Monday, May 18, 2015

Song of the South: Disney's Loaded Gun

"Don't you know you can't run away from trouble? There ain't no place that far."

In 2012, two books were published within two weeks of each other, each with dueling viewpoints but which come to similar conclusions. The first, Disney's Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence, and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South by Jason Sperb, is an excellently written cultural history. Sperb, however, falls into the trap so many other Disney critics have fallen into since the 1940s by working himself into an aesthetic lather over the racism of the film, and the presumed racism of Walt Disney. Contrasting the Sperb book, Jim Korkis' Who's Afraid of Song of the South? is a production history from the perspective of an unabashed fan who comes down on Disney's side.

Every Disney blog, it seems, has a post about Song of the South. This is mine. Now, of all of the eras of Disney animation, the period of fevered creativity and pinched budgets between 1941 and 1949 interests me the most. I own three bootleg copies of Song of the South, because each has slightly different visual qualities. I've been showing it to everyone who will sit for it for over a decade.

I'm not convinced of the film's greatness, but I think it's a really interesting movie.

And I'm not going to come down on the side of either Sperb or Korkis. I'm not convinced that Walt Disney was as malicious - or as naive - as he's often portrayed by film academics. However, I'm also not going to follow in the footsteps of so many other Disney bloggers and act the know-nothing when it comes to having to confront the problematic aspects of the film either.

Song of the South is not an easy movie to level with. Merely watching it requires that one take a position, and ask tough questions that don't yield ready answers. These are generally the criteria for a deep dish cinema masterpiece, not a frivolous nostalgia piece occasionally touched with brilliance. It would hardly seem to be worth the effort for a film whose cultural expiration date is long past. But engaging those questions and coming out the other side is the reason it's still worth discussing.

Let's begin by prodding the sensitive underbelly first. It all began a long, long time ago...


1) The Song of the South Problem

The default position of many Song of the South advocates is to either ignore or hand-wave at the basic problem of racism in this film. After all, it's easy to counter, the film was reissued in 1986 and met with no real opposition, the concerns of racism in the film are just overly sensitive allegations. No problem. Don't see any problem here.

This is bullshit.

The key issue comes down to representation, which is still something worth fighting over, because images carry power. Non-white, non-straight people are still fighting for better representation in films and popular culture. But truthfully, the fact that representations of persons of color onscreen have improved dramatically in the past few generations does not enter the Song of the South equation, either. The key character in question, Uncle Remus, no longer is forced to stand alone amongst a relatively narrow group of peers.

In 1946, Remus represented a complex, unusually central role for a black entertainer in a major Hollywood production. By 1986, an era when black actors were striving to escape from a screen ghetto of limited representation, Remus was an impossible throwback. In 2015, when we expect diverse and complex casts in major motion pictures, Remus looks more like a figure of fantasy, which isn't too far from how he was perceived in 1946.

This isn't to suggest that strides cannot still be made in these areas onscreen, but simply to point out that Remus, taken in isolation, is no longer the gigantic problem he once was. We're more likely today to admire Baskett's dignified, moving performance in the midst of a maelstrom of a film of absurdly old-fashioned attitudes than to perceive this sort of Uncle Tom stereotype to be a normal or common perception of a black man. He's so far from our modern reality he's become fiction again.

No, it isn't Remus, it's his context in the movie which is problematic, and the reason it's problematic is because the film splits its black characters between the "culturally black" animal comedy trio of Br'rer Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear and the "manifestly black" cast of actors who represent the labor force on the plantation. The "Br'er" critters have craft and power - they have an agency in their own plot which is not reflected in the plantation laborers, Remus included.

This lack of agency in the story is exactly why it's possible to mistake Song of the South for a film set in the Antebellum period, before the Civil War. There's plenty of scenes between the white, upper class family and the black laborers, but if the word "slave" never appears, neither does the word "employee". We never even find out what they're growing on the old plantation, nor do we ever see Uncle Remus doing any real work, or are told how he gets by or what he's retained, exactly, to do.

We do see him living in what appears to be slave quarters near the house, although we never discover where the rest of the labor force lives. There isn't even a date to clue us in to when the film takes place. All we see are black laborers doing something, white people running the place, and a living situation that looks like it dropped out of Gone With the Wind, David O' Selznick's 1939 bad taste extravaganza. The title actually cues us to think of Gone with the Wind. They even sound kinda similar. It's a clear cue to the movie buying public: "Did you like that film? Here's something similar."

In other words, the film doesn't do anything to dispel the impression of Remus as an old slave, perhaps one beloved and trusted as a member of the family, but undoubtedly a man treated as a piece of property. His attempt to leave the plantation at the climax of the movie is so underdeveloped that it hardly seems to matter, and arrives long after most of the damage has been done.

Not helping matters is Hattie McDaniel, a wonderful actress familiar from films of the 1930s, essentially reprising her role of Mammy from Gone With the Wind. Like most vintage movie fans, I love Hattie - any appearance by her is a reason to celebrate - but she isn't given much of interest to do here. Her character may be hired help, but all the film ever gives us images of Hattie singing and baking. Simply put, to expect post-Gone With the Wind audiences not to process such an image as "slave" is the equivalent of putting Anthony Hopkins in an orange jumpsuit behind a Plexiglas wall and asking us to remember that he's not a serial killer. It doesn't work that way.

Many commentators also like to bring up the happy singing field workers, although this is a case where I'm not sure if this accusation isn't somewhat off base. Truth is, we don't see them clearly enough or often enough to decide if they're jolly or simply singing. But the fact is that by then in the film, it's given any critic looking for a racism angle more than enough rope to hang it. Audiences and critics turn to Song of the South looking for evidence of the racism of noted white guy Walt Disney, and the film over delivers. I've even seen multiple online articles indicate that the reason the father leaves suddenly at the start of the film is to fight for the Confederacy!

But if we want to point accusing fingers anywhere for this state of affairs, it isn't at lazy audiences or inattentive critics, it's at Walt Disney himself. Disney hired left wing screenwriter Maurice Rapf to temper the unfortunate inclinations of the screenplay by Dalton Reymond, and Rapf told Walt directly: he would have to be very clear about the situation and social context of the film, or risk appearing to endorse slavery. This, incidentally, is the key event for Jason Sperb, who takes Walt's "refusal" to clarify the situation as evidence that he didn't care if the film offended anyone.

And so, in maybe one of the worst story decisions ever made at Walt Disney Productions, Walt gifted us millions of words of commentary on a film that in some ways seems hardly deserving of it. How simply it all could have been, if not avoided, then greatly reduced. All it would take is uttering the word "sharecroppers" or giving us a date. But the film refuses.


The sad fact is that there were likely other factors playing into all of this. In the 1940s, with home video still a generation away, films were basically temporary things. They were expected to go out, make their money, and then probably vanish forever. The possibility that future generations from a very different culture would be sharpening our rhetorical knives over this film was not even a realistic consideration. Walt had to do what was right for the film in 1946. And, the fact is, in 1946 and even well into the 60s there were many places in the South where films had, historically, been given a hard time at the box office due to their perceived progressiveness.

MGM released Cabin in the Sky in 1943 and 20th Century Fox had Stormy Weather in 1944, two all-black musicals which today look like two of the best Hollywood musicals ever. In the Jim Crow South, there's places where these wonderful films were refused distribution outright, which meant they had no chance of returning a profit to the studio in certain sectors. Disney met with 20th Century Fox producers to discuss Stormy Weather, so right there goes Sperb's fantasy that Disney simply didn't care. In this case, he may have simply chosen the path which guaranteed a financial return for his shaky motion picture studio, which, shamefully, was to choose no path at all.

Is Song of the South racist? By our modern standards, yes it is. It's foolish to ignore this, because it's the whole reason the film isn't available, which by extension is the whole reason to discuss it. It's reductionist, naive, and to most modern eyes, about blissfully servile slaves. To try to pretend that that just isn't there in the film isn't fooling anybody.

And yet! And yet.

And yet it's also just as foolish to insist that that is all that Song of the South is. Because for all of the cultural hand-wringing over Uncle Remus, he is undeniably Walt Disney's surrogate in this film. He's the most compellingly drawn character, and the only character in the film to have an emotional arc.

The film allows us nearly no empathy for the white characters: Bobby Discoll's character is an annoying wimp and spends most of the film wearing a "dramatic" expression that suggests constipation. His mother is a hysteric who consistently makes the wrong decisions, and his grandmother does nothing to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. We don't blame Johnny for wanting to spend all of his time with Remus; we do, too. Baskett's Remus and Glenn Leedy's Toby are the most likable characters in the movie.


Remus is our identification point, and he's Disney's too. He's a wise but humble storyteller whose stories not only teach valuable life lessons, but save the boy's life and even appear to reshape reality. We can also enjoy the way in which Remus is a master manipulator of his white employers, always making careful allowances to maintain the fiction that his suggestions were their ideas, all along. That's not exactly progressive, but it's something.

This does not obliterate everything I've said before, but it does complicate it. I'm in no position to judge if the Walt Disney of 1946 was racist or not, never mind the Walt of 1926 or 1966. You aren't, either. People aren't that simple. All we have is the film, an alarmingly troubled work about a heroic stereotype. It's not simple enough to come off as a total fantasy, but it's not complex enough to allay our modern unease and easily put the film in its place. So now we have to deal with that.

2) Song of the South Into the Present Day

Audiences in 1946 didn't see it the same way we do. Coming out the other side of a world war, the American film  industry was at an all-time productive high. The post-war era in American pop culture is a fascinating one, and tough, serious film making like Rebel Without a Cause sat cheek to jowl with blistering satires and totally absurd escapist fantasies. The all-star movie musical roared back to life with a vitality it hadn't had since the pit of the Great Depression. Song of the South is one of these escapist films.

If we pay close attention to fashion and dress, it's possible to realize that Song of the South is set right about the turn of the 20th century, or in other words the world into which Walt Disney was born. The 1950s saw a revival of interest in "The Good Old Days", visible in such films as The Jolson Story, The Music Man, Night and Day, Man of a Thousand Faces, and reaching its most immortal expression in Disneyland's Main Street, USA.

Song of the South represented to 1946 audiences an escape into a pre-modern fantasy world, of a world before automobiles and airplanes and mechanized warfare, a dimly remembered cultural fantasia. Today's audiences are, depending on one's perspective, either more informed or more cynical, which makes the acceptance of these nostalgic fantasies tougher to take. We're more likely to look for and expect to see the downsides of a reconstruction south presented even in a fantasy film in ways that 1946 audiences likely would not. This would not last long, however.

According to my first edition copy of Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films, Song of the South was reissued without incident in 1956. Throughout the 1960s, Disney kept Song of the South more or less out of view. The Br'er Rabbit animation segments were featured in episodes of Disneyland and Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear could be found in New Orleans Square, but it would not be until 1972 that it was reissued.

Many modern commentators have opined that Song of the South was not reissued during the 1960s due to the turbulent political situation at home, but I think that's stretching the point a bit. If there's any secret reason the film didn't re-appear during the 60s, it may be because Walt Disney remade it - as Mary Poppins, in 1964. Now, Poppins is quite a different film, but the basic situation of a central, mythologized figure who brings animation and magic to a young boy and girl and in doing so mends a broken family strikes a familiar cord.

It's possible that Walt saw a way to recycle a mythology he found special meaning in into a less controversial, more technologically sophisticated film, and he was willing to do it with either Mary Poppins.... or Eglantine Price. Poppins in the finished film is actually extremely remote and mysterious, not at all like the jovial, magnetic presence of Remus. At the suggestion of the Sherman brothers, the emotional core of Mary Poppins is the father, who isn't even present for most of Song of the South.

Given the comparative excellence and sophistication of Mary Poppins, it's possible that this film could have totally eclipsed Song of the South. Today Song of the South could be one of the studio's many obscurities from the 1940s, like So Dear To My Heart or The Reluctant Dragon. But, in 1989, Disney did the one thing that will ensure that demand for Song of the South will never dry up and its legend will loom ever larger - they opened Splash Mountain.

From the perspective of 2015 it seems incomprehensible that Disney would green light an attraction based on a film they had no intention of releasing, but things were different back in 1985.


Back in the 80s, Song of the South had become a perennial money maker for Disney. Reissues in 1972 and 1980 had been wildly successful in a way the film just wasn't in the 1940s, and another was slated for 1986. In other words, audiences in 1989 were expected to recognize the Disney Uncle Remus characters alongside such characters as those from Cinderella and The Jungle Book.

In fact, the entire original version of Splash Mountain at Disneyland is designed based on this assumption. The characters are introduced very casually - the dynamic between Br'er Rabbit, Fox, and Bear isn't even set up, visually or verbally, since we're just supposed to know who is who. Pumpkins, red earth, mint juleps, willows and cattails belong unambiguously to the deep Georgia south of the film.

At Disneyland, the journey through Splash Mountain begins in an old barn, pointedly one of the few structures explicitly built for the interaction of humans and animals. From there, the queue moves past a fireplace with a cast iron pot, and is routed so guests must walk across the hearth. This represents the fireplace where Remus tells Johnny the Br'er Rabbit tales in the film, and to make the connection clear, a direct Remus quote from the film is painted on the wall above the fireplace. Although Remus is never referenced or seen in the attraction, to the familiar observer, the signposts and connections to Song of the South are many.

Daveland at Disneyland
I'd give a lot to know when exactly Eisner instituted his ban on Song of the South. If the stories told about that key visit to Imagineering are correct, then the design for Splash Mountain had been solidified by 1985 in time for it to be seen by Michael Eisner and Breck Eisner and green lit. Song of the South was re-issued both in theaters and internationally on home video in the 1980s, and of course the Disneyland ride is a direct continuation of what riders would be expected to recognize from the film.

But when Splash Mountain appeared at Walt Disney World in late summer 1992, there were changes both obvious and subtle that reflect Song of the South's status as banned goods. Relocated to Frontierland from a dedicated "Critter Country", holes and tunnels became mine shafts and saw mills. A musical score which previously was a fairly conservative recreation of Daniele Amfitheatrof's 1946 orchestral arrangements was re-imagined as homespun, bluegrass ditties. The final version of "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" employs a gospel singer.

More pointedly, the Florida version of Splash Mountain works overtime to introduce riders to the core characters as if they had never existed before. Disneyland's Splash Mountain starts in media res; Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are out to get Br'er Rabbit because that's what they always do. Comparatively, Magic Kingdom's version uses framed portraits and signs to introduce us to the cast of characters and locations before the ride even begins, then makes all of the characters chatterboxes. We splash down into the cartoon world and see Br'er Fox and Bear spying and plotting about Br'er Rabbit; Br'er Rabbit sings about leaving home and then a porcupine sings about his decision to leave home being a bad one. Two rabbits and a roadrunner six feet later repeatedly remind us of what Br'er Rabbit is up to. Absolutely nothing is left to chance.

Perhaps even more pointedly, the Florida Splash Mountain removes nearly all of the Uncle Remus quotes from Disneyland's queue and jettisons the hearth, making the film's central character seem more like a distant echo. Instead it creates a character who functions as a sort of replacement Remus - Br'er Frog, an incidental character from the film, now sets up the story seen in silhouette in a (brilliantly framed) introductory queue tableau.

In other words, the Magic Kingdom Splash Mountain goes to great lengths to cut its ties with Song of the South, giving us a new world for Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear to exist in, one unique to Frontierland. They even changed the color of Br'er Rabbit's fur from brown to grey, almost as though they were afraid anyone riding would make the connection.


Despite appearing in its own Critter Country separate from Westernland, the Tokyo Disneyland Splash Mountain repeated the "bluegrass" aesthetic of Magic Kingdom's version, thus creating a "Splash Mountain Universe" that the Disneyland version doesn't quite belong to.

Generally, I view creative decisions as just that - decisions, existing in a timeline of the creative process, which must be made because decision must be made, but I can only conclude that the 1992 Splash Mountain seems to be a deliberate attempt to remove the ethnographic origin of the Uncle Remus characters from the "Disney Splash Mountain Universe". Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox, in particular, speak in the 1946 film and 1989 attraction with cadences, phrases, stammering and stuttering very obviously directly descended from African-American comedy conventions of a bygone era. And let's not forget that James Baskett himself appeared on Amos 'n Andy.

Jess Harnell's Br'er Rabbit sounds a great deal like Johnny Lee's Br'er Rabbit, but what he doesn't sound like, is black. Br'er Rabbit's attractive sass and swagger is totally gone, as are his memorable film dialogue lines retained for the 1989 Splash Mountain, like "'I'm gonna bust you wiiiide open!". With his grey fur and stock hijinx, the 1992 Br'er Rabbit could just be a Bugs Bunny clone with all of Bugs' gender queerness removed.

Even with a core cast that's been literally whitewashed, Splash Mountain is the single thing that's probably kept Song of the South alive in the public consciousness. As Bob Iger said in 2009, the film actually is "antiquated" and "fairly offensive", yet literally thousands of people can ride through a major thrill attraction based on it every day of the year. And these same people can now go on the Internet and discover that those clever, well realized characters and world come from a film Disney doesn't want you to see. In any other circumstances Song of the South probably would've ridden off into the sunset reserved for all entertainment whose cultural expiration date is long past, but Splash Mountain is like a billboard off a major highway advertising a place you can't go to.

And yet despite all of that, there's one defiant scrap of Song of the South left in the Magic Kingdom attraction, and everyone who exits the ride walks past it. It's a tiny, framed black and white photo of Br'er Rabbit gesturing to the Briar Patch from the film. More people likely see it in a single day than have seen the film in three decades.


1986 reissue poster
3) Give Us Dirty Laundry

Nothing spreads faster in our Internet culture than bad news.

Now, in my decades of talking about this movie to people, I've come to the conclusion that most Disney fans, and indeed most people born during or slightly before the ban was instituted, have never seen the Song of the South. They haven't sought out the bootleg DVDs or watched it on YouTube. Disney fans are, if nothing else, above all loyal. But everyone, and I mean everyone, knows about the movie.

Or at least they know that it's "banned". What I've realized is that fewer seem to know what it's banned for. Unacceptable racial attitudes, yes, but that's where the understanding ends and the hyperbole begins.

Since the early 2000s and the wide spread of Internet culture, one of the default understandings of Walt Disney has become popularized by shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken. Charges of racism, juvenile exploitation, and antisemitism are seemingly bolstered by the fact that there's a "forbidden" Disney film out there - Song of the South - so racist, so I've been told, that the NAACP picketed the film upon its release.

 In other words, there's a popular mythology growing out there which positions Song of the South as Disney's version of Birth of a Nation - an abominable film of undisguised hatred. And that doesn't describe Song of the South at all. For starters, the bulk of the film it isn't even entertaining enough to be offensive.

Part of this comes from the fact that Walt Disney hasn't been a fashionable guy to admire in a long time. Today, admiration for filmmakers behind the scenes like David O. Selznick or Daryl Zanuck is limited to a subset of movie fans, and today we're more likely to speak about directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford than the money and organization men who believed in them. A great deal of Disney history today seeks to highlight the geniuses who worked for Walt. This very blog is as guilty of it as anyone - look at the number of posts I've tagged Marc Davis and the number I've tagged Walt Disney.

Since the 1970s, renegade geniuses who did their own thing and beat the odds have replaced the kind of unusual institutional bodies who made films through the end of the 1960s. Walt Disney couldn't even draw Mickey Mouse and is only credited for directing one film - and it's a lousy one. It takes some knowledge of film history to understand him as the creator of so much of the first half of the 20th's century's most potent popular art.

The Walt Disney Company has largely allowed this to happen in the past fifteen years. The Walt Disney Story was closed before Splash Mountain even opened. One Man's Dream, which opened in 2001 and has been updated only once, gives people an overview of Walt's accomplishments but no real personal sense of the man. Neal Gabler's 2005 biography of Walt Disney, positioned by Disney as a definitive Walt book, is a crashing bore, thicker than the complete works of Shakespeare, and seems to be written from an ambivalent perspective about the man's legacy. Saving Mr. Banks, the 2013 film, is widely derided by fans as a fantasy but at least attempts to give some sense of who Walt Disney was.

This means that in popular culture the character of Walt exists in a vacuum, and it's pretty much filled up with the kind of rumor mongering and character assassination that popular culture has been pumping into that vacuum for some time. If you're a Disney fan you've likely been asked point blank if Walt Disney was an anti-Semite (or a Nazi sympathizer) by somebody in the past fifteen years. Walt Disney, noted white guy, has become Walt Disney, likely racist, and Song of the South is his dirty laundry.

This is why I worry that keeping Song of the South out of circulation does as much damage as it does good. By removing consumer's ability to choose for themselves, then the choice to keep it under wraps becomes an eternally self-renewing cycle. It isn't available because it's racist. It's racistand so it isn't available.

This decision to withhold it is really our loss. We're being denied the pleasure of James Baskett and Hattie McDaniels' performances, and the voices of the Hall Johnson Choir. We aren't allowed to see the perfection of Ub Iwerks' special effects, 40 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Song of the South is the first Disney animated film stylized after Mary Blair's artwork, and the character animation is among the best and funniest the studio ever gave us. It's also the only color film and one of the last films shot by Gregg Toland, on the short list of the greatest cinematographers of all time. This last point, in particular, is very painful for cineastes because Toland is famous for his dark chiaroscuro effects in Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane, and the dark, fire lit passages of Song of the South turn into a blurry mess in all available copies of the movie.

Surely all of those positives are worth something to history. They can't be worth tossing out entirely. But how do you reconcile a film whose reputation requires handling with kid gloves with the massive, moving target of a modern multinational corporation in the shooting gallery of pubic life?

4) Disarming the Loaded Gun

But to get to the core of the reason why Disney hasn't let Song of the South out yet, we have to compare the problem that Song of the South represents to how they've handled similar problems.

Disney has a spotty record when it comes to self-censorship. Things pop on and off the forbidden list randomly, more or less depending on who's paying attention. In the early 2000s, Roy O. Disney requested that cigarettes be removed from certain cartoons - Saludos Amigos and Melody Time - while permitting the cigar smoking in Three Caballeros and Pinocchio to remain. At the same time, he asked that the opening sequence of Make Mine Music - The Martins and the Coys - be removed due to offending sensibilities, but more likely because of cartoon violence and gun play that no child who's ever seen a Tom & Jerry cartoon would bat an eye at. Melody Time and Make Mine Music are still censored in the United States, while Saludos Amigos was presented without cuts on the "Walt & El Groupo" DVD release a few years later.

On the Walt Disney Treasures DVD releases, much stronger material was presented with little but a comment or two from Leonard Maltin, including a number of suppressed Pluto cartoons where his master is a bossy Aunt Jemima type, and several examples of pretty hardcore wartime propaganda like Education For Death.

In a similar vein, the VHS release (and as far as I can tell,  subsequent home video releases) of The Lion King have zoomed in several shots in the "Be Prepared" sequence to make the goose-stepping hyenas a little less apparent.

Closer to home, at some point Disney did major censorship to Dumbo, removing entirely the jive-talking crows from all but their final appearance in the film to sing "When I See An Elephant Fly". And the famous black centaurettes have been missing permanently from Fantasia since the 1960s. Yet despite this, there's never really been any attempt to remove the humiliating "What Makes The Red Man Red?" sequence in Peter Pan.

The reason Disney can't - and I'm not saying they won't, I'm saying that they cannot - release Song of the South has to do with, surprisingly, the success of their home video department.

If I asked you to, I bet that it'd be easier for you to come up with a list of places where you cannot buy Disney movies and DVDs than places you can. Electronics shops, mega marts, pharmacies, gas stations, automotive repair stores, supermarkets... children's entertainment on home video is a gigantic market segment and, best of all, it's recession proof.

During the DVD boom of the early naughts, films of all stripes were flying out the door, but once the market collapsed, home video has returned to levels of business fairly comparable to what it was like in the 1990s. If you grew up in the VHS era, as I did, think back to what movies your friends and family likely owned on VHS, and you're going to be picturing rows and rows of movies in those distinctive white puffy clam shells - Disney movies. Mixed in there was going to be, say, your friend's dad's copy of Goodfellas, or maybe Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or something. In other words: hit movies, and kid's films. Then as now, that's what moves copies of films on home video.

Why? Because kids are easily bored and any parent knows that a bored kid is a recipe for disaster, so it's good practice to keep a bunch of them on hand. To kids, the word "Disney" means a good way to spend time. For adults, it means nothing more than "probably safe for your kids".

As Disney fans we tend to forget this, but for the vast majority of the consumer population Disney movies are used as electronic babysitters. Disney even has a special feature on their discs to facilitate this, and they market it like it's a huge benefit - Disney's FastPlay, in which an inserted disc will play assorted trailers, ads, the feature film, and even bonus material clear through, exactly like a VHS.

They've been using it for 12 years now, and if you look carefully, most other animation studios have followed suit with their home video releases, so they must be hearing from people that this is what they want.

This is the market that Disney fears. It isn't the people who are going to line up to attack a 70-year old movie, and it isn't pointy headed geeks like we who are worried about the aspect ratio of Melody Time, and it isn't the think piece in Huffington Post they're worried about, it's Joe and Jane Blow.

Disney movies are sold everywhere, which means they've locked their product into a massive distribution network that empties out into places like a Publix in Hollywood, Florida. It just isn't practical for them to do a small release of a film like Song of the South, because for Disney releasing a product - any product - on video is the equivalent of pressing a huge red button that vomits 10 million copies of everything into every store in the United States.

If you were collecting the Walt Disney Treasures DVD releases, you've experienced this. If you wanted one of the discs, you had to get to your retailer of choice money in hand on release day. The Treasures discs came in on the truck with all of the other Disney releases for that day, and when they were gone, they were gone.
 
Given this scenario, it's easy to see Jane Q. Public thoughtlessly throwing a shiny new Blu-Ray copy of Song of the South into her basket at Target because there's a fun looking rabbit on the cover, and turning into a raging consumer volcano upon discovering that the film features less than flattering depicting of - are those slaves? It's not nerds, but Moms, that Disney lives in constant fear of. They have spent generations building up goodwill and brand recognition to potentially degrade it by releasing something that's not really okay to most Americans.

So, if Disney is even going to think about a release of Song of the South, they have to find a way of releasing it in such a way that nerds can find it but casual Disney consumers cannot.

They could, for instance, sell it directly to fans at the D23 Expo, which given the cost to get in is all but guaranteed to screen out anyone who's going to be walking into Song of the South blindfolded. This would certainly bolster D23's tenuous claim to be "by fans, for fans", although it would encourage scalpers and bootleggers - but doesn't the current strategy do that already? If anything, the opportunity to purchase a legitimate copy of Song of the South direct from Disney could be a powerful incentive for some to attend.

Disney could also contemplate a limited distribution strategy through, say, their Disney Movie Club, which they're already using to make available such less-marketable titles as Pollyanna and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Using this method it's still not impossible that Song of the South could end up in "The Wrong Hands", but the risk is far less than a wide release.

An even safer bet could be a direct digital download with, say, a click-through acknowledgement and an attached video disclaimer with Leonard Maltin.

Or, they could use a DVD boutique label.

Boutique labels are an interesting abnormality in the history of home video. The basic concept dates from the laserdisc era, when laserdiscs were an expensive product with a limited consumer base. The true money was in the inferior VHS format and the video rental business, and so while studios poured money into releasing their movie titles on magnetic tape, they often pawned off the rights to release their cult or classic films of more questionable commercial prospects to companies like Image Entertainment or Voyager on laserdisc. This, in turn, allowed these companies to lavish more time and attention on these cult items, and market them especially to collectors and nerds.

The long term benefits of this splitting of the market segment had undeniable benefits in film culture. Successful laser releases of catalog films meant that more and more older films were going to be restored and preserved. At the same time, the cinephilic bent of the format meant that more and more consumers were demanding not only better, but definitive releases of films.

Laserdiscs introduced the notion of alternate cuts, like the duelling versions of Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon, and the now highly marketable Director's Cuts, like the long version of Lawrence of Arabia. Films which had previously existed in altered and truncated versions began to be put back together. Our modern, improved opinion of directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone stems from reconstruction efforts which began as attempts to sell laserdiscs.


This is the model the industry is returning to, by the way. Video stores no longer exist, but the big multi-million dollar agreements of today are over streaming services, while the shrinking video market is increasingly being split up amongst boutique labels. Three of the best today are Olive Films, Twilight Time and Shout! Factory. And then there's Criterion. If you've come all the way to this blog I likely don't need to tell you what Criterion is, but just in case, here it is.

Criterion was the label for art house movies. Their first release ever was Citizen Kane. They pioneered the concept of added-value content on disc, recording the first ever commentary track - for King Kong. They printed essays about the films on the rear on their laserdisc sleeves. And they cleverly assigned each release a number - subtly encouraging collectors, like Pokemon, to get them all.

The impact of Criterion on our modern cinephile culture cannot be underestimated. For the first time, fans like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson could watch a movie and then listen to its director speak about it on a commentary track. Criterion releases were film school in a box and paved the way for our current home video standards - director involvement, correct aspect ratios, high picture quality, and bonus features. As a result, each Criterion film release has, for some, acquired the character of the canonization of a saint.

The respect and prestige conferred on Criterion means that a Criterion release of a film or director can actually turn the conversation of the film around. In the late 1980s Criterion released a gigantic laserdisc set of Terry Gilliam's costly, controversial Brazil and it's probably on the basis of their release, and then again on DVD and Blu-Ray, that the film has graduated slowly from curious cult item to established classic.

Isn't this what Song of the South needs? A careful release that will turn its image around while keeping it out of the hands of casual consumers? A release will confer instant prestige on a troubled film?

This strategy comes with a certain degree of insurance against wandering hands. To begin with, Criterion goes to great lengths to design unique covers which reflect the films inside, a world away from Disney's standard "a bunch of characters looming" method. The upshot is that the release would look nothing like a normal Disney movie. And, of course, Criterion releases are priced at a premium price point - more than twice the price of other movies. All of these factors tend to keep Criterion discs out of mass market retailers like Target and Wal-Mart, where the majority of Disney product moves.

Well, that's how I'd do it. There is no perfect solution to the problem. As I said at the start, Song of the South is a film which demands an interpretive scheme - it demands that the viewer have a point of view. You cannot watch it passively. Even with a careful release and thoughtful roll out, those who want to view Walt Disney as a racist and The Walt Disney Company as an evil corporation will find plenty of ammunition in it. But what does it matter? They were going to take that position anyway. Meanwhile others who may have judged the film harshly based on reputation will be given a chance to re-evaluate their position and make up their own mind. It won't happen right away, but bit by bit the film can be pulled back into respectable company. Hey - it happened for TRON.

Disney's point of view is that the film doesn't exist. By keeping it out of sight they hope it will eventually just go away. It isn't going to work this way. Escape From Tomorrow was allowed to go out unchallenged because Disney correctly guessed that it wasn't a good enough film to be more than a passing novelty.

But Song of the South is a film they advertise to tens of thousands of people a day inside their parks. And what's more, most people who see it tend to like it. By failing to take a position, Disney is fleeing the problem like Br'er Rabbit hopping away from the briar patch. And, just like Uncle Remus said, any place they go will never be far enough away.

21 comments:

Jonathan said...

Epic article. It would be great if Disney could release the movie with an introduction by a trusted celebrity to soften the blow like they did with Leonard Maltin and the Treasures series. Maybe someone with a Disney connection like Whoopi Goldberg. Or Bill Cosby.

Pete said...

Another great essay but that's what I've come to expect from your site. I'm not sure if I agree, though, for the reasons behind Disney not releasing this on DVD - I think it's less a fear of offending mothers than it is Disney's genuflecting before the altar of political correctness. They've been known to make decisions based more on how they'll be perceived by the elites and likely this is the case here.

But, c'mon, Disney, we're adults here: we can handle viewing a movie as controversial as this one.

Leonard Bast said...

Thank you for an essay that helps answer a question I've had for some time, namely how can anyone be so stupid as to view "Song of the South" as anything but a cultural artifact from a specific time and place. I've never bought into the "political correctness" myth; it's simply too pat to satisfy me. Your solution, namely that Disney knows its core audience and responds accordingly, seems a better take on the situation. Alas, we adult film lovers, who (hopefully) do know something of culture and history, are not that core audience (though I was that audience once, since I saw the film with my mother and brother in the theater in 1972 when I was eight*). I agree that a more sophisticated packaging and marketing of the film to a niche audience solves the problem. The Disney Company also needs reminding that the monster you cannot see is always scarier than the one you can see.

*I should add that what I remembered of the film after I saw it in 1972 were the animated segments; the rest of it was of no interest at all, just something to sit through to get to the cartoons--children today are more sophisticated, but, still, that might be the case even now if the film were released for the general public.

Pecos Bill said...

As always, excellent post. It is always a good day when a new article is posted to your site. Thanks so much!

FoxxFur said...

Leonard, that's pretty much been my experience in showing the film to people. Everyone loves the animated sections and tolerates the rest basically because it's so boring. The conversation afterwards usually revolves around the inconsistency of the movie with relatively little said about the inappropriateness of the situation because the problems are self-evident and not as compelling as the rest. I've only ever had a conversation about the "un-PC" problems of the film with people who have never seen it.

Leonard Bast said...

Even though Disney kept the film out of view in the 1960s, in 1965 they released a deluxe, slipcased set of storybooks, "Wonderful Worlds of Walt Disney." The four volumes are "Stories from Other Lands," "Fantasyland," "Worlds of Nature," and "America." Each is represented by a character/symbol on the spine and front cover. And who should be the prominent symbol of America but good ol' Brer Rabbit himself! The Uncle Remus stories, of course, get a chapter in the book, which is basically a compilation of Disney Little Golden Book stories and artwork. I coveted a cousin's set of these books in the sixties and recently bought them on Ebay. Here is a link to Amazon, where someone has a set for sale, if you want to see them . . .

http://www.amazon.com/Wonderful-Worlds-Walt-Disney-Fantasyland/dp/0307230104

This seems like an early version of the Splash Mountain phenomenon, whereby Disney uses the characters and animated stories, but chooses to forget the film itself. (In other parts of the book, they present full stories of entire Disney live action films, including "Toby Tyler," "Davy Crockett," "Old Yeller," Tonka," "The Shaggy Dog," and the hilariously titled "The Flying Car," which is actually "The Absented-Minded Professor.")

daveyjones said...

indeed, the film was protested upon release. there is a famous photo of the paramount theater in oakland, california, showing it.

http://www.museumca.org/picturethis/pictures/song-south-protest

Andrew Wamboldt said...

I think your solution is definitely a smart one, but I always thought that, just maybe, the animated segments could potentially be released by themselves in some context - edited, of course. Uncle Remus wouldn't be able to be present, and Disney would also probably strongly consider re-dubbing the narration. Re-dubbing the Br'er's voices I feel might be crossing the line (who doesn't love James Baskett's fox?) but I can see that happening as well - recently, as a tie-in to the newest Pooh film, some very brief, edited segments of the 60's shorts were put online (and on some DVDs too, I'm pretty sure) with the voices redubbed by the modern voice cast, and John Cleese replacing Sebastian Cabot's narration. In the case of Pooh a lot of people agree that this was kind of a sacrilegious decision but if they're willing to do this to Pooh of all things, you never know, I guess.

The Tar Baby segment is another tricky one, but if they did decide to re-dub, they could potentially just call it a "dummy" or something else. If they REALLY wanted to, with today's technology, they could potentially recolor the Tar Baby, although I doubt they'd be willing to go to such efforts - so if this segment were to ever be publicly released it'd probably just start with the rabbit only half-stuck in the tar and proceed directly to the "don't fling me in the briar patch" business.

The only segment I can see getting the best treatment is the Laughing Place one, since narration and other potentially offensive material is scarce. There's also the benefit of having a lot of material from it already in the ride - the song, "there ain't nothing in here but bees!", etc.

Yet even with significant editing, it'd still be a risky move. Lots of people nowadays are still aware of the movie's notoriety and if they were ever to be released in any casual context, eyebrows would undoubtedly be raised. On the other hand, the characters are seen every day in the theme parks and a good number of people never even make the connection. The segments still hold up so well today, though, and remain the parts of the film that are the least-offensive by today's standards - and they're just good, fun stories for kids, too. As a dumb white guy I probably can't speak for how a black child would feel watching those segments by themselves but I'd like to think any kid would be entertained, enjoy the characters, and get something out of the lessons. I could see myself having given them repeated viewings as a kid if they were released by themselves. It's really rich material that really doesn't deserve to be hidden away, at least entirely.

butter said...

Why can't the tar baby be just that...

A baby made out of tar.

I don't see a human there...does anyone?

Cory Gross said...

Great analysis, and I agree with your reasons for why it's probably not being released. I think their not releasing it only exacerbates the urban mythology about it, but if they did release it, it would mostly be going into the hands of people who are really unprepared to view it. The only place where I think "political correctness" factors in is why some movies get a pass but Song of the South doesn't. "What Made the Red Man Red" is more disgustingly racist than the whole of Song of the South, but it gets a pass because Native Americans simply aren't a powerful enough political block, or a profitable enough demographic, to have to worry about offending.

My own sense of Song of the South is that it's really not racist per se. It's not nearly as racist as that one sequence in Peter Pan, nor like a great many other movies of the time. It's definitely not intentionally controversial or grossly negligent like a Birth of the Nation. It does rely on certain tropes, but those are easily seen in other films that are readily available (like Gone with the Wind). The real issue is that it is so darned inoffensive. It presents a difficult time in American history like a Disney movie, with everyone happy and singing. It's expressly not dealing with that elephant in the room, and not dealing with it is offensive. But then, there may not be a way of presenting a movie with implicit racial issues in America in a way that would satisfy anyone, especially when race riots are a fortnightly thing down there.

As a film, I think it's alright. It probably would be fairly obscure if it hadn't been banned. It's entertaining enough, neither Disney's best nor worst. It's too bad that Walt Disney Treasures didn't persist long enough to see it released under that banner.

Tim Pat McRaven said...

I've always been offended at how stiff the white people are in this film.

Michael Eastman said...

The film is clearly set in the 1880's-1890's with the costuming and the treatment of the characters. Remus works and lives alongside other poor farmers who happen to be white. The movie is a little dull in the live actions segments, but that's the greater crime than racism. It's the story of a rich white boy who is bullied by poor white boys. An older black gentleman comes to his aid and tells him folksy tales to give him lessons. Then, when the white parents are jerks, he leaves. He doesn't escape, he doesn't flee into the night. He just up and leaves.

This is a film with white antagonists (who I don't even see brought up in the article) and positive black characters. I remember seeing this film in high school and the only part which threw me for a second was the extremely ethnic voices for the animated characters. But that's just because we nowadays associate anyone portraying a black character speaking that was as racist. Is every character who shucks and jives racist or is it allowed to be an actual character choice for a character that might speak in that fashion? I mean, it's not like it's Mickey Rooney doing an incredibly broad Chinese accent right?

Griffin Calhoun said...

Man, what's does it say about the 1980's that Song Of the South was re-released without nay controversy?

attmay said...

On this point I am unabashedly 100% pro-Korkis——you should have mentioned his books' foreward by Floyd Norman——and I'm actually far, far more offended by Mary Poppins than anything in Song of the South; from Dick Van Dyke's gratingly bad Mockney and his creepy and continuing crush on a woman who obviously shows no interest and points that out multiple times, to Glynis Johns' casual misandry (there's nothing feminist about saying "although we adore men individually, we think as a group they're rather stupid." Does that include gay men, such as, gee, I don't know, Tommy Kirk?) and her abandonment of the cause at the end of the picture, to the title character's casual cruelty (and Walt's attempts to tone it down did not help when he made Mr. Banks a jerk in a way he was not in the books). And as for Admiral Boom shooting at what he believes to be "Hottentots," that basically makes "Step in Time" a stealth blackface number. In 1964. When civil rights activists were facing police dog and fire hose attacks...or worse. The song was bad enough in and of itself, but combine it with the imagery and you've lost me forever. Or you would have if you hadn't already lost me when the title character threatened to call the police on Michael Banks for the heinous crime of not being sleepy. And then they lost me again when she said "Sometimes a person we love, through no fault of his own, can't see past the end of his nose." You mean like David Tomlinson's autistic son? Not cool, Walt. Not cool. And "A Spoonful of Sugar" is one of the most poorly chosen metaphors of all-time when you consider how much sugar they put in our food these days. I don't consider it excellent or sophisticated, just saccharine and manipulative, and the most overrated film Walt ever made. I blame the source material; I found the books unreadable as well, and Helen Lyndon Goff was about as qualified to give parental advice as Joan Crawford was! But its popularity and Oscars should not shield it from criticism. Bedknobs and Broomsticks mops the floor with it, both on the page and on the screen, and so does Song of the South. In fact, so does every other Disney live-action/animation hybrid. Every single one. And the way the studio has treated some of them——both then and now——is nothing short of criminal.

But back to Song of the South as for Johnny, the reason he seeks out Uncle Remus is that he got beaten up for wearing a lace shirt collar. Uncle Remus is teaching him how to fend for himself. And the "you can't run from trouble" line is why Uncle Remus changes his mind about leaving; it is because Miss Sally fears the influence of Remus' stories on the young, impressionable Johnny's mind. Unlike some, I never found the live-action segments dull at all. And unlike GWTW——a film I am also tired of seeing vilified when Scarlett O'Hara stands up to the stifling female roles of the antebellum and postbellum eras——the sharecroppers have personal lives; the scene where Uncle Remus visits Aunt Tempy as she's making pie was put in for that reason. And the reprise of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" at the end didn't represent the South of 1866 or the South of 1946. That wasn't the point. It was a call for racial unity so that someday the South would be like that: people and animals of all colors singing together and living in harmony.

Even if you were offended by the images in the film, there are far, far worse Disney films with far, far more demeaning depictions of people of color. The difference between those films and Song of the South is that you don't have to violate federal law to watch them.

Song of the South needs to be released on video and kept available in perpetuity. I'm tired of the studio's excuses for keeping it out of circulation because none of them hold water. Don't like it, don't watch it. Just like I do with movies I don't like.

Leonard Bast said...

Again, I am impressed with Foxxfur's thoughtful analysis of the problem, especially when the topic so frequently elicits lengthy and emotional rants, all too often dependent on false equivalencies and thinly-veiled racism. Just to continue with the actual content of the blog post, what we see with this situation is essentially a manifestation of Disney's perennial "audience problem," something that dogged Walt throughout his career. Did he make films for children? (He said he didn't.) Did he make films that pleased cultural elites? (In the thirties he did; in the fifties he didn't) Do the parks target people who appreciate the architectural transition between Main Street and Adventurland or are they intended for people who just want rides and a fun time for their kids? (Both) Is Disney high-brow, low-brow, or middle-brow? (Hmmmmm) Who is the audience for contemporary Disney film releases? Who is the audience for Disney's historical body of work?

Foxxfur's solution is a good one: Release a "high-brow" edition of the film, package it and market it in such a way that it is clear to the casual shopper that it is not a typical "cartoon movie" for kids. Include plenty of commentary and special features that deal with the historical context and that address the racial stereotyping head on in an intelligent, semi-scholarly way. This also deals effectively with the fact that (minus the animation and "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah") it really isn't a very good film (I've seen it in the theater in 1972 and online since). The target audience wouldn't be expecting a great film or one that would entertain the kids, but could watch it for the significant cultural artifact that it is. This gives high-brow viewers what they want and protects middle-brow viewers from accidentally seeing what they don't want. The only people left out are the potential low-brow viewers. But, oh well, perhaps they can get a copy, ignore the commentary and the special features, and watch it for whatever retrograde reasons they may have.

attmay said...

Unfortunately, Disney can't even be bothered to include extras for films they do see fit to release. The DMC Blu-rays of Pollyanna and Old Yeller remove every single solitary extra from the wonderful Vault Disney sets. It seems they're out of the collector-pleasing business for the time being.

I would like to see a Disney Family Foundation documentary that covers not only the movie, but Joel Chandler Harris and the real-life inspiration for Uncle Remus. If done right, that could be a good way of testing the waters.

In the meantime, you all need to read Douglas Brode's two books about Walt Disney's films: From Walt to Woodstock and Multiculturalism and the Mouse. They pretty much put the screws to the myth of Walt as a prejudiced reactionary, and Brode points out some socially progressive moments in many live-action and animated films, Song of the South included.

Drive Thru Wench, CPhT said...

I'm old enough to have seen the 1986 revival (granted, I was six) and many times on the Disney Channel in the 80s. It never occurred to me that this was supposed to be offensive- my parents even bought me the novelization so obviously they weren't either. Maybe if my parents were more militant-instead, they raised us colorblind to the point that I thought racism only existed in the 60s and then civil rights and now we all love each other!
Just my perspective, from being black-all my life!- and having actually seen Song of the South.

California Native said...

If we switch perspectives to books, and not movies, which reveal more clearly the intent of how to judge the authors stance on slavery, we can again see a distinct "Gone with the Wind" correlation. While "Gone with the Wind" uses many offensive and historically accurate racial slurs and thoughts of the Planter's South, it also paints a very unbecoming picture with their dialog and attitudes that shows the slave owners as ignorant and unequipped for survival on their own. The idea of slaves building, progressing and maintaining an industry that their owners only cash in on is deeply rooted in the "Gone with the Wind" text. Similarly, if Uncle Remus was indeed their slave (most certainly he was) he is given the respect of the Plantation owners as being both wise with his parables and his ripe age. While it is regrettable for us that he was a slave, this is a fact of the time period.

Disney, like many others, saw both the beauty in the antebellum South and the sad history which our country must always bare of both slavery and civil war. On the heels of "Gone with the Wind", one of the most popular books and movies of all time, I feel must have inspired Disney to create his own story of this time. The mode they chose to tell this story respectfully highlights the intelligence of the slaves and the dependance that the Plantation owners had on them. Disney also shares the spirit of song that came from slaves. The songs are exuberant and catchy (the reason such a dicey movie from long pass was made into a ride according to Imagineers). The editing of the dialog to not specifically label people as slaves and owners and the focus on a black actor as a main character, was ahead of it's time. Like all of the whisperings of "The Princess and the Frog" as being both too late in making a black princess and still unaccepted by some of our Confederate hangers on, must have made a stir when it was released. I encourage anyone with ill feelings towards this film to speak to someone of any race that is currently in their 80's about this movie. You will assuredly gain an even broader prospective of the people this movie was made for. Banned or "in the Vault" is for the future to decide. I am not sure we are ready to love this movie for what it is yet.

Michael Harrington said...

"So, if Disney is even going to think about a release of Song of the South, they have to find a way of releasing it in such a way that nerds can find it but casual Disney consumers cannot."

In addition to your ideas for selling "Song of the South" by way of D23, Disney Movie Rewards, a direct digital download with a click-through acknowledgement and an attached video disclaimer, and a DVD boutique, I would like to provide one more idea: sell the movie at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, for a none-too-cheap price (say about $45-$50).

Steve the Pocket said...

Hang on. That thing you said about Dumbo. Do you mean that the crows originally had additional scenes before the part where Dumbo wakes up in a tree? Or that some releases edited their part down even further somehow? Because if it's the first one, I'd like to know more! I've never heard about any such thing, and there's no mention of it on Wikipedia.

FoxxFur said...

Steve;

According to several restoration-oriented people I've spoken to, at some point Disney did make trims to Dumbo to remove the additional crow scenes. It's been so long now that few remember this. Pinocchio was also subject to slight trims at some point.