Song of the South (1946)

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Yep, we’re doing this! As the purpose of this blog is to review every theatrically released live-action Disney film, I couldn’t skip the very first theatrically released live-action Disney film!

Wait, wasn’t THIS the first theatrically released live-action Disney film?

No, Treasure Island was the first Disney film to be ENTIRELY live-action! Song of the South was the first Disney film to have any sort of live-action in it!

Wait, weren’t THESE the first Disney films to have any sort of live-action in them?

Ok, technically The Reluctant Dragon and Victory Through Air Power preceded Song of the South, but I’m not reviewing documentaries for this blog and those two films are documentaries or at least have documentary-like elements. 

So, for all practical purposes of this blog, Song of the South is the first theatrically released live action Disney film! The film has a reputation for being insensitive/racist, hence it’s never been released in American on home video. Yet, the legacy of the film lives on with the Academy Award-winning song, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, still being sung today and the Disney theme park ride, Splash Mountain, incorporating scenes from the film!

I had seen the film years ago and found it to be more boring than racist myself. Thankfully, I was able to find a streaming version of the film to rewatch for this blog. Do I still find the film boring? Do I find it racist now? Do I find it to be neither? Read on to find out!

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

The film takes place in rural Georgia after the Civil War and begins with a family riding in a carriage to a plantation. The family consists of the father, John Sr., played by Erik Rolf, the mother, Sally, played by Ruth Warrick, and their 7-year-old son, Johnny, played by Disney star, Bobby Driscoll.

They’re visiting Johnny’s grandmother, played by Lucile Watson. At first, Johnny is excited about the idea, but when he realizes that his father is leaving his mom and him there for a while and going back to Atlanta to work, Johnny is devastated!

If that ain’t devastated, then I dunno what is!

Later that night, Johnny decides to run away to Atlanta to reunite with his father. As he heads in that direction, he passes by many of the African Americans who work on his grandmother’s plantation and hears them singing, laughing, and telling stories after a hard day’s work.

Soon enough, he comes upon an old African American man known as Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett. Uncle Remus has a reputation of being quite the raconteur often telling stories of the character, Br’er Rabbit, and his foes, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. When Uncle Remus sees Johnny, he asks him what he’s doing to which Johnny replies that he’s running away to Atlanta.

Uncle Remus uses his wisdom and tells Johnny that he was going to do just the same thing, but they should stop at his house first so he can pack and make some grub for the long walk. While there, he gets Johnny interested in a story about Br’er Rabbit.

One of the first in a long line of Disney rabbits!

As Uncle Remus tells the story, the film goes into the first of its three animated segments. In this story (which is also the source of the famous Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah song), Br’er Rabbit (voiced by Johnny Lee) is heading out on his journey leaving his briar patch for good. But, he gets trapped in a snare laid by the foe, Br’er Fox (voice by James Baskett), on the way. To escape, Br’er Rabbit tricks the dimwitted Br’er Bear (voiced by Nick Stewart) into trading places with him convincing him that this is a scarecrow job making a dollar a minute. Br’er Bear falls for this and ends up freeing Br’er Rabbit who heads back home to his safe briar patch before Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear can catch up with him.

Johnny learns a lesson from this story and decides not to continue on his Atlanta trek and instead returns to his grandmother’s home.

The next day, Johnny comes upon a neighboring poorer white family, the Favers, who have three kids. The boys are quite bullies, but the girl, Ginny, played by Luana Patten, befriends Johnny and even gives him a pet dog to keep that her brothers threatened to drown.

Johnny goes to Uncle Remus and hears another Br’er Rabbit story from him. In this one, Br’er Rabbit gets himself caught up in a tar baby (a figure made out of sticky tar) laid there by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. When the two catch Br’er Rabbit, he uses reverse psychology and tricks them into thinking that he’s fine with whatever they wanna do to him (including eat him) just as long as they don’t throw him in the briar patch. Thinking that this will be the end of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear throw him in the briar patch, but are shocked when they realize that that was Br’er Rabbit’s home all along!

Let it never be said that rabbits aren’t clever! They do multiply, you know!

Johnny utilizes the lesson from this story when the Favers boys threaten to tell Johnny’s mom about the dog. Johnny tells them that that’s fine just as long as the boys don’t tell THEIR mom! The boys fall for this trick and end up telling their mother who gives them a good straightening out due to it!

The boys then go to Johnny’s mother, Sally, to tell her about the dog. Sally had earlier told Johnny that he couldn’t keep the dog and after she realized that Johnny might have been inspired by Uncle Remus’ stories, she forbids Uncle Remus from telling Johnny any more stories. This hurts both Uncle Remus and Johnny as Uncle Remus has become a sort of fatherly figure to Johnny since his dad’s away.

If that ain’t hurt, then I dunno what is!

Nevertheless, it’s not long before it’s Johnny’s birthday and he’s having a party at his house. He picks up Ginny to take her to the party, but the Favers boys follows them and a fight soon ensues. Uncle Remus comes in time to break up the fight and sends the Favers boys home.

To cheer up Johnny and Ginny, Uncle Remus breaks his promise and tells the kids another Br’er Rabbit story. In this story, Br’er Fox has captured Br’er Rabbit and is about to eat him, but Br’er Rabbit tricks him and Br’er Bear into seeing his “laughing place”. It turns out to be the location of a beehive which doesn’t end well for the twosome.

When Sally hears about this, she forbids Uncle Remus from even being around Johnny anymore. This saddens Uncle Remus who decides to pack up and head to Atlanta. When Johnny discovers that Uncle Remus is leaving, he runs after him trying to get him to come back, but is attacked by a bull and rendered unconscious. Everyone at the plantation is sad as Johnny goes in and out of consciousness. Fortunately, his father returns for good as well as Uncle Remus who starts narrating a Br’er Rabbit story which helps Johnny regain consciousness for good!

The film ends on a happy note with Johnny, Uncle Remus, Ginny, and an African American boy friend of theirs, Toby (whom I haven’t mentioned at all in this review yet), played by Glenn Leedy, singing along the way joined by Br’er Rabbit and some of the other animated creatures from the stories.

This is either a happy ending or a morbid ending where the kids and Uncle Remus have died and are now in a cartoon afterlife…maybe I’m looking too deeply into this?

And that was Song of the South! Do I still find it boring? Honestly, no! I think this film is an incredibly made film that very carefully weaves a similarity between the stories Uncle Remus tells with what Johnny is going through in his life. The acting is very good overall; James Baskett was amazing and deserved his Academy Award win (even though it was only an honorary award)! Hattie McDaniel even appears in the film and does a good job with her role.

The songs are wonderful and I’m not just talking about Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, but many of the others including How Do You Do, Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place, and Uncle Remus Said. The animated segments are beautifully animated and expertly intertwined with the live actors!

Before Dick Van Dyke and the penguin waiters, there was Uncle Remus and the animals in his stories!

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: the “racism” of Song of the South! Before we discuss this, bear in mind, that I am not African American, so I cannot speak on behalf of them. So if anyone disagrees with what I say or thinks that I’ve misunderstood certain aspects of the film, please let me know in the comments.

From what I’ve seen, the “racism” of this movie stems from two factors, one of which is a misunderstanding. The first factor is that people assume this movie takes place during the Civil War, hence all the African Americans are slaves on the grandmother’s plantation. And people are upset that they’re portrayed as happy, jolly, and overall having a good time which is an incorrect and insensitive portrayal of slavery. But, this is a misunderstanding like I said; the film takes place AFTER the Civil War, hence the African Americans are now workers on the plantation, not slaves.

The second factor is that people consider the film racist due to the African American vernacular that the characters use when they speak. Now, as someone of Caribbean descent whose ancestors were indentured laborers, I can totally identify with the vernacular/creoles/pidgins that people under these sorts of conditions speak. So this didn’t bother me really as it just reminded me of how my Guyanese family and ancestors speak amongst themselves and how the creole came to be in the first place!

So based on those two factors, I wouldn’t say the film is racist as it doesn’t promote anything negative. Rather, it showcases a particular setting in a particular light. If you find the film to be racist, you have every right to, and you have every right to correct me on anything I’ve gotten wrong. I, on the other hand, hope that this film can get an official home video release soon, even if it’s accompanied by a disclaimer by Leonard Maltin or something like that!

(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)

So, the final score for this film is 32/35 = 91.43% (A-) !

The next review will be posted on February 13, 2018.

18 thoughts on “Song of the South (1946)

  1. Still find it boring…the only thing I like about it is the animation technique (really impressive, especially for this age) and Beckets performance (which is the main reason I don’t want the movie permanently buried in this racism discussion).

    I think the main problem most people have with this movie (I mean those who actually watched it and don’t just parrot that this is the most racist thing Disney has ever done – which it isn’t, by a long shot, Disney was just better in burying the truly racist things they did, not that there are a lot of them compared to what WB was up to) is that it heavily leans into the trope of the magical Negro (look it up). There is this interesting old black character, who most likely lived through slavery considering the time frame, and his whole being is wrapped up around the needs and desires of this little white boy. I guess they have a point there…the story should be about him or maybe him teaching his own grandson, who is now free but still has to deal with racism. But then, considering when the movie was made, it was still a step forward back then….even though a lot of white people mostly liked it because it made them nostalgic about the “good old times” (yeah, that is disturbing).

      1. Took ages for me to understand where they are coming from…and learning more about minstrel shows I ever cared to know. But I do feel that it is kind of unfair that the main victim of the discussion is Becket himself. He should be lauded for his performance and being the first male African American academy award winner.

      2. To be honest, a lot of those race relation stuff just puzzles me. Less that there is bad blood, but this insistence on framing everything based on their experience. Like, when I try to explain that no, when we celebrate Three King Day, it has nothing to do with blackface or brown face but is a gesture to show inclusion, and then basically getting yelled at for it. (To elaborate, that is a German/Catholic tradition in which three children go from house to house dressed like the three kings, collecting money for charity and leaving a…what is the English word…some kind of symbols meaning good look at the doors. And since the three kings are supposed to be white, arabian and African, to show that they came from all corners of the world, usually the child playing Caspar is painted black – and no this is not to be meant an insult at all, there simply weren’t many black people in Germany. I think I was 12 when I encountered the first one in Germany, and it actually didn’t really occur to me back then that this was something unusual. Nowadays we have more immigration, but back then, we had way more contact with South-European or Turkish immigrants than with Africans.). Anyway, I just don’t get this insistence that no matter what, this just has to be blackface.

        Anyway, I digress….the thing is that I understand racism to a degree because it happens over here, too, just with different groups and for different reasons and, well, I guess with less supressed guilt attached to it. I mean, at least I can honestly claim that people with immigration background are living in Germany because their fathers or grandfathers made a choice and not because they were forced or their land was stolen from them. So I guess at least regarding this I don’t have to deal with a lot of guilt. It’s different for American, I guess, though I doubt many would admit it to themselves. Personally I think that the race relations are partly so complicated because nobody really wants to confront that past. They want the lie about the heroic explorers and the nice slave owners.

        But I needed years to reach that understanding. Originally a lot of the casual racism in US shows and movies – especially related to Asians – went right over my head because I had no reference point whatsoever for it. It’s easier with racism against African Americans because that one is usually portrayed more obvious. I mean, when I grew up we were still using the word “Neger” (German word for Negro, but without the negative connotations) once in a while, though it was old fashioned. Nowadays we tend to avoid it, but not because the meaning of the word shifted considerably, but because it sounds way too much like “nigger”.

        To be honest, though, it is sometimes easier to watch American movies about race relation, partly because it is easier to examine racism in a context which doesn’t hit quite so close to home (meaning: You don’t feel the immediate need to defend yourself), partly because it is a fascinating topic. Though, personally, I often feel that what the US (the world actually) really needs is to reach a certain degree of colour blindness. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, though.

  2. I’ve read about this film quite often, and I’ve heard a couple of the songs (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Everybody Has a Laughing Place” on the CLASSIC DISNEY CD’s, and “How Do You Do?” on the video “Disney Sing Along Songs: Friend Like Me”), but I really wish that I could actually see it for myself.

    That being said, I hope against hope that, at some point, it will finally be released on DVD, and all of the back-and-forth against it will be put to rest…

  3. I really enjoyed this review! The movie wasn’t one of my favorites but I thought it was okay, and I don’t really find it racist either. I think if Disney had just proceeded with letting it exist and be available people wouldn’t really have a problem. It’s a product of the time. But you know what they say, by banning something it just makes people pay even more attention to it, and I’m sure that’s why it’s gotten such negative attention. And I do really love the music here!

  4. It’s a lovely film with a dated point of view. That’s the case with most older movies. I hate this kind of censorship anyway. Release it and let people decided! Plus Disney is essentially preventing viewers from enjoying the excellent work of James Baskett, who was the first black man to ever get an Oscar.

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