18 November 2010

DISNEY SUNDRIES: PRETTY GOOD, SURE AS YOU'RE BORN

My deepest thanks to reader Andre Virul for providing me with a copy of this film.

Writing about Song of the South is incredibly tricky, because every fiber in my being wants to treat it as one thing, a technologically innovative film and one of the key steps in the development of the Walt Disney Company in the post-World War II years, while my conscience and brain won't let me get away without treating it as another thing. And that other thing (in case you are somehow unaware of the controversy surrounding what may very well be the most notorious mainstream American movie ever), is the only film which Disney has maintained, as official corporate policy, shall never be released on any home video format, nor ever again seen in theaters following a 1986 "40th Anniversary" re-release, on the grounds that it is racially insensitive.

Obviously, I have to address that fact: not to do so would be the most irresponsible thing I've ever done. But how to do it? Start off the review by delving right into it, and I feel like I'm caving in to the controversy, which galls me (for this feeds the conventional wisdom that the controversy is the only thing worth discussion; whereas it is in fact quite a very good movie qua movies), while putting it off till the end makes me feel like I'm trying to ignore the issue, and would also give the review the feeling of a thriller: you know it's coming, so you can't stop thinking about it, and then all the words I so carefully lay down discussing the minutiae of the film's process shots would be ignored in the tension of OH MY GOD WHEN IS HE GETTING TO THE RACISM ALREADY?

So here's what I'm going to do: first, just explain what the damn thing is, and then, once there's plenty of narrative context, dive into the controversy. By the way, it's a racist film, so let's not sit around on tenterhooks waiting for that verdict. And once that is done, and my conscience is clear, I can talk about things that are actually important, like the fact that this was the first movie Gregg Toland shot in Technicolor (though the second released).

In Georgia, in an indeterminate time period shortly before or after the Civil War, a family is returning home. Little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll, in his first of many projects as Disney's go-to young actor) is a little excited and a little dubious at the whole thing, but he doesn't know the half of it: his father, John (Erik Rolf), the editor of a controversial paper in Atlanta, is just driving out to deposit his son and his wife Sally (Ruth Warrick) at the plantation owned Sally's mother, Miss Doshy (Lucile Watson), and is presently going to return to his work (the implication, rather murkily expressed, is that John and Sally are having marital problems). Miserable at the thought of being trapped in this strange place without his father, Johnny makes ready to run away that night, with only a small bag of supplies, when he is waylaid by the sounds of singing. Wandering over to investigate, he discovers the plantation's African-American workers sitting around a campfire, praising the stories of a certain Uncle Remus, a mythical sort whose stories also featured prominently in John Sr's reminiscences about the plantation.

In hardly any time at all, Johnny bumps into Remus (James Baskett) himself, a pleasant old gentleman with a sparkling eye and a bushy white beard. Observing Johnny's intentions, Remus offers to travel to Atlanta with the boy, idly mentioning that the situation reminds him of a misadventure that, years ago, happened to one Br'er Rabbit, a critter of Remus's acquaintance (for this was back in the days, Remus explains, when animals and humans would talk to each other). Johnny naturally wants to hear the story, and its moral - "You can't run away from trouble - ain't no place that far" has the intended effect: he returns home.

Over the next few days and weeks, Johnny grows extremely close to Remus, closer than to anyone else on the plantation. Indeed, his only friends are Toby (Glenn Leedy), a young African-American boy, and Ginny Favers (Luana Patten, like Driscoll making her first Disney appearance), the youngest child of a white trash family in the neighborhood, whose brothers Jake (George Nokes) and Joe (Gene Holland), who take to bullying Johnny with relish after he rescues a mongrel puppy they were planning to drown. Throughout, Remus tells Johnny stories of Br'er Rabbit and his nemeses, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, that equip the boy with the wisdom to survive his unhappy lot, though Sally is increasingly annoyed at her son's dependence on these fantasies, and eventually requests that Remus stop seeing him. This devastates both the old man and the boy; and as Remus prepares to leave his old home, Johnny runs after him, straight through a bull pen, and is promptly gored by the bull. On his sickbed, Remus brings him back to the waking world with one last Br'er Rabbit tale, as John Sr. returns and all is promised to be back to normal.

The first, greatest popular misconception of Song of the South is that it's a film about slavery. In fact, all the evidence we can gather (and it is not very much), strongly suggests that Remus is a sharecropper, and the film takes place during the Reconstruction. He plainly lives in his own home, and is not specifically under the control of either Miss Doshy or Sally. This is not, mind you, anything like a defense of the film's racial depictions; it's merely replacing the charge "it whitewashes slavery" with "it whitewashes the de facto slavery of the post-War era", which may even be more problematic; while a work of art that puts a happy face on slavery is patently obnoxious to anyone with a brain, a work of art that puts the same happy face on the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction state of African-Americans in the south reinforces the idea that the Emancipation Proclamation made everything great for the newly freed slaves, a most unsophisticated reading of 19th Century history that nevertheless has some traction among those who weren't paying attention in high school.

(Not to mention that if this is the Reconstruction - there is no year given, and allegedly Walt Disney himself resisted putting a date on the film, though urged to do so by people foreseeing this exact problem - it is a most cheerful and improbable vision, starting with its dubious proposition that a plantation could be maintained in such pristine condition, and still owned by the family that owned it in the antebellum period).

Thus: the film presents a vision of an ex-slave in relationship to (presumably) his former owners that suggests he is so delighted by them that he treats them with deference and courtesy. A notion not entirely without historical merit, though I should hope that I don't need to explain why it is offensive.

Moving beyond that, to the character of Uncle Remus himself: bar none, the commonest defense made by viewers who would like to make Song of the South an un-racist if not an anti-racist film, is that Remus is the only character presented throughout as wise, correct, and worthy of the audience's respect. This is true, and not as such things go a terrible defense, either. Bear in mind that this was 1946: truly positive depictions of African-Americans were thin on the ground, and the film's treatment of Remus as an intelligent, thoughtful man is better by far than any number of shiftless, lazy oafs or dense comic figures. Certainly Walt Disney was of the opinion that he was making something progressive and important: he took great pains to make sure that the film was not outright Dixie propaganda, hiring firebrand leftist Maurice Rapf - a card-carrying Communist who co-founded the WGA - to massage the racism out of the script treatment by Southern gentleman Dalton Reymond (and doubtlessly, to have a shield in place if and when the shit hit the fan). He also pushed hard for Baskett to receive an honorary Oscar for his performance, only the second African-American to receive any sort of recognition by the Academy, after Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind.

All well and good; but there remains the distinct fact that Remus is a crystal-clear version of a type that would become so unpleasantly prominent that it has a slangy name: the "Super-Duper Magical Negro", in Spike Lee's terminology. His function in the drama is solely to make Johnny feel better about the world; he is willing to give up the only home he has ever loved, with a great deal of regret - "I was goin' to whitewash de walls" he notes mournfully, as he readies to leave - solely because the white Sally asks him to.

That the film so intently does not use racial language whatsoever - great pains, conspicuous pains, even distracting pains, are taken to make us understand that Sally's objection to Remus is absolutely and entirely a result of her hatred of fantasy, not the fact that he's black, and you can just tell how relieved the writers were that they could make the villains a pair of nasty-minded white trash boys - merely underscores how ingrained the filmmakers' racism is: everyone undoubtedly felt very proud at making such an ennobling picture, without any remote sense that they had in fact made their noble protagonist as dignified as a performing animal. It's a dynamic that still gets made even today, and that leads me to the real burning question of Song of the South's status as a racist movie; and if I have taken such great pains to confirm that a movie widely held to be racist is indeed racist, it's because I don't want my answer to that question to be misunderstood as a defense of the film's indefensible representations.

Does it deserve to be banned?

The short answer is, "No, obviously not, because no film should be banned for any reason, unless perhaps that reason is because the act of its production broke a law, such as child pornography or snuff films". Okay, not that short, but you get my point: I'm a freedom of speech absolutist, and I'd defend a movie more offensive than Song of the South, and with less artistic merit to counterbalance that offensiveness, sheerly on the merits that censorship is wicked, even self-censorship; and the claim that Disney is self-censoring is a dodge anyway. The people who could legitimately "self-censor" Song of the South are all long dead. What Disney is doing is more like someone burning his grandfather's racist essays because he doesn't want the family name besmirched.

And that brings me to the long answer. Obviously, Disney the corporation isn't actually concerned about the morality of releasing a racist film, not considering some of the things they have released. There are gags scattered in this film and that: Dopey wears a cymbal like a coolie hat in Snow White in the Seven Dwarfs; the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp sing the most godawfully condescending Engrish song you ever got stuck in your head, and of course, dere's-a Tony and Joe, who own-a da pasta shop; Saludos Amigos seems positively goggle-eyed at the fact that South Americans have, get this, a civilization; and I can bring it all the way down to Aladdin and Mulan and The Princess and the Frog if you want me to. The most special case is probably the stone-cold classic Peter Pan, with its glorious tribute to the most tasteless caricatures of Native Americans I have ever seen, the song "What Makes the Red Man Red?" Not one damn thing in Song of the South comes within shouting distance of that travesty of decency, which couldn't even be quietly snipped from the movie, like Sunflower the black centaurette in Fantasia, without leaving behind it a wrecked, incoherent narrative.

But there is no group for Native Americans as powerful and influential as the NAACP; and it is thus Peter Pan's good luck and Song of the South's bad luck that only the latter ran afoul of identity politics.

Disney's ban is thus hypocrisy, plain and simple. Even that doesn't necessarily answer the question of whether Song of the South is so crudely reductive that it deserves the scorn it has received, and to this I also say, no, not really.

It was 1945 that the film was shot and 1946 that it was released. It was a massively different cultural context, and that context must be observed and understood in regards to Song of the South or any other movie with troubling racial representations. For this is hardly the only racist movie of its time period. Right off the top of my head, I can name any number of movies that are regarded as masterpieces or at least solid classics that have race problems. 1940's His Girl Friday cynically describes a corrupt politician as pandering to "the colored vote", a phrase uttered with indifferent contempt. 1941's Citizen Kane includes a wildly random and unnecessary insert shot of a grinning, sweaty, African-American band leader. 1948's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House features Louise Beavers as a grinning housemaid, a Mammy in all but name. Of course, Song of the South has more prominent issues than any of these, but at that point we're talking matters of degree.

The most obvious point of comparison, though, is undoubtedly Gone with the Wind, which shares with Song of the South a setting and an actress (Hattie McDaniel all but replays her iconic role), and is, for my money, significantly more racist. There are no Queenies in Song of the South to screech about how they don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies. There is no African-American figure in GWTW whom the film respects as much as SOTS respects Remus. And anyone who tried to argue that the good of the nation rested on suppressing GWTW would be laughed out of the room.

We can even take things well into the modern day: I for one didn't find the Remus/Johnny relationship to be any more objectionable than the odious Oscar-winner Driving Miss Daisy, from 1989. And there are still Magical Negroes right here in the present day, sadly; if anything, we should be far more ashamed of them than Disney's Remus, given the advances we have theoretically made both culturally and politically since the 1940s. And yet it is Song of the South - uniquely Song of the South, out of all the lousy, racist movies made over the course of a century - that is the center of such a firestorm of controversy; only Song of the South, of all the films of its prominence, that is flat-out denied a place in history by the people who own the rights.

There is one monolithic objection to all of this: but think of the children! Driving Miss Daisy and Citizen Kane and The Green Mile and The Birth of a Nation and all those things are, yes, very problematic, but they're for an adult audience, and the adults watching them will know how to deal with those problems. While Song of the South is a cartoon for kids and they will be forever poisoned by its iniquities.

To which I can only reply (because I am a smug dick):

And anyway, though I would dearly love to live in a world where first graders are enraptured by 60+ year old movies, we don't. Children's entertainment has changed much too far for a movie as free of incident and slow-moving as Song of the South to grab their attention, I fear. If Disney released the film tomorrow, I suspect the buying population would look something like this: 60% hardcore Disney buffs, 25% people who just want to see what the big damn deal is, and 15% parents noticing the rabbit on the cover and the word Disney, and are only marginally disappointed when their children use the chapter select button to only ever watch the three animated sequences. Meanwhile, people who care about film history are stuck missing a fine little motion picture that has a fair number of problems, and a central thematic conflict that would be essentially copied and incomparably improved 18 years later in the same studio's Mary Poppins, but remains nonetheless one of the more engaging Disney films of the post-WWII era, and easily the most ambitious thing the studio produced between Bambi and Cinderella, at least.

When the film was new, and this may sound bizarre, it was heavily hyped as Walt Disney's first live-action movie, as though live-action movies were some rare beast and Disney's animations were draggy, boring affairs. Which, come to think of it, they were a little bit, in 1946. At any rate, Song of the South cannot lay claim to being the first hybridization of live-action and animation - that had been an old trick thirty years earlier - nor was it the first "modern" (by 1946 standards) Disney movie to do so - The Three Caballeros beat it by two years, introducing Ub Iwerks's revolutionary new technology for blending animated and filmed footage. The difference is that The Three Caballeros was a primarily-animated film with a smattering of live-action at the end, and there was no real interaction to speak of between the actors and the cartoons. Song of the South would raise the stakes considerably, showing a human actor reacting to animated figures, touching them, and fully interacting with their environment.

The effects are not always seamless.

Mr. Bluebird rather looks like he's sort of "atop" Remus, rather than sitting on his shoulder, and I'm not exactly certain what Remus is looking at - something behind those hummingbirds, I gather. But it no doubt blew audiences away in '46, to the tune of being Disney's highest grossing new-release film in a damn large span. Besides, sometimes it does work, unexpectedly well:

The animated sequences correspond to the three stories Remus tells Johnny, and as a point in fact, the live-action and animated interaction accounts for a very small amount of those three sequences: with 25 minutes of animated footage in the film overall, only about five feature this difficult, costly and uncertain effect. Of course, a portion of that is the "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" number, a lively earworm of a song (by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert) that was then and remains the movie's chief claim to fame, and is one of the more satisfying winners of the Best Song Oscar in that dreadful category's spotty career (it's the best of a good soundtrack, although only one other song, "How Do You Do" by Robert MacGimsey, is nearly as catchy). So the filmmakers could have it both ways: if the hybrid effect didn't work, it was hardly in enough of the film to matter; if it did work, it was the centerpiece of the film's most instantly-classic sequence.

Best of all is the final scene, in which animated characters come out into the real world: a virtually flawless marriage in which lighting effects and animation merge beautiful into real sets. There are even perfect reaction shots from a live-action dog.

As for the remainder of the animation, it is largely typical of the Disney studio in those days: obviously a bit rushed (detail is quite limited), but the characters are far more appealing than in most of the package films of the same era: Br'er Rabbit (voiced by Johnny Lee) is a delightful hero, combining the slapstick of a Daffy Duck with the sly intelligence and expressiveness of a Bugs Bunny (that both characters are part of the "trickster rabbit" tradition is undoubtedly no coincidence). The villains, Br'er Fox (Baskett himself) and Br'er Bear (Nick Stewart), are a good deal broader and more comic; Br'er Fox shares certain distinctive element with the Wolf from the same year's Make Mine Music, but played towards the vaudeville end of things rather than for menace.


The three cartoons are as good as anything else Disney put out in that period - I prefer the second the best, in which Br'er Rabbit uses reverse psychology to trick Br'er Fox into throwing him right home - reflecting the timeless quality of the stories themselves, the reason Walt was drawn to the material in the first place. The Remus stories, though collated by a willfully stupid white Southerner, Joel Chandler Harris (who argued that Harriet Beecher Stowe was paying a backhanded tribute to slavery with Uncle Tom's Cabin), were drawn from an oral tradition blending African and Cherokee folklore; the stories have been hardly Disneyfied at all, and as such retain the simple elegance of folk stories. Though the film ends up being less of a tribute to the Remus character and the stories than seems to have been the intent - it's a childhood chamber drama punctuated by comic interludes - the stories are probably the best and most pleasing part of the whole film.

For to be honest, the central drama of Song of the South is only intermittently successful, and not only because any rational modern viewer will be seriously put off by the jolly racial ignorance of it all. For while it enjoys a remarkable, razor-sharp performance by Baskett as Remus (whose work is another reason the movie desperately deserves to be dragged out of the vault), unnervingly sensitive and full of the very tiniest flashes of mirth, concern, and worn-out wisdom, Remus is not the protagonist, nor is he even as present as Mary Poppins in her version of the same tale. The protagonist is little Johnny, played by Bobby Driscoll without much distinction at all, and that is my attempt to be polite. In fact, it would be far more accurate to say that the distinguishing factor of Driscoll's performance is the face he makes when Johnny is upset - something that happens with alarming frequency - which looks sort of like the boy is attempting to pass a kidney stone.

He also looks like a girl, but we should not hold this overmuch against him.

It helps not at all that for his first live-action extravaganza, Walt Disney hired a nobody to direct named Harve Foster, whose ability to control his child actors was basically nil, and whose work with the adults it helped out immensely by the fact that, besides Baskett, the cast included three excellent character actors in the form of Warrick, McDaniel, and Watson, who needed very little help in shaping their characters to be more than the sum of the writing (something McDaniel did, out of necessity, in every role she ever played). It's rather easy to assume that Foster had no particular visual sense, either; and he had the good sense to stay out of Gregg Toland's way, so that Song of the South looks far more credible than it has any right to.

It is, naturally, almost impossible to fairly judge Toland's work from the shabby bootlegs that are, at present, the only way to watch the film (and not to beat a dead horse, but if this were the most heinously immoral film ever made, that would still be reason enough for me, at least, to demand a proper release). But it seems clear enough from the available evidence that he adapted to Technicolor essentially by refusing to adapt: the film is shockingly dark for a full-color musical of the mid-'40s, and it's a wonder that as relentless a crowd-pleaser as Walt Disney allowed even a genius like Toland to get away with so much showy chiaroscuro. But it's too the film's benefit: the dark settings lend the film a hushed tone, in which the campfire-story quality of Remus's tales is given the best possible chance to breath and thrive.

It's also thanks to Toland's immaculate control of lighting that the film enjoys its most thrilling effect, a transition from the gloomy night of Remus's cabin to the gaudy color of the cartoon world where his first story takes place. The following three frames are taken from a single long take:



That is movie magic which has lost none of its ability to thrill and amaze despite all the CGI wizardry that today's filmmakers have at their fingertips.

And if Song of the South isn't really a lost masterpiece, it's still got that going for it: a healthy does of wonder, captured by craftsman boldly pushing their art to the limits available at the time. It remains a touching spectacle, crusted over with a nasty surface of dismal representation, but its heart is in the right place, however stupidly ignorant and naïve that heart might be.

A last note: I did not, you may have observed, argue that the film deserves resurrection out of some homily about needing to understand the racism of past to avoid repeating it, because I think that's all it is - a homily (newsflash: America is still a racially-divided country). But if we're going to let that sort of thing be a criteria for saving films or not, there are going to be a hell of a lot of babies going out with the bathwater. And even a baby as ungainly as Song of the South is still too beautiful in its way to be left an orphan.

10 comments:

Cameron said...

it should be noted that the next time i'm in town (read: june), i will force you to watch this with me, as you are the only person i know who has a copy and i want to see the thing for myself.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

As far as I'm concerned, there are two good things about this movie:

1. James Baskett, obviously; and

2. Br'er Fox (also Baskett!), all fangs and twitchiness; he's truly unnerving, and he strikes me as the closest thing to a meth fiend you're going to find in a Disney movie.

Otherwise, though, man alive--the script is just amateur-hour all the way, and the other characters leave essentially no impression. Also, I'm thinking they didn't mean for the inept bull-goring scene to be quite so hilarious as it is.

As far as the racism goes, it's quite true that it's in a different category altogether from the don't-give-a-fuck variety in "What Makes the Red Man Red?" and friggin' "Happy-Hearted Roustabouts" from Dumbo--nobody MEANT to be less than sensitive, but damn--I know it's historically realistic, but I have to say, the fact that Toby doesn't get invited to the birthday party--that the possibility apparently never even *occurs* to anyone--actually made me ANGRY. If this omission was intended as social commentary, then well-done, I suppose, but it sure seems to me like it just seemed entirely unproblematic to everyone involved. Bah, I say! I want a sequel called Revenge of the Bull, where all the white people get gored to death.

Brigdh said...

This is a really fantastic review. I'm so glad you got hold of a copy; I very much enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

MrRoivas said...

Yeah, the thing that gets me is that Gone with the Wind is much more racist and apologetic for the Confederacy than this movie is at its worst moments. "I don't nothing 'bout birthing no babies," indeed. Yet Gone with the Wind is considered a classic, and this an old shame.

Meg said...

I agree that it's a shame that Song of the South has effectively been banned in the United States, because even if it had no other merits (and it does have some good songs, not to mention its technical value, as you mentioned), but is valuable socially because it shows us a trope that still gets used, with frequency, in 2010. I think that it takes getting smacked in the face by something so blatantly racially problematic as Song of the South for privileged folk to realize that these sorts of portrayals are still being done to this day.

I at least feel like I can admit to you that I enjoyed watching Song of the South. Sure, it's racially problematic as hell, but it still has some entertainment value. So does Gone With the Wind, after all. After riding Splash Mountain in Disney World, a bunch of my high school friends hunted down a copy on eBay from Thailand and made a night out of watching the movie. The viewing caused so much nervous laughter it just might be a record.

Sales on Film said...

I was lucky enough to get to watch this as an undergrad in a class about film adaptations. The movie is surprisingly close to its folk tale source. I was also fairly shocked I liked it as much as I did; I found the film downright delightful.

I remember when I was a kid we had these 'best of' Disney VHS tapes with clips of movies and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" was included in one of them, along with better known songs from The Jungle Book and The Arisocats. I've always thought it was odd how Disney seemed so proud of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" while disavowing Song of the South. Splash Mountain is one of the most popular attractions at Disneyland and yet most people have no idea what it's based on, let alone that the movie starred a black man. I mean, talk about white-washing your history. There are cute, animatronic hillbilly animals all over that ride but not a single African-American in sight.

I wish Disney just had the balls to come out and admit the film is racist, put it in its historical (and filmic) contexts and just release the damn thing already.

Rick said...

Is it strange that I can easily get a copy of Triumph of the Will or Birth of a Nation OR Breakfast at Tiffany's (with that AWFUL Mickey Rooney as a Japanese bit) but Song of the South is forbidden?

I'd like to include my own selection for "classic with a bit of racism" film: Holiday Inn. EVERYONE remembers "White Christmas", but NO ONE remembers a frightful number called "Abraham", right down to Bing Crosby in Blackface. If that weren't enough, we're treated to a line about how Lincoln "set the darky free". I was horrified the first time I saw it...and had no warning about what I was about to encounter. Still, we're told how Holiday Inn is this beautiful film while Song of the South borders on obscene.

I agree w/Tim--I oppose censorship and would like Song of the South to be available openly. Parents should be the first censor, and frankly, if parents have no problem taking their children to see Pan's Labyrinth, I fail to understand why Song of the South would cause such an uprorar.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Any parent who's okay with taking little kids to see Pan's Labyrinth is gonna wind up with some fucked-up kids.

Benjamin said...

Ha! The second time I saw Pan's Labyrinth in theaters some fool couple brought their eight year-old, under the idea that an adult fairy tale would be fine for the kid. I considered warning them of what was in store, but I instead decided they needed to learn the meaning of an R rating.

As soon as the shepherd's wine bottle came out, the kid's blanket went up. The poor boy spent the last half hour of the movie behind that blanket.

Trish said...

Oh good lord, Rick. Thank you for bringing up that "Holiday Inn" number (which I likewise have never seen or heard anyone raise a peep over). To this day, I still find little splatters of brain tissue on the walls and ceilings from the first time I saw that.

Tim, this series is magnificent! Thank you so much for sharing.