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SONG OF THE SOUTH

Chances are improving that Disney will release again, perhaps on DVD, its first big live-action film, the 1946 Song of the South, which introduced the Oscar-winning song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” The film has been criticized as racist for its depiction of Southern plantation blacks, and in deference to that sensitivity, Disney has kept it locked away in its vaults. The live-action introduces a young white boy to a kindly old black man living in a shanty on the plantation, and Uncle Remus, for it is he, then tells the kid stories about Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, which transpire in the liveliest animation sequences. But Uncle Remus presents a fraudulent portrait of Southern blacks, say the film’s critics. (Critics say approximately the same thing about Joel Chandler Harris’ stories in which Uncle Remus was created.) Disney’s Dumbo was kept on the shelf for decades because of the black crows sequence in which a feathered chorus marvels at Dumbo’s flying ability, all in stereotypical black dialect; but Dumbo was eventually released again, after winning applause in various selected screenings. According to Travis Reed at the Associated Press, “nearly 115,000 people have signed an online petition urging Disney to make Song of the South available.” And CEO Bob Iger recently said they’d take a look at it.

I chanced upon a bootleg copy of the movie years ago. A folksinger playing upstairs in Denver’s historic Buckhorn Exchange saloon and restaurant sang “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and asked if anyone knew where the song originated. I did and said so, and afterwards, I asked him if he knew if any videos were available. He did, and he gave me a name and phone number. Later, when I phoned the number, I reached a convivial fellow who told me that he’d run across a stash of Song of the South videos at a flea market years before, and, knowing the value of the trove, he bought them all. He took my name and address and said he’d send me a copy and a bill. “Don’t you want me to pay in advance by credit card?” I asked. “Nope,” he said: “my experience is that anyone who asks for this video is completely trustworthy.” And so wonders never cease.

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