As the War came to an end, Walt Disney realized that he needed to find a way to raise money for his movies or, at the least, make films more profitably. One idea he chose to employwas to make more live action film.
He’d had some modest success with The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos by combining live action and animation.
Disney also thought of going to the stories of Joel Chandler Harris. By making the story of the humans in live action and the stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear in animation, as told by Uncle Remus who would star in the significant part of the story told in live action. Thus he could easily work as the voice over narrator for the animation.
The film went into production in 1945 and pulled Disney down a harsh and difficult path.
Now, some 70 years later, studio head, Robert Iger, has vowed numerous times to keep Song of the South (the film’s title) on a shelf in the Disney vault, which is where it remains.
Disney historian, Jim Korkis, has written a series of excellent essays which act as chapter in a new book about the making and unmaking of this film. In his book, Who’s Afraid of Song of the South, a great weight of information completely informs us about this movie while being written in a positive and gentle approach.
Were the film as bad as Iger and other Disney executives want us to believe, here would still be a good reason for this book’s existence. Perhaps, though, it might have been a larger and more colorful tome.
The live action, representing about 60% of the film is not well conceived. It is terribly out of date and not well directed. Most importantly, the film is not well written. It’s somewhat confusing as to when the story takes place (pre- or post-Civil War?) What are the father’s resources, who owns the plantation where they’re living and where is the story trying to take us.
The acting by James Baskett as Uncle Remus is superb and wholly deserving of the Special Oscar he received. Child actor, Bobby Driscoll, is also fine, but many of the other performances are bland and not very noteworthy. The film is horribly dated. The Disney people sought the finest cinematographer they could get, and they did find him in Gregg Toland. He was the brilliant photographer of Citizen Kane and How Green Was My Valley. However, Song of the South was his first color film, and that was an enormous leap to make at the time. Toland had good reason to want to do the movie, but the film feels like Gone With the Wind – lite and helps to make it feel dated.
However bad the live action was, the animation was the polar opposite. The stories are told very economically with lots of excitement and life in the storytelling. All those who worked on it spoke openly about how much fun they had in doing it. Those results showed up on the screen. The characters are delightful and beautifully developed. This was certainly the spark everyone in the animation department needed as they came off years of toiling away at dry, training films for the military.
While the live action dates the material and plops it in a marginally racist context, the opposite is true of the combustible animation.
The Disney studio has hidden the DVD of this movie from the General Public. There are illegal copies of film circulating the Internet, but the quality could never be as good as a studio sanctioned copy of the movie. It’s truly unfortunate, for the sake of that great animation, that the film is inaccessible.
Korkis’ book is a very quick read and he seems to cover the story well. One would have liked a richer book with glossy images, especially of the beautifully designed Mary Blair animation.One wishes that there were lots of stills of the great Bill Peet storyboard or those great animation drawings by the Nine Masters who were truly in their prime. But we have what we have, and we’re thankful for that.
If you have any interest in this film you will have to get your hands on a copy. The last half of the book if filled with some essays about other, lesser films. Some of th essays are truly excellent and feel hidden in the back of this book. One, for example, about a commercial producing studio Walt had on the lot. Learning that Walt’s daughter, Sharon, worked as an assistant to his sister-in-law’s sister, who ran the company, would seem to be a key piece of information. But when you start to learn who Walt used to do the animation work (Tom Oreb designing for Charles Nichols directing with Phil Duncan, Amby Paliwoda, Volus Jones and Bill Justice all were among those animating. There’s even the story of Bill Peet being punished by Walt and made to work on a Peter Pan peanut butter campaign.) This is an excellent piece. As is the story behind The Sweatbox, the feature documentary that was hidden by the Disney studio about the adventures in the making of the Emperor’s New Groove. Lots to read here.
All in all, this book is an excellent bargain.
All of these illustrations were done by Mary Blair for the film.
They’re not part of Jim Korkis’ book.On Thursday I’ll repost Bill Peet’s storyboard for The Tar baby.