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Peter T Chattaway

disney's song of the south (1946)

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I finally got a chance to see this film on a bootleg DVD, and just as I suspected, I find that the controversy over the film's alleged racism -- the reason it has never been released on video in North America -- is overblown. Oh, sure, it's an unrealistic, movie-ish depiction of life in the Old South, but there is nothing in James Baskett's performance as Uncle Remus that is any more exaggerated than, say, the exaggerated way that the children smile and speak with glee when they are feeling especially happy. It seems to me that all of these actors are just working with whatever the dramatic conventions were at that time.

(Incidentally, according to the IMDB, Baskett was given a "special Academy Award" for this performance and thus became the first African-American male actor to receive an Oscar -- just seven years after his Song of the South co-star Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American actress to win an Oscar, for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. FWIW, in the year Baskett won this "special" award, Ronald Colman won Best Actor for A Double Life and Edmund Gwenn won Best Supporting Actor for Miracle on 34th Street.)

It seems to me that the real dividing line in this film is ultimately one of class, not race. Uncle Remus defers to the Grandma who owns the plantation, sure, but he thinks nothing of asserting his authority (authority by force of personal charisma, that is, not by any institutional structure) over the two poor white boys who live in the cabin near his; and when Grandma's grandson Johnny (Bobby Driscoll, who went on to voice the main character in 1953's Peter Pan) makes friends with the poor boys' sister Ginny (Luana Patten, who went on to appear in the mostly-animated films Fun and Fancy Free in 1947 and Melody Time in 1948), he invites her to come to his birthday party, and this crossing of class barriers clearly upsets his mother (Ruth Warrick, perhaps best known for playing the cold first wife in 1941's Citizen Kane -- and incidentally, the live-action scenes in this film were shot by that other film's cinematographer, Gregg Toland).

What's more, there is a subplot involving a puppy that clearly emphasizes the helplessness that BOTH Johnny and Uncle Remus feel because of their social position under Johnny's not-so-understanding mother, who forbids Uncle Remus to tell Johnny any more stories because she finds that they are subverting her efforts to instill in her son a sense of "obedience". Got that? Uncle Remus is the hero of this film, and he is a hero precisely because he tells stories that appear to threaten the official, established, institutional authority structures. But I guess that's just too subtle for some people, who object to this film just because, I dunno, all they see is some black guy who tips his hat to the rich white women, and whose speech is peppered with phrases like "yessir" and "honey" and "I does this", and who laughs a little too much (the 'happy Negro' stereotype, I guess? -- but what about the film's third act, in which Uncle Remus is clearly NOT happy and the story takes a tragic turn for the worse?).

And speaking of exaggerated racial mannerisms, the one cartoon character that Baskett himself voices in the Brer Rabbit sequences is Brer Fox, and I swear, he sounds virtually indistinguishable from some of the cartoon characters Eddie Murphy has voiced (like Mushu in Mulan). Now how is it that Eddie Murphy gets to play on these stereotypes, even in current Disney cartoons, without any hint of Chris Rock-like irony or social comment, while older Disney cartoons like Song of the South, in which the African-American characters arguably come across a good deal more dignified than any of Murphy's personae, are censored?

Anyway, as a film in its own right, I didn't think this film was particularly great, but it's okay, and it's certainly nothing to get hung about. Here's hoping Disney gives this film a proper DVD release some day.

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Oh yeah, just remembered, there's a good article on the film here, and it even quotes Chesterton! (Well, actually, it quotes Chesterton quoting Joel Chandler Harris, the guy who collected the Uncle Remus folk tales in the first place, but it's still a good reference.)

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Just a note to say that if anyone wants a legit peek at this film, the 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' song and the Brer Rabbit story that follow are included within one of the extras on the new Alice in Wonderland two-disc "masterpiece edition" DVD. One of the bonus features on the second disc is 'One Hour in Wonderland', a Christmas 1950 program described here as Walt Disney's first TV special. It includes a sneak preview of Alice in Wonderland, plus it features two short cartoons as well as clips from Snow White and -- ta-da! -- Song of the South, which was then just four years old. Interestingly, while the TV special as a whole is black-and-white, the DVD replaces the black-and-white film clips with the original Technicolor versions, so the Song of the South sequence included here looks a lot better than it does on my bootleg DVD. One can only hope that people who see this will begin clamouring for the whole film.

It's also both shocking and amusing to see how brazenly integrated the special and its corporate sponsorship were. The corporate sponsor here is Coca-Cola, and the characters in this special actually take time out to drink what a narrator refers to as this "wholesome" beverage.

Side note: I've still got a few more extras to check out on the Alice disc, but as an amateur archivist and an animation buff, I especially like the 1923 short film Alice's Wonderland, in which a live-action girl visits Walt Disney's animation studio and then has dreams about visiting an animated world and being chased by animated lions, etc. Remember, this is five years BEFORE Steamboat Willie (1928) introduced the world to talking cartoons and Mickey Mouse, and famous combined animation/live-action films like Mary Poppins (1964) and, well, Song of the South (1946) wouldn't come out until much, much later!

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Disney May Finally Release 'Song of the South' on Video

The Kansas City Star, which has been running a daily feature saluting past Oscar winners in the run-up to the awards show on Feb. 27, today (Tuesday) selected Disney's 1947 film Song of the South, which won the best song Oscar ("Zip-a-Dee-Doo-dah") and a special Oscar for its star, James Baskett. It is the only Disney animated film never to have been released on home video in the U.S., largely because it was condemned during the civil rights era by the NAACP for "the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship." A website devoted to the film, www.songofthesouth.net, has collected over 60,000 names on a petition to encourage Disney to release the film, and Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook is being quoted as acknowledging that it has received more requests for a DVD release of the movie than any other film. Cook noted that a similar complaint about racial issues was addressed when the studio released World War II material in the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series "through introductions that place the material in context." Cook said that he was "confident" that a similar solution could be found for Song of the South.

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I'd love to get a look at this (it's been decades since I've seen it). perhaps it would be a good film that would allow discussion of racism. (But then so is Birth of a Nation, but many get so offended that they can barely talk about it.

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I'm one of the rare people in my generation who saw the film during it's 1986 re-release.

I know on DVDTalk they keep a running thread on this film - I'll try to find it.

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I can't see how Song of the South could be any more offensive than the prospect of a Pixar-free Toy Story 3 & 4. Or Cinderella 2. Or Mulan 2. Or most of anything Disney has done animation-wise in the last few years.

I'm sure this is an "average" Disney film from years past, but I would love to see it. Even average Disney from the first few decades had a sense of wonder and imagination not often seen today.

Snopes' page relating to Song of the South

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Snopes.com wrote:

: Perhaps lost in all the controversy over the film is the fact that James Baskett, a

: Black man, was the very first live actor ever hired by Disney.

Eh? This film came out in 1946. By this point, Disney had already produced The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and Victory Through Air Power (1943), both of which had extensive live-action sequences. And let us not forget the live-action sequences or elements in Fantasia (1940) and The Three Caballeros (1944).

kenmorefield wrote:

: By "bootleg" did you mean to say "import"? Since "bootleg" literally means "To

: produce, distribute, or sell without permission or illegally," I would be reluctant to

: openly declare on a public website that I was buying/using such goods. sad.gif

Pfeh, when stuff is out of print -- and due to a ridiculous corporate decision, no less -- I can't say it matters much to me. Take this no-bootleg approach too far, and next thing you know, we will all be giving up our copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special or, indeed, whatever bootleg copies we may have of the original version of the original Star Wars trilogy.

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Ken,

While I haven't given much thought to this subject, I have to say that I don't immediately see how it's "stealing" from anyone to watch an unauthorized copy of a film that isn't available any other way. I can see where you're stealing if you buy a bootleg copy of a film instead of an authorized copy that would put money in the pockets of the rightful owners. But where the owners don't stand to gain or lose either way -- by their own choice, as Peter notes -- how does watching a bootleg copy harm anyone?

- SDG, who has a bootleg "Star Wars Holiday Special" DVD he was given as a gift, and who also has occasionally watched bootleg films he couldn't get any other way for purposes of awards consideration, which potentially could put money INTO the pockets of the rightful owners.

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What SDG said about not having given this a lot of thought, but...

Suppose, hypothetically, that you had a collection of classic cars, one of which I wanted to buy but that you did not want to sell.

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M. Dale Prins wrote:

: No, the problem with your metaphor is that in your example, it's a guarantee that the

: original owner is going to lose money on the transaction.

Yeah, there is a term for this -- for the difference between items that can be stolen, like cars, and goods that are merely copied, thus not depriving anyone of anything -- but it's been so long since the last time I got into a copyright debate that I forget what that term is.

Oh, wait, I believe the term is "rival goods" versus "non-rival goods".

Incidentally, I live in a country where, at the risk of oversimplifying, a judge recently ruled that the unauthorized copying and transmission of recorded media was permissible, partly because the government already taxes all sales of blank tapes and CDs and DVDs and gives the money (or a share of it) to the recording industries.

: Peter Thomas, if he were to promise to purchase a copy of a legitimate version of

: Song of the South were Disney to release it (and I suspect he would), would be

: costing Disney exactly nothing.

Actually, even if I DIDN'T buy it -- because, say, I think it is worth only a rental, or perhaps I might just borrow a copy from the public library -- I still wouldn't be costing Disney anything. But yeah, the picture quality on my DVD is bad enough that I WOULD want to buy it. smile.gif

FWIW, the guy who gave (not sold) the bootleg copy to me also gave me a copy of the entire original Das Boot mini-series, complete with English subtitles that he himself had made. This, obviously, was before the mini-series was made available for purchase in North America.

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perhaps this is a setting to consider the problem. Suppose SDG sees the light and repents of his displeasure at Dogville and recognizes it as one of the great movies of all time. Accordingly, he removes his review calling it rancid and never plans it to see the light of day again.

But when I repent of my attraction to the film, I pull up the copy of his review that I've saved, give him proper credit, and post it on my site. He's not using it, so why shouldn't I make use of it? Well, because it belongs to him and he can say whether or not I can use it. It is literally his property. Song of the South is Disney's property. If they see some advantage in keeping it out of the hands of the public (whether wise or not) it is their right. It may be inconvenient for us who would like to see it, but it's also inconvenient for others that I don't let them use my car without my permission, even if I'm not using it.

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kenmorefield wrote:

: Hypothetically, someone might not buy (or rent) any future legal copies because they

: have already seen it (thereby costing the studio not actual money but the opportunity

: to make money).

This is getting ridiculous. The key phrase in my earlier post was "out of print" -- going by your hypothetical argument, we might just as well never borrow out-of-print DVDs or books from the library because, now that we have seen and read them, there is less incentive for the owners of those documents to produce more copies of them.

I wanted to see Song of the South, partly (though not only) so that I could have an informed opinion on the controversy over this film. It was impossible to find at any of the usual outlets. An e-pal of mine had a copy on DVD (which may or may not have been dubbed from one of the overseas video editions, I don't know) that he was willing to copy and send me at no charge, so that I could see it. He sent it. I saw it. End of story.

For years, I have been telling people that my third-favorite movie of all time is The Family Way -- but that film has never, ever been released on video in North America, neither on VHS nor on DVD. So, I have dubbed copies of the film (which I taped off of TV) and sent them in the mail to friends of mine, so that they will know what I'm talking about. I certainly have no intention of avoiding paying good money to see this film -- indeed, I have even bought a Region 2 DVD, just for the optimum picture quality -- but y'know, if you're going to make an issue of bootlegs and loopholes and whatnot, then the very notion of hack-able region-free DVD players is morally problematic, too, because the whole POINT of establishing distinct regions is to protect one distributor's exclusive distribution rights from competition with imports.

: I guess a further quesiton is, when did having to demonstrate the quantifiable harm

: of breaking a law become a prerequisite for Christians for obeying it?

Beats me. I've never had much respect for bad laws. And it's ridiculous that anyone could still have a legal monopoly on copies of Song of the South decades after everyone involved in making it has died. Copyright laws originally lasted for only 14 years, as I recall -- the constant extension of them, often at Disney's behest I believe, is a travesty.

But this is a subject for another thread or two.

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Take this no-bootleg approach too far, and next thing you know, we will all be giving up our copies of the Star Wars Holiday Special or, indeed, whatever bootleg copies we may have of the original version of the original Star Wars trilogy.

There are no bootleg copies of the "original" Star Wars trilogy. How can there be, since Lucasfilm representatives have gone on record as saying that, as far as George is concerned, the original versions pretty much don't exist for him anymore. If the "original" trilogy doesn't exist, then how can any bootlegs of said trilogy exist? wink.gif

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This whole issue of bootleg movies is very near and dear to my heart, as living here in Nigeria, the only way to purchase films is to buy bootlegs. So I do. It may be illegal, but it certainly does not seem reasonable for studios to expect me to hop on a plane and fly overseas to buy a movie (and I'm yet to find an online retailer that will ship to me in Nigeria). If I buy a bootlegged movie here, and enjoy it, I always buy an authorized copy as soon as I am able. Anyway, is it illegal? Yes. Is it immoral? No.

The same goes for anime fansubs. When I lived in the States I was an avid collector of fansubs of shows that had not been liscenced for American distribution. However, that was the only way to watch and understand such shows. The other option would be to learn Japanese and buy the import DVDs. I did buy import DVD's when they had English subs, but few did, and so I downloaded fansubs.

To be dogmatic about obeying the innanities of copywrite law doesn't make sense to me when the groups those laws are meant to protect seem hellbent on preventing me from doing so.

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perhaps this is a setting to consider the problem.  Suppose SDG sees the light and repents of his displeasure at Dogville and recognizes it as one of the great movies of all time.  Accordingly, he removes his review calling it rancid and never plans it to see the light of day again.

But when I repent of my attraction to the film, I pull up the copy of his review that I've saved, give him proper credit, and post it on my site.  He's not using it, so why shouldn't I make use of it?  Well, because it belongs to him and he can say whether or not I can use it.  It is literally his property.  Song of the South is Disney's property.  If they see some advantage in keeping it out of the hands of the public (whether wise or not) it is their right.  It may be inconvenient for us who would like to see it, but it's also inconvenient for others that I don't let them use my car without my permission, even if I'm not using it.

That's a dog that won't hunt. We're not talking about EXHIBITING Song of the South in a public forum, we're talking about watching a copy in our own homes. For you to POST a copy of my review in a public forum is completely different. The proper bootleg-review equivalent to a bootleg Song of the South DVD would be, mm, you READING a cached copy of a review that I had since repudiated and removed from my site. I can't see where that would be contrary to my interests.

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As an artist I'll say that bootlegs *can* compete with an artists own ability to generate income based on his work. However, it can *also* increase awareness in the artists work and *increase* income.

As a capitalist I'll say that illegally obtained copies of a product are, in fact, a function of the market and serve a legitimate purpose. If there is demand for an item that the person who owns the item cannot or will not meet, someone else will find a way to provide it or something similar. And sometimes it is done with the unstated approval of the person who owns the original product -- for all the noise Microsoft makes about software piracy, for example, there are countries that run almost 100% pirated Microsoft software and Microsoft *prefers* it that way, because the countries a) forfeit any right to expect technical support (which in some circumstances is *not* revenue generating, especially if there is a language barrier) and cool.gif it keeps Microsoft the dominant player in the world market.

As a Christian I have no particular opinion on the matter.

As to Song of the South, I enjoyed it a great deal when I saw it as a child. It never occurred to me that Uncle Remus was anything other than the best character in the movie.

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Kenneth/Kendall:

: Statistically, you increase the likelihood of an accident

: (however marginally), thus increasing the risk of everyone

: who shares that road with you (as I do on occasion).

On I-95 between Richmond and D.C., when the average speed is about 80, I'd say that it's safer driving 75 than driving 65.

: Also, you make your car less fuel efficient, thereby

: increasing our dependance on foreign oil.

Yes. But since my Accord gets 30 MPG highway EPA, I figure even if my efficiency goes way, way down, I'll still be a better American than your average SUV driver. (Sorry, oil-wasting SUV drivers.)

: ...and tell the officer who pulls you over that he should

: not give you a ticket because you think the particular law

: that you broke was a ridiculous one.

If a cop pulled me over from doing 10 over on I-95, I would certainly tell him that the application of the law in this particular situation would be imprudent. (Now, when I was pulled over six months ago for going 62 in a 45 zone, I made no such complaint, since I was perfectly aware that I was in the wrong and that the law ought to apply to me. The officer thought otherwise, however, and didn't even write me up a warning.)

Steven/Stephen:

: For you to POST a copy of my review in a public forum

: is completely different. The proper bootleg-review

: equivalent to a bootleg Song of the South DVD would

: be, mm, you READING a cached copy of a review that I

: had since repudiated and removed from my site. I can't

: see where that would be contrary to my interests.

Depends on what definition of "interests" you're using. For one, certainly true; for another, almost certainly not.

Dale

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Statistically, you increase the likelihood of an accident (however marginally), thus increasing the risk of everyone who shares that road with you (as I do on occasion).  Also, you make your car less fuel efficient, thereby increasing our dependance on foreign oil.

OTOH, these effects have nothing to do with breaking the law. The same principle applies accelerating your car from 45 to 55. So, by voluntarily deciding that you will always drive 10 miles UNDER the speed limit, YOU can help save lives AND decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil. smile.gif
Depends on what definition of "interests" you're using.  For one, certainly true; for another, almost certainly not.

Eh?

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: Eh?

"Interest:

"1a: right, title, or legal share in something...

"3: advantage, benefit, also self-interest"

Dale

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I still don't see how someone reading a copy of something I wrote once but no longer like is contrary to my interests in either sense.

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Again, the only thing I really got out of the movie was that Uncle Remus was really cool.

I think children tend not to read into things. Mrs. Death Ray told me she remembers that the biggest cricitism of the movie in terms of it being racist was the tar baby. That surprised me. I suppose all my connections regarding that movie were made when I saw it, and I never made that connection. To me it was no more than a tar scarecrow... I never made any connections beyond that.

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This whole issue of bootleg movies is very near and dear to my heart, as living here in Nigeria, the only way to purchase films is to buy bootlegs.  So I do.  It may be illegal, but it certainly does not seem reasonable for studios to expect me to hop on a plane and fly overseas to buy a movie (and I'm yet to find an online retailer that will ship to me in Nigeria).  If I buy a bootlegged movie here, and enjoy it, I always buy an authorized copy as soon as I am able.  Anyway, is it illegal?  Yes.  Is it immoral?  No.

It could be that one of the reasons (I'm sure there are many) for legal copies not being available is that it's not economically feasible to compete in a market that is flooded with bootlegs. If the government lets the theft go unmolested, those who don't have to worry about quality and paying those who deserve the money have a distinct advantage.

That's a dog that won't hunt. We're not talking about EXHIBITING Song of the South in a public forum, we're talking about watching a copy in our own homes. For you to POST a copy of my review in a public forum is completely different. The proper bootleg-review equivalent to a bootleg Song of the South DVD would be, mm, you READING a cached copy of a review that I had since repudiated and removed from my site. I can't see where that would be contrary to my interests.

But the Song of the South bootleg is not produced for a single person's use. Someone has produced it, copied it, distributed it. Whether for profit or not, they are making use of someone's property without their permission. (We usually call that theft.) For those who just watch such a thing, it is the equivalent of recieving stolen goods. They didn't steal it, but it's stolen just the same.

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Immaculate Steven:

: I still don't see how someone reading a copy of something

: I wrote once but no longer like is contrary to my interests

: in either sense.

Wow. You must not be discomfited by anything you've ever written, then, because there's more than a review or two I've written that my self-interest (or, more accurately, ego) would prefer never again see the light of day -- for example, virtually every first-draft review I write ought to be burned forever. (As opposed to burned for a finite period of time? Huh? See, these are the types of gaffes I have in first drafts.) And while I wouldn

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