Thursday, July 12, 2007

Song of the South

In 1946, Walt Disney made a groundbreaking film called Song of the South. It was the first movie to combine animation and live action. It was filmed in Technicolor, and included the song Zip-Ah-Dee-Doo-Dah which won an Oscar. James Baskette, the star of the movie who played Uncle Remus, also won an Oscar for his brilliant performance in this film. He and co-star Hattie McDaniel (who played Aunt Tempy in Song of the South and had previously won the Oscar as Mammy in Gone With the Wind) were the only two black Oscar winners up until 1964.

But best of all, the movie brings to life the beloved African folktales immortalized by Atlanta Journal newspaperman Joel Chandler Harris (who had a photographic memory, and who in 1881 had published dozens of these tales told to him as a child by former Georgia slaves under the title The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus).

These fables, some of which have been traced to antiquity, involve "critters" like the resourceful Brer Rabbit, the cunning Brer Fox, and the not so bright Brer Bear. The morals of the fables typically involve how a weaker person can overcome adversity through cleverness and "using his head instead of his foots."

These stories were so widespread - especially in the South - that they became fodder for the blockbuster Disney movie in 1946. I ran across an interesting article about the film written by a Canadian animator.

Sadly, political correctness has all but rendered the movie dead in North America. Disney, sensitive to the charge of racism (due to the period of the movie and the racial sensibilities and dialect of the time in which the story is set) will not release the movie in the United States. However, to the delight of many, Disney has released it in other markets around the globe - and thanks to the internet - it is now available on DVD to American audiences.

Interestingly, Disney has some of the characters from the film displayed at their theme parks - while most of the younger children who see them have no clue who they are. The irony is that these folktales are an integral part of the literary heritage of American blacks - having been brought from their ancestral home and employed to cope with the difficulties of slavery and exile.

There are black and white voices alike clamoring for Disney to free Uncle Remus from the bondage of the film vault and the shackles of leftist racial politics.

I'm happy to report that I purchased my own copy here. I put in on for my two-and-a-half year old son who sat spellbound through the whole movie, and asked to watch it again. He shrieked with joy at Johnny's and Toby's leaping frogs, giggled riotously at the antics of Brer Rabbit, and laughed himself silly as Brer Bear struggled with a beehive on his head. Leo seemed to relate to the children in the movie who brought the folktales to life by tenderly applying Uncle Remus' stories to their own situations and struggles.

I'm gratified that my son, like countless other Southern children, will grow up singing "Bawn and bred in a briar patch," learning the very important lesson not to get stuck to the Tar Baby, and spending time in his Laughin' Place.

For the wisdom of these tales is summed up at the very beginning by the hero of the movie, the wise old storyteller Uncle Remus:

"There's other ways of learnin' 'bout the behind feet of a mule than gettin' kicked by him, sure as I'm named Remus. And just because these here tales is about critters like Br'er Rabbit an' Br'er Fox, that don't mean it can't happen to folks! So 'scuse me for sayin' so, but them who can't learn from a tale about critters, just ain't got the ears tuned for listenin'."


Fr Watson SSP said...

As a long time lover of classical animation I heartily "second" all of Fr Hollywood's brilliant and trenchant comments. I was lucky enough to actually see "Song of the South" back in 1986 in Topeka, Kansas AT A MOVIE THEATRE where they brought it back for a showing...why, considering, even then, the "pc" culture I don't know. As good as it is, it's even better on the "big screen."
Deo Vindice,
Fr Watson SSP

Weekend Fisher said...

I loved "Song of the South" and have really wished I could find it. Thanks for the tip!

Joanne said...

Hey Dere, Br'er Hollywood,

You been over to da Laura Plantation web site ter look at dere Br'er Rabbit = Compair Lapin page?

It's gotta good article on the history of Senegalese folktales and how dey come to America into both the English and the French colonies. Alcee Fortier and Joel Chandler Harris were close friends and both recorded the African folktales they heard from the children and grandchildren of the slaves brought from West Africa, one in French and tuh udder in English. As Uncle Remus say, a wise man will pay attention to the wisdom found in the ancient tales.

Thanks so much for posting about Song of the South. I remember it, but mostly I remember Mama reading out the stories to us as the black lady who kept us stood at the ironing board, laughing from the depths of her soul at dem crazy fools tryin ter cotch dat smartaliky rabbit.

As children, we didn't know she couldn't read. But the tales taught us that unlettered folks kin be mighty smart, mighty smart indeed.

Jane said...

I, too, loved Song of the South as a child. Thanks for the heads up on where to find it!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Joanne:

Wow! I live practically next door and had never heard of Laura Plantation. I'm on vacation this week (well, sort of, as my wife said, "It's like a vacation, except you're working."). We're planning on a trip to the Plantation this Thursday - and we can't wait, et c'est vrai ca (sho' nuff!).

(This very moment, mon p'tit garcon, qui est canadien-francais par sa mere, is squealing at the top of his lungs as Brer Rabbit is getting stuck to the Tar Baby!)

Merci beaucoup, et laissez les bons temps rouler!