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15 Great Oscar-Winning Songs!: “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah”

They run the risk of wearing out their welcome with that reprise don’t they? To my ears the Walt Disney Choir drops in about one chorus too late. Ah well, no matter. This is the sort of ear worm that can survive some mild over-reach.

Let’s address the seventy-year-old elephant in the room, shall we? Song of the South is a pretty complicated chapter in the history of the Disney company that has gone through an ebb and flow in critical and public estimation. Walt himself knew that he was treading on tricky ground with any film that was even adjacent to discussing race relations. He hired a Jewish “lefty” writer to try to balance out the tone and characterizations in the film. He hired the only African-American actress to ever win an Oscar. He hired a legendary cinematographer. He consulted with the marketing team of another racially sensitive film. He organized a meeting with the President of the NAACP for script revisions.

So what happened?

Well, some of the problem is undoubtedly that the source material was just unsuitable to begin with for Disney’s sensibilities. It’s possible that a sensitive and sophisticated film could be made from Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, but based on what we know about the work Walt and company did for the first thirty or so years of their existence as a film studio they don’t appear to have been the ones to produce such a product. That sounds like an insult, but it’s really just an admission that all artists have limits; things they are good at and things they might not be naturally adept with. The studio which allowed the “Sunflower” character to ever appear in Fantasia just six years earlier was maybe not deft enough with racial issues to make this specific project work.

Yeah. That happened. And Disney didn’t remove that footage from the otherwise sporadically amazing Fantasia until a couple of years after Walt’s death.

Which kind of points to the fact that things were in flux socially at the time, including with race relations. Sources from inside the production openly proclaimed that they were hoping to attract some of the same romantic positive attention for Song of the South in 1946 that the humongous blockbuster Gone With the Wind had enjoyed in 1940. But the attitudes of many Americans had changed over the course of the World War that had occurred between those dates. African-American men had fought bravely in the terrible conflict and the whole world got to see the horrors that cultural scapegoating and prejudice could create. We knew one thing for certain: The United States was better than that. At least we hoped we were.

So when Walt, a man who had served his country by making propaganda films, but who was still a product of pre-war thinking approached making this film, it was with a brand of naiveté. He knew enough to realize there were pitfalls to it, but he trusted his own sense of good-natured showmanship to win the situation over. He hired Hattie McDaniel for a supporting role and gave her a song to sing.

Nothing about the character she played in Song of the South was more offensive than the rather broad role she had gotten an Oscar for, but public taste for the depiction of African-Americans as a servant class had changed.

And this point leads to another bit of uncertainty about the story. Both at the time of its release and today, people seem to be under the misconception that it takes place prior to the Civil War. It doesn’t. The source material and the movie both are set during Reconstruction at a time when, technically, Uncle Remus and the other African-American characters were free people. Perhaps this is why the filmmakers thought it was appropriate to allow these particular characters to have a rather friendly employer/employee dynamic. The studio had been advised to make it clear up front with some sort of title or voice over that the story was taking place after the war, but for some reason they never made that happen. Whether that would have mitigated some of the reaction to the final product is hard to know, but the fact is that there continues to be confusion on the era being depicted.

song-of-the-south-poster

Blowback was intense enough at the time of the movie’s release that the studio couldn’t really ignore that there was at the very least a publicity problem. They didn’t make things any better by holding the film’s premiere at a movie theater in Atlanta which was still segregated, meaning that star James Baskett was unable to attend. Walt did personally lobby the Academy Awards to honor Baskett at their ceremony early the next year, arguing that the character had been entirely the actor’s creation, and they came through with an honorary Oscar for him.

A key question to ask anyone if you’re having a conversation about Song of the South is whether or not they have actually seen it. Unfortunately there are those with a myriad of opinions on the subject who will have to admit that the answer is “no.” As someone who has, in fact, seen it on a couple of occasions, I will say that it is a mixed bag. There is some good work in it. Legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, of Citizen Kane fame delivers some excellently realized color photography. In the context of the film taking place when the African-American characters were sharecroppers instead of slaves, it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to go about their work cheerfully if they want to. After all, no matter the setting of the story, that’s not really what it’s about. When you consider Walt Disney’s upbringing in tough, hard-working circumstances a movie about a boy marooned away from his Father on a plantation where a friendly but misunderstood storyteller helps to save his life it all looks a little on-the-nose, doesn’t it? This is what attracted Walt.

Personally, I can forgive a lot about the movie. But there’s one segment that just can’t be explained away in a satisfactory way.

tar-baby

Ah, the Tar Baby problem. There is some difference of opinion as to whether this term is, on its face, a racial slur and there are many who claim ignorance on the topic. The term does have a long-running meaning in which a problem only gets worse the more effort is applied to it. It is this meaning that some public figures have come under fire for using with no knowledge of its status as an insulting image. What can’t really be denied is that Tar Baby sounds like a slur, especially when applied to a humanoid figure that appears to have a dark complexion. Any attempt to argue otherwise is really just applying too much effort to the problem and will only get you in trouble.

The topic is touchy enough that some presentations of the movie have excised the scene and even the Splash Mountain flume ride in Disney’s parks show Br’er Rabbit trapped by a bee hive instead of tar. Despite many years of the film being locked away in the Disney vault, this ride continues to be very popular, and takes full advantage of the charm and music the film does possess to entertain guests.

Nothing offensive there, and the valid concerns which do arise out of the film really can’t be applied to “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah” the Oscar-Winning song. At least the Jackson 5 didn’t appear to think so in this early performance.

That kid could sing.

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Posted on February 21, 2017, in Awards, Magic Kingdom, Movies, Music, Oscars, Walt Disney World and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You didn’t shy away from controversy on this one. I wondered how or if you would address the elephant in the room, and you definitely did that. From what I have read, Walt was quite stubborn about not making any changes to the finished film. Yes, he asked for feedback. He seemed to think asking was all that was required of him. When he actually got suggestions, he couldn’t be bothered to consider them. A simple title clarifying the date would have done a lot to mitigate the movie’s image problem. I’m surprised in all these years that the company hasn’t made this simple fix. But I guess at this point, it’s a lost cause.

    I have never actually seen the movie from start to finish. That would have required going to a theater. But growing up, I used to see clips (mostly from the animated segments) on Disney TV shows. And speaking of the tar baby, I had this record/story book:

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    • I actually considered using that same photo in the article. I didn’t have that record, but cousins of mine did (also a long-playing 33 as well if I remember correctly).

      I saw it during its 1980(?) re-release and again just a few years ago when someone had a complete version posted to YouTube for a while. For a modern audience it requires some forgiving perspective on what was historically accurate and what was (slightly) more acceptable at the time of its release. There is some excellent and charming content included in it, but I sure wouldn’t call it one of Disney’s finest, controversy or not.

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      • Yeah, I have no burning desire to see it. If there was a free screening down the block, the only reason I would consider attending is curiosity. The primary appeal is the theme park connection. I get my fill of Bre’er Rabbit from Splash Mountain. The song is catchy, but unless I am riding in a log I’d prefer not to have it stuck in my head.

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