Song of the South
There was The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s repulsive masterpiece that portrays Negroes as sex-crazed simpletons and the KKK as the saviors of white womanhood. There was The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s repulsive masterpiece that shows Hitler as a demigod and Nazism as an innocent romp not unlike a Boy Scout camporee or a Fourth of July parade. And then there was Song of the South.
Walt knew he might have a problematic film on his hands even before animation began. He said to the director, “The Negro situation is a dangerous one. Between the Negro haters and the Negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.” I think he expected the worst reactions from the haters, the Kluxers and the like. Ironically, the biggest detractors of this sweet and corny little film over the years have been the NAACP and others like them. They objected to what they described as an idyllic master-slave relationship. Ahhhh … well, gee, folks, you can surely object to the apparently happy black cotton-pickers (though I don’t, and there is nothing here anywhere near as objectionable as Stepin Fetchit), but the film is not antebellum, it is set some years after the Civil War. Yes, those ex-slaves are certainly being exploited (as they would be, though less so, when they moved to Detroit for better jobs), but when Uncle Remus decides to take off for Atlanta, he’s got every right to do so. He’s a free man.
As for portrayals, I can’t see anything that bad here. The little black boy is barefoot and ragged, but has the same sense of fun as the white boy. He’s not nearly the caricature that Buckwheat and Stymie were. Uncle Remus speaks in dialect—and how else should he speak?—but he and the white grandmother, who get along very well and respect each other, are by far the wisest people to be seen. The black extras spend a lot of time singing mostly happy songs—though one number is quite bluesey—and what’s wrong with that? It’s a hard life. Wouldn’t you want to kick back and sing at the end of the day?
However, the Disney Company does not want its name to be associated with anything this controversial, so it has never released this movie on VHS or DVD … in this country, anyway. But I guess Europeans and Japanese are from another planet, because there has been a PAL version in the Europe, and an NTSC version in Japan.
(There are persistent rumors that an American DVD release is coming. I say, go for it. It doesn’t have to be a wide release, where every child in the nation wants a copy—though I see nothing wrong with that; watch it with your children and it’s a good chance to discuss racism, and how attitudes have changed. But if not that, do it like they did Victory Through Air Power recently, as part of the Disney Treasures series of boxed sets, aimed primarily at Disneyphiles like myself.)
But in the meantime, guess what, folks? I have a copy of the Japanese release! Yes!!! Portland’s best video rental place, Movie Madness, had a copy, and some years ago I took it home and duplicated it. I just recently dug it out of the musty, dusty Varley Vaults in Mom’s basement and took it home to view. And what a trip it is! I’d advise everybody to get the Japanese version if they can, if only for the weird (to an American) extras. There are two versions of the film on this tape. The first has Japanese subtitles … but only for the songs. I can’t figure that out. Why not subtitles all the way through? So while I’m watching and listening, I’m looking at those Japanese squiggles at the bottom and wondering what they’d sound like. How does zip-a-dee-doo-dah translate into Japanese? For a people who pronounce “baseball” as “besaboru,” anything is possible.
But the real lark is to watch a bit of the second version. It is dubbed, and quite well, too. It’s funny to see any of these characters speaking fluent Japanese, but the real howl is to see the late, great Hattie McDaniel speaking it. Later, when Br’ers Rabbit, Fox, and Bear speak Japanese, that’s funny, too.
So. Enough about that. How was the movie? Well, partly genius and partly a bit of a snooze. Disney wasn’t that good at live action at that time (and for some time to come, now that I think of it), but as always, the animation is brilliant. I could wish they’d come up with a better story frame for these animated sequences, other than the tired old plot they chose. There are only three Br’er Rabbit stories here, and there could have been eight or ten. There are the usual insufferable movie children of this era, with dialogue to make your ears cringe. The main offender, simply because he’s on-screen most of the non-animated time, is little Bobby Driscoll, who was the voice of Peter Pan and also starred in So Dear to My Heart (which some say was Walt’s favorite, and is really pretty bad). Somebody out there is a big fan of Bobby, because he or she wrote a long, exhaustive article about him for Wikipedia. Check it out. Most child stars’ stories from that era are bad, but his was especially tragic.
Mention should be made of James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus (and voiced Br’er Fox, something I didn’t know). He was one of the first Hollywood performers who had to learn to react to stuff that just wasn’t there, things that would be put in later by the animation department. In these days of blue-screen movies, where the entire film is shot without sets, it’s a skill any actor better have. He does very well with it, and in every other department. It’s not fair that some people view him as an “Uncle Tom,” that pejorative from the ‘60s for someone playing the white man’s game. He was a damn good actor, and sold the part of Uncle Remus with great skill. I love most of this film.