Song of the South at 70, Part I (General Overview)

Note: All photos used in this series are used solely to illustrate the subject, and are consistent with Fair Use doctrine.

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I’d heard, for a long time, talk about how Song of the South was considered racist or censored, but until a year or so ago, I didn’t realize that meant Disney has actually been pretending it doesn’t exist. I’m showing my age, but I’m among the youngest people (at least in the U.S.) to have seen this film through legitimate means. I saw it at its last theatrical rerelease, on its 40th anniversary, and kept my ticket stub.

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If you were born after about 1982, you’ve either never seen this film, or you’ve only seen it through a bootleg. It had been so long since I’d seen it, I’d honestly completely forgotten there are live-action segments. All I remembered were the cartoons. I didn’t even remember the names of the characters, though a lightbulb did turn on when I read the names Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear. I also vaguely remembered the Tar Baby.

So what’s this blacklisted, controversial film about exactly?

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Seven-year-old Johnny (whose mother insists upon dressing him like Little Lord Fauntleroy) is on his way to his grandmother’s plantation with his parents, Sally and John, Sr., and their maid, Aunt Tempy (the wonderful Hattie McDaniel, who’s probably best-known for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind). Johnny thinks it’s just a fun, short vacation, but after they arrive, John, Sr., announces he’s leaving for Atlanta to do some work for his journalism career.

Johnny is so upset, he runs away at night, hoping to find his father. However, he stumbles across Uncle Remus telling his famous stories about Br’er Rabbit, and hangs back in the shadows to listen. By now, Johnny’s disappearance has been noticed, and several people come to ask Uncle Remus if he’s seen the boy.

Uncle Remus claims Johnny is with him, and presently goes to find Johnny, comforts him, and befriends him. As incentive to coax Johnny back home, Uncle Remus tells a story about what happened to Br’er Rabbit when he tried to run away to avoid his troubles, and discovered the grass wasn’t greener at all.

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After Uncle Remus escorts Johnny back home, Johnny makes friends with Toby, an African–American boy who lives on the plantation, and Ginny Favers, a poor white girl who lives nearby. Ginny’s two older brothers are total bullies and jerks, and don’t give Ginny and Johnny a moment’s rest. They even want to drown the runt puppy whom Ginny gives Johnny for safekeeping.

Johnny’s straitlaced mother won’t let him keep the puppy in the house, so he persuades Uncle Remus to keep it. Uncle Remus once again comforts Johnny with a story about Br’er Rabbit and his antagonists, Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. This story, about the Tar Baby, imparts the lesson of not fooling around in business that doesn’t concern you.

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Johnny, using the reverse psychology he learnt from the story, tricks Ginny’s brothers into telling their mother about the puppy. Their mother beats them with a stick when she discovers what’s going on, and the boys hate Johnny even more.

They run to tell Johnny’s mother about the puppy, and she’s very upset with Uncle Remus for his role in the situation. She also orders him to stop telling stories to Johnny. Seriously, Uncle Remus is just about the only sympathetic, likable character in this movie!

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Johnny’s mother plans a birthday party for her son, so he can meet children his own age and stop hanging around with Uncle Remus so much. She only very begrudgingly accepts Johnny’s pleas to let Ginny come too.

Ginny’s mother has made her a beautiful party dress from her old wedding gown, but Ginny’s jerk brothers push her into a mud puddle on her way to the party and ruin her dress. A fight breaks out among the three boys, which Uncle Remus puts a stop to.

Neither Ginny nor Johnny wants to go to the party anymore, and Uncle Remus cheers them up with another story, about Br’er Rabbit’s Laughing Place.

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When the three of them show up at the plantation, Johnny’s mother is really angry, and says the party is over. She orders Uncle Remus to stop spending time with Johnny, and Uncle Remus is so shaken and saddened, he packs up and heads off to Atlanta.

When Johnny sees Uncle Remus’s wagon driving away, he runs after him, right through the bull pen Toby warned him about earlier. I won’t spoil what happens after this, though do you really except an unhappy ending from Disney?

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5 comments on “Song of the South at 70, Part I (General Overview)

  1. I saw it in the theaters in the early 70’s and had forgotten most of it as well. Such an unusual film, especially for Disney.

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  2. I probably saw this in the theater as a kid like Alex, but I don’t remember it all all. The cartoons look familiar. It’s possible we had a record with the stories on it because I remember the Br’er Rabbit tales well.

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  3. cleemckenzie says:

    I always loved the Br’er Rabbit tales and Disney always entertains. Thanks for reminding us of the Song of the South. I’d forgotten all about it.

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  4. Chrys Fey says:

    I guess I’m showing my age now…because I’ve never seen this…or even heard of it until now. I am interested in watching it now, though. It’s always fascinating to see old Disney.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      Disney still uses the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” fairly often, including at the popular ride Splash Mountain. That tends to be the one thing people who’ve never seen the film tend to be familiar with.

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