Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Song of the South - Background

We’re dealing with 1946, which means it is time to cover the most “controversial” film in the Disney canon, Song of the South. To this day, the film stirs up emotions in people that are difficult to quantify and talk about. But the origins of the film and the way it came to be are quite interesting on their own.

Song of the South is based on the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, a Georgia author who created Uncle Remus and his critter characters. Harris created the character for a column in the Atlanta newspaper, and his stories went on to be collected in books that were extremely popular. The stories that Harris wrote at his house in Atlanta, known as the Wren’s Nest, became widely read.

Harris created the character of Uncle Remus, a slave who lived on a plantation and told stories of animals given human characteristics. Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear were just some of the characters, but there were many others. His works were immediately recognized among the best writers of the day, up there with Mark Twain and other pre-1900 writers.

Walt read the stories of Uncle Remus in the early 1900s, and thought they would make a good subject for animation. Once the studio got going, Walt decided to revisit Harris’ work, in the hopes of making a film or series of shorts. He began negotiations with Harris’ remaining relatives in 1939, with the idea of making a live action film with animated segments for the critter stories.

Chandler's House - The Wren's Nest

Production finally began on the film in 1944, after Walt went to the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta to get an idea of what Harris was feeling when he wrote the stories. Originally titled Uncle Remus, the movie was the first full live action film Disney ever produced. While the studio had been doing live action for segments in films like The Reluctant Dragon or Saludos Amigos, this was the first film that was to be a complete live action film with animation supporting the live actors.

James Baskett was cast as Uncle Remus, with young actors tabbed to fill out the cast, including Bobby Driscoll, the first child actor under contract to the studio. It was clear Walt envisioned an expanding role into more live action filming. Production was completed in 1946, and the film was released into the world in October.

With a grand world premiere at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Walt Disney released the retitled film Song of the South. It went on to be a mild financial success, but it was clear from the beginning that the race issue would always play a role in this film. There were praises and condemnations for the portrayal of the slaves in the film, which causes all the controversy today.

But how is the movie itself? Come back tomorrow and we’ll discuss it.

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