SUSPENDED ANIMATION #258
With Disney+ not including Song of the South (1946) in its offerings, it once again ignited the controversies about the film that are often based on a mixture of misunderstandings and urban legends – because, for the most part, it has been tightly locked away unavailable in the Disney vaults for decades.
It was definitely with a naïve unawareness of the racial situation in America at the time that Walt intended to diversify into live action by producing a film about American folklore just as he had made films of European fairy tales. His contract with distributor RKO required his films feature a significant portion of animation, even though Walt’s resources in that area were severely strained after World War II.
Animator Marc Davis recalled that, “Walt had been interested in getting into live action for some time. Here was a way he could do that and have his cartoon, too. I think almost all the animators who worked on it would have to say that they never did anything that was more fun than that film. We, as a group, never liked the live action film particularly. But maybe we’re jealous, too.”
The film does not take place during the era of slavery but during the time of Reconstruction after the Civil War. At one point, Uncle Remus decides to pack up and leave which he would not have been able to do as a slave because he would have been considered the property of the plantation.
He is a free man and the others working on the plantation are sharecroppers and in the original script by Maurice Rapf, one of the reasons the father has to go to Atlanta is to raise money to pay them. That reference by Rapf and others like a title card stating the year were removed by writer Dalton Reymond after Rapf left the studio.
A clear indication that Walt considered the entire film a fantasy was that in October of 1944, he sent color stylist Mary Blair to Atlanta, Georgia for ten days of conferences and field trips with a local artist and historian “to collect historical and scenic background”.
The intent was to make the live action so unrealistically colorful as to blend seamlessly with the animation. Her color schemes used for the live action set and costume designs helped transform an Arizona location where the movie was filmed into a post Civil War Georgia that never was. Walt was aiming at an emotional fantasy authenticity rather than an accurate historical documentary.
Thirty-six animators took two years to do the animation that accounts for only about one-third of the film. The first release of the film emphasized the live action in the hopes that this would be the beginning of the Disney Studio producing live action films but later re-releases prominently focused on the animation in all publicity.
Storyboarding the animated sequences was the assignment given to Bill Peet. While several of the fables were developed as possible animated segments, supposedly it was Walt himself who selected Running Away, Tar Baby, and Laughing Place as the three to expand into the ones that appear in the final film.
Bill Peet wrote in his autobiography. “Developing the characters of the rabbit, the fox, and the bear and working with the quaint old fables was the most fun I’d had since Dumbo.”
“Bill Peet’s great story work seemed to lend itself to this type of casting …which could have only been done by one person handling both the characters and completely controlling every single bit of action, timing and cutting. He had developed strong character delineation, and the design of the characters inspired the animators to get a very loose handling of their work,” stated animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life.
Disney storymen Ralph Wright and George Stallings also contributed to the gags and story. Six of Disney’s fabled Nine Old Men (Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, Les Clark and John Lounsbery) were given credit as directing animators. Wilfred Jackson was overall supervising cartoon director.
After the constraints of working on military training films with limited animation and mundane stories, Disney’s animation staff was very excited about working on this new project. Actually, the short length of the three segments was an advantage as the artists could spend more time on their animation without the budget limitations that would have been enforced on a full length animated feature to produce more animation footage and at a quicker rate.
Ken Anderson remembered, “This was the most fun I ever had on a Disney picture. I think that’s true for most of the animators who worked on it too. To me, the perfect culmination of layout, animation, and art direction happened in Song of the South.
“Every scene was thumb-nailed before it went to layout, checked with the director Wilfred Jackson and storyman Bill Peet. Then the scene was cast for an animator and the animator could redraw the thumbnails if he wanted and we would thrash it out. We pasted all the thumbnails in a large book so we knew exactly where we were at any given time. There was never that degree of coordination again.”
Ollie Johnston animated on all three primary characters: “It was one of the most exciting pictures I ever worked on. Each fable was full of action, and with those three great characters you had quite a wonderful triangle there. I really liked the character relationships that developed between the rabbit, fox and bear.”
Eric Larson who worked on Brer Bear remembered that “The charm of animation is simplicity and pantomime. Where could you find three more clearly defined characters getting into strange predicaments than in Song of the South? The characters were especially fun to animate because they showed a lot of thinking going on behind them.
“We were so happy to be working on this film after so many years of making those dull government films. Also, it was so different from our previous animated feature, Bambi (1942). Here we could give the animals human traits and then exaggerate all the movements whereas with Bambi, everything had to be animated true-to-life and very exact.”
Marc Davis animated on Brer Fox and Brer Bear constructing the tar baby. He also contributed story sketches to the live action-animation combination sequences with Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. He was always quick to praise Bill Peet for “a tremendous job” in developing the film’s highly “animate-able cartoon situations and vivid personalities”. Marc Davis said, “Bill Peet is the one who deserves the credit for that conception…absolutely an incredible thing’”.
The original negatives for the Song of the South are stored in a climate-controlled vault at the Library of Congress’ audiovisual preservation facility in Culpeper, Virginia.
In 2011, Disney began a program to preserve their entire library of volatile nitrate film negatives by making 4K digital scans of the films as well as making new black and white successive exposure negatives designed to preserve the films for another hundred years. Song of the South was one of the films preserved even though there were no plans for a re-release.
EDITORS NOTE: For more information about Song of the South, read Jim Korkis’ book Who’s Afraid of The Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories (2014).