Song Of The South: The Racist Disney Movie That Splash Mountain Is Based On
(The Walt Disney Company)
No matter when you grew up, Song Of The South has had an effect on you, whether you know it or not. Maybe you saw it in theaters, or you know the characters from Splash Mountain, Disney's immensely popular log flume ride. Even if you've managed to avoid a trip to Disneyland, you know the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." You're probably whistling it right now. No matter your connection to Song Of The South, however, you likely only vaguely know about the film's racist history and the events that turned it from a box office hit to the only film in Disney's vault that will never be released on Disney+.
What Is Song Of The South?
Song Of The South is a live-action/animated musical produced by The Walt Disney Company that follows a young boy named Johnny who moves to a plantation with his mother and a housekeeper played by Academy Award–winner Hattie McDaniel. When Johnny tries to run away to Atlanta to be with his father, he encounters Uncle Remus (James Baskett), a kindly old man who tells tall tales to keep Johnny from running away.
Remus's stories are told through an early mix of live action and animation that still looks good today. Each segment—featuring Southern folk characters Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear—is a parable about the big and scary world outside the plantation, which convinces Johnny to stay home with his mother.
Like Gone With The Wind, Song Of The South is a romantic look at Reconstruction-era America. Today, Disney's take on plantation life is jarring, but the story of how the film came to be and the way cultural responses to it have morphed over time is fascinating.
Nearly A Decade In The Making
By 1946, Disney was running on fumes, financially. The company spent World War II producing shorts for the U.S. military essentially at cost, and the films that were released to theaters during the war didn't make a lot of money. The company had to fire half of its employees—that is, half of what remained following a strike that left Disney with a much smaller crew than the army of artists it took to produce hits like Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
At the time, Walt Disney had been trying to produce Song Of The South for nearly a decade. He approached the estate of Joel Chandler Harris, the children's author behind Br'er Rabbit, in 1939 with the concept of a series of fully animated films about Uncle Remus, but by the time Disney seriously started thinking about production, there was no budget for a fully animated film.
Rather than scrap years of work, Disney decided that only one-third of the film would be animated. The rest would be a live-action film based in Georgia but filmed in Arizona.
The Creation Of The Script Was A Movie In Itself
Because Song Of The South represents a soft, fictional take on the Reconstruction era, it's easy to assume that it was the product of writers who had no concept of black life in America, but people from all walks of life had a hand in the script. Disney initially hired Dalton Reymond, a Southern-born professor at Louisiana State University who worked as a technical advisor on films like Jezebel and Saratoga Trunk, to pen the story, but Reymond's first draft was a 51-page treatment that the Hays Office felt was too racist even for 1940s America.
Disney brought in a black performer and writer named Clarence Muse to help Reymond soften his script, but Muse and Reymond didn't work together for long. Muse wanted the black characters in the film to be dignified, but Reymond brushed Muse's suggestions off, so Muse quit and wrote to prominent black publications about the way he was treated while working on the film.
Reymond was not a screenwriter, so even if he was going to butt heads with everyone brought in to work with him, he still needed guidance from someone who knew how to format a script. Following Muse's departure, Maurice Rapf was brought up to bat. Rapf was everything that Reymond wasn't: Jewish, left-wing, and firmly against working on the film. Still, Disney enticed Rapf to work on the project by convincing him that his liberal leaning were exactly why he needed to be on the film. Who else was going to soften the "Southern slant" of Reymond's script?
Rapf was on the project for about seven weeks before he got fed up with Reymond and Disney. He later said that every meeting with Disney ended with the producer in love with what they were doing, but by the next morning, he'd have changed his mind.
About That Song
The most enduring element of Song Of The South is "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," which is sung by Uncle Remus throughout the film. Composed by Allie Wrubel with lyrics by Ray Gilbert, the song has been covered by everyone from The Jackson 5 to The Hollies to Miley Cyrus. It was so beloved when the film was released that it won the Oscar for Best Original Song at that year's Academy Awards.
As beloved as the song is, there's a dark history behind this seemingly innocuous melody with origins in the pre–Civil War era. "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is based on the chorus of a song called "Zip Coon," which was itself based on the melody of the song "Turkey in the Straw," which was often sung in blackface by the white minstrel performer who wrote "Zip Coon." Featuring lyrics like "Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day," "Zip Coon" mocks free black people for attempting to live a life similar to white people. It was depressingly popular in the 1830s.
During his life, lyricist Ray Gilbert never spoke about the similarities between "Zip Coon" and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." It's entirely possible that they're coincidental, but previous Walt Disney films like Dumbo and Mickey's Mellerdrammer made liberal use of minstrel stereotypes, so the company can't claim complete ignorance. Unfortunately, we'll probably never know for sure if Gilbert deliberately infused the song with a racist message or just wanted to write a memorable tune.
Song Of The South's defenders often argue that the film is merely a product of its time, but when it was released on November 12, 1946, it was met with mixed reviews to say the least. Critics who saw the blend of animation and live-action as the technological marvel that it was also noted the significant pushback from audiences who found the film's depiction of the South dismissive of the black struggle in America. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called Song Of The South "peculiarly gauche" and commented that "the master-and-slave relation is so lovingly regarded ... that one might almost imagine that you figure Abe Lincoln made a mistake. Put down that mint julep, Mr. Disney!" Still, it was a hit at the box office and made Disney the profits it needed to stay afloat after years of barely breaking even.
About That Theme Park Ride
With Splash Mountain, Disney placed the animated characters from Song Of The South in an entirely new context. The log flume ride presents the animated segments from the film without the framing of the Uncle Remus story, and songs like "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" and "Ev'rybody Has a Laughing Place" are featured prominently on the ride, but many who are too young to remember Song Of The South don't even realize that the the anthropomorphic animals on Splash Mountain are controversial to an entire era of Americans.
‘Song of the South’ will never be on home video
Banned For Life
It's well-known as a banned property now, but the taboo status of Song Of The South is relatively recent. Following its premiere in 1946, the film was re-released in theaters in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986. Each time, the film performed well, especially in the 1980s. Despite the film's lucrative theatrical runs, however, it has never been released on any home video format in the United States. After a hostile takeover of Disney in the 1980s, new CEO Michael Eisner decided against any further releases of Song Of The South due to its controversial history. In 2011, CEO Bob Iger upheld the decision, explaining that it wouldn't "feel right to a number of people today" or "be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain." The company doubled down on this sentiment with the launch of Disney+ by excluding the film from their otherwise all-inclusive streaming service, making Song Of The South the one film that will remain in the Disney Vault forever.
Tags: disney | hollywood | movies | racism | theme parks
Like it? Share with your friends!