Why closing Splash Mountain is a good thing, and why Disney's Song of the South's still unavailable
Updated: Feb 9
George does his "Rabbit Hole" thing and tries to stay out of Politics (Fails!)
Toward the end of 2021, The Walt Disney Company announced the closure of Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World in Florida. They also announced their intention to close the attraction at Disney Land in California. Disney Japan and Euro Disney are still up for grabs. But in my opinion, if you need to scratch the traditional Splash Mountain Log Flume itch, Japan will probably not change.
Why do I say that? Let's jump into the way-back machine to 1991 or 1992. I'm a bit sketchy. (I know I can look it up, but this is a side point.) Imagine you are me in Tokyo, Japan, being feted by a Japanese Record Label. I directed and shot a music video for a fellow named Snow. The song was Informer and was a huge hit worldwide. Bigger brains than mine decided I was required to attend all the awards shows that seemed to happen over a week in Japan. Snow was a phenomenon there, and he picked up quite a few trophies, as did I.
I could recount many adventures, but almost none have a pertinence to the story but this one. I stayed in a huge suite in a gorgeous hotel. For my visit, I had a handler, Himari. She was young. She could'a been fourteen or thirty. No clue. She would take me out to dinner, drinking, more food, more drinking, and other activities that are way off base for this tale. Anyway, one day at lunch, I asked about her home, and she offered to take me to meet her parents.
Himari lived in a dense apartment block in the Shinagawa neighborhood, and we entered a comfortable room. Her mother was charmed to meet me, her father less so. Her brother was at university in America and, according to Himari, probably drunk. It was a small duplex with a living room and kitchen with two bedrooms below. While her brother was in school, his bedroom was now hers. (My hotel room was easily twice the size of their apartment.) She showed me her room, and she had a small VHS and Television combo unit. On the shelf, she had several movies. All Disney, but her favorite was Song of The South.
“But why?” I asked. "It's so happy!" was her reply. I then sang Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah with her, and off we left to eat sushi off of some model's body. (I tell you, there are lots of misadventures on this trip.)
"It's so happy!" And that, my friends, is the rub.
Splash Mountain is part of Disney's Song of the South celebration dedicated to the characters and songs of the problematic movie Song of the South. What's the problem, you ask? Though it won the Oscar for best song, Zip A-Dee-Doo-Dah, and a special Oscar for Uncle Remus actor 43-year-old James Baskett, Walt Disney attempted to make a film, a combination of live-action and animation, that threaded the needle between the liberal North and the Jim Crow South.
What came out of the studio in 1946 was their first post-World War Two "Big" picture release, and most significant budget at the time, over two million smackers. It also seems that it was the first time Disney let public opinion (or perception) sway its creative process. Song of the South is a very entertaining film for kids about five. There seemingly was nothing wrong; it has great songs, fun animation, and decent acting. The film is based on Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus Stories. An antebellum Aesop if you will. Harris was a reporter who was on the southern beat during Reconstruction. And hit pay dirt when he wrote his first Uncle Remus book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings. The books were a huge hit and have been continuously in print ever after. Houghton Mifflin released a compendium of all eight Harris Uncle Remus books in 2022.
The stories are good. Suppose you can ignore the casual racism and stereotypes. They're fantastic! The movie, on the other hand, Disney's leap on the Gone with The Wind juggernaut (seven years too late), presents a view of the Reconstruction as a lovely time. Formerly enslaved people and their former owners lived in a bucolic setting amidst the tobacco and cotton fields. The film's presentation was a wholly impossible reality for movie-goers in 1946. Heck, President Truman didn't integrate the US Army until 1948. On the floor of the US Senate, Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi declared that white soldiers from the South expected to come home and find "the integrity of the institutions of the South unimpaired." The Senator elaborated, "Those boys were fighting to maintain white supremacy."
I'm sorry, I thought we were fighting the white supremist Aryans of the Nazi party. My mistake.
The film is a combination of animation and live action. It inspired a long-running syndicated comic strip, comic book, toys, games, and all manner of Disney merchandising mania, besides the Splash Mountain area of the Magic Kingdom.
Fun Fact: The attraction isn't called "Br'er Bears Log Jam Misadventure" because the Walt Disney Company's live-action brand, Touchstone Pictures, had a massive hit with 1984's Splash. The thinking was that folks at the park would subliminally think about Darryl Hannah as a mermaid rather than Song of the South. (I suspect I am not the only person on the planet who pondered Daryl Hannah as a mermaid.)
Walt Disney and his right hand Ub Iwerks produced the Alice comedies paired, Alice- yeah, that one from Wonderland and the Looking Glass, and entertaining animation goodness. Walt directed almost 60 Alice shorts over four years. Sixteen films might be lost, but who knows? With global warming, we may find more lost movies in landfills previously covered in ice and snow. (I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.)
Disney brought the idea back with its follow-up to Dumbo 1941's not-classic Saludos Amigos and the (also) not-classic 1944's The Three Caballeros. These were animation and live action shorts interconnected, not living people in an animated world. For those of you paying attention, Disney would keep trying to refine this technique up to Tron, and its sequel, Tron Legacy.
So, Song of the South drops into a difficult time. The NAACP maintains that the Civil Rights movement was born on the shoulders of the returned veterans of color. Walt and Roy Disney hoped the movie would attract Black audiences and increase the cash needed to maintain the studio. It was an expensive film. It was made more difficult by a strike by animators and the lean years of the war. (They made some great propaganda films for the war effort. But they didn't pay much.)
Upon release, The NAACP released a statement: "The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes that Song of the South is of remarkable artistic merit in the music and the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique." Sounds good, right? But that wasn't all. "It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North nor the South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South, unfortunately, gives the impression of an idyllic master–slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts." Ouch!
It wasn't just the NAACP. Disney's publicist, Vern Caldwell, wrote to the film's producers, “The negro situation is a dangerous one. Between the negro haters and the negro lovers, there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut from the nasty to the controversial." Walt knew there was trouble from the start when the Hayes Office (You know, the Motion Picture Production Code, fellows) demanded changes in the initial treatment for racial insensitivity! (Before they even had a script!)
A Southerner and neophyte screenwriter, Dalton Reynard, was set to write the script. To counteract his white supremacist views, Disney hired one of the founders of the Writers Guild, a Jewish communist, Maurice Raph. He wrote dialogue not unlike this, "You can't tell me if I can read stories to the boy. I'm a free man!" (I paraphrase.) It was that sort of thing that got him canned. It was a battle getting a screenplay written. The Hayes Office required that the film display a date on the opening scene to place in a historical time frame.
As you can see, the film was a complex mix of emotions right from the get-go. The reviews were a crazy array of conflicting opinions, even in the same article. Walt Disney only saw the finished film with an audience once. Still, it grossed, to date, around, give or take, $100,000,000.00, which isn't bad since it hasn't been available for public consumption in forty years! Disney has no plans to release or add the film to the Disney+ streaming service. EVER!
Now on the plus side, the currently controversial hit song, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, won an Oscar and was covered hundreds of times by a diverse selection of recording artists like Eddie Fisher, Lawrence Welk, Dionne Warwick, The Dave Clark Five, The Jackson Five, Louis Armstrong, Paula Abdul, Toots and the Maytals, so many covers, I could do this all day.
Uncle Remus actor, James Baskett, was only 41 years old when he made the film. He would die a year later. But before he left the planet, he was gifted a special, one-time only, Oscar for his beloved performance. One-time only!?! How come? What's that about? When Hattie McDaniel won her best supporting actress Oscar for 1939s Gone with The Wind, the Hollywood community raised a bit of a crap storm. Unbelievably, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award Baskett an honorary Oscar to avoid controversy. The Academy agreed to take him out of competition and just award him the trophy. Almost no controversy at the time. About the award, the film still had plenty.
Not Fun Fact: We are meant to see Song of the South through the eyes of Disney Superstar Bobby Driscoll. And we do.
He was quite an actor and a worthy child star. He was one of twelve recipients of what Bob Hope called the “Oscar-ette,” The Academy Juvenile Award. The first recipient was Shirley Temple in 1934. It was a way to honor child stars after the crushing Best Actor Defeat of nine-year-old Jackie Cooper against Lionel Barrymore. (Come on, Jackie, quit the waterworks. You're a big boy!) The last time the award was presented was in 1950 to Hayley Mills for Pollyanna. The recipients were awarded for their work over a year. Bobby Driscoll won the award in 1949.
The life of a child actor is never easy. It's almost synonymous with rehab. By 1960 Bobby Driscoll was a has-been and a heroin addict. After a stint in the rehab facility at the state prison in Chino, California, Bobby told a reporter, "I was carried on a silver platter—and then dumped into the garbage."
Looking for a new start, he traveled to New York City, hoping to return to Broadway. For a time, he hung out at the Factory with Andy Warhol, and his last film was Dirt, directed by Piero Heliczer, an Italian immigrant who was a writer, a poet, an actor, and a filmmaker. (In America you can be anything you want, or in this guy’s case, all the things.)
On March 30, 1968, two boys playing in a deserted East Village tenement at 371 East 10th St. (I played and even lived in one of those abandoned buildings.) They found Driscoll dead from heart failure due to his heroin use. No identification was on the body, and they could find no local residents who recognized his photo. It's tough to identify someone from his dead-guy picture. His unclaimed body was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in New York City's Potter's Field on Hart Island.
A year later, while his father was dying, his mother mounted a search for him. Eventually, his California prison fingerprints identified him. Unfortunately, Potter's field doesn't keep records of vagrants, and he could not be found. His mother hoped to have him exhumed to be buried next to his father. Today his name is on the stone marker at his father’s grave.
For his work in cinema and television, Bobby Driscoll received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1560 Vine Street in 1960. It's right in front of the Equinox Gym if you feel the need to pay your respects.
Who markets anything better than Disney? No one. Why keep an attraction dedicated to a product you won't sell? You don't. Especially when you have a thematically similar and uncontroversial product like The Princess and the Frog. Sure, it has an African American Princess (of sorts).
But outside of some cosmetic changes, the Splash Mountain area is unchanged. You can still ride the log flume, whatever you call it. The Bayou Splash Down?
Politics and theme parks are not a great combination. I'd hate to have pro-classical music protesters in front of Dollywood. I wouldn't want the lactose intolerant protesting outside Dairy Land, Wiccans on the picket line at The Holy Land Experience. And I can't stand that elements of the anti-woke movement protested Disney World's decision to update a relatively small part of the Magic Kingdom.
Our world is changing whether we like it or not. The clock only travels in one direction. There are no do-overs. In America, Song of the South's removal attempts to correct a misstep in an otherwise stellar creative career. I disagree with their choice of sequestering the film, and I'm still pissed that they wouldn't let me make a documentary about the making of the film and its controversies. The movie distorts facts, and in places in our country, people still want those distortions to be considered accurate. I want to find a way to show this film in context with the real world, to explain the history of the stories and the movie in a historical manner. There is a reason that the film is perennially in the fifties of the top 100 animated features of all time. It has value, but it's just wrong in so many ways.
Shanghai Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris will probably keep whatever Song of the South decorations they have. Why is that? The rest of the world seems to have a different view of it than America does. They don't see the inherent racism because it's not their story. Like Hirami says, "It's so happy!"
Follow George Seminara and the Movies he Likes in the pages of It Came From Hollywood! Book 3 features George's look at 1937's Easy Living! Available from these fine retailers: Abebooks Barnes & Noble Books-A-Million Half Price Books Target Walmart Amazon and anywhere books are sold.