Walt Disney World’s iconic Splash Mountain attraction recently reopened, just in time to send screaming spring-breakers to Brer Rabbit’s “laughing place.” Ironically, only a fraction of the thousands riding the Magic Kingdom’s most popular E-ticket have likely seen the film this log-flume sprang from, much less know its incendiary history.
How did Disney’s most controversial movie become one of its best-loved rides, and why has it been hidden from American moviegoers for a generation?
Disney historian Jim Korkis’ fascinating new book Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories finally separates fact from fiction regarding the 1946 film considered a masterpiece by some, an abomination by others. Inside you’ll read true tales of “sex, suicide, secrets and stereotypes” that Mickey would rather hide in his vaunted vault, from pro-condom cartoons to Jessica Rabbit’s crotch shot. But the heart of this volume, a follow-up to Korkis’ excellent Vault of Walt essay collection, is a detailed delving into the decades-old debate over Song of the South.
Here are five myths about this misunderstood movie that Korkis helps dispel:
Song of the South is about happy antebellum slaves
Contrary to popular belief, Song of the South is set after the Civil War, not before. Uncle Remus and the other African-American characters are all free persons (at one point, Remus packs up and leaves the plantation) and words like “darky” and “massa” are never heard. But the script does a poor job of making this clear; original co-writer Harry Rapf was fired after insisting the Reconstruction setting be made more explicit.
Walt Disney was prejudiced against blacks and Jews
Early Disney cartoons included insensitive ethnic stereotypes that were standard in Depression-era comedies, and Walt himself became increasingly right-wing with age (he defiantly wore a Goldwater pin while receiving the Medal of Freedom from LBJ). But Disney legend Floyd Norman (an African-American animator who worked on Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book) asserts, “Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behavior Walt Disney was often accused of long after his death. His treatment of people – and by this I mean all people – can only be called exemplary.” And Disney re-edited offensive scenes in The Three Little Pigs and Fantasia years before civil rights became mainstream.
No one objected to Song of the South before now
The film courted controversy even before the cameras rolled. Clarence Muse, an African-American entertainer hired to consult on the screenplay, quit after writer Dalton Reymond “ignored his suggestions to portray the African-American characters with more dignity.” Black publications like Ebony attacked the film before release, and the NAACP (which was denied a preview screening) picketed the Times Square premiere. Though it was last re-released domestically in 1986, Disney announced as early as 1970 that it would permanently shelve the film “as offensive to Negroes and present concepts
Disney has made it impossible to see Song of the South
At the Walt Disney Company’s 2011 shareholder meeting, CEO Bob Iger said regarding the film, “It wouldn’t be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back … don’t expect to see it again … at least for awhile, if ever.” But that hasn’t stopped it from being shown in the U.K. on BBC2 or sold on laserdisc in Japan. Bootlegs are available on the Internet and at fan conventions, and you can find the complete film on YouTube with a little searching. In 2011, Disney scanned the original negative for a 4K digital restoration, so a future Blu-ray release is technically feasible.
Song of the South is a great film
Get a gray-market copy and you’ll discover that, controversy aside, the movie hasn’t aged well. The animated sequences are stupendous, but they occupy barely a third of the film. The live-action majority is leaden, despite James Baskett’s award-winning performance as Remus. As the New York Times said in their original review: “The Disney wonder-workers are just a lot of conventional hacks when it comes to telling a story with actors instead of cartoons.”