Song of the South is a feature film produced by Walt Disney Productions, released on November 12, 1946 by RKO Radio Pictures and based on the Uncle Remus cycle of stories by Joel Chandler Harris. It was one of Walt Disney's earliest feature films to combine live action footage with animation and was the first Disney feature film in which live actors were hired for lead roles. The live actors provide a sentimental frame story, in which Uncle Remus relates the folk tales of the adventures of Br'er Rabbit and his friends. These anthropomorphic animal characters appear in animation.
The film has never been officially released on DVD or home video in the USA, because of content which Disney executives believe would be construed by some as being racially insensitive towards black people, and is thus subject to much rumor. The hit song from the film was "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", which won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song.
|Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
The setting is the Southern United States, shortly after the American Civil War. Seven-year-old Johnny is excited about what he believes to be a vacation at his grandmother's Georgia plantation with his parents, John Sr. and Sally. When they arrive at the plantation, he discovers that his parents are separating and he is to live in the country with his mother and grandmother while his father returns to Atlanta to continue his controversial editorship in the city's newspaper. Johnny, distraught because his father has never left him or his mother before, leaves that night under cover of darkness and sets off for Atlanta with only a bindle. As Johnny sneaks away from the plantation, he is attracted by the voice of Uncle Remus, telling tales of a character named Br'er Rabbit. Curious, Johnny hides behind a nearby tree to spy on the group of people sitting around the fire. By this time, word has gotten out that Johnny is gone and the servants, who are sent out to find him, ask if Uncle Remus has seen the boy. Uncle Remus replies that he's with him. Shortly afterwards, he catches up with Johnny who sits crying on a nearby log. He befriends the young boy and offers him some food for the journey, taking him back to his cabin.
As Uncle Remus cooks, he mentions Br'er Rabbit again and the boy, curious, asks him to tell him more. After Uncle Remus tells a tale about Br'er Rabbit's attempt to run away from home, Johnny takes the advice and changes his mind about leaving the plantation, letting Uncle Remus take him back to his mother. Johnny makes friends with Toby, a little black boy who lives on the plantation, and Ginny Favers, a poor white neighbor. However, Ginny's two older brothers, Joe and Jake, are not friendly at all. They constantly bully Ginny and Johnny. When Ginny gives Johnny a puppy her brothers want to drown, a fight breaks out among the three boys. Heartbroken because his mother won't let him keep the puppy, Johnny takes the dog to Uncle Remus and tells him of his troubles. Uncle Remus takes the dog in and delights Johnny and his friends with the fable of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, stressing how one shouldn't go messing around with something they have no business with in the first place.
Johnny heeds the advice of how Br'er Rabbit used reverse psychology on Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear and begged the Favers boys not to tell their mother about the dog, which is precisely, only to get a good spanking for it. Enraged, the boys vow revenge. They go to the plantation and tell Johnny's mother, who is upset that Uncle Remus kept the dog despite her order, unbeknownst to Uncle Remus. She orders the old man not to tell any more stories to her son. The day of Johnny's birthday arrives. Johnny picks up Ginny to take her to his party. Ginny's mother used her wedding dress to make her a beautiful dress for the party. On the way there, however, Joe and Jake pick another fight. Ginny gets pushed and ends up in a mud puddle. With her dress ruined, Ginny refuses to go to the party. Johnny doesn't want to go either, especially since his father won't be there. Uncle Remus discovers the two dejected children and cheers them by telling the story of Br'er Rabbit and his "Laughing Place". When Uncle Remus returns to the plantation with the children, Sally meets them on the way and is angry at Johnny for not having attended his own birthday party. Ginny mentions Uncle Remus telling them a story and Sally draws the line, warning Uncle Remus not to spend time with Johnny any more. Uncle Remus, saddened by the misunderstanding of his good intentions, packs his bags and leaves for Atlanta. Johnny, seeing Uncle Remus leaving from a distance, rushes to intercept him, taking a shortcut through the pasture where he is attacked and seriously injured by the resident bull. While Johnny hovers between life and death, his father returns and reconciles with Sally. But Johnny calls for Uncle Remus, who had returned in all the commotion. Uncle Remus began telling a tale of Br'er Rabbit and the Laughing Place again, and the boy miraculously survives.
There are three animated segments in the movie:
Brer Rabbit Runs Away; about 8 minutes, including the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
The Tar Baby; about 12 minutes, interrupted with a short live action scene about two thirds in the cartoon.
Brer Rabbit's Laughing place; about 5 minutes and the only segment that doesn't use Uncle Remus as an intro to its main story.
Also most of the last couple of minutes of the movie contains animation as most of the cartoon characters shows up in a live action world to meet the live action characters, and in the last seconds of the movie the real world is turned into an animated one.
Spoilers end here.
Production and response
Walt Disney had long wanted to make a film based on the Uncle Remus storybook, but it wasn't until the mid-1940s that he had found a way to give the stories an adequate film equivalent, in scope and fidelity. "I always felt that Uncle Remus should be played by a living person," Disney is quoted as saying, "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 in 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 more pleasurable undertaking."
Song of the South, made under the working title Uncle Remus, was the very first film produced by Walt Disney to employ professional actors. James Baskett was the first live actor to be hired by Disney. Baskett got the job of portraying Uncle Remus after answering an ad to provide the voice of a talking butterfly. "I thought that, maybe, they'd try me out to furnish the voice for one of Uncle Remus' animals," Baskett is quoted as saying. Upon review of his voice, Disney wanted to meet Baskett personally, and had him tested for the role of Uncle Remus. Not only did Baskett get the part of the butterfly's voice, but also the voice of Br'er Fox and the live-action role of Uncle Remus as well. Additionally, Baskett filled in as the voice of Br'er Rabbit for Johnny Lee in the "Laughing Place" scene after Lee was called away to do promotion for the picture.
Also cast in the production were child actors Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten and Glenn Leedy. Driscoll was the first actor to be under a personal contract with the Disney studio. Patten was a professional model since age 3, and caught the attention of Disney when she appeared on the cover of "Woman's Home Companion" magazine. Leedy was discovered on the playground of the Booker T. Washington school in Phoenix, AZ by a talent scout from the Disney studio. Ruth Warrick and Erik Rolf, cast as Johnny's mother and father, had actually been married during filming, but divorced in 1946. Hattie McDaniel also appeared in the role of Aunt Tempy.
As had been done earlier with Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney produced a Sunday strip titled Uncle Remus & His Tales of Brer Rabbit to give the film pre-release publicity. The strip was launched by King Features on October 14, 1945, more than a year before the film was released. Unlike the Snow White comic strip, which only adapted the movie, Uncle Remus ran for decades, telling one story after another about the characters, some based on the legends and others new, until it ended on December 31, 1972. The film was completed and premiered on November 12, 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia. Baskett was reportedly unable to attend the premiere as no hotel within reach of the theater would rent him a room. Baskett won an honorary Oscar for his portrayal.
When the film was first released, the NAACP acknowledged "the remarkable artistic merit" of the film, but decried the supposed "impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship" (even though the film was set after the American Civil War). Today, the organization has no position on the movie. In 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked the film as the 67th greatest animated film of all time.
Releases and availability
Although the film has been re-released several times (most recently in 1986), the Disney corporation has avoided making it directly available on home video or DVD in the United States because the frame story was deemed too controversial by studio management. Film critic Roger Ebert has supported this position, claiming that most Disney films become a part of the consciousness of American children, who take films more literally than do adults. In the U.S., only excerpts from the animated segments have ever appeared in Disney's DVDs (such as the 2004 two-disc release of Alice in Wonderland (1951)), television shows, and the popular log-flume attraction Splash Mountain is based upon the same animated portions.
Despite rumors of a forthcoming DVD release, this exchange took place between a shareholder and Disney CEO Robert Iger on Friday, March 10, 2006 at a Disney Shareholder Meeting:
"My name is Howard Cromer. I live in Cypress, I'm a Disney shareholder. I'm actually delivering a message from my son, 10. He wants to know in recent years, in the midst of all your re-releases of your videos, why you haven't released Song of the South on your Disney Classics? ..."
Iger: "... We've discussed this a lot. We believe it's actually an opportunity from a financial perspective to put Song of the South out. I screened it fairly recently because I hadn't seen it since I was a child, and I have to tell you after I watched it, even considering the context that it was made, I had some concerns about it because of what it depicted. And though it's quite possible that people wouldn't consider it in the context that it was made, and there were some... [long pause] depictions that I mentioned earlier in the film that I think would be bothersome to a lot of people. And so, owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture, balancing it with the desire to, uh, maybe increase our earnings a bit, but never putting that in front of what we thought were our ethics and our integrity, we made the decision not to re-release it. Not a decision that is made forever, I imagine this is going to continue to come up, but for now we simply don't have plans to bring it back because of the sensitivities that I mentioned. Sorry."
The film has been released on video in various European and Asian countries. While most foreign releases of the film are direct translations of the English title (Canción del Sur in Spanish, Mélodie du Sud in French, Melodie Van Het Zuiden in Dutch, and A Canção do Sul in Portuguese), the German title Onkel Remus' Wunderland translates to "Uncle Remus' Wonderland", and the Italian title I Racconti Dello Zio Tom translates to "The Stories of Uncle Tom."
Despite the film's lack of home video release directly to consumers in the United States, audio from the film—both the musical soundtrack and dialogue—were made widely available to the public from the time of the film's debut up through the late 1970s. In particular, many Book-and-Record sets were released, alternately featuring the animated portions of the film or summaries of the film as a whole. In addition, the film is widely, and legally, available in the United States at retail outlets and sites like eBay in both VHS-PAL and Laserdisc. Numerous retail outlets also sell this film on both VHS-NTSC and DVD for viewing within the United States apparently without litigation by Disney.
In late December 2006, a Song of the South fansite posted a news item reporting that a near-future DVD release, from Disney's upcoming "Legacy" series is possible, quoting words supposedly from Roy E. Disney himself.
Songs featured in the film include:
- "Song of the South"
- "Uncle Remus Said"
- "Ev'rybody's Got a Laughing Place"
- "How Do You Do?"
- "Sooner or Later"
- "Who Wants to Live Like That?"
- "Let the Rain Pour Down"
- "All I Want"
The song "Look at the Sun" is marketed as one of the songs from the movie, though it is not actually in the film. There are only five minutes of the movie without any music.
Pop culture references
There have been many references to the film in popular culture. Among them:
- There are a number of in-joke references to Song of the South in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. One of the Toons seen in this film is Br'er Bear. Also, a glimpse of the Tar Baby can be glimpsed (seen in the Toontown scene outside the left window of Eddie Valiant's car).
- A TV Funhouse cartoon called "Journey to the Disney Vault" was aired on the April 15, 2006 episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL). The cartoon was a parody of many things related to Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company. In the cartoon, two kids watch the "very original" version of Song of the South showing Uncle Remus singing the dubbed lines "Negroes are inferior in every way" and "Whites are much cleaner, that's what I say." Actual footage from the movie was used. In an earlier SNL episode, the film was lampooned by Tracy Morgan in a fake advertisement for "Uncle Jemima's Sour Mash Whiskey."
- In the movie Fletch Lives, Fletch has a dream sequence in which he is a plantation owner singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" complete with animated animals similar to those in Song of the South.
- An episode of the series Drawn Together on Comedy Central called Terms of Endearment contained a storyline where the show's black character, Foxxy Love, develops a brain tumor. This causes her to begin devolving into a minstrel show mammy archetype caricature known as Br'er Foxxy.
- Disneyland's popular ride "Splash Mountain" is based on "Song of the South," utilizing animatronic characters from the film to act out scenes and songs from the film.
- Disney (Song of the South). Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- The Movie: Background. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- AKAs for Song of the South. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Trivia for Song of the South. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Biography for James Baskett. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- James Baskett as Uncle Remus. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Bobby Driscoll biography at Song of the South.net
- Luana Patten as Ginny Favers. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Glenn Leedy as Toby. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Ruth Warrick as Sally. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Eric Rolf as John. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Don Markstein. Brer Rabbit. Toonopedia. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Awards data for Song of the South. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Top 100 Animated Features of All Time. Online Film Critics Society. Archived from the original on 2003-04-24. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Error on call to Template:cite web: Parameters url and title must be specifiedMike Brantley (January 6, 2002). . Alabama Mobile Register. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Audio of Robert Iger's statement can be heard here
- Song of the South Memorabilia. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- Song of the South News. Song of the South.net. Retrieved on 2007-01-18.
- The Saturday Night Live skit with dubbed lyrics
- Song of the South at the Internet Movie Database
- Song of the South at the TCM Movie Database
- Song of the South fansite
- Snopes.com coverage of Song of the South's release history