Genre: Fairy Tale and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 34 min.
Release Date: November 12th, 1946 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Wilfred Jackson, Harve Foster Actors: Ruth Warrick, Bobby Driscoll, James Baskett, Luana Patten, Hattie McDaniel, Lucile Watson, Glenn Leedy
otoriously touted as too racist to ever release for modern audiences, Walt Disney’s “Song of the South” is easily the least seen, most obscure animated feature ever manufactured by the studio. It’s a mixture of live action actors and cartoon sequences, supplemented by occasional songs. Considered a musical, the several numbers sung by crowds of sharecroppers are smoothly integrated, while the remaining tunes are crooned by curious animated critters communicating with Remus via melodic conversations. Set in the Reconstruction era of the deep South and based on Joel Chandler Harris’ stories, all taking place after the Civil War (though none of this is apparent enough), the controversy surrounding the presentation of the black characters has prevented generations of audiences from viewing the movie or realizing the theatrical originations of the “Splash Mountain” theme park ride at Disneyland.
Miss Sally (Ruth Warrick) and newspaper man Mr. John head down to a Southern plantation to visit their little son Johnny’s (Bobby Driscoll) grandmother (Lucile Watson). The building is a towering white mansion bustling with black workers, including “Aunt” Tempy (Hattie McDaniel) and young Toby (Glenn Leedy), who is assigned to look after the adventurous Johnny. Immediately after arriving, John Sr. departs, dutifully off to attend to a newspaper crisis, separating for the first time from his wife and son.
Johnny is upset and sneaks away in the middle of the night (in his miniature orange suit), intent on going to Atlanta where his father headed, but quickly becomes distracted by a small campfire gathering where Uncle Remus (James Baskett) is telling the story of Br’er Rabbit and how the wily fellow lost his tail. After collecting the runaway, the two stop at Remus’ cabin for some cornbread, getting carried away with further stories of the friendly animals that mingle with Remus. Eventually reunited with the main house, Johnny is readied the following morning to see his father’s mother, dressed up in fancy clothes and a lace collar, only to be mocked by the neighboring, poorer Faver family boys. His momentary depression is cured by the generous Ginny (Luana Patten), who gives him a puppy – except that Sally forbids the child from keeping it. Later, the tales of the Br’er animals continue, with Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox (also voiced by Baskett) devising a tar baby decoy (literally a humanoid-shaped structure of tar, turpentine, and sticks) to catch Br’er Rabbit for a nice stew – unpredictably successful when the hopping creature is angered by the tar baby’s refusal to respond to a greeting, and proceeds to punch the prop until he’s completely entangled with the gluey object.
Nothing about the film is particularly famous (save for the often debated subject matter), though the unforgettable song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” has miraculously survived throughout the years. The dialogue is slightly confusing to follow, heavily inundated with slang, accents, dialect, and culturally familiar grammatical errors, but most strikingly peculiar because of the intentionally stereotypical voicework by Nicodemus Stewart as Br’er Bear and Johnny Lee as Br’er Rabbit – both African-American comedians from vaudeville, radio, and television. Likely the primary reason Disney continues to so strongly object to the showing of this film, the cartoons speak with exaggerations, like the crows in “Dumbo,” over the course of the entire feature, leaving little room for casual historical inclusion as a politically correct explanation. Although the African-American roles are not mistreated, they appear as equals, and are the main characters (Remus is actually a hero), the voices alone are understandably objectionable.
The general purpose of the film is to demonstrate the usefulness of Remus’ fables as learning devices for Johnny to utilize in his real life problems. The boy is described as desolate without whimsical allegories to latch on to (apparently unable to befriend the locals). Fighting, bullying, threats of hanging and skinning Br’er Rabbit as preparation for feasting on him (along with reverse psychology for the cottontail to be thrown into a thorny brier patch instead, which he uses to escape), and even the declaration of drowning the puppy work their way into the script – making “Song of the South” oddly unfriendly to younger audiences, regardless of the animated pieces. Suppressed for controversial depictions of a factual time period, the movie will certainly remain more notable for that single aspect – leaving the mediocrity of the film and its moderate entertainment value largely undiscussed.
– Mike Massie