Bristling Dixie

Uncle Walt thought Song of the South would be his masterpiece. Now it’s invisible.

Song of the South

Still From Song of the South

“We’re through with caviar,” Walt Disney lamented. “From now on it’s mashed potatoes and gravy.” The company that bore his name was reeling from the disappointing box office returns of Pinocchio and Fantasia. During the war, the perpetually unsteady company had been kept afloat by government-commissioned propaganda movies and cheaply produced “package films” like The Three Caballeros and Make Mine Music. Now the war was over, and the boss needed a hit. Something technically innovative but not too expensive. Something instantly beloved.

Disney had cunningly negotiated the rights to Joel Chandler Harris’ plantation-set Uncle Remus’ tales back in 1939, while Clark Gable was still dominating movie screens. A known literary entity that oozed bankable southern charm: Disney had found his potatoes.

The resulting film, Song of the South, turned out to be yet another commercial disappointment. But as Jason Sperb details in his fascinating new book Disney’s Most Notorious Film, its life as both corporate emblem and fount of controversy would last for decades. The Disney Company hasn’t let Song of the South out of its hallowed “vault” in 25 years. The film’s live-action depictions of Uncle Remus and his fellow smilin’, Massah-servin’ black folk are embarrassingly racist. But South’s central song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” is all but synonymous with Disney itself, and the characters live on in the company’s massively popular Splash Mountain rides. So Song of the South lives on, yet the company can’t even really acknowledge the film, much less cash in on it directly. If you were born after 1980, you’ve almost certainly never seen it in full, and it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon.

Song of the South concerns a young boy, Johnny, who moves to his mother’s family plantation in Georgia right as his father leaves the family to fight for some unspecified cause in Atlanta. Alone and depressed, he’s comforted by the tall tales of Uncle Remus, an ex-slave living on the property. The era of the film’s setting is purposefully vague; while it’s implied that the black workers are no longer Johnny’s family’s property, they are still completely subservient, and happily so. James Baskett plays Remus as a preternaturally jolly companion, a buoyant and beatific link between the stately live-action sequences and the animated ones involving Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox as a proto-Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.*

For Baskett’s magical-Negro presence, for the cartoon characters’ ludicrously stereotypical voices, and for the generally pleasant dynamic between the white landowners and their help, Sperb calls Song of the South “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts.” That last word is the giveaway that Disney’s Most Notorious Film isn’t a work of movie criticism so much as the latest entry in the ever-expanding academic subculture of Disney Studies. Sperb spends relatively little time with the movie itself, instead tracing its place in the popular consciousness as it went in and out of style.

He first punctures the myth that the racial caricatures in Song of the South were “a product of its time.” This is an argument that the film’s defenders trot out reliably, when, in fact, Disney took uncharacteristic pains to undercut the Harris tales’ potential offensiveness. As Neal Gabler’s biography reveals, Disney hired a leftist screenwriter, Mauric Rapf, to modify the original script by southerner Dalton Reymond; Disney Company reps met with producers of the racially controversial 1943 film Stormy Weather to hear about their marketing experiences; and Disney publicists warned management of potential racially charged blowback. Walt Disney himself even invited NAACP president Walter White to California to oversee script revisions, though the meeting never occurred.

In short, Disney knew he was playing with a loaded gun even before filming began. As Sperb puts it: “Not only is Song of the South a movie derogatory because of its ‘Uncle Tomism,’ it was made by people who were well aware of the stereotype, who knew others would be offended, and who clearly felt there was nothing wrong with that.” 

Disney’s debt to Gone With the Wind was made clear by his casting of Hattie McDaniel in a minor role, and he might have been confused about why his film was attacked for tastelessness less than a decade after McDaniel won her Oscar for an essentially Mammy role. Sperb explains that racial progressivism was at a high point in America coming out of the war. Black Americans had served ably, of course, and Americans were eager to prove their superiority to the Nazis in terms of ethnic tolerance.

But after succeeding generations experienced Song of the South’s colorful imagery in their Golden Books and accompanying records, in episodes of the Disneyland television series, and through the omnipresence of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” Song of the South became an unlikely hit in three re-releases throughout the 1970s and ’80s. “People who grew up with Disney’s Uncle Remus in their homes were more receptive [in 1972] than 1940s audiences had been to a jarringly inappropriate ‘Uncle Tom’-ish Southern melodrama,” Sperb writes. And by the 1980s, when it was twice re-released theatrically, viewers brought nostalgia to Song that blinded them to its true offensiveness; in Sperb’s telling, the film had become “so outdated that its offensiveness was hard for some to see.” 

Sperb notes that Disney has continued to capitalize on individual bits of the film ever since the conversations it engendered became too fraught to mesh with the zip-a-dee-doo-dah Disney corporate personality. The company used its expanding media empire to parcel out small pieces of the film (like the completely incoherent Splash Mountain attraction, in which the Tar Baby is exchanged for a honey pot and the Brer animals relocated to a woodland setting) while withholding the full picture itself. What we have now, as Sperb details in his later chapters, is a small army of Disney fans like those at and Uncle Remus Pages defending the film out of their own nostalgia and allegiance to the company brand, while the movie’s relative obscurity ensures that fewer and fewer people actually get to see how offensive it is.

As cultural history, this is an impressively researched, convincing argument. But Sperb is on shakier ground as a polemicist. He implies that the company has whitewashed (so to speak) its past by burying a moral embarrassment while still reaping profits from it. And ashamed as I am to type this, I’m not sure he’s being entirely fair to Disney.

My perception of Disney’s power and influence is probably skewed from the dozens of products clogging my two young kids’ dressers and toy drawers, but my guess is that no single DVD or theatrical release could possibly damage their reputation or bottom line beyond repair. For that reason, I choose to charitably interpret their withholding of a surely profitable Song of the South release as proof of some modicum of cultural sensitivity. Even if that sensitivity is informed by corporate fear, as it almost certainly is, all they’ve really done is salvage the noncontroversial elements of the film and unofficially disowned the rest.

Trouble is, this is our cinematic loss. Sperb is dismissive of Song of the South as a film, but it is a fascinating part of the Disney canon and even historically significant. For one, the live-action parts were the first color work by Gregg Toland, the legendary cinematographer of Citizen Kane. Far from the perfunctory or boring placeholders that Sperb claims, the studio portions of Song of the South (which account for all but 25 of the film’s 95 minutes) are often visually and emotionally stunning. Toland’s long panning shots and devastating close-ups of anguished Johnny are the most affecting non-animated screen images ever created under the Disney banner. Song of the South is a major work by one of the great screen photographers of all time, and one of his final films at that.

It is also one of Walt Disney’s own most transparently personal (and self-serving) movies. Disney was the son of farmers who learned his famous work ethic by watching his parents eke out a living in Marceline, Mo. The Harris stories offered his first chance to put his own populist stamp on an American literary touchstone. While his choice of the Remus stories was motivated by profit and popular taste, it’s not hard to see how Disney would be drawn to a story about a beloved storyteller whose gift ultimately saves an impressionable boy’s life. Remus guides Johnny away from stilted real life and into “a laughing place,” an alternate time when “the folks, they was closer to the critters, and the critters, they was closer to the folks.” It is naturally a cartoon world full of eyelash-batting animals. The whole film is like a test run for the immersive theme parks that Disney would eventually destroy acres of forest to build.

Song of the South was Walt Disney’s attempt at literary respectability and an obvious effort to define his image. Watching the film now, this is the element that stands out as the real product of Song of the South’s time. While the Disney name and signature are still the reigning symbols for our entire country’s outlook and aesthetic sense nearly a half-century after the founder’s death, the old “Uncle Walt” personality has little to do with it anymore. Instead, the current Disney public face is now either a bevy of princesses or Lightning McQueen, depending on which gender of Happy Meal your kid demands. What’s remained from the Uncle Walt days is the insistence that Disney’s historical output is an unending line of “beloved classics” and “masterpieces,” ignoring the fact that many of their movies were actually commercial failures in their first release.

We won’t be seeing Song of the South anytime soon because the film’s controversy resists that narrative. The Disney marketing department doesn’t operate at any level below fawning adoration, and this is a film that requires a more solemn presentation. It’s more of a curio than a classic, as memorable for its utter tastelessness as for its technical accomplishments. Sperb’s book is an intelligent and readable academic treatment of its long shadow, and with any luck it will inspire some viewers to seek out the film itself—whether on torrents, questionably legal DVD, or, for now, on YouTube—rather than the arguments about it.

Correction, Jan. 6, 2012: This ariticle originally misidentified James Baskett as John Baskett. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South by Jason Sperb. University of Texas Press.

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