Song of the South at 70, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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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Song of the South is based upon Joel Chandler Harris’s 1881 book Uncle Remus, a collection of Southern African–American folktales. Just like John, Sr., in the film, Mr. Harris too was a journalist in Atlanta. In all, he published seven of these books.

The protagonist is Br’er Rabbit, who’s very wily, resourceful, fond of playing tricks and making trouble, and likable. His frequent antagonists are Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. Their Deep Southern Gullah speech is rendered phonetically, something modern-day writers are strongly warned against, no matter what kind of accent or dialect is involved.

Later on, this dialect, the Uncle Remus narrator, and the stories’ setting on a Reconstructionist-era plantation came under fire, just as the film itself did. This will be discussed in much more detail in Part IV.

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Walt Disney had long had his eye on adapting the Uncle Remus stories, but he only hit upon the best type of film adaptation in the mid-Forties. He thought Uncle Remus would best be served by a real-life actor, and that live actors should co-exist with cartoons.

In 1939, Disney began negotiating with the Harris family for film rights. Late that summer, one of his storyboard artists summarized some of the best stories and created four boards of sketches.

In November 1940, Disney visited the Harris family in Atlanta. As he told Variety magazine, he wanted to experience the setting firsthand so as to adapt the stories as faithfully as possible.

In June 1944, Disney hired Southern writer Dalton Reymond to write the screenplay, and frequently met with legendary director King Vidor, whom he was hoping to coax into directing the live-action scenes. The initial budget was $1,350,000.

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Filming began in December 1944 in Phoenix, under the working title Uncle Remus. The live-action scenes were filmed in Hollywood at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio. Disney went to Phoenix to oversee the outdoor scenes, which he called “atmospheric shots.”

Since Dalton Reymond, who wrote the initial screenplay, wasn’t a professional screenwriter, Maurice Rapf and Callum Webb were brought on board to improve it. According to journalist, film critic, and historian Neal Gabler, Disney hired Rapf to temper a feared “white Southern slant” from Reymond.

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Rapf, meanwhile, feared the script would be too Uncle Tomish. This was exactly why Disney had hired him, because he knew full well Rapf was a radical and against the very concept of the film. Rapf finally accepted the offer when he learnt most of the film would be live-action and that he could make extensive changes.

He worked on it for about seven weeks, but after getting into a dispute with Reymond, he was removed from the project.

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Wilfred Jackson directed the cartoons, while Harve Foster directed the live-action segments. This was Disney’s first live-action dramatic film.

James Baskett, who plays Uncle Remus, initially auditioned for the voice of a cartoon butterfly, and also hoped he might be asked to audition for one of the animals’ voices. Disney was so impressed by Baskett’s voice, he did a screen test for Uncle Remus. Baskett scored the voice of the butterfly as well as the voice of Br’er Fox and Uncle Remus himself.

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Bobby Driscoll (Johnny) was Disney’s first actor to get a personal contract. His film début was 1944’s The Fighting Sullivans. Sadly, like many other former child actors, he went on to have a very troubled life, and died at the age of only 31.

Luana Patten (Ginny) had been professionally modelling since age three, and caught Disney’s attention when she appeared on the cover of Woman’s Home Companion. Glenn Leedy (Toby) was discovered on the playground of Booker T. Washington School in Phoenix.

Mirroring their characters in the film, Ruth Warrick and Erik Rolf (Johnny’s parents) were married during filming, and divorced later that year of 1946. At the time, the public didn’t know they were married and had two kids together.

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3 thoughts on “Song of the South at 70, Part II (Behind the scenes)

  1. So fascinating. I was really sad when that one disappeared from the shelves because it’s such a beautiful film, and let’s face it, Splash Mountain is the best ride at Disney World. The kids have never seen the original film.

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    • I was hoping it might finally come out on DVD for the 70th anniversary this month, though it wasn’t to be. I’ve heard the comment that by keeping it hidden instead of releasing it along with all the other films years ago, they’re making it seem like a really dirty, taboo film and falsely confirming the claims that it’s racist. Since Disney would probably hate to lose a money-making opportunity, I imagine they’ll do something with it before it goes into the public domain.

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