Saturday, July 6, 2013

Song of the South


Here’s something that hasn’t been seen in awhile—a newspaper ad for Walt Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH…in a theater!!! As you probably know, Disney has (at least in the US) vilified and distanced itself from this film, leaving those who’ve never seen it to presume some sort of major racist issue on the part of the Mouse. If, however, you HAVE had the pleasure of seeing this delightful 1946 combination of live-action and classic animation, you know that it’s no more racist than GONE WITH THE WIND or other period pictures set in the early South. In fact, many contemporary 1940s films depict African-Americans in much more derogatory ways than this one—usually for supposed comic effect.

The story itself is a mild family story about a boy who gets moved to a family plantation and tries to fit in. As played marvelously by the ultimately tragic Bobby Driscoll (Can you discuss Bobby at all without using the word "tragic?") who was also the voice of PETER PAN, the film is genuinely heartwarming. On this post-Civil War plantation, the boy meets Old Uncle Remus who tells him magical (animated) stories about Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. Throughout the whole thing are some good songs including the legendary "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah."

Some years ago, I picked up the Japanese VHS edition in English but with Japanese subtitles. Apparently, Disney has no qualms about releasing SONG OF THE SOUTH everywhere else in the world. The next day at work, I was humming "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" all day. I asked just about every person of color who came into my store that day if they’d ever seen the film and if they were, in fact, offended by it. Upon hearing the question, many started singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" themselves. Three women offered me money to dub them off copies! The suggestion has been made that Disney release the picture with one of Leonard Maltin’s patented "historical context" apologies as seen on the LOONEY TUNES and POPEYE collections. This would certainly cover their Mousy butts. Let’s hope that enough folks at Disney actually watch the picture and see that it’s nowhere near as bad as they think it is. Every once in awhile, a rumored release is mentioned. 

Now comes WHO'S AFRAID OF THE SONG OF THE SOUTH? by premier Disney historian Jim Korkis. This recent volume, one of a couple on the subject, details every aspect of the film from its original inspirations through its early protests (Which I had not been aware of previously), the exploitation of the characters in comics, several successful film re-releases and the eventual burial of the picture itself. All of this follows an enlightened and enlightening foreword by Disney's legendary first black animator, Floyd Norman.

It's a convoluted tale at best and one of the odder ones in Disney history for any number of reasons but Korkis is the one to streamline it. Arguably the best Disney historian of them all, having been so both officially and unofficially for decades now, he knows where the bodies are buried...or in this case frozen...or contrary to persistent rumor, not.

Jim categorizes all of the different aspects of SONG OF THE SOUTH into separate chapters, giving the reader easy to digest doses of how the individual aspects all fit into the larger image. The one missing puzzle piece seems consistently to be how current Disney management continues to turn a deaf ear to calls for releasing it on Blu-Ray and DVD in the US under ANY spite of legal releases in quite a few other countries.

All in all, if you're a Disney fan of any depth whatsoever, WHO'S AFRAID OF THE SONG OF THE SOUTH? needs to be in your library as soon as possible. Of course, that could and has been said of every other Jim Korkis book. Remember that name and buy any book he puts out that has anything to do with animation or Disney. Booksteve says!

Thanks to Jim and his publicist for a review copy. You can get your own copy at the link below: 


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