Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I'll Watch Anything!: JB Watches Song of the South

Funny story: Adam Riske and I attended the recent G-Fest in Rosemont, Illinois. Stepping up to one of the ubiquitous bootleg DVD dealer tables, Adam picked up a copy of Disney’s Song of the South, savored its questionable legality, and whispered, “I am going to buy this for you because I want to read what you have to say about it.”

Here you go, Adam.

Song of the South has become the cartoona-non-grata of the Walt Disney studios. Although it was once re-released on a regular seven-year schedule with Disney’s other classic animated features, theatrical showings ceased after the 1986 reissue. Although Song of the South was released on VHS and laserdisc, there has never been a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray release. Disney is concerned that the film would now be seen as racist.

THE PLOT IN EXCRUCIATING DETAIL (Spoilers!): Johnny (Bobby Driscoll, who seven years later would voice Disney’s Peter Pan) and his Mother (Ruth Warrick) are going to his Grandma’s plantation for a visit. Johnny’s father is returning to Atlanta, where he edits a newspaper. It is darkly hinted that Johnny’s parents are splitting up. Johnny is excited to meet former slave Uncle Remus (James Baskett), whose fanciful tales both his mother and father enjoyed when they were children. Johnny befriends a young black boy named Toby (Glenn Leedy) who shows him around the plantation. Toby warns Johnny never to take a shortcut through a field that contains a wild bull. Uncle Remus tells a fanciful tale about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. Johnny’s mother gets annoyed and tells Uncle Remus to stop telling Johnny stories. A neighbor girl, Ginny (Luana Patten), gives Johnny an adorable puppy. Johnny’s mother gets irritated and orders him to return the puppy. Knowing the puppy will be mistreated if returned, Johnny asks Uncle Remus to keep it for him. Johnny’s mother learns of this puppy subterfuge and forbids Uncle Remus from spending time with Johnny at all. (Yet Uncle Remus’ friendship seems to be the only thing making her son’s life bearable on the plantation – in the absence of her husband, could she have become singularly focused on making her only child’s life a living Southern hell?) Two local bullies bother Johnny and Ginny before his big birthday party. Uncle Remus tells Ginny and Johnny another Br’er Rabbit tale to cheer them up. Johnny never makes it to his own birthday party. Johnny’s mother learns of this further forbidden storytelling and loses her shit. Uncle Remus senses the way the wind is blowing and decides to leave town. Johnny takes the shortcut through the bull’s field, with predictable results. As Johnny languishes on his deathbed, his father returns from Atlanta, and his mother begs Uncle Remus, who has also returned, to tell Johnny “just one more tale.” Uncle Remus’s story cures Johnny of impending death and reunites the parents. Johnny is free to run and play with both his live-action friends and the film’s animated characters, singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Da.”

That’s about it.

This film should not be boycotted because it is racist, it should be boycotted because it is boring. The live-action portions of Song of the South – and that is most of the movie – are directed in a static and stodgy manner. The drama feels staged and obvious, like those old Coronet educational films they used to show in schools. Continuing the trend of other post-war Disney features like Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time, Song of the South is padded with an endless live-action frame story, which was much cheaper to produce than Disney Studio’s painstakingly hand-drawn animation.

We get 17 minutes of excruciatingly slow filler material for every eight or ten minutes of animation. The film literally lurches between animated segments in a set pattern of 17 live-action minutes of the poorly-told Johnny story followed by eight minutes of fun with Br’ers Rabbit, Fox, and Bear.

The film is 94 minutes; there are only 25 minutes of animation.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The bootleg DVD was faulty. Eight minutes before the end, it began to malfunction. On closer inspection, it seemed the disc was not malfunctioning in my player, but rather the original bootleg copy used by our bootlegger had screwed up, started to skip, and then defaulted to its crude menu. Our bootlegger’s DVD recorder simply recorded all of this, so my disc ends with twenty minutes of the original bootleg’s menu screen. Most of these charlatans only check the first few minutes of the disc; our copy somehow snuck past this infallible quality control regimen. I had to watch the last eight minutes on YouTube.

Zip-A-Dee-Don’t.
I was once fortunate to see Song of the South on the big screen, during the film’s last theatrical rerelease. This was 1986, mind you, before both political correctness and racism had ever been invented. I thought then as I do now that the stereotyped characters and dialects were outweighed by the film’s positive message. Uncle Remus cares about the children; they love him, and he teaches them valuable life lessons through his fables. The film also features a forward-looking (for 1946) friendship between the little white Johnny character and the little black Toby character. (The audience is happy to see Toby find a friend, as apparently the biggest excitement in his typical day is listening to a grandfather clock chime the hour. Noon must send him into spasms of delight.)

TANGENT: At one point in the film, Johnny’s mother wants him to get all dressed up in a fancy outfit given to him by his aunt. The outfit is very Victorian and colorful with velvet knee-length pants and a lace color. It looks almost exactly like the outfit Django chooses for himself in Django Unchained. We all know Quentin Tarantino is a movie buff.

Coincidence? I think not.

Song of the South’s sin is not racism – it is of omission. We are never sure that Johnny’s parents are indeed splitting up, or why. We are never sure what Johnny’s father prints in his paper that “makes people so angry.” We are never even sure when this goddamned story takes place. Making all of these clearer could go a long way toward answering its critic’s charges of racism. If one assumes that it is all happening pre Civil War, I can understand concerns that the film is falsely portraying the Antebellum South as an idyllic paradise of smiling, complacent slaves and benevolent, kind-hearted masters. Although there is nothing in the film to tell us this, it actually takes place post Civil War. The black characters are not grinning slaves; they are singing sharecroppers. Were these omissions part of a deliberate marketing strategy designed by the Walt Disney studios? By keeping key plot points maddeningly ambiguous, both 1946 audiences could be satisfied. Northern audiences might see a progressive tale of Reconstruction, while Southern audiences would be free to indulge in their shameful nostalgia for life with their “peculiar institution.”

I do not find anything in Song of the South as racist as the crows in Dumbo, and Dumbo has enjoyed multiple releases on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-Ray.



The action in Song of the South is twice interrupted by a chorus of black sharecroppers who in the first sequence sit around the fire and in the second sequence return from the fields, singing in voices that sound suspiciously like the “Disney Recording Studios All-White Voice-Over Chorus.” These scenes, which do nothing to advance the plot and merely pad the film, reminded me of one critic’s comment about Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. The critic mused that Spielberg’s work was not a movie, but rather a promotional piece for a projected new area of the Disney theme parks to be called “Negroland.”

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am white. I applied to be black; they would not have me.

I would think that instead of arousing the ire of the NAACP, the film’s depiction of Br’er Bear would arouse the ire of lobbying groups for the mentally challenged. Clearly, there is “something wrong” with Br’er Bear – not in a “Disney’s beloved Goofy character” way, but in a disturbing “Of Mice and Men’s scary Lenny character” way. When Br’er Bear snarls, “I’m gonna tear yur head clean off,” we know he means it.

And speaking of tearing heads “clean off,” re-watching this movie reminded me that Disney family films used to be truly terrifying. In the animated segments, Br’er Fox sharpens an AXE and says he means to “skin Br’er Rabbit ALIVE.” The two town bullies that torment Johnny are keen on drowning puppies. Johnny’s parents are headed for divorce. This makes me wonder if the working title for Song of the South was The Skinned Alive Headless Drowned Puppy Divorce. You know… for the kiddies.

If one looks at the film objectively, another group might also have a problem with it. With its moronic, poor white trash bully boys and controlling, short-sighted, bitchy mother figure, WHITE people might want to boycott this film too. In terms of the film’s plot and the insular, fictitious world it creates, the black characters – while admittedly exaggerated – come across far better than some of the white characters. After all, only white characters in the film talk of divorce and drowning puppies.

The cast is a mixed bag. James Baskett is fine as Uncle Remus (he also voices the animated Br’er Fox, the role for which he originally auditioned) and sings the film’s Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Da.” Hattie McDaniel basically plays the same character she played in Gone With The Wind eight years earlier. McDaniel won an Oscar for that role, the first black actress to win one, and became so typecast she might as well have changed her name to “Mammy” McDaniel. Ruth Warrick seems to be stuck here portraying the same character she played in Citizen Kane: the controlling, bitchy wife who gets left behind by her husband. Song of the South suggests that if Kane’s wife only had Uncle Remus’s help, Charles Foster Kane would never have started that affair that ruined his political career. Kane would have won the race for Governor and then would have gone on to be elected President. Instead, he died alone and unloved. Kind of makes you appreciate Uncle Remus a little more now, doesn’t it?

Song of the South’s biggest legacy besides all that racial rioting (there was no rioting) is the Splash Mountain ride found at every Disney theme park, even the one in Tokyo. According to songofthesouth.net, the only reason Disney’s first flume ride got a Song of the South theme was that ride construction was so long delayed and so over budget that Disney Imagineers simply pulled the Br’er critter audio-animatronic figures from the “America Sings!” attraction next door and re-purposed them for the Splash Mountain ride.

Disney seems immensely proud of its theme park ride, and a little guilty about its filmic inspiration. My wife’s brilliant solution to Song of the South’s political incorrectness is to REMAKE IT! The kernels are here for a story that is very socially progressive. Perhaps in the remake, the father’s and grandmother’s social progressivism, which is only hinted at in the original, is made explicit; the mother’s longing for a past that never was is also made more explicit, and we can more clearly see that her latent racism is at the core of every problem in the film. Through the charming interventions of the beloved Uncle Remus, Mother learns the error of her ways. We are the world! The remake could amp up the brotherhood message, tie into Splash Mountain (Disney loves theme park tie-ins) and re-contextualize the original film as a quaint period piece, and then the original could be legitimately released on DVD as a marketing tie-in to the remake. Genius!

So there you go, Adam. There’s my take on Song of the South. I would suggest that anyone wishing to view this film should instead fly to Florida and ride Splash Mountain; the ride features all the beloved cartoon characters and songs of the controversial film, but is only nine minutes long. You will get wet.

More I'll Watch Anything:
Doug Watches The Garbage Pail Kids Movie
Patrick Watches Battle Beyond the Stars
JB Watches The American President
Mark Ahn Watches Hausu
Patrick Watches Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo
Erich Watches The Baby
Patrick Watches The Movie Orgy
Patrick Watches Santa Claus: The Movie
Patrick Watches Ultraviolet
Patrick Watches Cool as Ice

15 comments:

  1. "This film should not be boycotted because it is racist, it should be boycotted because it is boring."

    THANK YOU!!!

    And at the risk of a lot of ire, I don't think movies containing these awful stereotypes should be locked away because people should see for themselves that crap like this happened. People should see the "Ridin' to Heaven on a Mule" part of Wonder Bar and have to pick their chin up off the floor. Or hear the "N" word in a movie like Child Bride.

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    1. The motion is carried.

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    2. So...did we just bring back racism?

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    3. Damn straight. Also, the WWII outright-racist Bugs Bunny cartoons. And the original Tom & Jerry cartoons with Mammie.

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    4. Not sure if you're joking here but...

      In those "Forbidden Hollywood" disc sets TCM puts out, they'll occasionally include some cartoons from the era. At the beginning they have a title card about the awful descriptions of minorities but that they have "historical significance".

      That might just be a lot of happy horseshit on their part to justify using them...but I believe that.

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  2. Thanks JB. I was curious about re-watching this and now I don't have to. I owe you one :-)

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  3. Nice write up JB. I am surprised Disney hasn't just gone ahead and released this movie in a limited edition way and put a whole bunch of disclaimers and filmed one of those Leonard Maltin "this movie came from a different time" advisory things. A few years ago Disney released in their limited treasure sets a ton of WWII films they made which include "Education for Death"-a very dark film on where the Nazi party was leading its followers and Donald Duck in "Der Fuhrers Face" which is Donald's only Oscar winning film about him as a Nazi who Heil's Hitler over a 100 times (I counted)

    You'll definitely have fun on Splash Mountain unless of course you ride it when the song is playing and all the audio animatronics are broken, very creepy

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  4. I have a bootleg copy of this as well that looks pretty good. I doubt Disney will ever give a proper release to this movie now, but I agree with the sentiments here that films like this shouldn't be hidden away as if they never existed. It happened. It's real. Once upon a time, this was a night at the movies. To quote Belloq, "We are simply passing through history, but THIS...this IS history." Do as you will, Disney, but we can learn and grow through art.

    Also, I find Aunt Jemimah Syrup to be delicious.

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  5. You said it all JB. Great write-up! Growing up, I was convinced that there was a secret garden hidden away somewhere in Critter Country that sold SOTS DVDs; I wasted my childhood searching for it... So I second Adam in thanking you for saving us the trouble of having to track it down to re watch. Now it's back to Lilo and Stitch for me.

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  6. Random question - If a film like this should be kept from the public, what about Breakfast at Tiffany's and Mickey Rooney's "contribution"?

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    1. I agree. What's rereleased and what's held back seems to subjective and arbitrary...

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  7. The film is very definitely set in the post-Civil War era. Uncle Remus comes and goes as he pleases, the blacks in the film are sharecroppers, not slaves, etc. The film is based on the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, whose stories actually helped preserve the African American oral tradition despite his being a white author. Although many have attacked his work as theft of their culture, or promoting stereotypes, etc., others, including some African American writers, have defended his work. Indeed he was a racial reconciliationist whose stories, among other things, showed interracial love in a positive light and were criticized in their day for mocking the old aristocracy. Sadly, the increasing simple-mindedness of American culture dictated that the film cannot be seen.

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  8. Children would still find this film entertaining, if they had the opportunity to see it. The combination of animation and live-action with a primary character who is African-American is significant, more so than an amusement park ride, and the songs are delightful.

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