One of the most popular titles in the bootleg video orbit is Walt Disney’s 1946 feature “Song of the South.” For Americans, the only way to see this film is via bootleg videos from European or Asian sources since Disney has never made it available in the U.S. home entertainment market. Presumably, “Song of the South” is not being shown in the U.S. because some people may consider its portrayal of African-Americans in the pre-Civil War south to be racist.
Truth be told, “Song of the South” is not a racist film. If anything, the film is strongly anti-white: the black characters are the only ones with sincerity, intelligence and feelings while the whites are selfish, callous and intentionally cruel. Where “Song of the South” errs badly is in its regurgitation of the horrible myth that black slaves were always singing and happy and just loved working on massah’s plantation. Yet this stupidity was common in every Civil War picture produced during Hollywood’s Golden Era, so one cannot fault “Song of the South” for being the only film to fall into that trap.
When viewed today, the real surprise about “Song of the South” is actually the film as a whole rather than the racial elements. “Song of the South” is simply not a great film, and it would be charitable to say it is a good film. It is really second-tier Disney with only a few genuinely wonderful moments to cherish.
Most of “Song of the South” is devoted to a live action tale of a family in crisis. Little Johnny (played by icky child actor Bobby Driscoll) cannot understand why his parents are not getting along. While his journalist Dad heads to Atlanta to write inflammatory newspaper articles (about what subject is not known), his mother (Ruth Warrick, sleepwalking her way through the film) takes Johnny to stay at the plantation of his hatchet-faced granny (Lucile Watson). The family’s servant Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel, who clearly looks as if she’d rather be elsewhere) comes along for the ride. Johnny discovers he has very few peers he can relate to: a comic relief black slave boy doing a third-rate Buckwheat imitation and a whiny girl from a white trash family whose older brothers continually insult and harass Johnny. Not surprisingly, Johnny finds refuge in the shack of Uncle Remus, a friendly, elderly slave who loves to tell folk tales about the adventures of the trouble-prone Br’er Rabbit.
Uncle Remus could’ve easily been the most egregious stereotype to shuffle across the screen, but in the performance by James Baskett he becomes a figure of genuine warmth and love. Baskett had previously only played bit parts in B-movies before getting cast here and he responded to this once-in-a-lifetime starring role with a stunning force of personality that he literally carries “Song of the South” on the strength of his performance; the film literally dies a slow death when he is off-screen. Baskett later received an honorary Oscar for his performance, but sadly he never had another chance to shine on screen as he died of heart failure two years after filming “Song of the South.”
The Disney animation kicks in when Uncle Remus begins to tell his stories. The best sequence is the first, when Uncle Remus begins singing “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” and abruptly finds himself in the midst of an animated forest complete with singing birds, mammals and amphibians, where he communicates with the magical creatures with the grace and ease of an old friend making a social call. “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” won the Oscar for Best Song and became one of the most beloved tunes from a Disney flick, but it is also the only memorable song in this entire film (the rest of the music includes forgettable ditties and some faux-gospel hymns sung by the slaves).
“Song of the South” includes three animated sequences in which Br’er Rabbit matches wits against the vicious Br’er Fox and the dumb Br’er Bear. Unfortunately, these sequences are neither amusing nor charming. With their propensity to sadism and violence (including a tied-up Br’er Rabbit being roasted on an open fire and Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear getting their heads stuck in a beehive), the characters are surprisingly nasty and the animation feels like a poor man’s answer to Tom and Jerry rather than the magic of Disney. Things unexpectedly pick up at the end of the film when Br’er Rabbit and the animals of the “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” number make an anachronistic appearance for the children who are skipping through the slave quarters and into an open meadow, but by the time this occurs “Song of the South” has been dragging for so long that you’d half expect General Sherman to show up.
Despite its glaring faults, “Song of the South” deserves to be seen: both as a curio from a less-sophisticated era and as the lone missing piece in the Disney canon. An independent web site is online collecting signatures on a petition to get the film released on U.S. home video and DVD, and a quick click to www.songofthesouth.net can provide Disney fans with a chance to get this title out of the bootleg files and into the proper retail channels.
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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.