Song of the South (1946)
James: Well, here we are. Partly to visit a controversial part of Disney history and partly to break up the package films with a feature length story, we divert briefly from the Disney Canon to Song of the South. It’s… well, it’s interesting. (And it’s available to watch here.)
Based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus books, collections of genuine African American stories and fables as told by the fictional Uncle Remus first published in 1881, Song of the South is set in the state of Georgia in the later Reconstruction era and follows a boy, Johnny, who moves with his mother to his grandmother’s plantation. He becomes distraught when his father has to return to Atlanta, and finds comfort in the stories of Br’er Rabbit, as told by Uncle Remus.
Because of the film’s perceived racially insensitive content, it has never received a home release in the US, and has never had a DVD release anywhere. It was, however, released on VHS in the UK (and in some other parts of the world), and so I actually watched it quite often as a child, and I loved it. Watching it again, it certainly doesn’t hold up as well, and the controversial parts are much more apparent, but much of it still affected me in the same way. If you can look past the racial issues (which, as a dumb kid with no knowledge of slavery or racism, was easy when I first saw it), it’s a well made and well intentioned movie. But… yeah.
Anne: Having been raised in the States and taught from a very early age about racism, slavery, the Civil War, and political correctness, I found this movie cringe-worthy on most levels. Right from the start it’s clear to me why people were and continue to be outraged by Song of the South.
First of all, yes, the stories were written in 1881, and are ostensibly set post-Civil War–and therefore post-emancipation–but I saw no proof of that. What it looks like is a movie featuring a white plantation family and their very happy slaves. I was struck at the beginning of the movie by the way that African-American stories were framed by a story about a white boy who moves to his grandmother’s plantation with his mother. The target audience for this film was undoubtedly mostly white people. James pointed out that this movie does something similar to Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos–creating an surrogate character to ease the audience into an unfamiliar culture. But especially when Uncle Remus and Aunt Tempy (played by Hattie McDaniel, who, by the way, had already won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind and would STILL not have been allowed to go to the premiere of this film) are the most engaging characters on screen, it bothers me that they felt the need to make it a movie essentially about white people.
The animated sections are charming and funny–but all I could think of was how offensive they would have been if they featured people instead of animals. There was an image of Brer Rabbit hanging from a rope that Brer Fox had tied to a tree that took my breath away–I’ll grant that he was hanging mostly by his feet, but I was still a little shocked. And at other points in the film poor Brer Rabbit gets tarred and held over a raging fire; Brer Fox also threatens to hang him for real in one of the animated segments. I know this part of it isn’t Disney’s fault, but I would probably have the same problem with the original stories. Though it’s possible that reading about it wouldn’t have the same impact as seeing the images.
Political correctness aside, I have to say I liked the message of the movie: that imagination and stories and folklore are important. James Baskett gives a wonderfully affecting performance as Uncle Remus, and the scene when he decides to pack up the only home he’s ever known and leave because all he’s good for is telling useless stories is just heartbreaking. And “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” remains one of the most fun songs and sequences in the Disney canon.
James: It’s my natural instinct to defend the film because I was so fond of it as a child, but it really is difficult. I certainly don’t read quite as much into it as you do; the cartoon sequences in particular are (while implicitly dark) still very silly stories about woodland creatures, and the only people they are explicitly connected to are Johnny and the bullies. Disney are still releasing them and incorporating them into their legacy (as per their inclusion in Splash Mountain at the theme parks), and so they presumably aren’t as embarrassed by them as by the rest of the film. In the context of the rest of the film, however, I can understand seeing racial themes in them.
But part of my not-really-a-defence defence is James Baskett’s performance and the role of Uncle Remus. Many of the characters in the film are well-rounded, fully three-dimensional characters, but Uncle Remus is the most vital, and Baskett plays him perfectly. Baskett won an Oscar for his performance, making him the first male black performer to win one (Hattie McDaniel had been the first female performer), and it’s easy to see why. I loved him as a child, the way Johnny loved him. He told me stories, and showed me the world didn’t have to be so hard.
It is frustrating that a film based on stories from African American culture should include a white family as its focal point, but as I pointed out to Anne, that might have been for the best given the circumstances. Writers are always taught to write what they know; white writers writing for white audiences were probably right to write white characters. That was a tricky sentence. Anyway, the result is that Johnny and his family are well formed; his mother is protective but understandably so, his grandmother is delightfully spunky. Bobby Driscoll gives a good performance as Johnny, and he has strong character development. He learns from Remus’ stories, both explicitly (when he tricks the bullies the way Brer Rabbit tricked his captors) and implicitly (when Ginny is sad and he decides to tell her a Brer Rabbit story to cheer her up). Ginny and Toby are fairly perfunctory characters as Johnny’s love interest and best friend respectively, but both get strong interactions with Johnny and make an impact in their scenes. Aunt Tempy isn’t given much of an opportunity to develop in the film, but McDaniel gives a brilliant performance, and her gentle scene with Uncle Remus in the second half of the film is a delight.
The thinnest characters are the white trash bullies, and their only role in the film is as live action versions of Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Curiously, they’re actually less realistic than their cartoon counterparts.
Anne: A quick shout-out to our lovely friend Rachel who sent me a message that she was looking forward to our review of Song of the South, and in particular my interpretation of the line “Daddy didn’t come and Ginny’s all dirty!” (referring, of course, to Johnny’s disappointing birthday party when his father didn’t show up and Ginny’s brothers pushed her into the mud and ruined her new dress).
I’m not sure there’s much to it, really, but I think it’s telling that when he says the line, Johnny is thinking of those two events as they affect HIM. A few minutes later, he consoles Ginny by telling her a Brer Rabbit story. As James noted, this is a character who actually matures and learns something from his experiences. He realizes that as much as he needs Uncle Remus’ stories, Ginny might need them even more.
(Also that line just made me guffaw. So innocent!)
Oh, question, something I was thinking about during the movie. Why did Johnny’s father have to go to Atlanta and leave Johnny and his mother at the plantation? He’s a writer, apparently, and he wrote something objectionable in the newspaper…was Atlanta going to be dangerous for his wife and child because of something he wrote? This is one of the things that made me wonder if the movie was set during the Civil War, or at least before emancipation–I was thinking maybe the father was writing anti-slavery, anti-Confederacy pieces for the Atlanta newspaper and it was getting him into trouble. Any thoughts on that?
Also…I don’t know, I find it well nigh impossible to watch this movie without reading a lot of racial tension into it, whether or not it’s there (and while I will accept that the folks at Disney weren’t trying to hide any subliminal messaging in the animated segments, I still find the idea and visual of Brer Rabbit being hanged/tarred/burnt for trying to run away very problematic). Maybe it would have been easier if I had had the opportunity of seeing it as a child, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. I think I just know too much now; I’ve been trained too well.
James: Johnny’s father was called to Atlanta because of an urgent plot device. You’ve got to attend to those quickly, or they can collapse into plot holes. But it’s best not to look too closely at them. Anyway, now we’ve talked about the elephant in the room, it’s time to talk about the bull.
I’ve got to say, for me this was absolutely the hardest thing to watch. When I was a child and even now, the scene where Johnny is hit by the bull (even off screen) really got under my skin. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s well set up so that when it happens it just makes sense. And then, Johnny’s unconscious, unmoving body being picked up by his mother is a painful sight. When I was a child I often turned off the film just before this bit, or at least looked away, and it was difficult not to close my eyes on this viewing, knowing it was coming. It’s not just the physical pain, it’s that Johnny has been separated from his father and now his surrogate father, and now may lose his life. Gosh, it affected me.
Of course, the happy ending comes shortly after, courtesy of one more Brer Rabbit story. In the best (and corniest) possible outcome, Remus’ story awakens Johnny and convinces his mother of the power of the stories, but still doesn’t overpower Johnny’s love for his father. Remus leaves, contented to have the family reunited. It’s contrived, but it works. Mighty satisfaction.
And then one final scene, in which Brer Rabbit and his friends appear in the real world (much to Remus’ surprise), for a lovely close to the film. And really, it’s beautifully done. As you’ll see from the video higher up, the way the creatures interaction with the live action material is astonishing. As a kid, I was pretty certain they’d done this by training a real rabbit, frog and bluebird to do those actions, and then animated over them. That’s probably not how it was done, but I still like it as a theory. Another example of the perfect integration is just after Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah:
Is that fence real or animated? Having watched the whole scene, I have absolutely no idea. Another fabulous bit of integration is at the end of part of a story, where Brer Bear and Brer Fox are dancing around Rabbit, and the camera pulls out as the animation fades into live action, but keeping Bear and Fox dancing around Johnny’s head. It’s a lovely transition, holding on a mix of cartoon and reality for just a few seconds before fading completely to live action. There’s true intelligence to the animation, something I’ve praised in Disney before, and something seldom seen in films today.
Anne: Maybe they filmed a real fence and then animated over it. 😉
Anyway. While I can comment on Song of the South as a piece of entertainment to a certain extent, I feel like I’m never going to be able to enjoy it that way–though as a piece of shameful Disney history it’s pretty fascinating!
I’m not going to score this one. I’ll let James take care of that.
James: The good news is, this isn’t an official part of the Disney canon, so any final tallies we do can ignore it completely!
Going with what’s good about the film minus what’s bad about the film, coupled with how likely I’d be to watch it again… I’ll give it a 5/10. Parts of it are uncomfortable, but parts of it are delightful, and for the most part it really is a well made film. Still, with more aware eyes I’m not likely to watch it again any time soon. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it, and Baskett’s Uncle Remus will always hold a place in my heart, but my VHS can go back into the cupboard for a while longer.
Next up, back to the main canon and the package films with Fun and Fancy Free!