SONG OF THE SOUTH ~ (1946) ~ Rare! ~ Bobby Driscoll, James Baskett, Ruth Warrick, Johnny Lee, Hattie McDaniel
ABOUT THE TITLE
Song of the South , a 1946 live-action/animation hybrid directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson .
Based on the collected Uncle Remus stories of author Joel Chandler Harris , the film follows an innocent young boy from Atlanta named Johnny ( Bobby Driscoll ) who moves with his mother to his grandmother’s plantation. (His father remains in Atlanta to work as a newspaper editor.)
On the plantation, Johnny learns a series of life lessons from Uncle Remus ( James Baskett ) in the form of stories about the animated Br’er Rabbit (voiced by Johnny Lee ) and his quest to evade Br’er Fox ( Baskett ) and Br’er Bear ( Nick Stewart ). Included amongst these cartoon interludes is “ Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah ,” which won the Oscar for Best Original Song and is one of the most famous and beloved tunes in the Disney library.
On the eve of the release of perhaps Clearly the most important and political animated feature in Disney’s long history, it seemed like the ideal time to look back at the studio’s most notorious movie. Is it worthy of the years of controversy? Is Disney right to keep it unreleased? Or is the whole thing overblown? Just how bad is it? It’s pretty bad.
Granted, nothing in the film comes close to matching the virulent racism of a film like The Birth of a Nation , D.W. Griffith’s silent epic about the “heroic” efforts of the Ku Klux Klan to protect the post-Civil War South from former slaves (played by white actors in blackface).
Song of the South’s African American characters are treated warmly, particularly Uncle Remus, who is Johnny’s best friend and confidant, a charismatic storyteller, and, most importantly, the film’s conduit to the animated world of Br’er Rabbit. (Baskett was given an honorary Oscar for the role.)
The problem isn’t necessarily what Song of the South depicts, but what it chooses not to depict. Although Harris’ Uncle Remus stories were set in Georgia after the Civil War, the film adaptation never makes it clear when the story is taking place. Wikipedia tells me that if you’re an expert in Reconstruction-era clothing, you’d recognize Johnny and his family’s late-Victorian wardrobe. But for the rest of us dopes, there’s no indication when the film is set. If you’re not a scholar or an Uncle Remus expert, it’s very easy to assume that the film is set before the Civil War, and that Remus and Aunt Tempy ( Hattie McDaniel ) are slaves — and that they are completely fine with that.
No one expects a serious meditation on racial identity in a Disney children’s film, but even by the company’s generous standards, Song of the South’s version of the South is sanitized in the extreme. Like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” this is quintessential Disney; just not in a good way. Here “utterly uncomplicated” applies to the way they strip any sense of politics, history, or ideology out of this setting to make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Most Disney movies are set in an ill-defined and idealized past, and that’s fine when you’re making a movie about a princess who lives in a magic kingdom. When you’re making something about 1800s Georgia? It’s more of an issue.
The words “slave” and “slavery” are never uttered, and the specifics of the economic relationship between the blacks and whites (Master and slave? Employer and servant?) are left deliberately vague. By stripping out any concrete details of time and place, Disney essentially turned the plantation system into a ludicrous utopia where blacks and whites live in harmony — a harmony where the only thing that’s clear is that the blacks are inferior and servile to the whites, but are content to work the fields anyway.
As gorgeously animated as the Br’er Rabbit sequences are, their messages don’t exactly help Song of the South’s case in the offensiveness department either. Several of Remus’ stories are about Br’er Rabbit wanting to run away from his problems; the moral, inevitably, is that you can’t avoid trouble and there’s no place like home.
These lessons are particularly important to Johnny because he doesn’t like life on the plantation initially and wants to run away to live with his father in Atlanta. But when coupled with the African American characters’ oddly cheerful attitude about their social status, the movie seems to be arguing on behalf of complacency. Don’t leave the plantation, don’t try to better yourself. Just go with the flow. (One of the animated shorts — the one that gets recounted in the animatronic portions of Splash Mountain, in fact — involves Br’er Rabbit getting stuck in a “tar-baby.” While the cartoon itself isn’t necessarily about race, the use of that term as an insult towards African Americans is yet another strike against the film. And no, the “tar-baby” doesn’t appear in Splash Mountain; instead, Br’er Rabbit gets stuck in a beehive.)
I don’t think any of this was intentional. I believe that Disney saw Uncle Remus as an unequivocally positive character. Some critics have observed a kinship between Uncle Remus and “Uncle Walt” — men with an unshakeable belief in the power of stories who’ve dedicated their lives to entertaining and educating children.
Although Johnny’s mother repeatedly orders Remus not to tell Johnny any more stories, those same stories eventually save Johnny’s life. At the end of the film, Remus’ words seem to heal Johnny after he’s suffered a potentially deadly injury. It’s very possible that Disney had good intentions — and still wound up with a very questionable movie.
ABOUT THE TRANSFER
Excellent colorful transfer from overseas laserdisc elements. (A)
Run time: 94m
B&W / Color: Color