The series of “Uncle Remus” stories penned by Joel Chandler Harris seemed a perfect vehicle for Walt Disney to finally employ a form of technology he had long experimented with – the merging of animated images with live actors. The concepts had been toyed with in films such as The Reluctant Dragon and The Three Caballeros, and Walt had first explored the possibilities in a cartoon called Alice’s Wonderland as far back as 1923. It was finally time to truly put the techniques to the test in a feature film, and the result was The Song of the South.
First released in 1946, Song of the South was set in Georgia, during the Reconstruction Era. It follows 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.
And 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 certain segment of the population felt that the movie painted a little too rosy a 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.