Comparative Review: 2 New Books on Disney’s Song of the South
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empahsizes that in the Splash Mountain recreation of Brer Rabbit's feats from the movie, the sticky black Tar Baby has been replaced by Winnie-the-Pooh's sticky Pot of Hunny.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 American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom. He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at email@example.com.