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Song of the South

Song of the South(1946)

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[Note from the Editors: Due to the large amount of available and often contradictory information about Song of the South, a comprehensive discussion of all aspects of the film is not possible here. The reader is advised to consult the citations listed below and the bibliography for additional information on the film.] The working title of this film was Uncle Remus. The film's opening title cards read: "Walt Disney Presents Song of the South with Uncle Remus and his tales of Brer Rabbit." Actor Erik Rolf's name is misspelled as "Eric" in the onscreen credits.
       Joel Chandler Harris' numerous and very popular "Uncle Remus" stories first appeared in his Atlanta Constitution column in 1876. With his son Julian, Harris, whose stories were collected in several books, established Uncle Remus's Magazine in 1907, after his retirement from Atlanta Constitution. According to a modern source, Disney first purchased the rights to Harris' stories in 1939, for ten thousand dollars. Contemporary studio publicity noted that the "Uncle Remus" stories were a childhood favorite of Disney. According to a August 23, 1946 Atlanta Journal editorial, the studio's decision to change the film's title from Uncle Remus to Song of the South displeased many Southerners, including Harris' son, Joel Harris, who protested the change in a letter to Disney. In his reply to Harris, quoted in the editorial, Disney stated that "Song of the South better presented our picturization of the story than did the original title." According to modern sources, the studio changed the title in order to distance the film from potential criticism from African Americans concerned about the use of the "Uncle Remus" tales.
       While Harris' stories identify "Uncle Remus" as a former slave, the film does not clearly establish Remus' status nor the exact time period of the story. According to the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, PCA officials advised the studio that in order to minimize "adverse reactions from certain Negro groups," they should "be certain that the frontispiece of the book (appearing in the opening credits) establishes the date in the 1870s." Despite Breen's admonition, the frontispiece does not specify the time period, and both contemporary and modern sources disagree as to whether the film is set before or after the Civil War. In response to a July 14, 1944 screenplay submitted by the studio, PCA official Joseph I. Breen suggested that before proceeding further, the studio "secure the services of a competent person to advise you concerning the...acceptability of this story from the standpoint of the American Negroes. These good people, in recent months, have become most critical regarding the portrayal on the motion picture screen of the members of their race."
       According to the program for the world premiere, the Harris family had hoped for many years that Disney would dramatize the "Uncle Remus" stories, perhaps as two-reel animated shorts, but "during the years of discussion leading up to final negotiation [in 1939], the idea of full-length animated cartoon pictures interested the Disney studios and later gripped the public." Pre-production news items indicated that Disney originally intended to produce the film as an all-animation feature, but by the time production began, it was decided to have the picture feature live action. Although the Disney Studio had previously experimented with mixing animation and live action in The Reluctant Dragon, Saludos Amigos (see entries above) and The Three Caballeros (see below), Song of the South was the first feature-length Disney picture to integrate animation fully with live actors in a dramatic storyline. According to an article in the December 5, 1980 issue of Disney Newsreel, when Disney was asked why so much live action was included in Song of the South, he replied, "In this case, a living cast was absolutely necessary to get the full emotional impact and the entertainment value of the animated legends." Other modern sources assert that economic necessity prompted the studio to place more emphasis on live action, which could be produced more quickly and less expensively than animation.
       Contemporary press materials stated that before beginning work on the animated sequences, artists from the studio visited Atlanta and neighboring regions to sketch the countryside. A October 4, 1944 Atlanta Constitution article noted that studio artist Mary Blair was consulting with Atlanta artists and historians Wilbur G. and Annie Laurie Fuller Kurtz on "matters of architecture, costumes, natural background...and 'just props.'" According to a contemporary press release, the animated sequences and characters were being worked on "months previous" to the beginning of live action filming, and then the integration of the two was accomplished "during the filming of the live action on location and on studio sets." Studio publicity materials for the later re-releases, however, state that the animation, while planned ahead of the live action, did not actually begin until the live sequences were completed. According to a modern interview with cartoon art director Kenneth Anderson, "The positions where Uncle Remus looked were predetermined by placing concealed sticks which indicated the cartoon character. These sticks were covered later by the addition of an overlay painted cel. The character animation was also done later with the animators working with frame blowups of the live action film."
       A November 3, 1946 Atlanta Journal article stated that Disney originally considered shooting the live action footage on location in Georgia but was prevented from doing so by "technical difficulties." Instead, the exteriors were shot on a ranch in Phoenix, AZ, while studio scenes were filmed at Samuel Goldwyn Studios, according to contemporary news items. Location filming began in November 1944.
       H. C. Potter was first hired to direct the live action, but according to a January 24, 1945 Los Angeles Times news item, he was replaced "since he and Walt [Disney] couldn't see eye to eye on handling of the story." A January 29, 1945 Hollywood Citizen-News item noted that Harve Foster, who had been acting as assistant director, would take over as director. Although it appears that Potter did direct some sequences, it is not known whether any of his work was included in the finished film. According to a May 2, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item, Potter filed a lawsuit against Disney, alleging that "he was fired without cause although his contract with Disney has some weeks to run." The disposition of the suit has not been determined. According to a October 27, 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, Disney originally signed Robert MacGimpsey to score Song of the South. [MacGimpsey did contribute one song to the film.]
       On November 8, 1944, Hollywood Reporter noted that "John Loder has been signed by Walt Disney to play Uncle Remus in The Three Caballeros." The character of Uncle Remus does not appear in The Three Caballeros, however, nor does it seem likely that Loder was seriously considered for that role, although apparently he was considered for the part of "John." A October 4, 1944 Los Angeles Times item stated that Loder would be starring in the picture with Janet Gaynor and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. A November 25, 1944 Pittsburgh Courier news item reported that Anderson would be unable to accept the part offered to him, however, due to personal appearance commitments. A modern source states that Disney first offered the part of Uncle Remus to Rex Ingram, who turned it down.
       According to contemporary sources, Clarence Muse was involved with the production early on, either as an advisor on the screenplay or a potential cast member. According to a January 6, 1946 The Daily Worker news item, both Muse and band leader Tiny Bradshaw turned down roles in the film because they felt the picture would be "detrimental to the cultural advancement of the Negro people." Bradshaw and Muse publicly expressed their discomfort with the screenplay's extreme dialect, and numerous groups contacted the Disney Studio with their concerns that the African-American characters would be portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. According to a August 26, 1944 Pittsburgh Courier article, when reporter Herman Hill contacted a studio representative about the growing concerns over the picture and the dialect, the representative stated that "it would not be plausible or realistic to use 'Oxford English' in a picture laid in 1850." A August 24, 1944 Los Angeles Sentinel article reported that Ben Carter turned down a role in the film, as did Mantan Moreland, Monte Hawley, Ernest Whiteman and Tim Moore.
       Other contemporary sources noted that James Baskett was cast when he came to the studio to audition for a vocal role. According to Los Angeles Sentinel news items, Helen Crozier was originally signed for the role of "Chloe." February 1945 Los Angeles Sentinel news items add the following actors to the cast, although their participation in the completed film has not been confirmed: Phil Jones (Coachman); Walter Knox (Gardner); and Daisy Bufford, Anna Marby, Theo Washington and Virgil Sanchies. Hollywood Citizen-News news items include Marylin Gwaltney and the B. C. Singers in the cast, but their participation in the completed picture has also not been confirmed. A March 1, 1945 Los Angeles Times item reported that Mary Young had been cast in the role of "Aunt Margaret, a meanie, who is the bete noir of little Johnny," but no such character appears in the finished film.
       Child stars Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were the first actors signed by Disney to long-term contracts, and contemporary news items noted that Disney intended to feature the young actors together as a team in future films. They appeared in two more films together, So Dear to My Heart and Melody Time (see entries above), as well as individually in several films for the studio. Driscoll's last film for the studio was 1953's Peter Pan, for which he supplied the voice of the title character. After a troubled adolescence, Driscoll died in 1968, at the age of thirty-one, from long-term effects of drug addiction. Patten, who had previously been a model, made her screen acting debut in Song of the South. After appearing in several other Disney pictures, she took time off from acting to pursue academic studies, then returned to the studio in 1957 to appear in Johnny Tremain and in 1966 for Follow Me, Boys! At the time of filming Song of the South, Ruth Warrick and Erik Rolf were married, but by the picture's premiere, they were divorced. This was the only film in which they appeared together.
       The film marked the debut of young Glenn Leedy, who, according to studio publicity, was "discovered" at a school playground during location shooting in Phoenix. Although many contemporary sources asserted that Baskett made his screen debut in Song of the South, he had appeared in several African-American films during the 1930s under the name "Jimmy Baskette." Mainly a stage and radio performer, Baskett was well-known at the time of filming for his portrayal of lawyer "Gabby Gibson" on the popular Amos 'n' Andy radio series. Song of the South was Baskett's last film, however; he died on July 9, 1948 of a heart attack and complications from diabetes. According to modern sources, Baskett replaced Johnny Lee as the voice of "Brer Rabbit" during the "Laughing Place" segment because Lee was on a USO tour. A modern source notes that the cast included Ernestine Jones, who supplied the voice of a butterfly, while other modern sources state that Baskett provided the butterfly's voice.
       According to contemporary news items, the studio made elaborate preparations for the picture's premiere and general release. In order to publicize the premiere, four reporters from Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal visited the studio in early October 1946 to begin a series of stories that would run daily in Atlanta newspapers until the premiere. Many recording artists released versions of the film's music in advance of the premiere, including Dinah Shore, the Merry Macs, Woody Herman and the Modernaires, according to a September 25, 1946 Hollywood Reporter news item. On November 1, 1946, artists Fred Moore and Dick Mitchell, along with "production expert" Frank Bresson and Clarence Nash (the vocal artist who was the voice of Donald Duck) opened a "miniature studio" at the Belle Isle Arcade in Atlanta. The exhibit included Moore and Mitchell drawing sketches for visitors, demonstrations of the animation process and showings of a preview of the picture and scenes from the 1941 Disney film The Reluctant Dragon, which contains a tour of the actual Walt Disney Studios.
       Other festivities preceding the premiere included the dedication by Walt Disney of an Uncle Remus cabin at Wren's Nest, the former home of Harris, and an Armistice Day parade on November 11, 1946, which showcased characters from the film. Hollywood Reporter news items noted that radio shows participating in the film's premiere included Queen for a Day, Bride and Groom, Art Linkletter's GE Houseparty and Vox Pop. The premiere, which benefitted charities overseen by Atlanta's Junior League and the Uncle Remus Memorial Society's renovation of Wren's Nest, was attended by over five thousand people. Cast members Warrick, Driscoll and Patten attended, as well as Walt Disney and voice artists Nash, Pinto Colvig (Goofy), Adriana Caselotti (Snow White) and Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket). In describing the premiere, local newspapers recounted the actions of Atlanta's mayor, William B. Hartsfield, who urged Disney to wire Baskett with news of the city's appreciation for his enactment of Uncle Remus. Although some Southern newspapers stated that Baskett could not be present due to his commitment to the Amos 'n' Andy radio show, none of the African-American cast members attended the premiere. Harold Martin, an Atlanta Constitution columnist, pointed out that it was Atlanta's strict segregation laws that prevented Baskett and the other black cast members from attending the premiere. In a October 15, 1946 article, Martin noted that to bring Baskett to Atlanta, where he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities, "would cause him many embarrassments, for his feelings are the same as any man's."
       The film was a box-office success, showing a profit of $226,000 during its initial release, according to modern sources. [Modern sources list the production's cost as $2,125,000.] The picture received mixed reviews, however, with some critics applauding the animated sequences and acting while criticizing the live-action story. Bosley Crowther, the influential New York Times critic, commented, "the ratio of 'live' to cartoon action is approximately two to one-and that is approximately the ratio of its mediocrity to charm." The Time reviewer stated, "Artistically, Song of the South could have used a much heavier helping of cartooning. Technically, the blending of two movie mediums is pure Disney wizardry. Ideologically, the picture is certain to land its maker in hot water."
       On November 27, 1946, Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, sent telegrams to newspapers describing the NAACP's objections to the film. While expressing approval of the film's technical achievements, White stated that the NAACP "regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North or South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery....[the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts." A December 4, 1946 Variety article about the NAACP's view of current films contained a statement from a Disney spokesperson who "expressed surprise over objections to the film. Picture, he said, did not take place during slavery days but after the Civil War and the most sympathetic character in it is a Negro."
       The picture generated much controversy among African-American newspapers, some of which supported it while others did not. The reviewer for The Afro-American declared that he was "thoroughly disgusted" by the film, while the reviewer for Pittsburgh Courier stated that "the truly sympathetic handling of the entire production from a racial standpoint [would] prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relationships." The chief complaints leveled at the film concerned the subservient status, costuming and dialect of the African-American characters. In another New York Times article, Crowther accused Disney of committing "a peculiarly gauche offense in putting out such a story in this troubled day and age." Upon the film's release, groups such as The National Negro Congress, The American Youth for Democracy, The United Negro & Allied Veterans and the American Jewish Council organized racially integrated pickets at theaters in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, as well as other cities. In New York, Broadway actors such as Kenneth Spencer and Sam Wanamaker joined the picket lines.
       A scrapbook for the film held in the Walt Disney Archives contains an original handbill distributed by the National Negro Congress during its picket of the film at a Los Angeles theater. The handbill proclaims that the picture contains "dangerous stereotyping [that] creates an impression of Negroes in the minds of their fellow Americans which make them appear to be second class citizens." According to a December 12, 1946 Variety news item, the NAACP declined to join the National Negro Congress in its picket of a New York City theater "because it feels nothing can be gained by it." The Boston chapter of the NAACP did participate in picketing the film's exhibition there, however, according to a December 24, 1946 Boston Globe article. An January 18, 1947 Chicago Defender news item noted that although the film was being shown at the "white theaters" in Washington, D.C., it would not be exhibited by the "six theaters catering to Negroes."
       The picketing sparked even more debate among African-American supporters and detractors of the film. Ebony magazine stated that the picture would "disrupt peaceful race relations and set back Negro progress," while the Pittsburgh Courier reviewer, discussing negative statements made by Ebony, Muse and Bradshaw, found their comments to be "unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days." In a February 1947 interview, printed in The Criterion, Hattie McDaniel defended the film by saying, "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein." In the same article, Baskett commented, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the Song of the South."
       Although Baskett was occasionally criticized for accepting such a "demeaning" role, his acting was almost universally praised, and columnist Hedda Hopper was one of the many journalists who declared that he should receive an Academy Award for his work. Baskett was not nominated for Best Actor, but received a special Oscar in 1948, a few months prior to his death. Baskett's Oscar, which honored his "able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus in Song of the South, friend and storyteller to the children of the world," was the first Academy Award received by an African-American actor. [Baskett's Oscar was an honorary one; Sidney Poitier was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for his performance in the 1963 picture Lilies of the Field (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.2770). The first African-American actress to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel, for her work in Gone With the Wind in 1939 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.1674).] Song of the South also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and won an Oscar for the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert.
       Although Song of the South proved a financial success every time it was reissued (1956, 1972, 1980 and 1986), it has not been reissued as often as most Disney films, which were re-released about every seven years. On February 25, 1970, Variety reported that the Disney studio had put the film "permanently on the shelf as offensive to Negroes and present concepts of race." In 1972, however, the studio stated that the picture had never been shelved and would be re-released due to the large numbers of requests from the public. During its 1972 reissue, the picture became the highest grossing Disney re-release up to that time. The 1986 reissue included a November 15, 1986 "re-premiere" held in Atlanta to celebrate the film's fortieth anniversary. By gubernatorial proclamation, the day of the premiere was declared Song of the South day in Georgia. Proceeds from the 1986 premiere, which was attended by Warrick, benefitted the preservation of Wren's Nest. The reissues have sparked criticism of the film from some reviewers, and the picture has never been released on video in the United States, although it was released in Europe and on video cassette and laser disc in Japan.
       The film's music was the focus of a 1946 lawsuit brought against the studio by the Southern Music Publishing Co., which claimed that it had the exclusive rights to publish all works by songwriter Ray Gilbert, who cowrote "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," "Sooner or Later" and "Ev'ry Body Has a Laughing Place." Disney had assigned all rights to the film's music to the Santly-Joy publishing company. The suit was settled out of court in 1948 when the film studio offered Southern a percentage of its royalties from the songs in contention. In 1980, Judge E. Peterson filed a ten million dollar lawsuit against the studio, claiming that he and his partner, James A. Payton, were the true authors of the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." The studio denied their allegations, stating that there "was no question Ray Gilbert was the author of the song." The disposition of the suit is not known.
       In 1956, a one-hour show, "A Tribute to Joel Chandler Harris," was broadcast on the Disneyland television show. In 1975, Bryanston Pictures released director/animator Ralph Bakshi's live action/animated film Coonskin, an R-rated feature that satirized Song of the South. In 1996, Danny Glover narrated "Brer Rabbit & Boss Lion," an animated featurette made for the Showtime cable network.