Walt Disney's Song of the South and the Politics of Animation

Article excerpt

Like most Hollywood studios following the conclusion of World War II, the Walt Disney Studio was having trouble regaining its financial footing. The collapse of the all-important foreign market during the war years, shrinking domestic profits, increasing production costs, and the layoff of one-third of its staff made continuing the production of full-length animated features nearly impossible, especially those of the labor-intensive and costly variety which had made the Disney reputation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942). The 1941 labor strike at the studio, as a result of an effort to unionize his employees, had also left Disney himself dispirited and alienated from many of his most talented artists.

The animators had experimented with the combination of live action and animated sequences in Saludos Amigos in 1943 and The Three Caballeros in 1945, both the result of a State Department funded good will tour of South America for the staff, but they were anthologies without central dramatic plots and musical travelogues mainly composed of short animated features. Both were modest successes at the box office, however, and allowed the studio to continue, but Disney decided to attempt a full-length feature with a larger emphasis on live action and less emphasis on the expensive animation. His choice of subject matter would allow for that as he turned to a favorite source he had long wanted to animate, the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, which would necessitate a box structure in which the elderly former-slave narrator would tell the tales to his young white listener. Thus, there would be an easy transition from a real world situation to a stylized world of animated fantasy, and the short tales would be integrated thematically within the larger plot structure.

However, Disney was venturing into new territory in undertaking what was basically his first full-length live action feature, with the attendant need for script writers, a director, a cinematographer, and live actors, people with whom he had had little previous experience. Quite unwittingly he was also moving into dangerous ethnic territory in choosing material that was charged with all sorts of racial electricity, just as the nation was taking preliminary steps toward the civil rights movement and the conclusion of segregation in the 1950s.

Disney claimed that one of his earliest fond memories was reading the Uncle Remus books as a child. He said they "came out in print when I was a kid, and I read every single one" (Watts 273). They impressed him as authentic American folklore, and he would later share the tales with his own children. To film them would be the realization of a life-long dream. "Ever since I had anything to do with the making of motion pictures," he said, "I have wanted to bring them to the screen. They have been in my mind from early childhood" (Snead [White Screens/Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side] 81). As early as 1939 he began negotiating with the Harris family for the purchase of film rights to the stories and had his animators work up story boards for several of the most popular tales of Brer Rabbit (Gabler [Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination] 432-33).

Disney's desire was to celebrate both the tales and the Southern culture that had produced them. The trouble was that he knew precious little about the South, its history, and its culture aside from what he and most Americans had learned from the popular culture of his time - Gone with the Wind, both the novel and film and their large film progeny; country music radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry; or comic strips like Li' I Ahner and Snuffy Smith. On his way by train to attend the premiere of Fantasia in New York in November of 1940, he did swing through New Orleans and Atlanta ostensibly to gather some Southern atmosphere in preparation for an Uncle Remus film (Gabler [Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination] 341). …