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Wednesdays with Wade: Further thoughts on "Song of the South"

Wednesdays with Wade: Further thoughts on "Song of the South"

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“It wasn’t yesterday nor the day before. But it was a long time ago. Back when the critters, they were closer to the folks and the folks, they was closer to the critters. And -- if you’ll excuse me for saying so -- it was better all around.”

-- Uncle Remus, “Song of the South”

National Wildlife Week is April 22-30. So today is smack dab in the middle of it and my first inclination was to write about Walt Disney’s love of the environment and animals. But I have already touched on those topics in a previous “Wednesdays With Wade” devoted to Epcot’s “The Land” pavilion.

I also thought about writing about the True-Life Adventures series especially since Roy E. Disney just finished recording introductions for that series for a future DVD release.

However, this week there has been a lot of speculation about some other endangered animals that were entrusted to the care of the Walt Disney Company. So I thought that I would focus on those critters. Who the Disney corporation was planning on re-releasing into the wild, but instead have locked back up in the dark vault where only illegal poachers can get their hands on them.

The fatal exchange about these critters’ fate took place at the Disney Shareholder Meeting on Friday, March 10, 2006 between a shareholder and Disney CEO Bob Iger and has been the subject for much moaning and groaning ever since:

Howard Cromer: 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? [Applause] And, he wonders why.


Copyright Walt Disney Productions

Frank Wells told me many years ago that it would be coming out. Well obviously Frank Wells isn't around anymore, so we still wonder why. And by the way, Mr. Iger, he thinks it was a very good choice when they made you CEO of Disney. [Applause]

Bob Iger: "Thank you very much. You may change your mind when I answer your question, though.

Um... 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 thought 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 gonna 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."

What would Walt think? Well, fortunately, we have Walt’s thoughts on the film from a publicity piece from the film’s release in 1946:

There is something endlessly appealing and satisfying in Joel Chandler Harris’ droll fables of animals who behave like humans, and in character who narrates them. For a long time, they have been an open challenge to motion picture showmanship. 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.

Walt Disney bought the rights to the Uncle Remus stories from the Harris family in 1939. Disney got the rights to all the Remus characters for $10,000 (a sizeable sum in those days). The film is very loosely based on two of Joel Chandler Harris’s last Remus books: “Uncle Remus and His Friends” (1892) and “Told by Uncle Remus” (1905).

The film is important as a transitional film between Disney’s full length animated features and his live action films. Walt previously experimented with live action in “The Three Caballeros” and “The Reluctant Dragon” (not to mention the early “Alice Comedies”). But the infamous strike of 1941 as well as many of his top artists being drafted into the service during World War II made Walt realize the Disney Studio needed to become less dependent on animation and to diversify into live action in order to survive.

“I knew that I must diversify. I knew the diversifying of the business would be the salvation of it. I tried that in the beginning, because I didn’t want to be stuck with the Mouse … I wanted to go beyond the cartoon. Now I needed to diversify further. And that meant live action,” stated Walt.

The live action was photographed first. James Baskett who portrayed “Uncle Remus” sometimes performed on actual sets that were painted to seem like cartoon backgrounds. The live action footage was edited to a precise length, then given to the animators to add the cartoon figures.

In the Fall of 1944, artist Mary Blair spent a week in Atlanta and nearby rural Georgia locations doing concept art for “Song of the South." By Spring, she would be working on concepts for “Alice in Wonderland." Her artwork for “Song of the South” painted with what animation historian John Canemaker describes as “a low-key palette and classic water color techniques” helped set the tone for the color schemes used in the film as well as the set and costume designs that helped transform an Arizona location into post Civil War Georgia.

Yes, “Song of the South” was filmed near a drainage ditch in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s where most of the principal outdoor photography was done. Some of the interior footage like Remus talking to Johnny in his cabin was shot at the Goldwyn studio in Hollywood. On November 30, 1944, Walt Disney Productions entered a contract with Samuel Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles, CA, to begin filming for "Uncle Remus" (one of the original working titles for “Song of the South”) on January 2, 1945.

By the way, on location in Arizona, Uncle Remus’ rocking chair was also used as Walt Disney’s “director’s chair." Across the back of the chair was written “Uncle Walt." Two great storytellers sharing the same chair.

Image couresty of Google Images

Animator Bill Peet who was primarily responsible for the story development of the animated fables remembered:

"Developing the characters of the rabbit, fox and the bear and working with the quaint old fables was the most fun I'd had since 'Dumbo'...On the Remus fables, Walt was always in a good humor, full of enthusiasm at every story session and the animators caught the playful spirit in preparing the fables for the screen."

“Song of the South” won an Academy Award for” Best Song” for "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," by Allie Wrubel (music) and Ray Gilbert (lyrics) which remains a Disney classic song to this day, often appearing on “Sing-A-Long” videos. Although he was not nominated in the acting category, Baskett was honored in 1947 with a special Oscar by the Academy for "his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world." He died four months later, at the age of forty-four.

Other actors in the film included Hattie McDaniel (who played Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” and was famously quoted as saying “I much prefer playing a maid to actually being one.” She gets honored with her own commemorative postage stamp this year), child star Bobby Driscoll, Ruth Warrick and Erik Rolf (who was secretly married to Warrick at the time unbeknownst to the cast and crew and was going through a troubled marital separation that may have influenced his performance.)

Commercially, “Song of the South” was a success. Ticket sales were strong in its first run in 1946 and in the subsequent releases in 1956, 1972 (two years after Disney claimed the film would be “permanently retired”), 1980, and 1986 (Its 40th Anniversary and last official theatrical release) garnering double digit millions of dollars for the Disney Company.

From the Disney pressbook for the 1986 release:

“Song of the South is one of the best known and most widely applauded animated/live action feature film achievements of all time. Its timeless appeal spans all audiences, from children to senior citizens, with enthusiastic responses coming from both individuals as well as entire communities. It is a rare entertainment treat, offering the enrichment of educational and cultural values in art and music that are heartily endorsed by the widest segment of the moviegoing public. And that means you have an excellent promotional advantage in stimulating excitement for your own engagement."

There are plenty more tales to tell about this Disney film. But -- for now -- yet another generation of young people will be denied the opportunity to view this animated classic or for parents to use it as a springboard to engage in discussions of tolerance, responsibility and how to use your brain rather than brawn to defeat bullies.

Understandably, a very cautious Bob Iger is concerned about stirring up trouble after all the controversies surrounding the Disney Company in recent years. However, if I may be so bold, I would like to share this advice from Uncle Remus that actually shaped my early years after I first saw the film:

"You can't run away from trouble. There ain't no place that far."

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  • Basically, what Iger said was that they're not putting it out in protest-prone markets. They have no problem selling it in ones that still produce blackface characters.
  • I'm 21, and have never seen it. I would mostly like to see it, so that when I ride splash mountain, I have a background story to go from. Imagine riding Peter Pan without having seen the movie... wouldnt be as exciting.

    Its sad that we have people waiting for movies like this to come out, just so they can play a racism card and make life difficult for those of us who just like to watch movies.
  • As far as I'm concerned, if Disney can put out half the stuff they've included on the Walt Disney Treasures titles (most notably on the wartime set) by presenting the material while also contextualizing it, they should be able to put out Song of the South, accompanied by the same type of contextualizing.

    However, unfortunately, the name has outgrown the film; too many people have simply heard that it is racist, without having the actual film available to make a judgment.  As a result, it wouldn't be surprising to see protests spark about the film being released on DVD, or to see chains like WalMart forbid the sale of it.  By repeatedly putting this film back in the vault, Disney has done itself a disservice- they let people know that it exists, but they tell people they can't see it; this makes people more curious, and curious minds will go to curious places.

    Oddly enough, I was in a class last year, studying American literature, and the Joel Chandler Harris stories were a part of the curriculum.  The teacher had a vast knowledge of the stories, but looked puzzled when I started to discuss Song of the South in class.  Soon, I was basically giving a lecture from my seat, discussing the film and how it presents the Brer Rabbit tales, and some of the common misconceptions about the film (i.e. how the film is set during Reconstruction, so it doesn't depict slavery, etc.).  The teacher was very interested in seeing the film, as it clearly could become a valuable tool for his lessons, but alas, that could not be.
  • And, as last discussed (back when this turned up on the forums, before the new site), from the transcripts, Bob didn't seem to have too many facts ready at hand:
    "Uh, well, there was bad stuff.."  Yes, thank you, Bob--Can we say off the top of our head whether Remus was a slave or a sharecropper?  Did someone at the meeting mention the "black history" context-intro the 1996 revival was going to use?  Did we know that Howard was making a mistake when he said "Disney Classics", and not "Disney Treasures", as most everybody ELSE at BVHE had been assuming up to this point?  Well, for right now...we'll never know.
    Which could explain his, "Of course, uh, this isn't a permanent decision", with the rare ambivalence of someone who might have been improvising an answer while on the firing line.

    For now, this is all speculation, but until Symbolic Animation Exec Lasseter, or someone in a more specific home-video department can pin down and blow whistles on what the top brass Does or Doesn't Know, any debate on the real merits of the movie is still going to be left in the hands of nosy JHM Disney fans like us.  :)
  • Iger sure seemed to not know what he was talking about.  All the "um"s and "uh"s.  Geesh.  And, "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."  Like what, Mr. Iger?  Please elaborate.  He probably doesn't know the historical context of the stories (like when they take place).  I'm sure the real sharecroppers weren't singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", but I'm sure that no one's pet has sang, either; Disney is allowed soem creative license.  I've read online statements of many African Americans who said they loved this movie as a child.  I'm assuming Iger was thinking of them when he said some people would think that these "depictions" would be "bothersome".  Disney needs to stop speculating and go out into the public, and ask people what they think.  

    Anonymouse, you're exactly right about how they have released some "Disney Treasures" sets that are more prejudiced and hurtful.  I'm sure that there are some German Americans who are upset by some of the cartoons.  I'm sure that there are some Native Americans unhappy with "Pocahontas", or "Little Hiawatha".  You're going to upset a few people no matter what you do.

    I know that there are some African American employees working for Disney.  I know it.  Why aren't they asked about their feelings, and their families' feelings?  I also know that, whether or not you are African American, you have some friends who are.  Ask them!  Get some feedback.  Please.  

    Unless there is an official Disney release of this film, people are going to continue getting illegal copies like the one sitting on my bookshelf.  This is censorship to the extreme.  20 years ago, you saw fit to rerelease this film., for it's 40th anniversary.  Maybe try and rerelease is for its 60th.  Nothing worse will happen than when you released it before.  Out of all the people who would complain and protest, how many of them would have actually seen the film?  Not too many.  Disney loves getting attention, and "positive" press by not rereleasing this film, but they don't pay attention to the "negative" press by people like us.  The consumers.  If people had the movie readily available to watch, this backlash would subside.  Plus, think of all the $$$ you'd make.  I can feel it being the best selling title ever.
  • Good article, Wade. I particularly liked your introduction, though I don't see those of us who have copies as "illegal poachers," but rather animal lovers who are just trying to set the critters free. :-)

    As I mentioned in a previous discussion, I think a good interim step would be to produce some animated D2DVD sequels featuring the Brer Rabbit characters. There's a lot of unused material with which to work (ever hear of Brer Wolf?), and that would certainly help calm the "forbidden fruit" aspect of the characters and give SotS fans a little of what we want. I'd much rather see that than Hunchback III or yet another Pooh movie.
  • oh, just release the damn thing, already!!!!
    but seriously folks. I've owned the japanese laserdisc of SONG OF THE SOUTH for years and all I have to say about is......put it out there! Let the public decide. While SOTS may appear rascist and "troubling" to some more sensitive people, in this humble film fans opinion there is nothing more controversial in this film then there is in, say, GONE WITH THE WIND, or Disneys' own DUMBO for that matter.
    It makes me laugh to think that the "Brer Rabbit" characters are merchandised pretty consistently, but the film in which they appear is hidden away, while "jim crow" and the rest of the um... "symbolic" crow gang from DUMBO are allowed to fly freely, so to speak.
  • (Sigh) Disney should release the thing - if for no other reason than just to end all the fuss over a film that's been blown WAY out of proportion. I mean, people's agitation and expectations over this film seem to be so high that the film would have to be better than "Snow White", "Mary Poppins", and "Fantasia" combined to meet them.  

    Bob, let everyone buy a copy of the thing, watch it, realize it's only a good if not spectacular effort, and then we can all move on to arguing about something else. Anything else.  
  • Release the film with minimal promotion.
    Use ESPN, ABCNEWS, 20/20 and Nightline to discuss the film.
    The can interview people from all walks of life from these shows. But, make a requirement to watch the show before they are interviewed.

    I own a 'copy' on dvd. It is a good show.

    What gets me is they have a ride- Splash mountain- that celebrates the movie- in part.  Was there a big uproar over that when it opened???
  • Why don't they just get Whoopie Goldberg to give her disclaimer, just like the WB DVD?  I'm sure she'd do it.
  • And just for the record--I learned it on JHM--before the NAACP embarked on a more aggressive campaign against the movie (fueled by a certain disgruntled ex-Disney animator), representatives from the group had screened the film before its original release and found "little offensive" about it--
    Except, they noted, for some obligatory musical numbers where workers sing faux-spirituals while returning from the fields (which they felt was "a bit of a negative stereotype"), and three guesses where most of the rampaging "They're happy slaves!" misinterpretations have likely come from since.

    ...There's no experience quite so satisfying as telling someone (let alone a generation of mainstream non-fans) that they happen to be WRONG, and Disney has that rare opportunity in their hands.  :)
  • I watched the movie not too long ago, after a Disney animator was kind enough to send me a copy. I hadn't seen it since I was a little kid, so really didn't remember much. I braced myself for a picture rife with racial stereotyping, but came up empty. After watching it, I honestly couldn't understand what anyone would complain about.

    Let's hope Disney doesn't opt to pull the plug on Peter Pan (lyrics like, "What makes the red man red?" and "Why does he ask you 'How'?" don't seem to have ruffled too many feathers).
  • I was inspired by this article to make a "YTMND." Maybe it'll stir up a little support? Yes, I'm aware that petitions really aren't going to cut it but I had to do something!

    Still waiting for that DVD...
  • RogerRmjet said:

    "As I mentioned in a previous discussion, I think a good interim step would be to produce some animated D2DVD sequels featuring the Brer Rabbit characters. "

    It appears that Universal beat them to the punch:  <a href=http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000E6V07W/qid=1146088016/sr=8-1/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-4001130-3948123?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance&n=130>The Adventures of Brer Rabbit</a>

    FWIW...  I've had the Japanese DVD since the early '90's and have *gasp* shown it to my children.  We discussed the movie, and I believe all they took out of it is that there was a white kid who was best friends with a black kid, and that said white kid looked up to an older black gentleman for advice.  We discussed the importance of treating all people with dignity and respect.  It was a good learning experience, IMHO.  A lot better learning experience than Cinderella 3, Hunchback 7, or Lilo and Stich 27...
  • Hmmm...  obviously didn't need to put that html code in that previous message...  ;)
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