More about "Song of the South"

Discussion in 'Visual Arts' started by RDK, May 12, 2003.

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  1. RDK

    RDK Active Member Thread Starter

    Los Angeles, CA
    From the L.A. Times...

    By Donald Liebenson, Special to The Times

    Fueled by mainstream acceptance of the DVD format, Disney has been scouring its vaults to bring more product to market. So collectors can get DVD sets devoted to Mickey Mouse cartoons, the complete Goofy oeuvre and the "Davy Crockett" episodes of the "Disneyland" TV series. Also quietly reappearing on VHS has been a selection of Disney's baby-boomer era live-action films, including "Greyfriars Bobby," "The Moon-Spinners" and "The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes."

    But if you think they've released everything of interest, think again.

    "Song of the South," a 1946 Academy Award-winning feature, has not been seen in American theaters since 1986, and remains the one Disney classic that has yet to be released in this country on home video.

    Ask supporters and critics of the film why, and you get speculation and rumor. Ask Disney, and you get "zip," without the doo-dah.

    Buena Vista Home Entertainment issued a statement for this story: "Walt Disney Home Entertainment uses many factors to evaluate which movies in its rich library will be issued onto video and DVD formats To this point, we have not discounted nor committed to any distribution window concerning this title."

    Most likely, the film remains unreleased due to sensitivity over the stereotypical portrayals of its African American characters and its perceived benign image of slavery, which have embroiled the film in controversy since its theatrical release.

    To its supporters, it is precious American folklore. To its critics, it is a racist film. And Disney, observed Leonard Maltin, film historian and author of "The Disney Films," "is a big target."

    Not that its unavailability has stopped Disney from profiting from "Song of the South." The clip of the film's Oscar-winning signature song is included in "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," a volume of the best-selling "Sing-A-Long Songs" series, which is available on VHS. The song has also appeared on several Disney audio compilations. Meanwhile, the Disney theme park attraction Splash Mountain features the film's principal animated characters: Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear.

    But there is no context for generations of children who have not had access to the film.

    "I'm sad," it has not been released, said Ruth Warrick, 86, who costarred in "Song of the South," "because it leaves out a whole chapter in the history of Walt Disney. The film is probably one of his crowning points."

    A labor of love, "Song of the South" was conceived by Disney as a celebration of Joel Chandler Harris' "Uncle Remus" stories that inspired him and enchanted his children.

    "It was a film he really wanted to do," recalled Diane Disney Miller, his daughter. "My dad quoted so much from Uncle Remus' logic and philosophy."

    "Song of the South" stars Bobby Driscoll as Johnny, a young boy who accompanies his mother (Warrick) to his grandmother's plantation. Devastated by his parents' separation, he decides to run away. But he becomes enthralled by Uncle Remus (James Baskett, who was honored with a special Academy Award), whose stories about the wily Br'er Rabbit teach the boy valuable life lessons.

    It is not clear in the film if the story takes place before or after the Civil War (although the synopsis on the box of a French VHS edition states, "We are in Georgia, south of the United States, after the Civil War"), or if Remus is a slave or servant.

    From its opening day, the film sparked protests. Members of the Theatre Chapter of the National Negro Congress picketed the film with signs that read, "We fought for Uncle Sam, not Uncle Tom," according to newspaper reports. A New York Times critic dismissed the Remus character as "just the sweetest and most wistful darky slave that ever stepped out of a sublimely unreconstructed fancy of the Old South."

    The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) acknowledged the film's "artistic merit" but chastised it for perpetuating the stereotypical "idyllic master-slave relationship" — a position the organization maintains to this day, according to a spokesperson.

    But the film has its champions. Christian Willis, 22, of Dana Point founded songofthe, a Web site devoted to "Song"-related collectibles and to raising awareness of the film. Willis saw the film when he was 6 years old and calls it "a cherished childhood memory."

    "Originally my site was only going to show memorabilia," he said, "but so many people contacted me about the film, I decided to expand my Web site. This is a landmark in motion picture history. This was a project Walt Disney wanted to do for years and years. I don't think it's right that Disney should withhold it from the public."

    Willis' site has a link to Uncle, a Web site started by fellow enthusiast James McKimson, 28, of Pasadena. The site features a petition to lobby for the film's home video release. Currently, more than 30,000 have affixed their names.

    Maltin is also in favor of the film's home video release. "I'm very fond of the movie," he said. "I think it has been unfairly maligned and misread. [Some] people reject the film out of hand, and I think that's a shame. It denies people of all colors the ability to see this warm and uplifting movie."

    For critics of the film, the exaggerated dialects and scenes of the black sharecroppers singing as they heigh-(di)-ho to work in the fields are anything but "satisfactual."

    "It was a very racist film," said Todd Boyd, an African American professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema-Television. "The character of Uncle Remus is a throwback. He affirms every negative and demeaning stereotype from slavery about Southern black men being happy-go-lucky, passive, carefree and non-threatening."

    But proponents of the movie counter that the Uncle Remus tales, as so memorably animated in the film, are a vital part of African American folklore. Clarence Page, nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also is African American, called the film one of his favorites from his childhood and one he had hoped to share with his son.

    "To quote Bill Cosby, so much black history has been lost, stolen or strayed," he said in an interview. "There's a deep African tradition in 'Song of the South.' Br'er Rabbit is an emblematic figure of African folklore, a direct descendant of the trickster who gets by on his wits. Where [political correctness] gets ridiculous is when [corporations trying to avoid a controversy] just presume that if something is stereotypical, then African Americans aren't going to like this. There is a diversity of images in the media now that reflect our diversity in real life. We can look at 'Song of the South' with a new awareness and appreciation."

    "What I take away from the movie," Maltin said, "is the following: That Uncle Remus is a warm, good-hearted character who captures the imagination of a lonely little boy who happens to be white. The boy is absolutely colorblind, and the audience relates to him. There is an incredible moment when Uncle Remus takes the boy's hand in his, and there is an insert of the white and black hands clasped together. It's the emotional climax of the movie."

    Disney is not alone in grappling with racially insensitive material in older films. Two years ago, CartoonNetwork found itself in a similar situation when it announced plans to broadcast every Bugs Bunny cartoon during its annual "June Bugs" marathon. But such controversial cartoons as "All This and Rabbit Stew" and "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips" were ultimately deemed not ready for prime time.

    On the "Little Rascals" VHS box set collection from Republic Pictures Home Video, Maltin appears at the beginning of each volume to introduce the shorts and place them in historical context.

    Those in favor of "Song of the South's" home video release point out that other films with racial depictions from another era are readily available, including "Gone With the Wind" and D.W. Griffith's epic, "Birth of a Nation," with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Mail order outlets such as Movies Unlimited still stock "Charlie Chan" films and episodes of the "Amos & Andy" TV series.

    "There are plenty of great films that are not available," Maltin observed, "but the reasons are much more mundane or whimsical. I hope it ['Song of the South'] has a chance to come out again and find a new audience. It would have to be done responsibly. I hope it comes to pass."

    So does Warrick. "I wish Walt were alive," she said. "I think I could talk him into releasing it."
  2. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host

    After a bit of discussion with the Gorts, we are going to leave this thread open. Please be aware that this is a sensitive subject.

    Why it is, I don't know. I doubt that anyone who has actually seen the film would be offended by anything in it. As I told Gort John B., it's about as offensive as a bowl of Kix cereal.

    Leonard Maltin said this about the movie and I agree with him:


    "What I take away from the movie," Maltin said, "is the following: That Uncle Remus is a warm, good-hearted character who captures the imagination of a lonely little boy who happens to be white. The boy is absolutely colorblind, and the audience relates to him. There is an incredible moment when Uncle Remus takes the boy's hand in his, and there is an insert of the white and black hands clasped together. It's the emotional climax of the movie."


    As I mentioned in an earlier thread about this film, I saw a screening of "Song Of The South" at Disney with the entire African-American music departments of MCA and Capitol Records and no one even grunted. Everyone (and their kids especially) enjoyed the movie. I was the only white person in the entire audience (invited by one of the guys) and I can tell you that the movie tickled the parents and thoroughly amused the children.

    What else can I say?
  3. Cafe Jeff

    Cafe Jeff New Member


    I have a VCD of the film which I pulled off of the newsgroups and overall it's pretty innocuous.

    I downloaded it because I thought it would be a fun movie for my kid, which he has yet to see, only because it seemed a bit old for him at the time. And until reading the above, I was unaware of the controversy surrounding the film. I would not however say its high art or a particularly good film at that. In fact, it's saccharine in the way that only Mousewitz is capable of. But I can also see how people would be offended by the stereotypes on display. While in colour, the film is pretty black and white and lacking in nuance. Jeff
  4. Todd Fredericks

    Todd Fredericks Senior Member

    A New Yorker
    I don't beleive (and never have) in sugar-coating history. Yes, there are a lot of older films (heck, even new ones) which are pretty offensive (and some that are not) but at the end of the day, who is the true moral authority on anything (beware of the people who say they are)? Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Also, let's try and give society a little credit here. I'm sure there are a few people left in the world who understand how to place things in political/era context...
  5. Jamie Tate

    Jamie Tate New Member

    The only problem I see wit this movie is it's not particularly good. That little kid needs some Ritalin or something. Turn the emotion down a bit kid! He cried for just over half the movie if I recall correctly. Overly sentimental schlock (if I can say schlock in mixed company).
  6. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden MichiGort Staff

    Livonia, MI
    I think Maltin nailed it when he said a release "...would have to be done responsibly". Disney is in quite a pickle because of their brand image and expectations about mass-marketing to children. On the one hand, the film as a whole is pretty innocuous. On the other hand, they don't want to be responsible for re-introducing terms like "Tar-baby" into the modern vernacular, even if most kids are not aware of its historically pejorative meaning.

    They handled this well on their Mickey Mouse in Black and White set with the brief Maltin introductions to some of the clips (some of which had much more offensive stereotypes than SotS, IMHO), so they know how to do it. Hopefully we will see a release of SotS marketed towards collectors some day.

  7. Ed Bishop

    Ed Bishop Incredibly, I'm still here

    Most of the people who complain about the film probably haven't even seen it. I was lucky enough to get to watch it the last time it was released to theaters. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid and, yeah, pretty innocuous. It's only a big deal because Disney refuses to release it. They do that, and I'd be willing to bet the controversy comes to an end.

    Ruth Warrick was in CITIZEN KANE, also. She didn't have that great a movie career beyond a few key films; she got stuck in a lot of B-movies, tough. Her role as Phoebe on ALL MY CHILDREN is probably her greatest claim to fame, oddly enough. In KANE, although her part isn't small, it doesn't resonate the way so many others in that great film do.

  8. Angel

    Angel New Member

    Hollywood, Ca.
    Aah, it is a movie for children. Of course it seems schlocky to you! This movie was released in 1946, the year after WWII ended. After all of that blood and gore the film was probably a welcome relief.

    I saw the film at a screening at MGM Studios in 1981. It looked great on the big screen, but let us face it; it is a movie for children. The best scene in the film was that last great scene where they are all running. What a great live action-animation sequence. That one scene would be worth the price of a DVD!
  9. Oatsdad

    Oatsdad Oat, Biscuits, Abbie & Mitzi: Best Dogs Ever

    Alexandria VA
    Kix cereal? Ooh, just hearing about that stuff makes me mad! Arrggh! I'm offended you mentioned it!!!

  10. I agree Ken. It's interesting to note that until 1999, IIRC, Song Of The South was readily available on Disney home video in the U.K. and Australia. I recently read a review by someone who just last year saw the movie on the Disney channel in Australia.

    Disney could easily release SOTS on DVD and have a nice Leonard Maltin informative introduction, putting the film in historical perspective. If Rhino can release a two volume video set of "banned" cartoons which included the Walter Lantz / Universal Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat, arguably more offensive, surely Disney in the U.S. and Canada could release Song Of The South on DVD.
  11. Gardo

    Gardo Senior Member

    The thing that distinguishes Song of the South from movies like Birth of a Nation is that moviegoers respond to the former as entertainment, not as film history. And people who find SOTS offensive don't want Disney to market what they consider racist entertainment. Being entertained by racism is in many minds tantamount to entertaining the idea of racism, or even nostalgically looking back on slavery as a wonderful thing.

    Now the real problem-movie in this regard is Gone With The Wind, of course, and so far as I know Turner never once considered removing that movie from video distribution. What's the difference between it, a movie full of genuinely disturbing racial stereotypes that insists that the antebellum South was a place of happiness for black and white alike and in which slavery looks terribly benign, and SOTS, in which there are arguably fewer disturbing racial stereotypes and in which, as Maltin points out, there's an implicit plea for racial harmony?

    The difference is that most people recognize that slavery is only part of what GWTW is about. The movie has many, many layers, and while we can regret and decry the racist parts we can also defend and enjoy the other parts. In other words, GWTW is complex, and that complexity (like the complexity in Huckleberry Finn, another vexed artwork) rescues it from a reductive dismissal as only racist.

    SOTS, on the other hand, is usually seen as pap for children, and there's very little discussion of other layers of meaning, so if someone finds the movie offensive the talk has fewer places to go than it does with GWTW. In my opinion, SOTS is also multi-layered, even to the point of being occasionally contradictory in its presentation of race, but in general it's up to many interesting things that merit careful attention and discussion. Above all, the film is Walt Disney's defense of the value of his own storytelling career. Uncle Remus is Uncle Walt. And the climax of the movie has a storyteller becoming not only a surrogate father, but almost a supernatural force capable of raising the dead. The end of the movie has Uncle Remus/Uncle Walt experiencing a kind of conversion himself, as he realizes that now his characters have taken on lives of their own, have become real ("satisfactual"), and now he can believe in them too. Watch for the moment when Uncle Remus looks right at the camera and says, "it's actual!" His surprise and delight is Uncle Walt's surprise and delight, and it's the surprise and delight Walt spent his whole life trying to evoke in his audiences.

    I certainly understand why some people find the movie offensive. I do think, however, that the way to move past the question of whether the movie is "racist" or not is to recognize that the movie is really very complex (though it isn't always successful) and can't be dismissed without taking that complexity into account. And I wish Maltin or someone would take full account of that complexity in a comprehensive video essay to accompany the restored film on DVD!
  12. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your host Your Host

    Great post.

    Thanks, Gardo!
  13. Cafe Jeff

    Cafe Jeff New Member

    I second that.
    That's a great post.
    I had never connected Walt with Uncle Remus, but it's really quite obvious when you point out.
    I am not sure if I ever gave SOTS enough time.
    Completely opposite of SOTS, I just picked up some Smithsonian Folkways Blues at lunch. The way in which these recordings are made is the opposite of art, although there is certainly art in the recordings. They stand as cold documentaries, and somehow I feel a lot more comfortable with that in the way I think Primo Levi's novel's are better than Speilberg's Schindler's List.
  14. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden MichiGort Staff

    Livonia, MI
    Even if one does not dismiss SotS as "pap" for children, there is no question that it was made for children. There is also no question that the current Disney business model for releasing and marketing their "Animated Classics" on video does not lend itself to Song of the South. There is no way they are going to cross-promote it with trailers on the latest Rolie Polie Olie DVD, insert coupons for Nabisco products or Energizer batteries, include an interactive children's game, or offer a free SotS storybook if you send in $1 for shipping and handling.

    That being said, The Reluctant Dragon did not fit into the "animated classics" marketing scheme either, and they managed to release that in a collector-oriented set, so as I said before, they know how to do it.

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