Still From Song of the South
?We?re through with caviar,? Walt Disney lamented. ?From now on it?s mashed potatoes and gravy.? The company that bore his name was reeling from the disappointing box office returns of Pinocchio and Fantasia. During the war, the perpetually unsteady company had been kept afloat by government-commissioned propaganda movies and cheaply produced ?package films? like The Three Caballeros and Make Mine Music. Now the war was over, and the boss needed a hit. Something technically innovative but not too expensive. Something instantly beloved.
Disney had cunningly negotiated the rights to Joel Chandler Harris? plantation-set Uncle Remus? tales back in 1939, while Clark Gable was still dominating movie screens. A known literary entity that oozed bankable southern charm: Disney had found his potatoes.
The resulting film, Song of the South, turned out to be yet another commercial disappointment. But as Jason Sperb details in his fascinating new book Disney?s Most Notorious Film, its life as both corporate emblem and fount of controversy would last for decades. The Disney Company hasn?t let Song of the South out of its hallowed ?vault? in 25 years. The film?s live-action depictions of Uncle Remus and his fellow smilin?, Massah-servin? black folk are embarrassingly racist. But South?s central song, ?Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,? is all but synonymous with Disney itself, and the characters live on in the company?s massively popular Splash Mountain rides. So Song of the South lives on, yet the company can?t even really acknowledge the film, much less cash in on it directly. If you were born after 1980, you?ve almost certainly never seen it in full, and it?s unlikely that will change anytime soon.
Song of the South concerns a young boy, Johnny, who moves to his mother?s family plantation in Georgia right as his father leaves the family to fight for some unspecified cause in Atlanta. Alone and depressed, he?s comforted by the tall tales of Uncle Remus, an ex-slave living on the property. The era of the film?s setting is purposefully vague; while it?s implied that the black workers are no longer Johnny?s family?s property, they are still completely subservient, and happily so. John Baskett plays Remus as a preternaturally jolly companion, a buoyant and beatific link between the stately live-action sequences and the animated ones involving Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox as a proto-Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
For Baskett?s magical-Negro presence, for the cartoon characters? ludicrously stereotypical voices, and for the generally pleasant dynamic between the white landowners and their help, Sperb calls Song of the South ?one of Hollywood?s most resiliently offensive racist texts.? That last word is the giveaway that Disney?s Most Notorious Film isn?t a work of movie criticism so much as the latest entry in the ever-expanding academic subculture of Disney Studies. Sperb spends relatively little time with the movie itself, instead tracing its place in the popular consciousness as it went in and out of style.
He first punctures the myth that the racial caricatures in Song of the South were ?a product of its time.? This is an argument that the film?s defenders trot out reliably, when, in fact, Disney took uncharacteristic pains to undercut the Harris tales? potential offensiveness. As Neal Gabler?s biography reveals, Disney hired a leftist screenwriter, Mauric Rapf, to modify the original script by southerner Dalton Reymond; Disney Company reps met with producers of the racially controversial 1943 film Stormy Weather to hear about their marketing experiences; and Disney publicists warned management of potential racially charged blowback. Walt Disney himself even invited NAACP president Walter White to California to oversee script revisions, though the meeting never occurred.
In short, Disney knew he was playing with a loaded gun even before filming began. As Sperb puts it: ?Not only is Song of the South a movie derogatory because of its ?Uncle Tomism,? it was made by people who were well aware of the stereotype, who knew others would be offended, and who clearly felt there was nothing wrong with that.??
Disney?s debt to Gone With the Wind was made clear by his casting of Hattie McDaniel in a minor role, and he might have been confused about why his film was attacked for tastelessness less than a decade after McDaniel won her Oscar for an essentially Mammy role. Sperb explains that racial progressivism was at a high point in America coming out of the war. Black Americans had served ably, of course, and Americans were eager to prove their superiority to the Nazis in terms of ethnic tolerance.
But after succeeding generations experienced Song of the South?s colorful imagery in their Golden Books and accompanying records, in episodes of the Disneyland television series, and through the omnipresence of ?Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,? Song of the South became an unlikely hit in three re-releases throughout the 1970s and ?80s. ?People who grew up with Disney?s Uncle Remus in their homes were more receptive [in 1972] than 1940s audiences had been to a jarringly inappropriate ?Uncle Tom?-ish Southern melodrama,? Sperb writes. And by the 1980s, when it was twice re-released theatrically, viewers brought nostalgia to Song that blinded them to its true offensiveness; in Sperb?s telling, the film had become ?so outdated that its offensiveness was hard for some to see.??