10 Surprising Facts About Disney's Controversial 'Song of the South'
You’ve probably never seen Song of the South, but you’ve likely had its most famous song lodged firmly in your brain at one point or another. Let's take a closer look at what is arguably Disney’s most controversial production ever.
1. THE STORIES WERE WRITTEN BY TEDDY ROOSEVELT'S UNCLE.
Though Disney borrowed the Br’er Rabbit tales from author Joel Chandler Harris, the stories were originally published in Harper’s magazine as written by Robert Roosevelt, Teddy’s uncle. In his autobiography, Teddy wrote that Robert took the stories down from his Aunt Anna’s dictation, then sent them to Harper’s, where they “fell flat.” It wasn’t until Harris created the Uncle Remus stories that Br’er Rabbit and his pals became “immortal,” in Teddy’s words.
2. DISNEY’S DECISION TO MAKE SONG OF THE SOUTH RAISED EYEBROWS RIGHT FROM THE GET-GO.
The NAACP released a statement that said that while the artistic and technical aspects of the film were truly impressive, “the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery ... [the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” However, other reviewers thought that the issue was handled well. Even the actors defended their parts. Hattie McDaniel told The Criterion, "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein." Star James Baskett agreed, saying, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the Song of the South."
3. IT’S BEEN RUMORED THAT JAMES BASKETT DIDN’T ATTEND THE PREMIERE BECAUSE NO HOTEL WOULD ALLOW HIM TO STAY.
It’s been a long-standing rumor that Baskett himself was unable to attend the movie’s Atlanta premiere because no hotel in town would accept the black cast members. This is unlikely, as MousePlanet points out, because there were several black-owned hotels in the city at the time, including the Savoy. What is true is that Atlanta was still under segregation laws at the time, so the cast would have been separated at the premiere anyway. To bring Baskett to the city but stop him from attending events, one newspaper article from 1946 noted, “would cause him many embarrassments, for his feelings are the same as any man’s.”
4. THE FILM WAS A SUCCESS, BUT NOT BY A WIDE MARGIN.
The original release netted the studio just $226,000.
5. WALT DISNEY HIMSELF CAMPAIGNED FOR BASKETT TO WIN AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR HIS PERFORMANCE.
Walt Disney told Jean Hersholt, then the president of the Motion Picture Academy, that Baskett’s performance was his own creation, “almost wholly without direction.” Disney’s efforts worked: Baskett received an honorary Oscar in 1948. Sadly, he died just three months later at the age of 44.
6. BASKETT’S HONORARY ACADEMY AWARD ISN’T THE ONLY ONE SONG OF THE SOUTH WON.
“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” also won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
7. BASKETT PLAYED TWO MAJOR PARTS.
Baskett not only played Uncle Remus, he also voiced Br’er Fox.
8. THE MOVIE HAS NEVER OFFICIALLY BEEN RELEASED ON HOME VIDEO.
Though the film has been reissued several times, including a “re-premiere” that was held in Atlanta for the 40th anniversary in 1986, it has never been released on home video in the United States. Whether there are future plans for a release remains to be seen. While Disney CEO Robert Iger has called the movie “antiquated” and “fairly offensive,” fans have been rallying for years to get it released. Enterprising consumers can find copies that were released in Japan and Europe. You can also see part of it right here:
9. DISNEY CREATED A COMIC STRIP AS A PROMOTIONAL TOOL.
The Disney Company created a newspaper comic strip about Br’er Rabbit to help promote the movie. It actually ended up with a longer shelf life than the movie itself: the strip ran from 1945 through 1972.
10. CONTEMPORARY VERSIONS OF BR’ER RABBIT AND BR’ER FOX ARE VOICED BY JESS HARNELL.
These days, Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox are voiced by Jess Harnell, also known for providing the voices for Wakko on Animaniacs and Cedric on Sofia the First, among other things. Though Br’ers Fox and Rabbit don’t get used much, they have popped up in video games, amusement park rides, and the occasional cartoon where Disney characters mingle.