News Archives: Cinema Editor Article

Published Fall 2001
Archived May 13, 2003

Song Gone South: Classic Animation You'll Probably Never Get to See

By Walter Burns

Song of the South was Disney's first major plunge into live-action filmmaking. The animated characterizations of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear were instant classics. The film garnered an honorary Oscar for actor James Baskett. The rollicking "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" grabbed the Oscar for Best Song, and the score received an Oscar nomination. The Academy-honored Hattie McDaniel stars and even sings! The film is the theme behind the Splash Mountain rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Next to 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it's probably the most famous feature film ever to combine live-action with animation. It featured cinematography by the great Gregg Toland. It's one of the most requested films at Amazon.com. And chances are you will never see it again in theaters or on DVD.

Song's story (eight-year-old learns valuable lessons from old friend of the family while spending time on his Granny's plantation in 1870s Georgia) has been criticized for "pretending slavery didn't exist," even though this film — like Joel Chandler Harris' original collection of stories — is set after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. In fact, most fans of the film (including myself) admit that Song is about as innocent as you can get. But unlike the hundreds of animated subjects that have been carved up by the hatched of censorship, Song of the South is so — here we go again — 'politically incorrect' that no amount of re-editing can change it. For some marketing executives, this leaves only one alternative: Don't exhibit it at all.

An unfortunate situation, no doubt encouraged in part by folklorist Patricia A. Turner's puzzling (albeit damning) critique of the film in her 1994 book, Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies. One wonders if Turner actually saw the film (or if someone just told her about it), and if she remembers anything she learned of post Civil War life. Especially curious is her statement that "Disney and company made no attempt to render the music in the style of the spirituals and work songs that would have been sung during this era." I mean, is there such a thing as a period film made in the late '40s or early '50s that renders music in the style of the era portrayed? Meet Me in St. Louis, perhaps? Easter Parade? Annie Get Your Gun?

Of course, it's also good to remember that Song of the South is, after all, a movie, and not a lesson in actual history.

Adding to this is the now ancient myth that the NAACP has threatened to boycott the film should Disney ever decide to release it on video. It should be pointed out, however, that this story simply is not true. While groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League objected to portions of Song of the South when it first premiered in 1946 (the NAACP acknowledged its "remarkable artistic merit" but frowned on the image that the film suggest "of an idyllic master/slave relationship"), to this day the NAACP has no position on it and has not threatened a boycott of Disney products of any kind. Buena Vista Home Entertainment's decision to withhold the film from the American home video market is entirely its own.

Why anyone would want to suppress a film as positive as this one is beyond me. Without a doubt, Song of the South is one of the rare cases in which Black heritage and folklore were actually celebrated in a pre-1960 mainstream medium. Additionally, the Oscar winning James Baskett, a black man, was the first live actor to ever be hired by Disney.

Song of the South was re-released in 1956, but was withheld from circulation throughout the 1960s (likely because of the stormy civil rights climate). In 1970, Variety reported that Disney had "permanently" retired Song of the South. Apparently someone changed their minds, however, because Disney re-released the film in 1972, and again in 1981, and then again in 1986 for a 40th Anniversary celebration.

The official word from Disney in 1996 (the film's 50th Anniversary) was that it had been withheld from home video due to "racial content," (whatever that is supposed to mean) and that it has no plans to release it on home video. This directive seems to apply only to the U.S., as the film was made available to the home video market in various European countries on VHS the same year, and a laserdisc version was released in Japan back around 1988. Apparently these markets have no qualms about 'racial content.'

Yet here in the U.S., it's the squeakiest wheel that gets all the press and thanks to this, Song is fast becoming forgotten. But a less newsworthy and non-charity-linked contingent of fans still remain. According to www.UncleRemusPages.com, there are over 4,000 people who have signed a petition to have the film released on video in the U.S. Visit Christian Willis' excellent website SongOfTheSouth.net and you'll see how people love this film that, for many Americans, was their introduction to the rich collection of folklore that belongs to Southern blacks.

In the meantime, Song languishes in the vault, desperately in need of a restoration, while Disney gives the full-on masterpiece treatment (deluxe DVD complete with restored color, deleted scenes, remastered soundtrack, liner notes, etc.) to a stinker like Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It will certainly be a breath of fresh air when the American homevideo market can allow this classic animated film (and films like it) to stand on its own merits and be released on video, without having any problems with 'racial content.' Or perhaps the American market doesn't really have such qualms, and the studios just haven't realized it?

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© 1999-2009 Christian E. Willis. Song of the South © Disney. Legal Information.