Song of the South - Review, Part I
It’s Disney’s 100th anniversary, and when you look at the beginning stages of the man who started it all, you’d be amazed at just what a genuinely game-changing mark he left in filmmaking. First, he started with Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon ever made with sound, in 1929. Then, he continued pushing the envelope with short animated films with the Silly Symphony shorts. It then culminated in the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated motion picture in history. After that, he produced three more smash hits in the form of Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi and developed Fantasia as an experimental venture into utilizing both classic animation and classical music, the results of which were mesmerizing.
But then, World War II came along, and after being cut off from the European market because of this, Walt Disney and his artists settled for making propaganda films until the war was over in 1945. After that, throughout the last half of the 1940s, Disney and his artists made package films to keep their animation studio busy while recouping the finances they lost during the war. As they did so, however, Walt Disney made yet another equally risky venture with animation: crafting his first ever live-action film that incorporated bits and pieces of animation to complement its live-action portions and message. What was that film?
Song of the South.
As for its legacy? Well… allow me to lay out the story to you first.
In the 1800s American South, a young boy named Johnny was sent away to live in his grandmother’s mansion with his mother while his father went to work in Atlanta for a week. Fed up with this arrangement, Johnny attempted to run away from home to rejoin his father in Atlanta. In doing so, however, Johnny stumbled into a kindly old black man named Uncle Remus, who tried to console him about his attempts to run away from home. Remus told Johnny that, no matter what he tried or where he may have ended up, it’s impossible to run away from trouble, for he would only have run into more trouble wherever he went. How did Remus demonstrate this to Johnny? By telling him a story of how a rabbit named Br’er Rabbit attempted to run from trouble by leaving his briar patch behind, only to stumble into more trouble ahead when he ran into Br’er Fox and Bear. These two bumbling animals were out for Br’er Rabbit because Br’er Fox had a hunkering for Br’er Rabbit as food. From then on, after Johnny went back home with Uncle Remus by his side, Johnny tried settling into his new home while also growing increasingly fond of Uncle Remus as he continued being his friend and cheering him up with his stories. Johnny also made plenty of other new friends along the way, including a young black boy named Toby and a young girl named Ginny, with whom Johnny started taking a liking. However, he also had to deal with some trouble around this nick of the woods, such as two bullies who caused trouble and happened to be Ginny’s brothers.
As Johnny took heed of Uncle Remus’ stories and understood the importance behind his tales, Johnny took them to heart as he applied what he learned from them to his real-life adventures. His peers, from the bullies to his mother and grandmother, started catching on to this and wondered what effects someone like Uncle Remus had on children like Johnny. In some cases, they even started to wonder who he was.
Song of the South is one of the most fascinating films Walt Disney ever made, not because it was his first-ever foray into live-action but because of the controversial reputation it left behind among the general moviegoing public. Many people accused this film of carrying racist overtones, noticeably through the black actors’ dialect, social relations, and even the timeline. Song of the South was released in theaters six times throughout its run, but after its theatrical re-release in 1986, Song of the South never resurfaced again, not even through home video. In response to this withdrawal by Disney, more and more moviegoers grew curious to see the movie and decide for themselves whether the film deserved such a stigmatizing legacy.
But I’ll dive more into that later. Before I elaborate on whether I think it deserved its backlash, allow me to dispel the movie’s more problematic elements first.
Some of the characters in this movie were not as well-defined as they could have been. For example, Johnny’s father, John Sr., barely got any screen time and only told his family about heading off to work in Atlanta. I don’t think he ever mentioned what he did or why it required him to spend an entire week away from his family. And he returned by the end of the movie after hearing of Johnny’s accident with the bull, promising this time to stay with him and the family. But his character made just those appearances in the story, and, for someone that Johnny felt so passionately about parting from, he didn’t leave that big an impact in the movie.
Johnny’s mother, Sally, had some quiet disposition about her. Initially, she wanted to join John Sr. on his job, only to change her mind and stay by Johnny and his grandmother’s sides so they could all be together while he was away. She did some of the generally motherly things for her son, such as dressing him up for formal events and feeling committed to her ways of raising Johnny when others, such as Uncle Remus and the grandmother, may have had different ideas. But outside of that, she didn’t play that prominent a role in the story or Johnny’s adventures.
The grandmother played an even less significant role in this movie; she wasn’t even named. I find that a shame because I think what she hinted at with her character felt interesting. She seemed to have a more joyful intuition than Sally and was more like Johnny than her. She sometimes told Sally that Johnny could’ve used some adventures with kids his age and not be so restricted by the formal ideals within which Sally intended to raise Johnny. For all I know, she could even have tried to appease Johnny in his more imaginative, childlike tendencies and offered advice that would have helped Johnny instead of hindered him. But she wasn’t in the movie that long or involved as much as I feel she deserved to be.
Another character I was shocked didn’t get as much screen time here was Aunt Tempe, played by Gone with the Wind’s Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel. Like Sally and the grandmother, she came along with Johnny’s family, stuck around to watch over Johnny, and tended to the usual house chores. In her case, it included cooking the meals. She didn’t do or say much throughout the movie except for ordering the younger local black boys around to keep an eye out for Johnny and see to it that he did not get himself into trouble. When I saw Hattie McDaniel as Hattie in Gone with the Wind, her performance was multifaceted and marvelous. She translated who we would usually see as a sassy black mama into a complex woman who knew Scarlett O’Hara like the back of her hand, always trying to give her advice on the ungodly issues Scarlett got herself involved in. Here, Hattie McDaniel portrayed her character more as the knowledgeable, sassy black maid and not the exaggerated kind. Aunt Tempe just tagged along for the ride, stayed at Johnny’s family’s house, did her duties around the house and kitchen, and that’s it. Maybe McDaniel had big shoes to fill after her smash hit role, but I sometimes wished this movie could’ve allowed her character to be more like a complex human being, just like Mammy before her. As is, Hattie McDaniel’s participation in this movie felt a little underutilized.
This leads us to what I believe may have contributed to the film’s infamous reputation among moviegoers: the black communities nestled beside the white family’s plantation, which didn’t make much sense. I understand that this movie was set in the South and that there would’ve been some white communities, black communities, and plantations. But the relationship between them was surprisingly vague. We do see some black people working for the white folk, but it’s never specified who the black people were to the white family. Were they still enslaved? Were they servants? Workers? Friends? Neighbors? For a family movie by Disney, I’m surprised it didn’t delve very much into this. Of course, this may have played a role in the movie’s “legacy” because I don’t believe many people would’ve caught on to what Song of the South meant to imply without presuming that it emphasized something else far more demeaning and discriminatory.
That, and the bullies that Johnny encountered, Jake and Joe, felt generally shallow. They were just a couple of young roughnecks, one who was cunning and the other who was taller and usually followed the orders. All they did in the movie was to try and drown some puppies and ridicule Johnny and their sister, Ginny, under the right circumstances, especially as far as the puppies were concerned. They both had their moments of intriguing chemistry and intimidation, but they’re no Scut Farkus and Grover Dill.
But guess what? That’s all I have to say about the bad parts of this movie. Here’s what it did very well.
For starters, getting back to the black and white communities, the idea of the characters never mentioning what the black people were to the white people, baffling as it was, also felt surprisingly refreshing. I can say the same about whether the black folks were enslaved, free, workers, or friends. The movie already nailed it in cluing you into its time frame right away with its location, period details, and social relations between white and black people, but here’s why I find this important. When you watch this movie from beginning to end, you’ll notice there were two things the film and its characters never mentioned: the Civil War and slavery. That’s right, even slavery was never discussed in the movie. In which case, it would prompt you to come to your own conclusions on when in the 1800s this movie was set, like a subtle invitation to assess it more closely. Frankly, the movie’s vagueness is something I find both confusing and yet also welcomed.
As generic and uninteresting as the parents, grandmother, and Aunt Tempe were in this movie, I will say that the children — Johnny, Ginny, and Toby — were all excitable, gleeful little children who contributed to the movie’s general sense of innocence. Johnny was a young boy raised in pomp and circumstance by his parents to the point where he threw a fit when his father had to leave him and his mother for a whole week. He even attempted to run away from home to catch up to his father because he loved him so much. But after listening to Uncle Remus’ stories about Br’er Rabbit, his world started to slowly expand some more regarding his ways of taking in all that life on the plantation had to offer, ranging from being more open to his buddies to dealing with the nearby bullies and finding solace in times of distress. Johnny even experienced some tenderness when he came to care for a young puppy and met Ginny, a young girl in the neighborhood. His character arc was quite intriguing in this movie, which is a lot.
However, now that I think about it, Ginny, the young girl that Johnny met on the plantation, was slightly generic. She first appeared warding off her brothers and helping Johnny keep the puppy. But throughout most of the movie, she just did her own things whenever she was alone or with Johnny and his friends.
Toby, the young black boy from the plantation, also didn’t have much going for him, but the friendship he started developing with Johnny was quite admirable. Even after just a few days, Johnny and Toby began hitting off each other very well, like they were becoming fast buddies despite Toby’s expected sense of servitude. Besides, watching him being disciplined by Aunt Tempe was a bit funny to see as well.
And, for all the shortcomings this movie suffered from characteristically, that doesn’t mean any of the characters didn’t feel interesting; the chief reason for that was the acting. All the actors in this movie lent the movie a level of either childlike innocence or mature sophistication to make the characters feel more natural and believable. For the most part, anyway.
Ruth Warrick conveyed Sally with a quiet but stern confidence in her parenting towards Johnny. And truth be told, the way she reacted to Johnny’s childlike antics and Uncle Remus’ influence on him – I’ll elaborate more on that later – called me back a little to Maureen O’Hara from Miracle on 34th Street. Whenever Sally questioned Johnny’s newfound philosophy or Remus’ storytelling influences, she simmered with a quiet willpower that conveyed a more dignified and innate motherly role from her. It’s like she was strict about overseeing her son’s well-being but also wanted to remain open-minded about the circumstances, even if she didn’t know how to move forth on it.
Meanwhile, in the little time he had in the movie, Erik Rolf displayed a firm resoluteness in John Sr.’s quest for work in Atlanta, coupled with a slight tenderness he expressed concerning his family, especially Johnny. And despite her not being given enough to work with, Hattie McDaniel still made Aunt Tempe feel delightful — at least, when she wasn’t raising eyebrows — just as she had with Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
And above all, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were incredible with their performances.
Driscoll gave Johnny a level of cockeyed determination despite him being a child, and Luana Patten infused her character, Ginny, with an irresistible sense of sweetness. And the chemistry these two shared whenever they were onscreen? There’s something about them that felt like they had a brotherly and sisterly bond together, yet they also implied that they could easily have been boyfriend and girlfriend down the line. They were that adorable as a pair.
They did so well together that they would eventually have co-starred in two more of Walt Disney’s films: Melody Time and So Dear to My Heart.
Plus, the actor who played Toby, Glenn Leedy? His deliveries through his character felt slightly gimmicky yet surprisingly savvy underneath his childlike image. I guess he just hinted at a particular know-how Toby possessed that Johnny or Ginny may not have caught on to, so he’s just delightful.
But let’s face it: despite the movie’s mixed delivery of its story and characters, two driving forces backed this movie up. The first is James Baskett as Uncle Remus, coupled with his character’s sense of storytelling. Baskett conveyed Uncle Remus with an overwhelming essence of good nature and friendship, and he sometimes ranged from being very kind and humble to being funny and giddy. Baskett just had a ball with this character, and I didn’t realize that this was his final film role before he passed away. Whether it was a final performance or not, though, Baskett truly shone in his take on Uncle Remus. So much so that he won an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to this movie as Uncle Remus. It may have been an Honorary Oscar rather than a competitive acting Oscar, but the idea that Baskett earned it after Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar for Gone with the Wind was a testament to his talents. Baskett was to this movie what Robin Williams was to Aladdin, enriching the film with his warmth and imagination.
It leads me to the second driving force for the movie: the animated segments starring Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear. They may not have had the most consistent logic, but they were still a blast thanks to the spirited animation and the riotous performances. Believe it or not, James Baskett did the voice of Br’er Fox, and he was as fantastic as this character as he was as Uncle Remus. Johnny Lee gave a quirky, funny performance as Br’er Rabbit, with his voice seemingly going hand-in-hand with his character’s more mischievous nature. And Nick Stewart as Br’er Bear felt like he utterly owned being a total goofball. Br’er Bear always felt like a numbskull who either followed Br’er Fox foolishly or found himself in Br’er Rabbit’s soft spot, only to be outwitted by him alongside Br’er Fox. The animated segments screamed top-quality animation as only Walt Disney could’ve provided, the cartoon physics were hilarious, and the characters served as perfect anomalies from life in the American South.
But now, there’s another good thing about Uncle Remus’ stories that I never caught on to until I noticed it in the live-action portions sandwiched between the animated segments. For me, it is the stories’ correlation to the real-life debacles and how much of a role they played in the troubles Johnny or his friends dealt with. For example, Uncle Remus told the story of Br’er Rabbit leaving his briar patch only to run into Br’er Fox and Bear in response to Johnny’s urge to run away from home, as if to demonstrate that leaving home is not the answer to every problem. And for the second story, when Johnny got involved with Jake and Joe, Uncle Remus told him about Br’er Rabbit’s experiences with the Tar Baby. That tale demonstrated how you should watch where you go, what you do, and who you get involved with before you end up in a, for lack of a better term, sticky situation. And the story of Br’er Rabbit leading Br’er Fox and Bear to his laughing place was inspired by Johnny and Ginny’s misfortunes with the bullies after they pushed Ginny, ruining her dress and resulting in Johnny responding by giving them a beating. That only added to the stories’ richness and contribution to Song of the South because it demonstrated the power of storytelling and how much of an effect it can have on those who stuck around to listen to the stories being told.
The movie also showed how much of an influence it can play on those who listened. For example, when the bullies confronted Johnny about the dog and that they threatened to take his dog back, he told them that they could tell Johnny’s family about it if they didn’t tell their mother about it. Johnny said that to them, knowing they would have gone back on their word and told their mother anyway. They were given a spanking by her later on, which Johnny counted on. So, you can say he picked up on outwitting his foes from Br’er Rabbit’s antics.
Not only that but for some reason, there’s something about Johnny’s run-ins with the bullies that nicely demonstrated how to deal with bullies. The first time around, Johnny ignored them. Then, after hearing Br’er Rabbit’s stories, and they continued pushing him around, he decided to give Brain a try when he told them who they may speak with about him and his puppy, even though they didn’t know he was leading them to a beating by their mother. But when that didn’t work, and the bullies continued horsing him around, and Ginny, too, he had enough and decided to let Brawn take over in dealing with them. This three-step process felt like a brilliant and softly played portrayal of what to do with bullies when they keep getting into your business.
Also, something else I just noticed now was this. As I said, one of the boys was clever, while the other was taller but also dimwitted. But can it be that they were the real-life equivalents of Br’er Fox and Bear since Johnny decided to play the part of Br’er Rabbit? If that’s the case, that served as a more potent demonstration of the power and visual wonder of Uncle Remus’ stories about Br’er Rabbit in this movie.
Another thing I must mention is that there were even scenes from the movie where the live actors and the animated characters were onscreen together. And whatever they did, the chemistry between them, whether it was James Basket communicating with the animals in his stories, or the animated characters appearing in the American South at the end, felt very believable and perfectly crafted. The movements and synchronizations between them were spot-on, heightening the illusion of them coexisting alongside each other in flesh and blood. Remember, this was almost 20 years before Mary Poppins perfected that process and only over 40 years before it was perfected even further by Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Song of the South came out in 1946. In short, the technology developed to heighten the relationships between these characters was staggering for its time.
And frankly, despite the dialect of the black characters and the performances feeling a bit off, we need to take a step back for a minute and evaluate their speech patterns compared not to today but to when it came out. Think about it: the movie was set in the 1800s, and this movie came out in 1946. And the general dialect of the black characters felt, dare I say it, surprisingly authentic. I don’t know what the commonplace education and speech patterns were like among enslaved black people in the American South during that time. But let’s face it, their sense of education was potentially limited, so it would’ve made sense for them to talk in such an exaggerated, stilted manner. So, though it all may raise some eyebrows, I don’t think the dialect felt so out of place in the movie. Generally, it felt right.
Plus, even though the movie’s portrayal of the Reconstruction was met with jeers, I think it also did a great job of demonstrating what connections white people would have had with black people in the 1800s. It was revolutionary for a mainstream Hollywood film at the time and an even more necessary one to explore if it occurred when what used to be the Confederacy started to reorganize itself within the grasp of the United States. If Gone with the Wind’s last half demonstrated where home lies in the Reconstruction, Song of the South demonstrated how common ground can be found in the Reconstruction. Despite the flaws apparent in the movie’s portrayal of this timeframe, it proposed some genuinely progressive ideals that would later become the norm among White and Black Americans today. And now, it has extended to other ethnic groups known worldwide. Asians, the Spanish, Indians, Native Americans, you name it, there is now a far more seamless sense of fellowship blossoming between different ethnic peoples across the world. Besides Gone with the Wind, Song of the South was among the first films to propose that such connections should be considered between whites and blacks.
And, of course, the songs. Who can ever forget about those?
How Do You Do? is a generally upbeat and aptly friendly song about the necessities and pleasures of extending your greetings to incoming passersby. The title tune, Song of the South, felt like a grand and equally fitting way to open a film set in the American South. And Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place was a riotous yet simple and good-natured song about finding whatever tickles your funny bone or cheers you up and relishing it once you find it.
And Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah? What can I say? This song is an icon. Chances are, you may already know this song by now, whether you know the film it came from or not. This song was soaked in the simple joys one can find around them, from the animals hovering nearby to the beautiful day to see and embrace in all its glory. It even won an Oscar for Best Song and remained popular beyond just the movie. I first heard it in the old Disney Sing-Along Songs VHS tapes, and the song still brings me about as much casual comfort and joy as I did hearing it all those years ago.
But yes, obviously, those don’t mean a thing compared to the overall racist allegations invited by this film, right?
Well, before I jump to Part II to talk about this, let me conclude Part I by saying this to those who mercilessly insist upon it:
TAKE A FREAKIN’ CHILL PILL!