Song of the South

Song of the South

The “Uncle Remus” stories penned by Joel Chandler Harris provided a perfect vehicle for Walt Disney to employ a technology he had long experimented with – the merging of animation with live actors. The cartoon pioneer first explored the possibilities in a short called Alice’s Wonderland as far back as 1923. It was finally time to put the techniques to the real test in a feature film, the result of which was The Song of the South.

Released in 1946, Song of the South was set in Georgia, during the Reconstruction Era. It followed the troubles of a young boy named Johnny who decides to run away when he finds that his parents are splitting up. His journey is short-lived, however, when he crosses paths with a former slave named Uncle Remus who is busy sharing his fanciful stories with a group of children. Johnny tells Remus about his plans to run away and Remus sympathizes with the boy, stating that he was thinking of doing the same thing. But before he goes, he proceeds to share a story with Johnny.

With the initiation of the story, the background switches into a sunny and decidedly animated day, affording Remus the opportunity to share the perfect song for such an occasion, a catchy little ditty called “Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah.” The story that follows introduces a rather ingenious bunny named Br’er Rabbit who accidentally gets caught in a trap that was set by Br’er Fox.

Soon, a rather dim-witted Br’er Bear wanders by and rabbit proceeds to convince him that he is earning a respectable wage as a scarecrow. Well, of course Bear wants in on the action and the rabbit is more than happy to switch places. As the film transforms back into live action, Remus shares the moral of the story, which is: “You can’t run away from trouble-there ain’t no place that far.”

Learning a valuable lesson, Johnny returns to his home, and is disappointed to find that mom isn’t too enamored with his new friend. So, Johnny makes another acquaintance with a poor young girl named Jenny who is the victim of brothers who torment her with bullying. Johnny returns to Uncle Remus and shares the girl’s plight, which prompts another storytelling session.

This time, he shares the tale of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Armed with some new ideas on how to deal with the bullies, Johnny returns to invite Ginny to his birthday party. Unfortunately, her mean brothers push her into a puddle of mud and ruin her dress. Uncle Remus wanders by and upon seeing the distraught tykes, proceeds with another of his stories, this time about Br’er Rabbit’s laughing place. The story works its magic and cheers the two up.

All is well until Mom stumbles upon the group. Deciding that Uncle Remus is a bad influence on the children, she demands that Remus leave them alone. Greatly saddened by this turn of events, Remus decides it would be best to just pick up and leave town.

Once Johnny realizes what is transpiring, he frantically chases his friend across an open field to try and stop him. What the boy is unaware of is a nearby bull who proceeds to charge Johnny full-force and knock his lights out. Soon after, the tyke’s estranged father returns home to be at the bedside of his injured son, but there is someone else that Johnny needs desperately to cheer him, if he is to have any hopes of making a recovery.

The initial reaction to Song of the South was one of adoring praise. James Baskett was given an honorary Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus and “Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah” picked up an award for Best Song. The two young actors, Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were immediately signed to long-term contacts with Disney, and proceeded to appear in numerous Walt Disney films. But not everyone was enamored with the film.

A growing segment of the population felt that the movie painted a little too rosy picture regarding the subject of slavery. Walt was stunned by the negative reaction and tried to defend the film but it did little to quell the controversy. By the 60s, the tumultuous civil rights movement led The Walt Disney Company to remove The Song of the South from its roster in 1970.

While the film did return to theaters a few years later, the controversy continued over the subject matter and, as a result, the company made the decision not to release the film on VHS or DVD, a decision that stands to this day. And, although the film is considered a favorite by many of those that experienced it in the theater, it is unlikely that they will ever have the chance to revisit Uncle Remus and hear his fanciful tales about Br’er Rabbit.

If you remember watching this classic film in your youth, we’d love to hear all of your thoughts in our comments section, as we pay tribute to a film that certainly left an impression, for better or worse.

2 Responses to “Song of the South”

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  1. Marylyn Dean says:

    I saw Song of the South when I was 4 or 5 yrs old. My mother always loved going to the movies and usually took me with her. Some of my earliest, happiest memories are doing this with her. The movie “Song of the South”, as I remember it, was a rather happy event, with the stories that were told by Uncle Remus and the music being very memorable for me. At that age, I had no knowledge of a darker side to the movie. I simply just enjoyed it from a child’s view. I don’t believe that it should be banned from viewing. It’s a part of history and it’s a movie children would enjoy seeing. I would like to see it again. Let’s just move on. Please bring it back…..

  2. I never saw SOTS in a theater, but I remember singing many of the songs (Zip-a-dee-do-da) during a spring festival when I was in the first grade (1961).

    It wasn’t until later that I learned of this movie and its alleged racism. If it was so racist, I don’t understand why my teachers would have all us kids singing songs from the movie? I have since seen it, and love it. You can buy bootleg versions if look hard enough.

    There is a website devoted to SOTS but they don’t sell the movie:

    http://www.songofthesouth.net/index.php

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