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Comparative Review: 2 New Books on Disney’s 'Song of the South'

Fred Patten compares two new books about Disney’s controversial 1946 feature film.

Coincidently, two books have just been published almost simultaneously that go into detail about the Disney Studios' suppressed 1946 feature Song of the South.  They are:

Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South, by Jason Sperb. Illustrated. Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, December 2012, hardcover $55.00 (294 pages).

and

Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? and Other Forbidden Disney Stories, by Jim Korkis.  Foreword by Floyd Norman. Orlando, FL, Theme Park Press, December 2012, trade paperback $19.95 (276 pages), Kindle $7.99.

Although very similar in subject matter, they are very different in theme.  Disney's Most Notorious Film, from the University of Texas Press and filled with scholarly footnotes, starts out with the preconception that Disney's combination live-action/animation feature Song of the South, made in 1946 when Walt Disney was very much in charge of his studio, was a blatantly condescending racist film, an embarrassment that the studio has been trying to cover up while continuing to cash in on as much as possible.  In other words, the book is an academic exposé. Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?, by a longtime Disney studio employee and fan, argues that it is not racist, and that the Disney company should stop suppressing it today and release it on home video.  "Through interviews with many of the artists and animators who created Song of the South, and through his own extensive research, Korkis delivers both the definitive behind-the-scenes history of the film and a balanced analysis of its cultural impact." (publisher's blurb).

Which author is right?  Arguably, they both are.  Both cite the facts of the controversy correctly. Where they differ is in their interpretation of those facts.  Song of the South has been an extremely controversial feature film for over sixty years, and probably many of its strongest proponents and detractors today have never actually seen it. 

Disney's Most Notorious Film uses the more biased and arguable rhetoric.  "Song of the South depicts plantation life in the late nineteenth century – a time marked by unimaginable cruelty...”  (page 1).  Most historians agree that the plantation period in the American South lasted from before the Civil War until its end in 1865.  After that was the Reconstruction to 1877, followed by the long "post-Reconstruction".  It is this period that Song of the South is set in, not the plantation period.  The book later acknowledges this when it goes into greater detail.  "The movie's setting is similarly incoherent.  It is a supposedly post-Reconstruction set within a seemingly pre-Civil War South.  The lack of a clear historical context reiterates how the film could be read either way.  [...]  Precisely because it is so historically and thematically vague, Song of the South does give the impression of a master-slave relationship, even if it's not literally a story about slaves." (page 56).

It is true that Disney tried to play it both ways to please everyone, and ended up with a setting so vague that on its 1946 release, many critics thought that it depicted the pre-Civil War slave period.  According to Wikipedia, "The Hays Office had asked Disney to 'be certain that the frontispiece of the book mentioned establishes the date in the 1870s,' however, the final film carried no such statement."  (There is an extremely brief scene in Johnny's father's Atlanta newspaper office with a 1901 wall calendar, but it goes by so quickly that even viewers primed to look for it may miss it.)  The African-Americans seen singing happily on the plantation could seem to be slaves, though they are supposed to be post-Reconstruction sharecroppers -- former slaves allowed to farm a small patch on a plantation for payment of a portion of their crops as rent.  As freedmen, the former slaves were theoretically free to come and go, and did not live in "a time marked by unimaginable cruelty"; although it was certainly not as idyllic as Disney wished to imply.  As the movie shows as a major plot point, Johnny's mother, a member of the White aristocracy, makes it clear that Uncle Remus is no longer welcome on the plantation, and he leaves without any place to go, helpless to protest.  (The movie leaves unclear whether Uncle Remus is supposed to own his home.  The implication is that he is a sharecropper on what is legally plantation land.) As a side note, social conditions for other non-"Whites" in the South and in the rest of America were not idyllic, either.  In 1915 Leo Frank, an American Jew, was lynched in Atlanta.  Chicago had a race riot in 1919.

Sperb cites Song of the South's controversy and its disappointing box office upon its 1946 release as showing that "early audiences rejected both its racial insensitivities, in the wake of World War II, and its low budget aesthetic, on the heels of more polished full length animated productions like Snow White (1937) and Dumbo (1941).”  (page 2)  Many African-American groups such as the NAACP and the National Negro Congress, as well as notable individuals, began high-publicity protests of Song of the South before its release, and doubtlessly boycotted the film.  But how many White audiences "rejected ... its racial insensitivities?" Sperb is correct that many audiences were disappointed that Song of the South was not fully animated as Disney's pre-war features had been.  

However, upon its theatrical rereleases in 1972, 1973, 1980, and 1986, Song of the South was much more popular and profitable than during its original release.  Sperb quotes many reviews and box office statistics from this period, but analyzes them as reflecting the lack of well-publicized African-American protests against the rereleases, the post-Civil Rights era backlash in White America (which he finds also racist, but more vaguely so), and the uncritical adulation of the public in general and Disney fans in particular for anything made prior to Walt's death in 1966 and the studio's drop in quality after that.  The first is probably true; the others more arguable.  Possibly the general public just did not obsess upon the film's more racist aspects and found it overall more enjoyable than not.

Sperb cites all the ways that corporate Disney has continued to merchandize the Song of the South gestalt while locking the film in its vaults since 1986.  "The popular audiocassette and later CD collections Classic Disney (1995) and Disney's Greatest Hits (2001) made great use of 'Zip-a-De-Doo-Dah' and other Song of the South tunes.  [...]  In addition to repackaging ‘Zip-a-De-Doo-Dah,’ this collection [Classic Disney] also recycled ‘Everybody Has a Laughing Place’ on volume 2 and the title song, ‘Song of the South,’ on volume 5.  [...]  But the continued recycling of Baskett's original version is only the beginning of Disney's exploitation.  There are numerous 'authorized' covers of 'Zip-a-De-Doo-Dah,' such as the R&B singer Patti Austin's version, which was released on the album Disney's Music from the Park (1996), or the version by Miley Cyrus, aka 'Hannah Montana,' which appeared on the album Disneymania 4 (2006).  The song's presence throughout the Disney empire is impossible to map fully today."  (pages 186-187). 

Sperb notes the appearance of the animated animal characters from Song of the South in the Disney Touchstone release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, and in animatronic form in the Disneyland theme park attraction of Spash Mountain.  He empahsizes that in the Splash Mountain recreation of Brer Rabbit's feats from the movie, the sticky black Tar Baby has been replaced by Winnie-the-Pooh's sticky Pot of Hunny.  "When the designers of Splash Mountain changed the 'Tar Baby' to a pot of honey, the move heightened the film's core racism at the same moment of its erasure." (page 198).

While Sperb's conclusions of conscious racism are debatable, his meticulous documentation of Song of the South merchandising through sixty years and its other cultural references such as the Chevy Chase comedy film National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) make Disney's Most Notorious Film an essential reference tool to those interested in SotS-iana.  Since this is an academic study, it is heavy on academic-ese such as "conditions of possibility," "transmedia ubiquity," "its strategies of convergence," "paratexts" and "affect and nostalgia in the politics of online Disney fandom."  There are extensive Notes (pages 239 to 260), an eight-page Selected Bibliography, and an Index.  The illustrations include frame grabs from the film, advertising for Song of the South merchandise from the 1950s, and the Disneyland and other cultural references containing SotS imagery.

Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? and Other Forbidden Disney Stories is 276 pages, but only the first 104 pages are devoted to the 1946 feature.  The remainder cover "The Other Forbidden Stories: Sex, Walt, and Flubbed Films."  Jim Korkis is a lifelong Disney fan who worked for the organization for years, and used that opportunity to do serious research in the Disney archives and to interview many artists and other employees about their experiences.  He has been widely recognized by film scholars as "the Disney Historian" and is known for his reliability in writing accurate history, not corporate-approved stories.  "The Disney Company has determined that the little stories in this book do not fit comfortably into today's larger story about the happy and magical world of Disney, where every corporate decision is always right.  These stories are all true.  [...]  These stories are as well-documented as decades of research allow.  [...] No official Disney book has even a single chapter that tells about the making of Song of the South.  This book exists so that the history of Song of the South finally can be shared with all those interested in the film." (pgs. 13-14).

Korkis is an ardent apologist for Song of the South, arguing that it was never the intention of Walt Disney or his production staff to make a racist film.  Any accusations to the contrary are shown to be unfounded, usually made by those who had not seen the film and relied on biased opinions, and were predisposed to dislike it.  Korkis concedes that some aspects of the film may have been insensitive or misguided attempts by Disney personally to create a film that would not offend anyone.  But he points out general social attitudes in the 1940s as evidence that if Disney or his staff had wanted to make an undeniably racist film or otherwise cater to racist parts of America, it would have been much easier to do so.  The book's Foreword is by Floyd Norman, Disney's first African-American animator who worked under Walt personally for years, and has never seen any signs of racism at the studio.  "Because employees were able to check out 16mm prints on occasion, I set up a special screening of the Disney film in a local Los Angeles church. The screening of the Disney motion picture proved insightful.  The completely African-American audience absolutely loved the movie and even requested a second screening of the Disney classic." (p. 9).

Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? goes into much greater detail than Disney's Most Notorious Film on the making of Song of the South.  Chapters include The Beginning, The Screenplay, The Cast, The Live Action, The Animation, The Music, The World Premiere, The Controversy, The Reviews, and The Conclusion.  Korkis presents early publicity that reveals discarded preliminary plans, names of other actors considered for the roles, the many Joel Chandler Harris stories considered before the three that were selected for the film, omitted songs, and more, including the fact that the first screenplay by Dalton Reymond, a Southerner who had a reputation in Hollywood as an expert on the "Old South," was indeed very racist.  Walt Disney called in Maurice Rapf, a known Jewish radical, in 1944 to rewrite the screenplay.  Rapf is quoted:  "I said he shouldn't make that movie, anyway, because it's going to be an 'Uncle Tom' movie.  And I told Disney that and he said, 'That's exactly why I want you to work on it - because I know that you don't think I should make the movie.  You're against 'Uncle Tom-ism' and you're a radical.  That's exactly the kind of point of view I want brought to this film.'" (p. 30) But several of Rapf's revisions were ignored, including those that would have made it clear that the story was set well after the slavery period. 

The book presents complete film credits, a lengthy story summary, a short biography of Joel Chandler Harris, a profile of the "Brer" animal characters, information on Disney's 27-year "Uncle Remus and His Tales of Brer Rabbit" newspaper comic strip, and other trivia related to Song of the South, some of which duplicates details in Sperb's book and some of which is original, such as the March 2006 Saturday Night Live parody that grotesquely exaggerates the film's racism.  There are a bibliography and an index.

The "Other Forbidden Stories" in this book are brief accounts of things that the Disney Company considers too embarrassing to allow to be covered in approved books today:  the racist centaurs in Fantasia and other elements in Disney cartoons that have been censored, such as Pecos Bill's smoking a cigarette; Disney's educational cartoons on menstruation and venereal disease; Mickey Rooney's false claim that Mickey Mouse was named after him; the notorious "Disney Orgy" pornographic poster by cartoonist Wally Wood; the FBI file on Walt Disney; Disney's failed plans during the 1950s to make an Oz feature; and more.  

Sperb and Korkis have different viewpoints, but both agree that the corporate Disney decision to refuse to re-release Song of the South today is a mistake.  Both feel that the film should be available for modern viewers to see and decide for themselves whether it is deliberately racist, well-meant but condescending, or a tasteful depiction of a difficult period in America's social evolution.

--

Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first Americanfan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 forintroducing anime to American fandom.  He began writingabout anime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August1996.  Amajor stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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