September 21, 2010

Movie Monday: Song of the South


Released on November 12, 1946, Song of the South was a film based on the Uncle Remus cycle of stories by Joel Chandler Harris. The live actors provide a sentimental frame story, in which Uncle Remus relates the folk tales of the adventures of Brer Rabbit and his friends. These anthropomorphic animal characters appear in animation. The hit song from the film was "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", which won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song.

The film has never been released in its entirety on home video in the USA, because of content which Disney executives believe would be construed by some as racist toward African-Americans, and is thus subject to much rumor. Some portions of this film have been issued on VHS and DVD as part of either compilations or special editions of Disney films.

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, "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."


Disney first began to negotiate with Harris' family for the rights in 1939, and by late summer of that year he already had one of his storyboard artists summarize the more promising tales and draw up four boards' worth of story sketches. In November 1940, Disney visited the Harris' home in Atlanta. He told Variety that he wanted to "get an authentic feeling of Uncle Remus country so we can do as faithful a job as possible to these stories." Roy Oliver Disney had misgivings about the project, doubting that it was "big enough in caliber and natural draft" to warrant a budget over $1 million and more than twenty-five minutes of animation, but in June 1944, Walt hired Southern-born writer Dalton Reymond to write the screenplay, and he met frequently with King Vidor, whom he was trying to interest in directing the live-action sequences.

Production started under the title Uncle Remus. Filming began in December 1944 in Phoenix, where the studio had constructed a plantation and cotton fields for outdoor scenes, and Walt Disney left for the location to oversee what he called "atmospheric shots." Back in Hollywood, the live action scenes were filmed at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio.


Song of the South was the first live action dramatic film made by Disney. James Baskett was cast as 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. Walt Disney liked Baskett, and told his sister, Ruth Disney, that Baskett was "the best actor, I believe, to be discovered in years." Even after the film's release, Walt stayed in contact with Baskett. Disney also campaigned for Baskett to be given an Academy Award for his performance, saying that he had worked "almost wholly without direction" and had devised the characterization of Remus himself. Thanks to Disney's efforts, Baskett won an honorary Oscar in 1948. After Baskett's death, his widow wrote Disney and told him that he had been a "friend indeed and [we] certainly have been in need."

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.


The animated segments of the film were directed by Wilfred Jackson, while the live-action segments were directed by Harve Foster. On the final day of shooting, Jackson discovered that the scene in which Uncle Remus sings the film's signature song, "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," had not been properly blocked. According to Jackson, "We all sat there in a circle with the dollars running out, and nobody came up with anything. Then Walt suggested that they shoot Baskett in close-up, cover the lights with cardboard save for a sliver of blue sky behind his head, and then remove the cardboard from the lights when he began singing so that he would seem to be entering a bright new world of animation. Like Walt's idea for Bambi on ice, it made for one of the most memorable scenes in the film.”

The film premiered on November 12, 1946 at the Loew's Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. James Baskett was unable to attend the film's premiere because he would not have been allowed to participate in any of the festivities, as Atlanta was then a racially segregated city. The film grossed $3.3 million at the box office.


There are three animated segments in the movie. These animated sequences were also shown as stand-alone cartoon features on the Disney television show. Each of these segments features at least one song that is heard in the various versions of Splash Mountain:

  • "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 of the way into the cartoon, including the song "How Do You Do?"
  • "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, including the song "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place"

The last couple of minutes of the movie contain animation, as most of the cartoon characters show up in a live-action world to meet the live-action characters (a combination of live-action and animation) as they all sing "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", and in the last seconds of the movie, the real world is slowly merged into an animated variation as the main protagonists walk off into the sunset.

As had been done earlier with Snow White and 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. Apart from the newspaper strips, Disney Brer Rabbit comics were also produced for comic books; the first such stories appeared in late 1946. Produced both by Western Publishing and European publishers such as Egmont, they continue to appear to this day.

In 1946 a Giant Golden Book entitled Walt Disney's Uncle Remus Stories was published by Simon & Schuster and was in print for at least a decade. It featured 23 illustrated stories of Brer Rabbit's escapades, all told in a Southern dialect based on the original Joel Chandler Harris stories.

Although the film was a financial success, some critics were less enthusiastic to the film. Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times, "More and more, Walt Disney's craftsmen have been loading their feature films with so-called 'live action' in place of their animated whimsies of the past, and by just those proportions has the magic of these Disney films decreased," citing the ratio of live action to animation at two to one, concluding that is "approximately the ratio of its mediocrity to its charm." However, the film also received positive notice. Time magazine called the film "topnotch Disney." In 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked the film as the 67th greatest animated film of all time.


Although the film has been re-released in theaters several times (most recently in 1986), Disney Enterprises has avoided making the complete version of the film directly available on home video in the United States because the frame story was deemed controversial by studio management, despite Uncle Remus being the hero of the story. Film critic Roger Ebert, who normally disdains any attempt to keep films from any audience, has supported the non-release position, claiming that most Disney films become a part of the consciousness of American children, who take films more literally than do adults. However, he favors allowing film students to have access to the film.

Despite rumors of a imminent DVD release, Disney CEO Robert Iger stated on March 10, 2006 at a Disney Shareholder Meeting that it had been decided that the company would not re-release it for the time being. At the annual shareholders meeting in March 2007, Iger announced that the company was reconsidering the decision, and have decided to look into the possibility of releasing the film. In May 2007, it was again reported that the Disney company has chosen not to release the film. However, rumors to the contrary continued to surface. In March 2010, Disney CEO Robert Iger reiterated that there are no current plans to release the movie on DVD, calling the film 'antiquated' and 'fairly offensive'.


Disney Enterprises has allowed key portions of the film to be issued on many VHS and DVD compilation videos in the U.S., as well as on the long-running Walt Disney anthology television series. Most recently, the "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" number and some of the animated portion of the movie were issued on the Alice in Wonderland 2-DVD Special Edition set, although in that instance this was originally incorporated as part of a 1950 Walt Disney TV special included on the DVD which promoted the then-forthcoming Alice in Wonderland film.

The film has been released on video in its entirety in various European, Latin American and Asian countries. . While most foreign releases of the film are almost direct translations of the English title, the German title Onkel Remus' Wunderland translates to "Uncle Remus' Wonderland", the Italian title I Racconti Dello Zio Tom translates to "The Stories of Uncle Tom", and the Norwegian title Onkel Remus forteller translates roughly to "Uncle Remus tells stories".lrgpic43

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. Additionally, bootleg copies of the film in NTSC format, converted either from the UK PAL videotape or from a Dutch version based on the laserdisc, with subtitles made by amateurs, are widely available and have been sold in the United States at retail outlets and on online auctions with no legal action being taken by the Disney corporation.

Pictures and Information from Song of the South.Net

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