In the back of my mind, I had always assumed the story behind Treasure Island went something like this. As a boy, young Walter Elias Disney had read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and, like most boys, had fallen in love with it. He wanted to make it into a movie but not a cartoon. Walt wanted to live the adventure, to smell the sea air, feel the ship beneath his feet and assemble his own motley pirate crew.
There may well be some small element of truth to that idealistic tale but the real story behind how Treasure Island became Walt Disney’s first fully live-action feature is much more prosaic. In the years following World War II, the British government levied a steep import tax on American films. Monies earned by American studios were frozen with the condition that it must be put back into the ailing British economy. They’d also imposed a quota that mandated that 45 percent of all films shown in British cinemas had to be made in England.
Walt wasn’t about to build a new animation studio in London. But he could use the frozen assets to shoot a live-action feature using a mostly British cast and crew. And so it was the accounting department that decided Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island would become Walt Disney’s first live-action feature film.
While most of the below-the-line crew was British, including the great cinematographer Freddie Young and matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, the top guys were all Americans. Producer Perce Pearce had been with Disney for years, working on Fantasia and Bambi before moving over to live-action production with Song Of The South. Screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin had been hired by Disney a few years earlier to adapt Herminie Templeton Kavanagh’s Darby O’Gill stories into a screenplay. Watkin would write several more films for Disney before that project was finally realized in 1959.
Director Byron Haskin had been a cinematographer and special effects man at Warner Bros. before becoming a full-time director with the 1947 film noir I Walk Alone. Treasure Island would be Haskin’s only film with Disney. He’d later collaborate with George Pal on such movies as The War Of The Worlds and Conquest Of Space, as well as directing the cult sci-fi film Robinson Crusoe On Mars.
Watkin’s screenplay condenses Stevenson’s novel down to a tight 96 minutes. Most of the iconic characters are represented, even if some, like Blind Pew, are nearly reduced to cameo appearances. Fortunately, the cast is strong enough to make an impression with even the smallest roles. Geoffrey Wilkinson, a stage actor with no other film roles to his credit, makes for an ideal Ben Gunn, the half-crazed pirate marooned on Treasure Island. The pompous Squire Trelawney is brought to life by Walter Fitzgerald and Denis O’Dea makes for a sympathetic and understanding Dr. Livesey. Both actors would later return to the Disney fold in Darby O’Gill And The Little People.
And then there’s Robert Newton, the living, breathing embodiment of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, as Long John Silver. Newton wasn’t the first actor to take on the role of the one-legged pirate but he made it his own like no one before or since. Newton sets the tone for the entire picture with a broad, caricatured performance straight out of a British pantomime. Subtle, it is not. But it is effective and impossible to forget.
There was really only one choice to play young Jim Hawkins. Bobby Driscoll had been the first actor signed to an exclusive contract with Disney. In the years since his debut in Song Of The South, he’d been kept busy in movies like Melody Time and won a special juvenile Academy Award for So Dear To My Heart and the RKO thriller The Window. Bobby’s all-American voice and demeanor makes him an odd fit for the West Coast of England in 1765. But he gets by on spirit and attitude and it helps that he and Newton have a fun, natural rapport.
Treasure Island would be the beginning of the end for Bobby Driscoll at Disney. Walt had planned on casting him as Tom Sawyer, which would have been a perfect fit, but couldn’t secure the film rights. Other potential live-action vehicles also fell by the wayside. Bobby’s next work for the studio would be as the voice of Goofy Junior in the shorts Fathers Are People and Father’s Lion. We’ll see him in this column one last time, in animated form.
One character who didn’t make it into the movie was Jim Hawkins’ mother. Mrs. Hawkins only appears briefly in the novel but in the film, she’s simply referred to in passing. We’re assured that a good word from Dr. Livesey will be all that’s needed to secure her permission for Jim’s sea voyage. Her presence isn’t really missed all that much but it does make Treasure Island a very testosterone-heavy movie. There isn’t a single female character in the entire picture.
Apart from Robert Newton, it’s Freddie Young and Peter Ellenshaw who emerge as the film’s MVPs. Young’s Technicolor cinematography is vibrant and colorful, ideally suited to a rousing boy’s adventure. This would be his only work for Disney but he of course went on to become one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, winning Oscars for his work on Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
For matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Treasure Island would be the beginning of a long association with Disney. When someone describes the look of a live-action Disney film, it’s often Ellenshaw’s beautiful background paintings that come to mind. He’d go on to win an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins and rack up additional nominations for Bedknobs And Broomsticks, The Island At The Top Of The World, and The Black Hole. We’ll be seeing a lot more of his work in this column.
Years later, Disney would submit Treasure Island to the MPAA ratings board prior to a theatrical re-release. The board slapped it with the dreaded PG. At the time, Disney had a strict policy of only releasing G-rated fare, so they cut about 9 minutes out of the film. By the early 1990s, that policy was gone and the movie was restored to its original length.
Even today, Treasure Island is a bit more violent than you might expect from Disney. Pirates are shot in the face at point blank range. Jim gets skewered by a sword and has to stagger back to shore alone. By the end, hardly anyone emerges unscathed. It certainly isn’t Peckinpah levels of blood and gore but the body count is pretty high for a kids’ movie.
Treasure Island was a solid hit at the box office and with critics, proving once and for all that Disney was capable of more than just animation. Despite its success, Walt decided not to pursue a sequel. But since Stevenson’s novel was in the public domain, there was nothing to stop others from cashing in on Disney’s success. In 1954, Robert Newton reprised the role in Long John Silver, directed once again by Byron Haskin. It did well enough that Newton and Haskin went on to a short-lived TV series, The Adventures Of Long John Silver. Twenty-six episodes were produced but most of the world didn’t get to see them until after Newton’s death in 1956 at the age of 50.
Even though Walt Disney himself didn’t produce a sequel, this was far from the last time he’d venture into pirate-infested waters. In 1967, Pirates Of The Caribbean would debut at Disneyland. The attraction was one of the last rides personally overseen by Walt himself. In 2003, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp would turn it into a surprise blockbuster, launching four sequels so far.
Pirates would also play key roles in Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson and Blackbeard’s Ghost. In 1986, the Disney Channel would air the miniseries Return To Treasure Island, with Brian Blessed starring as Long John Silver. Ten years after that, Muppet Treasure Island marked the second co-production between Disney and the Jim Henson Company. And in 2002, the studio would give the story a sci-fi makeover with the costly flop Treasure Planet.
The one-two punch of Cinderella and Treasure Island made 1950 Walt Disney’s most profitable year in nearly a decade. On Christmas Day, NBC aired Walt’s first foray into television. One Hour In Wonderland featured Walt himself, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont, the young star of his next feature, Alice In Wonderland. Walt was one of the few studio heads to grasp the potential of television. Within a few years, he would be a regular presence on the small screen.
The Disney empire was expanding into new mediums and new formats. Treasure Island was the opening salvo into the world of live-action production. It’s a world that, at its peak, will threaten to overshadow animation completely.
Walt Disney started the 1940s with two of the most ambitious creative gambles of his career: Pinocchio and Fantasia. Neither one paid off the way he had hoped. What followed was arguably the most tumultuous decade of his life. World War II, an animators strike, and too many expensive box office flops had forced him to scale back considerably. Walt had started the decade with high hopes and big dreams. By 1949, he just wanted to be done.
Walt’s lack of enthusiasm bled over into the last few package films of the decade. The connective tissue between the segments grew flimsier as time went on. The segments themselves betrayed their origins as scraps and leftovers from other projects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the behind-the-scenes drama on Disney’s final package film, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad.
Walt’s animators first pitched The Wind In The Willows as a potential feature back in 1938. Walt was lukewarm on the idea but bought the rights to Kenneth Grahame’s book anyway. Since the Disney coffers were stuffed with Snow White money, he was buying the rights to a lot of things at the time. Production officially began in 1941 with James Algar directing. But they didn’t get far before the strike and the war caused it to be abandoned.
A few years later, Walt turned his attention back to the project. He took a look at what had been done so far and didn’t care for it. He told Algar and Frank Thomas to take another crack at it but to cut it down to the bone. If they could get it under 25 minutes, Walt would pair it up with the Mickey Mouse mega-short The Legend Of Happy Valley (soon to be renamed Mickey And The Beanstalk) and release it under the truly abysmal title Two Fabulous Characters.
But it soon became apparent that The Wind In The Willows was going to take longer to finish than anyone had anticipated. Not wanting to delay the release of the Mickey cartoon any longer, Mickey And The Beanstalk got shuffled over to Fun & Fancy Free. In need of a fabulous replacement character, Walt settled on another project that didn’t seem worth expanding to feature-length, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Not because it made a better thematic match with The Wind In The Willows. That’s just what he had left.
At some point, Disney mercifully decided to drop the Two Fabulous Characters name, although not before the phrase crept into the narration. Instead, he gave the project the slightly-less generic title The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad. That’s not even the order the stories appear in the film but whatever. At this point, I’m surprised Walt didn’t call the movie Fire Sale: Everything Must Go!
(For whatever reason, Walt seemed to have a thing for that original title. Later on, he’d air an episode of the Disneyland TV series called Four Fabulous Characters that had nothing to do with any of this. Instead, it featured The Martins And The Coys and Casey At The Bat segments from Make Mine Music, Johnny Appleseed from Melody Time and The Brave Engineer short. If nothing else, Walt Disney was a firm believer in recycling.)
To narrate the stories, Walt hired two of the biggest stars he’d worked with to date. Basil Rathbone was already a highly respected actor when his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on film and radio turned him into an icon. Bing Crosby was one of the most popular entertainers in the world. Having either one associated with a Disney production must have been a huge coup.
Even though the movie was assembled in such a lazy, slapdash manner, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad ironically emerges as one of Disney’s better package films. The only real problem with it, and it’s a fairly large problem, is that the two stories could not be more dissimilar. If you’re a fan of Ichabod, it’s a chore to sit through The Wind In The Willows. And if you loved Mr. Toad, Sleepy Hollow is a jarring change of tone. Even the flow from one story to the next seems off. The British Wind In The Willows ends up as a Christmas/New Years story. The American Sleepy Hollow is autumn leading up to Halloween. Everything about the film seems backwards.
Walt’s disinterest in The Wind In The Willows may have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether his mind was on other things or he simply didn’t get it, he really wasn’t the right choice to adapt Grahame’s gentle, deeply British novel. Like a lot of adaptations, Disney decides to focus on the fun-loving, adventure-seeking Toad, although Mole and Rat are really the main characters of the book. There’s nothing wrong with that choice but it does reduce the story to a series of madcap chases. At least Walt was able to get a fun Disneyland attraction out of it.
For what it is, Disney’s Wind In The Willows is perfectly fine. The animation is lively and the character design is memorable. Rathbone’s narration gives it an air of English authenticity that is otherwise wholly unearned. Eric Blore, a reliably hilarious presence in such films as Top Hat and Sullivan’s Travels, is an excellent choice to provide the voice of J. Thaddeus Toad. But it’s easier to appreciate the cartoon’s strengths when viewed on its own instead of as an opening act.
Make no mistake, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow is very much the headliner of this double feature. All these years later, I would argue that it remains the definitive screen version of Washington Irving’s classic story (sorry, Tim Burton). Even though it’s lighter and family-friendlier than Irving’s original, the cartoon’s images and sounds are so indelible that they’ve come to represent the tale in the popular imagination.
On the face of it, Bing Crosby may seem a counterintuitive choice to tell the tale but it’s actually an inspired choice. Crosby had been a hugely popular singer since the early 1930s. Since crossing over to film, he had become a top box office draw and won an Oscar for his work in Going My Way. Thanks to his work for the USO during the war, he had essentially become the voice of America. In 1948, he topped polls as “the most admired man alive”. Who better to take you by the hand and guide you through a quintessentially American ghost story?
Of course, you don’t hire Bing Crosby just to narrate. You want him to sing, so Disney hired songwriters Don Raye and Gene de Paul to come up with three original songs, one for each of the main characters, Ichabod, Katrina and the Headless Horseman. Raye and de Paul didn’t contribute all that much to the Disney songbook. They’d written the song “It’s Whatcha Do With Whatcha Got” for So Dear To My Heart and would later come up with “Beware The Jabberwock”, an unused song from Alice In Wonderland. But they’re best known for future standards like “You Don’t Know What Love Is”. Their pop sensibilities work well here, creating three instant earworms that suit Crosby’s style perfectly.
As wonderful as the music and Crosby’s narration are, it’s the animation and design that makes Sleepy Hollow so unforgettable. Co-director Jack Kinney was the main director on the Goofy shorts and you can see the same lanky, graceful awkwardness in Ichabod Crane. Brom Bones is such an ideal caricature of a rugged he-man that the studio essentially recast him some 40 years later as Gaston in Beauty And The Beast.
And then there’s the Headless Horseman, a character who gets one of the top-five best entrances in Disney history. Only Maleficent and maybe Cruella De Vil come close to topping it. Every other character is exaggerated to some extent but the Horseman is played completely straight. This isn’t some cartoon monster. This is a demon who seriously means to cut your head clean off.
The chase sequence is a masterpiece of animation. Directors Kinney and Clyde Geronimi manage to pull off the difficult trick of making the scene both funny and frightening at the same time. Humor is a vital element in horror, helping to provide a release valve for tension. Without the business between Ichabod and his horse, this sequence would be unbearably tense for most kids.
Even with it, it’s still a lot to take. I’ve talked to plenty of people who say this movie gave them nightmares and it’s hardly surprising. This chase feels completely different from, say, the police pursuit of Mr. Toad in the previous segment. Even though bullets are flying, you’re never afraid that Toad is in danger of being picked off. You don’t have that same assurance with Ichabod and the Horseman. There’s real weight behind the Horseman’s sword.
The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad was released in October of 1949, in time for Halloween. It made some money but considering the fact that the studio had been working on it in some form or another for the better part of a decade, it wasn’t enough to recover its costs. After it completed its original theatrical engagement, the film wouldn’t be seen in its original form again for decades.
Instead, as had become common practice with the package films, the two halves were split up to air separately on TV, theatrically, and eventually on video. The Wind In The Willows debuted on television first, paired with Disney’s earlier adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Years later, it was retitled The Madcap Adventures Of Mr. Toad and released in front of the live-action comedy western Hot Lead And Cold Feet.
Sleepy Hollow had a much bigger impact on its own. Its television debut was a Halloween episode of Disneyland, for which the studio produced an introductory prologue on the life of Washington Irving. Disney has never officially released that prologue on home video but YouTube is a thing, so here it is now:
The short was released to theatres in 1963 and I can personally vouch for the fact that it became a Halloween staple of elementary school teachers throughout the 1970s and 80s. It would continue to be a part of holiday specials like Halloween Hall O’ Fame (featuring a pumpkinhead Jonathan Winters) and Disney’s Halloween Treat for years. In the early 90s, Disney finally put the original film back together on laserdisc.
For too long, you could only see these films individually. Today it’s the opposite problem: whether it’s on Blu-ray or streaming, you can only access them together. Why on earth is it so difficult for Disney to give audiences BOTH options? Believe it or not, most people don’t want to make The Wind In The Willows part of their Halloween traditions. To be clear, I don’t want them to erase the original version from existence. But when a studio repurposes material as drastically as Disney has done with the segments from its various package films, the ideal presentation would include all the different variations.
Disney ended the package film years on a high note, even if that wouldn’t become fully apparent until later. At the time, I’m sure that Walt didn’t even notice. The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad had never been a priority for him. As usual, his eyes were on the future. The 1950s would be a much different decade for Walt Disney.
VERDICT: It’s a Disney Plus but it’d be a Disney Double Plus if they split the segments up again.
I’ll bet some of you thought I was going to skip Song Of The South, didn’t you? If anyone who actually works at Disney reads these columns, they were probably hoping I would. Song Of The South is the studio’s not-so-secret shame, the one movie above all others they wish would just go away. Whether or not it deserves this reputation is another story and, as far as Disney is concerned, kind of beside the point. They appear to have made their corporate mind up on the subject. In the process, they’ve given the film a horrible reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve but is now impossible to live down.
Song Of The South‘s journey to the screen was almost as turbulent and controversial as its journey away from it. After the success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney went on a bit of a spending spree, buying the film rights to a wide array of properties. One of these was Uncle Remus, a collection of black oral folktales codified, collected and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, a white journalist from Atlanta. Harris himself is a fascinating and divisive figure. But since the name of this column isn’t Harris Plus-Or-Minus, you’ll have to find his story another time.
At first, Walt wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do with Uncle Remus. He considered making a series of Br’er Rabbit shorts and even a full-length animated feature. But Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner, wasn’t convinced. He thought Harris’ original stories were too slight to justify the expense of a feature film. Roy successfully lobbied for a more limited use of animation.
Since the film would now be primarily live-action, Walt decided to find someone other than his usual team of cartoon story-men to write the script. He hired a writer named Dalton Reymond who had never written a screenplay before and never would again. His primary qualification seems to be that he was from the South. He had kicked around Hollywood for a few years, serving as “technical advisor” on such Tales of the Deep South as Jezebel and The Little Foxes.
Reymond’s treatment left a lot to be desired. For one thing, it wasn’t a shooting script. For another, it went a lot farther with its language and its racial stereotyping than the Hayes Office would allow. Walt knew Reymond needed help. His first choice was Clarence Muse, the distinguished African-American actor who had made a name for himself on vaudeville and Broadway. Muse was also a writer, having co-written the film Way Down South with the poet Langston Hughes.
Muse and Reymond did not get along and Muse quit the project in frustration over Reymond’s refusal to accept his suggestions. Muse then became an outspoken opponent of the film, writing against Disney and Reymond in the black press. Walt had another take on the subject, claiming it was all just sour grapes after Muse didn’t land the role of Uncle Remus. Whatever the case, Muse apparently got over it enough to appear in a couple of other Disney productions later in life.
After Muse’s departure, Walt hired screenwriter Maurice Rapf, a Jewish, pro-union liberal and card-carrying Communist, to help temper Reymond’s white southern sensibilities. The notoriously anti-union, anti-Communist Disney and Rapf sound like strange bedfellows but according to Rapf’s autobiography, they got along quite well.
After Reymond inevitably had another blow-up, Walt took Rapf off the project and assigned him to work on another feature in development, Cinderella. Unfortunately, Rapf was never credited for his work on that film. By the time Cinderella was released, his career was essentially over thanks to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. The screenplay for Uncle Remus, which would soon be retitled Song Of The South, was completed by journeyman screenwriter Morton Grant.
Disney considered several actors as Remus (including Paul Robeson, which is wild to think about) before settling on James Baskett, who had actually answered an ad looking for voice talent. Baskett also came out of the Broadway scene where he had appeared alongside the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Louis Armstrong.
In Song Of The South, he gives the kind of instantly iconic performance that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. It’s a warm, folksy, magnetic appearance. It would also be his last. In 1948, James Baskett died of heart failure due to diabetes. He was just 44 years old.
Roy Disney had hoped that switching to live-action would help keep the costs of the film down. But so far, the studio had very little experience with live-action. Most everything they had shot was either limited to a soundstage (as in the musical performances in Fantasia and the documentary sequences of Victory Through Air Power) or just strolling around the Burbank lot (The Reluctant Dragon). This was their first time shooting on location, building period costumes and assembling a large cast of actors, so it was hardly a surprise when the project went over-budget.
But Disney was aware that audiences had been disappointed by the lack of animation in features like The Reluctant Dragon and Saludos Amigos. This time, he decided to get ahead of any possible complaints by playing up the live-action aspect in some of the initial advertising for the film. This original poster makes the movie look more like Gone With The Wind than any Disney movie to date.
In the end, Walt contented himself with just three main animated sequences, less than half an hour of the 94 minute film. A few of these fully incorporate Uncle Remus into the animated world. Baskett’s entrance into that world at the beginning of the “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” number is a great, unforgettable movie moment.
The mix of animation and live-action in Song Of The South is a huge step forward from what Disney had accomplished just a few years earlier in The Three Caballeros. MGM had already advanced the state-of-the-art by having Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh. For my money, the work in Song Of The South is even more impressive. One of the best examples finds Uncle Remus sitting down for a spot of fishing next to Br’er Frog. Bassett strikes a match, lights Br’er Frog’s pipe, then lights his own with the cartoon flame, and puffs out square animated smoke rings. The level of subtle detail in this simple action is extraordinary.
Of the three animated sequences, the most controversial is certainly the Tar Baby. For those of you who don’t know the story, Br’er Fox crafts a vaguely humanoid looking creature out of tar in an attempt to capture the gregarious Br’er Rabbit. Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit gets annoyed that the Tar Baby doesn’t respond to his friendly greetings and gets stuck. The more he struggles, the more stuck he gets. He frees himself by pleading with Br’er Fox not to throw him into the treacherous Briar Patch. Sadist that he is, Br’er Fox hurls him in, only to realize too late that Br’er Rabbit lives there. As fables go, it’s a pretty good one.
The problem is that the term “tar baby” has come to be used and taken as a racial slur. How this happened is absolutely beyond me. The story has roots in African folklore, specifically in stories of the trickster god Anansi. But at a certain point, “tar baby” came to be considered offensive mainly because it feels like it should be offensive. But there’s absolutely nothing racist or offensive about the actual Tar Baby story. Disney’s Tar Baby can’t even be considered a racial caricature. There are plenty of offensive African-American caricatures throughout animation and the Tar Baby shares none of their characteristics. But today, the expression is offensive because ignorant people decided to weaponize the phrase and people who should have known better didn’t fight to keep it.
In a way, this is the problem with Song Of The South in general. On the surface, it feels like it might be kind of racist. Therefore, it must be because digging any deeper might expose a minefield and nobody at Disney wants to deal with that. They aren’t in the business of building conversations. Their entire reputation is built around escapist fantasy. Anything that challenges that is considered taboo, even if the cause turns out to be relatively benign.
For example, take the songs performed by the plantation workers, all versions of traditionally African-American music from the Deep South. There’s the call-and-response of “That’s What Uncle Remus Said”, there’s “Let The Rain Pour Down” (based on the blues classic “Midnight Special”), and there’s a spiritual (“All I Want”). Every time I’ve seen this film, I’ve thought that these are some of the most white-bread, Lawrence-Welk-style versions of black music I’ve ever heard.
Imagine my surprise to discover that these songs were performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Hall Johnson himself was one of the most renowned arrangers of African-American spirituals in the world and an early inductee into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. By assuming these songs were performed by a white chorus, I was displaying my own ignorance and buying into a stereotypical idea of what “black music” should sound like. Be that as it may, it should also be pointed out that most if not all of the music was written by white songwriters. These songs could have been made a lot more authentic simply by hiring black musicians to write them.
At worst, Song Of The South is guilty of sending mixed messages and a lot of that is Walt Disney’s fault. To his credit, he was aware of how delicate this subject matter was, even in the pre-Civil Rights era, and clearly did not want to make a movie with an explicitly racist agenda. Granted, that’s a super low bar to set for yourself but still. The problem is that Walt was a lot more afraid of offending white Southern audiences than he was of what African-Americans might think.
Because of this, a lot of material that would have helped put the movie in context was dropped. For instance, it’s never explicitly stated when it even takes place, which has led a lot of people to assume that the plantation workers are slaves. They’re not. They’re sharecroppers. Song Of The South takes place during the Reconstruction Era after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War but the audience is left to figure that out for itself.
At one point, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation entirely. Eventually we come to realize that he went to Atlanta to bring back little Johnny’s absent father (more on this guy in a minute). The movie wants to build suspense and make us think he’s leaving for good and that something might happen to him. From a dramatic perspective, that makes sense. But if the filmmakers left in dialogue about Remus being a “free man”, able to come and go when he pleases, the intent would be clearer and Uncle Remus would come across as a stronger, more independent character.
The entire set-up of Song Of The South is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery. As the film begins, young Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, who will be back in this column several times) arrives at his grandmother’s plantation with his parents for what he assumes will be a short vacation. But something’s up between mom (Ruth Warrick) and dad (Erik Rolf). There’s tension between them and it turns out that they’ll be separating. Dad’s going back to Atlanta while Johnny and his mother stay with Grandmother (Lucile Watson) and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDaniel).
Now, because the tension between the parents is so palpable and no other real reason for it is offered, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Father is going off to war. You need to pay attention to the opening dialogue to realize that John Senior is a newspaper editor in Atlanta and apparently the center of some controversy. Since Uncle Remus creator Joel Chandler Harris worked as an associate editor under Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution during the time the movie is set, it’s probably fair to assume that John Senior is based somewhat on one or both of them. Both Harris and Grady supported a vision of the “New South”, stressing industrialization and reconciliation. Of course in real life, their politics were more complicated. But for a Disney-fied version of the New South, sure…John Senior was a unifier. Not that you would know any of that from the information supplied by the film itself.
Song Of The South does itself no favors by playing coy with this material but there are some problems that are built in to the film itself. Uncle Remus is basically the template for every Magical Negro character that followed. With his ability to converse to cartoon animals, he is literally magical. But is that this movie’s fault? Or is it the fault of all the other filmmakers and storytellers who later decided to pick up the ball and run with it? Stereotypes don’t become stereotypes without repetition and the first example is rarely the worst.
Song Of The South‘s depiction of African-American stories and characters absolutely received some criticism at the time of its release from both black and white critics. Protests were organized by the National Negro Congress, while the NAACP expressed its frustration that such a technically well-made picture could incorporate so many objectionable elements. But the movie also had its champions on both sides. Herman Hill, writing in the respected black paper The Pittsburgh Courier, said that the movie would “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations”. His response to the movie’s critics was essentially, “Lighten up.”
Perhaps what’s most objectionable about Disney’s treatment of Song Of The South is their apparent desire to pick and choose what elements of the movie they want to acknowledge. The Oscar-winning song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is still an integral part of the Disney Songbook. It has never not been included on one of their many compilation albums. It’s still used on Splash Mountain in the Disney theme parks, as are Br’er Rabbit and the rest. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been even a suggestion that the ride needs to be redesigned.
Also lost in Disney’s rush to disown the film is the fact that James Baskett won an Honorary Academy Award for it, becoming the first black male performer to win an Oscar. Walt Disney personally campaigned for the award, although why it was an honorary award instead of just a regular nomination for Best Actor, I’m not quite sure. The Academy certainly had a history of singling people out for individual achievements that didn’t fit their conception of what movies are supposed to be like. Regardless, Baskett’s untimely death prevented him from capitalizing on his win during his lifetime. Disney’s subsequent treatment of the film prevents his legacy from being celebrated or even acknowledged.
Even with the controversy, Song Of The South proved to be a sizable hit for Disney and not just in 1946. I’m old enough to remember seeing it during its re-release runs in the 1970s and 80s. It was back in theatres as recently as 1986, when it brought in over $17 million in basically free money for the studio.
The truth is that Disney’s moratorium on Song Of The South is entirely self-imposed. Nobody has actually banned the movie. Disney is simply afraid of how the film might be perceived by modern audiences and can’t be bothered to put it in any sort of context that would help explain it. Whoopi Goldberg, for one, has urged the studio to release the film in an edition with supplementary features for context. Ironically, one of the voices who argued stridently against the film ever being seen again was America’s disgraced former dad, Bill Cosby.
No one is going to argue that Song Of The South doesn’t have a complicated legacy. It is in no way a perfect film. Walt Disney could have done any number of things differently that would have made it better. But pretending it doesn’t exist does a disservice to both the filmmakers and their work. With no evidence to the contrary, an entire generation has grown up believing that Walt Disney was nothing short of a white supremacist who made an animated Birth Of A Nation. Walt’s politics and beliefs may not have entirely lined up with mine or yours but it’s unfair to characterize him in such a negative light.
For the animators and effects team, Song Of The South represented some of their very best work of the 1940s. The combination of live-action and animation is stunning. It wouldn’t be topped until Who Framed Roger Rabbit came along nearly 40 years later. This work deserves to be restored and seen by an appreciative audience.
Perhaps the biggest loser in all this is James Baskett. He’s a tremendous screen presence. It’s unfortunate that he never became a bigger star. It’s a tragedy that his most iconic performance has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over racial representation on screen. It’s a conversation that’s almost impossible to have when you can’t see what exactly you’re arguing over.
In a way, I think Disney even realizes that Song Of The South deserves to be seen. They just don’t want to be the ones who let you see it. It’s very, very easy to find bootleg DVDs, typically sourced from a Japanese laserdisc release, on eBay or other online sources. Disney has a long reach. If they wanted to, they could shut these unofficial operators down in a snap. The fact that they haven’t suggests to me that the studio doesn’t want to get rid of the movie altogether. They’ve just thrown it into the Briar Patch. Like Br’er Rabbit, you’re welcome to jump in after it.
VERDICT: It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. But in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Disney Plus.
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