangely, they were hugely influential upon the Victorian and Edwardian British authors whose work now typifies the genre. Rudyard Kipling claimed that a whole generation of British school children had been inducted into that readership and Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, is the most obvious of that school. She developed her signature character while illustrating Uncle Remus stories in the 1890s, but also admitted to having enjoyed family readings of Harris’ material in her youth. A.A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, also admitted to a childhood interest in the stories of Br’er Rabbit and borrowed from the source material as well. It is generally accepted that Kenneth Grahame and his “Wind in the Willows” were, at least, partly inspired by Harris’ humanized zoology and a well-studied collection of Uncle Remus stories was recovered from the personal collection of Richard Adams of (much later) “Watership Down” authorship. Strangely, T.S. Eliot would even correspond with his dirty commie friend Ezra Pound in a Harris-inspired Black Southern voice. They even adopted “Br’er”ish literary handles for each other as some sort of inside joke.
Harris’s use of language was also profoundly influential on his fellow and contemporary Southern writers who really aught to have been able to rely upon their own native experience. Both Samuel Clemens and William Faulkner drew heavily from Harris to portray Southern Blacks in dialogue. “Twain”, who was as famous in his lifetime for his live reading tours as for his writing, would just as often read another writer’s material as his own and maintained a well-proportioned rotation of William Gilmore Simms and Joel Harris. Clemens claimed that Harris was the absolute master of the Black voice in fiction and drafted many of Harris’ turns of phrase for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Likewise, Faulkner, in navigating the uncertainties of transcribing authentic Black vernacular, would defer to prior forms established by Harris. So it can be seen that Harris defined both the style and the substance of a whole genre of fantasy fiction
Harris would barely survive the century and finished his run having been awarded numerous honorific titles and degrees. He was praised by critics and peers, and even hosted at the White House. Walt Disney was small child when Harris died and it was in the aftermath of that writer’s commonly acknowledged greatness that he would share in the (then) universal childhood experience of Uncle Remus’ bed-time stories. It was natural for him, in his later professional adulthood, to have wanted to repackage these essentially American tales for mass consumption just as he had European fables.
The production of Song of the South was not technically innovative, the mixing of hand-rendered animation with live footage had already been done. The technique went back to the silent era (1925’s The Lost World) and been perfected by the time Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh just the year prior to Song of the South’s release. Heck, Disney himself had already done it in Three Caballeros (it was so-so). Nevertheless, Disney’s Harris adaptation occasioned a change in its business practices.
With Song of The South, the studio would begin to recruit actors with the intention of cultivating a stable of genre-specific talent and fostering long-term professional relationships, effectively branding them. Young Bobby Discoll and Luana Patton, who would play the two leads Johnny and Ginny, respectively, were Disney’s first contracted actors despite the fact that the studio had been making feature-length films for years. In a way, Disney was re-inventing the “studio system” which had dominated American film since before the shift toward Hollywood and which had declined into obsolescence during the war years immediately prior. But, instead of locking actors into long-term exclusive agreements, Walt’s studio was creating a sole employment market in which they were the only real game in town for the likeliest candidates. This new way of doing business would be foundational to Disney’s future development, especially during its early foray into the burgeoning television industry. Annette Funicello and Kurt Russell would later be the beneficiaries of the child-cultivating techniques which evolved from the production of “Song…”.
[Hey, editor…what are my alternatives here? “Child recruiting”…sounds sexual…”child harvesting”…no…now I’m thinking of food AGAIN…peaches and meatballs? But why?]
The film, while shaping the outcome of future careerists, did nothing for the immediate prospects of their live actors…which is a shame because their performance, itself, was nearly universally praised, even by the film’s detractors. James Baskett, the true adult lead who played both gregarious Uncle Remus and mischievous Br’er Fox, would become the first Black actor to receive an Academy Award, even if honorary, for these portrayals. The three principle child actors would have likewise been jointly awarded if the Academy had not decided to skip the awards for children for 1947. Instead, a cloud of ill fortune seemed to have attached itself to the cast. During the very filming of a movie featuring the dissolution of the marriage of Johnny’s parents, played by Erik Rolf and Ruth Warrick, the two secretly married actors were actually divorcing. Rolf would only lead in a few more productions before his early death in 1957. Bobby Driscoll was an early example of the modern typecast child actor who grows up and outlives his appeal, and he would die tragically in an abandoned building in 1968, at the age of 31, having fallen upon hard times. Luana Patton generally retired from acting just as her potential seemed to resolve. Glenn Leedy, the third child of the central cast who played the character Toby and was, like Luana, discovered and recruited locally to the production (the film’s live-action footage was shot on set in Phoenix), would almost seem to afterward disappear, though internet rumor claims he is featured in a handful of uncredited roles in low-budget fair. James Baskett would never appear in film again. Having returned to his earlier stage and voice acting career, he would die from heart failure in 1948 during a break from recording for the Amos and Andy show. Only Ruth Warrick, who played Johnny’s mother, seemed to prosper afterwards…if having a career in daytime soaps playing a character named Phoebe English Tyler Wallingford Matthews Wallingford (so named because her character married back into the same family twice in the course of the show All My Children) can be considered such.
The true legacy of Song of The South, perhaps for Disney, is in the refinement of the studio’s own house style and branding. The animation is miles ahead of what premiered in “Snow White…” and the execution is much more like the quality and fashion Disney would produce for the next thirty years. Visually, it was brighter and more fluid, but was colored in a palate amenable to the photography of the live footage. Narratively, the show was upbeat and optimistic. Disney features had previous been compared to carnival dark rides, emotional roller coasters hurdling through shadow, and often considered dark and scary. Whereas later Disney production is more colorful, the ambiance of “Song…” endures in the visual style of the studio throughout the remainder its catalog. But the song and music of the film’s score are the most obvious reminders of its existence today.
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah won an Academy award in 1947 and would function, until the crafting of the Mickey Mouse March in 1957, as Disney’s unofficial studio anthem. The eponymous mouse, himself, originally played the musical component on an animated piano in the Mickey Mouse Club pilot episode, before the March became the opener. Prior to “Zip…”, Disney’s only remembered contribution to popular music had been the dwarven Heigh Ho nearly a decade earlier. With lyrics of disputed origin with no internal branding to watermark it, “Zip-a-dee…” would enjoy much broader appeal and higher cultural penetration than either of those two other works. Its popularity would even endure Robin Williams singing “Arabian Nights” (the lyrics of which actually ARE racist), only to be finally surpassed by that fucking Frozen song.
When Disney released Song of The South, the studio would produce but not distribute. Disney usually partnered with RKO Radio Pictures to distribute its material in a relationship which survived from an earlier time in which the studio produced “shorts” appearing before proper features. Disney’s shorts were…well…too short to warrant distribution, so Walt would rely on third-party RKO to package Disney’s work with other material. But, as Disney gained its footing in the production of true feature-length shows, the growing studio began to look for a way out of that arrangement. Song of The South was one of the last features to go through RKO. Shortly after, Disney would sever its connection with RKO because they refused to distribute an installment in the True-Life Adventures series entitled The Living Desert. Disney would create the Buena Vista brand to both distribute their domestic productions as well as the import properties the rapidly expanding media conglomerate was then acquiring. All future theatrical releases of “Song…” were imprinted by Buena Vista.
Unfortunately, Song of The South is remembered today simply as ‘that movie that Disney can’t show you’, but in truth it could. While the film has been surrounded with controversy from the very beginning, much of what is commonly believed about the film’s history is simply untrue. The cause of confusion regarding this film’s agenda stems from the source material’s treatment in the well intentioned hands of screenplay writer Dalton Reymond. Walt Disney hired Reymond for his authentic local color, and he really played it straight. Reymond sought to preserve as much of the flavor and texture of the original (very) Southern language as non-Southerners could tolerate…and he overestimated. Disney overcorrected by hiring the exact opposite sort of writer, Maurice Kapf, a Yankee communist, to work with Dalton and reign in his casual verbiage. But Reymond alienated Kapf and Clarence Muse (the American film industry’s first real Black “star” who had wanted to play Uncle Remus). Whereas it is made clear in Harris’ original books that the story, or at least the telling of them, took place during the Reconstruction period, post war, declarative language to that effect was missing from Reymond’s screenplay and this ambiguity would jibe with the misconceptions of prejudiced minds willing and desiring to misconstrue. Muse would proceed to convince the NAACP that “Song…” was a White supremacist apologetic for slavery. When Disney refused to submit a preview for their approval, they, in their turn, began a protest campaign which produced demonstrations at every major opening venue and convinced the critics of the day to torpedo the film in review without actually bothering to go see it (just like today).
Song of The South performed rather well, despite the bad press. According to most sources, it was the top grossing film of 1946, which was the peak year for movie attendance, with about 60% of the American population going to the theater. It beat The Postman Always Rings Twice, and (with great pleasure I would like to point out) it trounced It’s A Wonderful Life. Even the promotional comic strip which Disney would publish prior and during the film’s theatrical run was unnaturally long-lived and ran until 1972. The movie itself was occasionally re-released until 1986 when it was returned to the studio’s famous vault forever, it seems. Disney CEO Michael Eisner declared the film too problematic for American audiences, though he allowed its release into the foreign home video marketplace. The only copies available in the United States are either bootlegs or imports, but all are derived from earlier analog tape. Disney has never released a true digital copy from print.
These days, the film is considered deeply offensive for its portrayal of Southern Black people (and Southern Black animals, I guess). For decades, it escaped the notice of the morality police that Baskett had also voiced the BLACK-black crow in Dumbo, lent local color to the Amos and Andy Show, and delivered some of the most painfully pidgin-englished dialogue in film history in a terrible John Carradine zombie picture. This one film, strangely, became a lightening rod for all of society’s distaste for that which society, itself, created a market. But instead of viewing this movie through the lens of history and reflexively considering its own past and current prejudices, our current society would rather gather around the witch’s pillory with a misplaced sense of moral pride and, essentially, accuse actors of Baskett’s day of being Uncle Toms when he was really more like a Seventh Grade English teacher trying to get students to read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
When gauging the sincerity of grandstanders, please consider this:
Then only remaining unhidden reminder of Song of The South allowed in the United States under the Disney corporation’s purview is the barely connected Splash Mountain ride found in Disney Parks on both coasts. The reason for its existence is absolutely paradoxical. Michael Eisner wanted to attract more attendance to the Bear Country section of the parks. You know, the section wherein the anthropomorphized animals portray stereotypes of Appalachian Whites. Eisner’s sloppily syllogistic brain actually entertained the streaming conscience which associated poor Southern Whites with rivers, ’cause Huck Finn, and associated rivers with log flumes and, therefore, log flume rides. So, the very same man who locked away the movie and declared it offensive because it stereotyped Southern Blacks, nevertheless capitalized on it to promote the commercialized stereotyping of Southern Whites. Besides, Br’er Bear’s a bear, ain’t he? All them bears look the same…to a RACIST!
The language and characters employed in Joel Chandler Harris’ books clearly do not issue from a hatred of Blacks or Black culture. Harris, himself, was an ardent anti-racist and very progressive for his day. As a writer, editor, and publisher, he not only waged a writing campaign against racial prejudice and discrimination, he was a racial egalitarian and radical reconciliationist to the point of promoting miscegenation which, in the 1880s, was daring. He was so far on the left end of the political spectrum that, even with today’s leftward leaning political fashion, he would probably still have his job at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.