My Year in the Dark
Song of the South isn't the greatest movie ever made,
but it's the one I'll never forget. By Bill Vaughn
I spent 1956 hiding in the dark.
A week after my eighth birthday a staggering event compelled me and my kid sister to move back in with our father. We lived in a ratty little house in an alley a few blocks from the Rainbow Theatre and the Liberty Theatre in downtown Great Falls, Montana. where I saw everything from Bus Stop to The Ten Commandments. Saturdays I joined a mob of pungent, sugar-crazed brats for a cartoon marathon that lasted all afternoon. Sundays I walked down Central Avenue to the big theater in the Civic Center, a columned yellow-brick megalith built by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. In the sheltering matinee gloom I saw all the films the other houses didn’t show, most memorably Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The King and I.
While 1956 was a banner year for pictures, the only one I watched more than once—four times, in fact—was Song of the South. Released by Disney in 1946 and re-released a decade later, this half-animated, half-acted hybrid was drawn from the Uncle Remus books written between 1881 and 1905 by a white journalist from Georgia named Joel Chandler Harris. Harris had grown up among slaves, and recorded hundreds of fables they told him that had been passed down to the rural South from the tribal folklore of West Africa. Many of these had probably been fused with similar stories in the oral library of the Cherokee Indians. Originally published as columns in the Atlanta Constitution, they were wildly popular among readers white, black and red.
Set in the era just after the Civil War, Song of the South opens on seven-year-old Johnny as he travels with his parents by horse-drawn coach to spend the summer on his grandmother’s Georgia plantation. His parents—Sally and John Sr.—wax nostalgic about their own childhoods in this backwater. They recall with gushing fondness the old black man named Uncle Remus who told them stories about mythical characters named Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear.
But Johnny’s excitement turns to tears when he finds out that his parents are separating. After his father returns to Atlanta to continue his work as a controversial newspaper editor, Johnny sneaks out of the house with a pathetic little hobo sack, and begins heading through the dark to find his dad. Confused and lonely and frightened, he comes across an old black man telling stories to children sitting transfixed around a campfire.
Uncle Remus, who hears through the grapevine about this missing white boy, befriends him, and reckons that it might be fun if he went along to Atlanta with Johnny. Because they’ll need some grub for this long walk he takes the boy back to his shack to rustle something up. Johnny asks him about this Brer Rabbit his parents had mentioned. In the first of the film’s three animated sequences, which portray the small, fast-thinking hare outwitting the bigger and stronger Fox and Bear, we join Rabbit just after he’s gotten himself in some kind of terrible fix. He decides to pick up and start over elsewhere. But out on the road he barely escapes the clutches of his enemies, and decides that he can’t solve his problems by running away. When the cartoon ends and the movie returns to live action we see that Johnny has understood the moral of this story, and allows Uncle Remus to take him to his mother. Sally, however, is not amused when the old man concocts a white lie to cover up the fact that Johnny was trying to run away from home. Their relationship begins to turn.
As the film proceeds, it sours completely. Sally believes that the old man is trying to usurp the role of father figure from the absent John Sr., and is confusing Johnny with these stories and their cargo of tricks the boy is using to outsmart and outmaneuver two bigger and stronger but dim-witted bullies who live on the plantation.
Released during a sweeping exodus from South to North and from country to city, Song of the South touched a nerve in America, and was phenomenally popular. It earned Disney more than six times the $2.15 million cost of the film. The song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” has been enshrined in America’s unofficial songbook. Ingrid Bergman handed James Baskett a special Oscar in 1948 for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. While some critics consider the plot cloying and overcooked, Leonard Maltin gave the film three-and-a-half stars, praising the movie in general and the animated sequences in particular. For me the animation, although of a much higher quality than my Saturday toons, was only an aside. Johnny’s story was everything. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I wanted to be him.
In the fall of 1955 my parents split up, an ugly D-I-V-O-R-C-E sparked by my father’s dalliance with a long, tall blonde. Heart-broken, my mother moved me and my sister into a cottage my grandparents owned on the west side of Great Falls. One cold, bright Friday afternoon in January the hospital at Malmstrom Air Force Base called my grandfather. My mother, a registered nurse, hadn’t shown up for her shift. Did he know where she was?
He found her in the garage, which was attached to the house. She was slumped in the front seat of her car. The coroner ruled that her death, by carbon monoxide poisoning, was an accident. She must have slipped, he reasoned, citing the dead grass on her coat, and hit her head. Disoriented, she failed to judge the seriousness of her injury. Then she must have climbed in her car and started it—on winter mornings she’d been in the habit of warming it up before driving to work. But before she could get out and open the garage doors she must have passed out.
Meanwhile, her children, asleep in the house, were also dying. We were saved by the neighbor lady who came every morning to get me off to school and care for my sister until Mother came home from work. When we complained of dizziness and nausea she took us to her house. Questioned by the police, she said she hadn’t heard any motor running in our garage.
My father later allowed as how her death must have been suicide, although she left no note. Later he changed the story—the thing she must have tripped over was my bicycle, which he accused me of leaving carelessly sprawled on the sidewalk. Although they were barely speaking, the last person to see my mother—late the night before her death—was my father.
The world turned, and I moved on. Not long ago an uncle gave me a collection of letters my mother wrote to my grandparents in 1944 and 1945. These long, breathless reports about her adventures as a young army nurse in the Philippines during the last days of World War II are vibrant with detail and drama and gossip. In one letter she recounts a ball she attended wearing a formal gown she’d sewn from a silk parachute, her Irish red hair adorned with native yellow orchids; in another she describes the airborne party she went to with a couple of nurses and pilots as they flew around the island of Luzon in a C-47 leafleting Japanese troops who hadn’t heard that the war was over.
Suddenly curious about her, I overcame fifty years of avoiding the subject, and tracked down the report of her death on the front page of the Great Falls Tribune. My reaction to this article was the same as my reaction as a child when I was told that she was dead: I went numb. I found her war records, where I learned that she’d been commissioned a second lieutenant, and was awarded the usual battlefield ribbons. Then I found a history of the place where she was born and spent her first years, an isolated Jesuit outpost called St. Peter’s Mission at the base of Bird Tail Butte in the front range of the Rockies near the Missouri River. I tracked down every photo I could find of her—my favorite showed her in waders fishing for trout in a mountain stream.
On impulse one day I stopped at a video store to rent a DVD. The twenty-something clerk had never heard of Song of the South, and couldn’t find it in the catalog on her computer. “Is it, like, a country-western type flick?” she asked.
The reason the movie wasn’t in her computer is because Disney has never made the title commercially available on any form of home video. It hasn’t been released in American theaters since 1986. Despite rumors, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Disney’s distribution company, has no plans to release Song again. Although in the late 1990s Japanese and European theatres were showing the film, in 2001 Disney pulled it from foreign circulation. It’s never been shown on television. And it’s not even listed in Disney’s own catalog.
One of the reasons Song has become a “lost” film is because of the most famous of the film’s animated sequences, in which Fox and Bear hatch a scheme to catch the hare with a Tar-Baby. They dress this humanoid they’ve confected, and place it on a log next to the road. By and by Rabbit comes hopping along. When he sees the Tar-Baby his sez mawnin’ and remarks on the fine weather. But Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nothing’. Rabbit sez mawnin’ again, and again the Tar-Baby ignores him. Finally, Rabbit hauls off and smacks this high-and-mighty upside the head. Rabbit’s paw sticks like glue, however, and he slaps at the Tar-Baby again, and then kicks with both feet. Now stuck by all-fours Rabbit tries a head-butt.
Howling with glee Fox and Bear emerge from their hiding places, imagining the fine dinner that will soon be theirs.
“Do whatever you want,” Rabbit implores them. “But please don’t fling me in that there briar-patch!”
After much debate that’s exactly what Fox does, telling himself that if this is the most harm they can inflict on the rabbit, then that’s what he wants. The briar patch, of course, is exactly where Brer Rabbit wants to be, because it’s here in the thorns that he can’t be pursued. Suddenly bouncing on a fence across the tangle, he laughs and gloats. “Bred and born in a briar-patch,” he cries in triumph. “Bred and born!”
Although “lost” films include silent era pictures whose negatives and prints have deteriorated, and newer movies whose owners destroyed them because they figured no one would ever want to see them again, according to a spokesman at Buena Vista the masters for Song are safely stored in a climate-controlled vault. So it’s lost in the same sense as was The High and the Mighty. Inexplicably unseen for fifty years, this corny but pleasing 1954 plane wreck saga starred John Wayne, who also produced it. When the Duke died the rights reverted to his heirs, who finally, after much pestering on the part of his fans, allowed a DVD to be issued in August of 2005.
Although you can buy videos of almost all of Disney’s classic animated features, including the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, executives are reluctant to release Song because they fear a backlash from those who accuse the film of reinforcing racial stereotypes. The characters, critics say, are a veritable police line-up of how bigots see blacks. Uncle Remus is the submissive and compliant Uncle Tom from Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s 1877 novel. Brer Rabbit is the devious and hustling street corner pimp. Brer Fox is the rapacious gang thug. Brer Bear is the dull and slow-talking Stepin Fetchit. And as the very picture of racial slur the Tar-Baby has no equal. Although the NAACP filed a formal protest against release of the film during its production, as did the Urban League, these organizations have never advocated a ban or a boycott, and now have no formal position. Part of the reason for their current noninvolvement is the fact that no matter what detractors think about the Uncle Remus character, James Baskett was, after all, Disney’s first live actor.
There are racial overtones in plenty of other films, subtle or overt. Birth of a Nation, the portrayal of two southern families during the Civil War and Reconstruction, is racist to its core and portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. But this 1915 silent classic, whose narrative was far more ambitious than anything before attempted, is widely available on video. However, D.W. Griffith’s seminal film was intended for “mature” audiences. Song is a “family” movie produced to appeal to children. For that reason movie critic Roger Ebert advocates withholding it from general audiences.
“I am against censorship and believe that no films or books should be burned or banned,” he wrote in his Movie Answer Man column for the Chicago Sun-Times. “But film school study is one thing and a general release is another. Any new Disney film immediately becomes part of the consciousness of almost every child in America, and I would not want to be a black child going to school in the weeks after ‘Song of the South’ was first seen by my classmates.”
The film’s fans argue that the harmony and mutual respect depicted between black and white, appearing as they did during the odious era of segregation, are among the luminous aspects of Song. The first friend Johnny makes at the plantation is Toby, a black kid who shares his passion for frogs and stick horses. And advocates maintain that by introducing new generations of readers to Joel Chandler Harris the film promotes diversity. His faithful recording of folklore inspired by African traditions, as well as his ear for the Gullah dialect, a Creole spoken by former slaves living on the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, are contributions to literature no less important than those of Mark Twain and Geoffrey Chaucer, who also wrote in dialect.
When I asked them about it, a few of my twenty-something nieces and nephews said they’d heard of Uncle Remus, mostly because of the books their parents read them as children. One of them remembered the adventures of “Briar” Rabbit. But none of them have seen Song of the South, and it would be safe to bet that few Americans their age have either. While Buena Vista may no longer be willing to share Walt’s version of Joel Chandler Harris, his work is not forgotten. The eight Uncle Remus books he wrote are widely available in public libraries. An 864-page compendium of these volumes was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002. The complete text of the first one, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg, whose volunteers keyboard books whose rights have fallen into the public domain. Brer Rabbit and Boss Lion, an audiocassette read by the actor Danny Glover, was released in 1993 and is still available. In 1994 a writer named Julius Lester published a politically correct Uncle Remus recast in a modern vernacular with references to shopping malls and fast-food restaurants in an attempt to make the stories more accessible to contemporary kids. Disney itself published 47 children’s books with Remus themes. And three of Disney’s theme parks offer a white-knuckle water ride called Splash Mountain, which is set in southern bayous and rivers and abounds in Remus imagery. It’s Disney’s only ongoing acknowledgment that it ever had anything to do with the Brers.
And then there’s the singular homage to Uncle Remus paid by Van Dyke Parks, an idiosyncratic Los Angeles composer and singer who scored such movies as Popeye and Goin’ South, and has collaborated with just about everyone in the business, from U2 and the Everly Brothers to Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt and Brian Wilson. In the 1980s he published three children’s books—Jump!, Jump Again!, and Jump on Over!—featuring animal characters he adapted from Harris’ tales, sumptuously illustrated by Barry Moser. In 1984 he also released a musical called Jump!, written for his young daughter. Lavishly orchestrated with horns and strings, banjos and harmonicas, the style of this folk opera is “minstrelsy,” what Parks calls the “reigning rock and roll of the 19th Century.” Singing the lead vocal in a naïve, boyish tenor that could easily have been Brer Rabbit’s voice in Song of the South, and backed up by Jennifer Warnes, Parks joyously captures the feeling of southern nights, winding roads without cars or lights, peaceful moments before a glowing hearth, and perfectly wasted afternoons with a fishing pole and a bottle.
Maybe it’s a longing for this quieter and more organic life that has saved Uncle Remus from the literary gulag, and is now fueling a drive to bring Song of the South out of the vault. A film buff named Christian Willis, who maintains an internet fan site called songofthesouth.net, has spent years trying to persuade Disney executives to set the movie free. Moreover, he’s convinced 100,000 people to sign a pair of petitions to that effect. This pressure is causing Disney a minor headache in a year when the world’s second largest media conglomerate has suffered some serious migraines, including falling revenue from its movies,a shareholders revolt led by Walt’s nephew Roy Disney, the ouster of CEO Michael Eisner, his controversial replacement by Robert Iger, and charges that the Chinese binderies making Disney books are dangerous sweatshops that exploit their workers and make overtime mandatory.
But, of course, the film is available if you don’t mind infringing on Disney’s copyright by buying an illegal bootleg copy whose quality will not be perfect. These pirated DVDs are sold by several brazen internet vendors who aren’t shy about printing their home address on the envelope they use to ship their product. When one of these discs came into my possession I put it in my DVD player. But even before the credits had finished rolling I turned it off, not because of the quality of the audio and video, which wasn’t sparkling, but certainly good enough. I guess I didn’t want to experience the disappointment an adult sometimes feel when they revisit the scenes of his childhood. Or maybe I was afraid of the long-buried emotions film might dig up.
But finally one night I forced myself to watch the movie all the way through, with the lights off, sitting with my wife in the room where we keep the television. As Johnny and his parents head toward the plantation the growing sense of déjà vu that washed over me was unnerving. It wasn’t the details of the plot that caused this dislocation—after all, they didn’t jibe with my memory of them because I wasn’t seeing the film this time through the eyes of a child. For example, now I understood that Johnny’s father wasn’t abandoning his family in the country because of some emotional estrangement from his mother. He wanted to shield his son from people who didn’t like what he was writing about in the newspaper. Since the movie was set during Reconstruction it can be assumed that John Sr. was enraging reactionary Georgians by taking the forward-thinking position on rebuilding Dixie’s economy. (His character was probably based on the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Henry Grady, who advocated a “New South” with big Yankee-like cities and factories replacing the plantation system.)
A child doesn’t care about the reasons his parents are separating—he can only feel the pain. When Johnny breaks into sobs as his father drives away I winced. And I winced again when Sally dresses him in a Little Lord Fontelroy suit replete with a lace collar! Of course, this happens to be the day when he meets the Fayer brothers, who are playing in the yard of their shack with a litter of pups. After these crackers announce their intention to drown the runt of the litter they have some sport mocking Johnny’s girly clothes. He runs off in tears. Ginny, the Fayer’s kid sister, snatches the dog from her brothers and catches up with the new boy. She tells him that “Teenchy” is her dog and wants Johnny to have him. In exchange Johnny gives Ginny his lace collar, which she adores, and a friendship is born.
Although Teenchy is just what Johnny needs right now, Sally commands him to take it back where he got it. Johnny convinces Uncle Remus to board the dog. When Sally finds out she accuses the old man is conspiring with her son to disobey her, and orders Remus to stay away from him. Deeply saddened by her misunderstanding of his good intentions Remus packs his bags and heads out in a wagon for Atlanta, his long life on the plantation at an end. (I wondered fifty years ago, and again on this night, what kind of mother would do these things.) From a distance Johnny is alarmed to see the old man leaving and runs to stop him, taking a shortcut through a pasture, forgetting that this pasture is the home of a bull, which flies into a rage and attacks.
As Johnny hangs on to life his father returns from the city and promises not to leave his side again. Delirious, Johnny calls for Uncle Remus. When the old man shows up he takes the boy’s hand and tells him to keep in mind the Brer Rabbit story about The Laughing Place, the place everyone ought to cultivate in their imaginations for the times when the going gets tough. We hear his words, but what we are moved by is the poignant image of the small, frail white hand held by the large, strong black one.
I remembered feeling envious of the attention Johnny was getting. Then I suddenly recalled with a whoosh of vertigo an incident I hadn’t thought about since my year in the dark. When I was Johnny’s age there was a ragman who patrolled the alleys of Great Falls with a hand-pulled wagon heaped with oddments of trash he scavenged to sell as scrap. My father, an unapologetic redneck raised on an East Texas cotton farm, called this man Old Black Joe, and warned me to stay away. But after I saw Song of the South I began following Joe, first at a distance, and later closer. Then one hot and windy morning he spun around with a broom handle in his fist and ordered me to leave him alone. He was so drunk he was reeling.
As Song ends we are relieved to see a happy and fully recovered Johnny skipping down a country lane with Toby, Ginny and Teenchy the dog, who has avoided the Fayer boys to live another day. Bringing up the rear is Uncle Remus, singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” . . . It’s the truth, it’s actual, ev’rything is satisfactual.
Well, yes, I know that the film was shot in a drainage ditch outside Phoenix, Arizona, because the producers couldn’t find a suitable location in Georgia. I know that Bobby Driscoll, the child actor who played Johnny, later Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, and then the voice of Peter Pan, died in poverty at the age of 31 from hepatitis caused by heroin addiction, and was buried as a “John Doe” in a common grave before his remains were identified a year later. (Like many child actors, when Driscoll got older and was no longer cute his career ended. Disney, he told a reporter, “carried me on a satin pillow, then dumped me in the garbage.”) And I know that the black work songs we hear sound more like shopping music than the blues.
But this time around, when Song of the South ended and the lights came on, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
COPYRIGHT © 2006 BY BILL VAUGHN