A simple story of a simple mouse

NOTE: All images are used solely to illustrate the subject for the purposes of a film review and historical background, and as such are consistent with Fair Use Doctrine.

Released 18 November 1928, Steamboat Willie was Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s official début. They’d both appeared in silent cartoon Plane Crazy, released 15 May 1928, but it failed to find a distributor after its screening. Another pre-stardom, silent, unreleased cartoon was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, in August 1928. Due to Steamboat Willie‘s success, both cartoons were remade with sound and released 30 December 1928 (The Gallopin’ Gaucho) and 17 March 1929 (Plane Crazy).

Steamboat Willie was Disney’s very first cartoon with synchronized sound, and the first cartoon with a fully post-production soundtrack. Its title is an obvious spoof of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Walt Disney did all the voices (unintelligible though they may be).

Mickey is steering a steamship when the giant, mean captain, Pete, creeps up behind him and yanks him away from the wheel. Naturally, Mickey is quite upset. When Pete tries to kick him, he runs down the stairs, slips on soap, and lands in a bucket of water. Smarting with humiliation, Mickey throws the bucket at a laughing parrot.

Back at the wheel, Pete (who’s been watching Mickey’s antics) takes a bite of chewing tobacco and spits it into the wind.  It flies backwards and rings the bell. Hoping it’ll happen again, Pete spits a second time, only to get hit in the face.

The steamboat stops by Podunk Landing for livestock, where Mickey attempts to milk a very skinny cow. When he feeds her hay, she instantly becomes plump.

Minnie comes running up alongside the boat just before it sets back off, but doesn’t make it in time. Mickey uses the same hook he used for the livestock to bring Minnie aboard. On deck, Minnie accidentally drops sheet music and a guitar, which are promptly eaten by a goat.

In a gag many modern viewers might’ve guessed would happen, Mickey and Minnie use the goat as a musical instrument, in this case a cranked phonograph. Mickey also uses various objects and animals on the boat as instruments.

Pete has had enough of Mickey’s hijinks, and throws him at a potato bin. (I love how Mickey peels the potatoes left-handed!) The parrot from earlier reappears, and Mickey throws a potato at him, knocking him into the water.

The film was produced from July–September 1928, at an estimated budget of $4,986 ($72,675, or £57,414, in today’s money). An unfinished version had a test-screening on 29 July, with live music and sound effects. The audience (Disney employees and their wives) sat in a room adjoining Walt Disney’s office, with the film projector outside. The film was projected through a window.

The audience loved it, which was all the incentive needed to finish the film. Walt Disney decided to use the Cinephone sound-on-film system.

Steamboat Willie premièred by NYC’s Universal’s Colony Theatre (now Broadway Theatre, on 1681 Broadway), and initially ran for two weeks. It was one of the shorts played before the part-talkie feature Gang War (starring Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother; Olive Borden; and awesome character actor Walter Long). Walt Disney was paid $500 a week.

Critics and the general public alike loved the cartoon, which led to nationwide theatrical release and Mickey’s first two cartoons being redone with sound and publicly released.

The film has been referenced, featured, spoofed, or paid homage to in countless films, TV shows, cartoons, and video games over the years. In 1998, it was inducted into the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Song of the South at 70, Part IV (Final thoughts)

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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Many people who’ve never gotten a chance to see Song of the South, or who’ve only seen short, isolated segments, have perpetuated the claim that the film is racist. Now, granted, I’m not African–American, and therefore see the world through a different lens. I don’t have the same socialization and life experiences, and therefore would never claim my opinion is the only correct one. It’s the same reason I’d never claim to understand exactly what it’s like, e.g., to be a man, a Hispanic, or a Hindu.

After revisiting the film almost 30 years later (through a bootlegged streaming on a free movie-watching site which shall go unnamed), I came away not seeing the film as racist at all. It’s more racial than racist, which I’ll explain.

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The film is set in Reconstructionist-era Georgia, just as Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories are. However, it’s extremely unclear as to when exactly it’s set, and thus many people over the years have falsely accused it of being set during the antebellum (pre-Civil War) era.

The Hays Office had asked Walt Disney to establish the fact that the film is set in the 1870s, but he included no such introductory title card, nor any other mention of a date or establishing historical context. The only real clue as to it not being antebellum is how Uncle Remus is free to leave the plantation and move to Atlanta. A slave couldn’t have done that!

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The film definitely depicts an unrealistically rosy-colored picture of newly-freed slaves who are still working on the old plantation. Of course, contrary to popular belief, there were many benevolent slave owners, and freed slaves who had decent lives. It’s not like everyone were some crazed Simon Legree.

However, many freed slaves’ lives didn’t improve, or barely improved. There’s a happy medium between showing an idyllic picture of plantation life in the Reconstructionist era and showing dire poverty, exploitation, bad blood between freed slaves and their former owners who had begun paying them, and dismal living conditions. I obviously don’t expect a children’s movie to err on the darker side of history!

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Uncle Remus does rather embody the stereotype of the Magical Negro, someone who rescues white characters, is in a lowly position, is very wise and patient, usually has no past and just appears to help white characters, and often has mystical powers or special insights. The term itself wasn’t coined till 2001, though this type of stock character has a very long history.

There’s also an accusation of Uncle Tomism, as Uncle Remus seems to be content with a subservient position.

However, the African–American characters are, by and large, a lot more sympathetic and interesting than the white characters. The white characters include Johnny’s straitlaced mother and grandmother, and the Favers boys who bully Johnny and Ginny. Even if Uncle Remus might be considered an Uncle Tom or Magical Negro, he at least provides Johnny with friendship, comfort, and assistance. He’s hands-down the best character.

Promoting interracial friendship is always a good thing, even if the circumstances are a bit unrealistic and rosy-colored.

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Disney has made the situation worse by burying this film and refusing to release it on home media (though it is available in the U.K., Japan, and Hong Kong). Since no one can see it without going through a lot of difficulty, people are unable to form honest opinions about it, and to place it in its proper historical context.

Disney could’ve easily slipped it in there when it was releasing all those really obscure, completist films in the Aughts, like the war propaganda cartoons and the Zorro TV series. All these films got rich bonus features, including commentaries placing them in their proper context.

The film has assumed a wild life of its own, with many folks believing it has to be some horribly racist, offensive movie because Disney won’t release it.

BUT

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Disney is showing absolutely staggering amounts of inconsistency by burying some films and not others. We’ve probably all heard people levelling accusations of racism at the crows in Dumbo and the Native American scenes in Peter Pan, yet both of those films are very much out there. Why hold Song of the South to such a different standard?

Considering there have been over 700 reported hate crimes in the U.S. in the last two weeks, I think the unrealistically rosy setting of Song of the South is a lot better than a Black church getting burnt or people getting beaten up and having their property vandalized.

Song of the South at 70, Part III (Reception and legacy)

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 was released 12 November 1946, having its première in Atlanta’s Fox Theater and being distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. Prior to the première showing, Walt Disney made some opening remarks and introduced the cast, and then went back to the Georgian Terrace Hotel across the street. He preferred not watching his films with an audience, since unexpected reactions upset him.

Also not in attendance was James Baskett (Uncle Remus), owing to how Atlanta was under the domain of Jim Crow.

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For pre-release publicity, Disney launched a Sunday newspaper comic called Uncle Remus & His Tales of Br’er Rabbit on 14 October 1945. In 1937, he’d done the same for Snow White, though unlike that previous strip, Uncle Remus ran until 31 December 1972 and branched out to be more than just a comic adaptation of the film.

Starting in late 1946, comic books about Br’er Rabbit also began appearing. That same year, Simon & Schuster published a Giant Golden Book entitled Walt Disney’s Uncle Remus Stories.

The film earned $3.3 million, though Disney’s profit was a mere $226,000.

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In spite of the success, some critics weren’t so keen on it, particularly the live-action segments. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther felt the Disney magic was decreasing with the ever more frequent intrusion of real actors in place of “animated whimsies.”

At the 20th Academy Awards, 20 March 1948, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Best Song award. The score was also nominated for the Scoring of a Musical Picture award.

Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award, becoming the first African–American man to win an Academy Award. His co-star, Hattie McDaniel, had in 1939 been the first African–American to win an Academy Award altogether.

Bobby Driscoll (Johnny) and Luana Patten (Ginny) were considered for Special Juvenile Awards, but it was ultimately decided not to give such awards to anyone.

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Over the years, the film was theatrically re-released five times—1956, 1972, 1973, 1980, and 1986. I saw it at its final theatrical re-release, on its 40th anniversary. That final re-release was also used to help with promoting the upcoming Splash Mountain ride, which uses “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and several other songs from the soundtrack.

Then Disney buried it and began pretending it doesn’t exist. Disney has released so many obscure, completist films, like its war propaganda cartoons, their Zorro TV series, and their Davy Crockett miniseries, yet complete silence when it comes to Song of the South. There’s not even any merchandise, like keychains or stuffed animals.

There are, however, home media releases in the U.K., Japan, and Hong Kong. As recently as 2006, the BBC broadcast it on TV.

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Though the film itself has been buried, the characters of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear have appeared in comic strips and other Disney shows over the years. They’ve also appeared in the 2011 video game Kinect: Disneyland Adventures. On the non-Disney front, Br’er Bear and the Tar Baby appeared in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The popular ride Splash Mountain is based around the Uncle Remus stories, with the additon of a new character, Br’er Turtle. The ride also uses several songs from the soundtrack. It’s like Disney expects people to believe they just pulled all this out of thin air, instead of adapting it from a very popular movie.

The film will enter public domain in 2039, and it’s hard to believe Disney would let that happen and miss a golden chance to make more money!

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.

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?