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Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Song of the South

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Song of the South

Year: 1946

Source materials : Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris

Budget: $2.125 million

Box office: $65 million

Plot: Seven-year-old Johnny is excited about what he believes to be a vacation at his grandmother’s Georgia plantation with his parents. When they arrive at the plantation, he discovers that his parents will be living apart for a while, and he is to live at the plantation with his mother and grandmother while his father returns to Atlanta to continue his controversial editorship in the city’s newspaper.


Johnny, distraught because of his father’s departure, secretly sets off that night for Atlanta with only a bindle. As Johnny sneaks away from the plantation, he is attracted by the voice of Uncle Remus telling tales of a character named Br’er Rabbit. They befriend each other and Uncle Remus offers him some food for his journey, taking him back to his cabin. Uncle Remus tells Johnny the traditional African-American folktale, “Br’er Rabbit Earns a Dollar a Minute”. In the story, Br’er Rabbit attempts to run away from home only to change his mind after an encounter with Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Johnny takes the advice and changes his mind about leaving the plantation.


Johnny makes friends with Toby and Ginny. Ginny gives Johnny a puppy after her two older brothers threaten to drown it. Johnny’s mother refuses to let him take care of the puppy, so he takes the dog to Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus takes the dog in and delights Johnny and his friends with the fable of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby. Johnny heeds the advice of how Br’er Rabbit used reverse psychology on Br’er Fox and begs the Favers Brothers not to tell their mother about the dog. In an act of revenge, they tell Sally about the dog. She instructs Uncle Remus not to tell any more stories to her son.


Johnny’s birthday arrives and Johnny picks up Ginny to take her to his party. On the way there, Joe and Jake push Ginny into a mud puddle. With her dress ruined, Ginny is unable to go to the party and runs off crying. Johnny runs off to comfort Ginny. He explains that he does not want to go either, especially since his father will not be there. Uncle Remus discovers both dejected children and cheers them up by telling the story of Br’er Rabbit and his “Laughing Place”. When the three return to the plantation, Sally becomes angry at Johnny for missing his own birthday party, and tells Uncle Remus not to spend any more time with him.


Uncle Remus packs his bags and leaves for Atlanta. Johnny rushes to intercept him, but is attacked by a bull and seriously injured. While Johnny hovers between life and death, his father returns. Johnny calls for Uncle Remus, who is then escorted in by his grandmother. Uncle Remus begins telling a tale of Br’er Rabbit and the Laughing Place, and the boy miraculously survives. Johnny, Ginny, and Toby are next seen skipping along and singing while Johnny’s returned puppy runs alongside them. Uncle Remus rushes to join the group, and they all skip away singing.


Background: Walt Disney had long wanted to produce a film based on the Uncle Remus storybook, Disney first began to negotiate with Harris’ family for the rights in 1939, and by late summer of that year he already had one of his storyboard artists summarize the more promising tales and draw up four boards’ worth of story sketches.

Disney hired Southern-born writer Dalton Reymond to write the screenplay. The animated segments of the film were directed by Wilfred Jackson, while the live-action segments were directed by Harve Foster. Filming began in December 1944 in Phoenix, where the studio had constructed a plantation and cotton fields for outdoor scenes.


  • “Song of the South” 1
  • “Uncle Remus Said”
  • “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”
  • “Who Wants to Live Like That?”
  • “Let the Rain Pour Down”
  • “How Do You Do?”
  • “Sooner or Later”
  • “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place”
  • “All I Want”

EHH-CSUB001-CS321 - © - Everett Collection

Cast: Bobby Driscoll as Johnny, Luana Patten as Ginny Faver. Glenn Leedy as Toby. Leedy was discovered on the playground of the Booker T. Washington school in Phoenix, Arizona, by a talent scout from the Disney studio.

James Baskett 2 as Uncle Remus and Br’er Fox. He appeared on Broadway with Louis Armstrong in the all-black musical revue Hot Chocolates in 1929. He was invited by Freeman Gosden to join the cast of the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show as lawyer Gabby Gibson, whom he portrayed from 1944 to 1948. On March 20, 1948, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his performance as Uncle Remus. He was the first African-American male actor to win an Academy Award. Ruth Warrick 3 as Sally. She made her film debut in Citizen Kane. She became a cast member on the soap opera The Guiding Light, playing Janet Johnson, R.N. from 1953–54. Warrick appeared on As the World Turns, One Life to Live, and was best known for her role as Phoebe Tyler Wallingford on All My Children, which she played regularly from 1970 until her death in 2005.

Lucile Watson 4 as Grandmother Watson. She was primarily a stage actress, appearing in 39 Broadway plays. She starred in such plays as Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, Heartbreak House, Ghosts, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Pride and Prejudice. She appeared in Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist dramatic stage play Watch on the Rhine on Broadway in 1941, starring Paul Lukas. She and Lukas reprised their roles in the film adaptation. 5 She played Aunt March in the 1949 film version of Little Women. Hattie McDaniel 6 as Aunt Tempy. She is best known for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first Academy Award won by an African American entertainer. McDaniel had a featured role as Queenie in the 1936 film Show Boat in which she sang a verse of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” She remained active on radio and television in her final years, becoming the first black American to star in her own radio show with the comedy series Beulah.

Johnny Lee 7 as Br’er Rabbit. He is probably best remembered as the pseudo-lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun in the CBS Amos ‘n’ Andy TV and radio comedy series in the early 1950s. Nick Stewart 8 as Br’er Bear. Stewart began his show business career as a dancer at the Cotton Club and was known for his role as Lightnin’ (Willie Jefferson) on TV’s The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show. He accepted the role with one idea in mind: to make enough money to be able to open his own theater where African Americans would not be typecast as maids and porters. In the 1960s, he would have a small roles on Mister Ed and in the classic comedy film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as the Migrant Truck Driver who is forced off of the road. He and his wife, Edna Stewart, also founded Los Angeles’s Ebony Showcase Theatre, which provided a venue for numerous performers of all races, including Al Freeman Jr., Yuki Shimoda, William Schallert, Tom Ewell, John Amos, Nichelle Nichols, Isabel Sanford, B. B. King, Phil Collins, Eartha Kitt, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan.


Critical Reception: The film has received significant controversy for its handling of race.

  • The Disney Company has stated that, like Harris’ book, the film takes place after the American Civil War and that all the African American characters in the movie are no longer slaves.
  • Cultural historian Jason Sperb describes the film as “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts”.
  • Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, telegraphed major newspapers around the country with the following statement, erroneously claiming that the film depicted an antebellum setting: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in Song of the South remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts. 9
  • Time magazine, although it praised the film, cautioned that it was “bound to land its maker in hot water”, because the character of Uncle Remus was “bound to enrage all educated Negroes and a number of damyankees”.
  • Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a congressman from Harlem, branded the film an “insult to American minorities [and] everything that America as a whole stands for.”
  • The National Negro Congress set up picket lines in theaters in the big cities where the film played, with its protesters holding signs that read ” Song of the South is an insult to the Negro people” and, lampooning “Jingle Bells”, chanted: “Disney tells, Disney tells/lies about the South.”
  • While Richard B. Dier in The Afro-American was “thoroughly disgusted” by the film for being “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced.”
  • Herman Hill in The Pittsburgh Courier felt that Song of the South would “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations”, and considered criticisms of the film to be “unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days.”

Availability: Due to the controversial nature of the film, it is not available in the United States on video, DVD, or Blue ray. You can catch pieces of it online on youtube.


Legacy: At the various Disney Parks, the water ride Splash Mountain is based on the film. Br’er Bear and the Tar-Baby also appear in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear also appeared in the 2011 video game Kinect Disneyland Adventures for the Xbox 360.

My take: So I tried to watch this film as dispassionate as possible, because as a white guy, I don’t feel it’s my place to determine what is racist and what is not, nor do I think I am qualified to determine Walt Disney’s thoughts and intentions. When I watch the film, I’m taken aback by the caricatures of the animated characters. While these folk stories should be told, maybe Walt wasn’t the one to tell them.

Next Week: King of the Wild Frontier