Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our Most Requested Movie

The intro to Chapter 3:

In A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, Robert Ray noted the presence of a “right cycle” movement in the 1970s that saw newer conservative films, such as Dirty Harry (1971), enjoy box office success along with the recirculation of old films from Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age” such as Disney’s Song of the South (re-released in 1972). Ray’s mention of the old Uncle Remus film in this context is crucial for two reasons. For one, it suggests that Song of the South was perceived as being even more conservative by 1972 than it was in the late 1940s and mid-1950s. Moreover, Ray’s comments also indicate that the re-appearance of a film can be as important, if not more so, as the first time it appeared—a fact film scholars sometimes ignore.

Whereas in the 1940s the cinematic “Old South” had been anachronistic, or at least tired, for many post-WWII audiences, such nostalgic texts suddenly came back into vogue, changing fundamentally how the film’s own history was later perceived. Indeed, it has been the re-releases of Song of the South over the last forty years in particular that is the most fascinating and revealing part of its reception history.

There is still another aspect of Ray’s argument that is important—seemingly out of the blue, Song of the South was now popular. After nearly thirty years uneventfully in and out of circulation, which included a harsh initial reception in 1946, an indifferent one in 1956, and an extended disappearance into the Disney Vault that was at least partially motivated by its controversy, Song of the South was suddenly more successful than it had ever been before. It would have made sense if Disney had left Song of the South for dead by the 1960s. Critics dismissed its lame live-action melodrama, while activists lamented its Uncle Tom representations.

Meanwhile, the film barely recouped Disney's considerable investment. The film had been the company's big Post-War hope for another Snow White-sized hit, but within a few years it was largely forgotten. The film had reappeared in 1956, but this was less because it was in demand per se. Rather, even before the 1950s, Disney had figured out that its biggest profits often came from re-releasing the same material to a new generation of children and, most importantly, parents. Song of the South was no different in that regard. Yet still the film underwhelmed again. Moreover, the film's racial politics made it even less worth the trouble.

As late as 1970, Disney announced through Variety that Song of the South would never be released again because of racial insensitivity, despite the fact that, they now claimed, it was the “most requested title” in the Disney Vault. One theatre owner, Jeff Begun, was even quoted as calling the film, quite inexplicably, a “classic.” Not surprisingly, then, within another two years, Disney finally re-released the film again and, this time, it proved to be the biggest re-release in the company history—despite never having been successful before, and even briefly “banned.”

In the span of three decades, the film literally went from being a black eye that the company was trying to move largely beyond to one of its most valuable assets. Song of the South earned over 6 million dollars in only a few months after its January 1972 re-release, more than doubling its total haul, and surpassing the 1969 re-release of Swiss Family Robinson (1960) as the highest-grossing Disney reissue at that point in the company’s history. Song of the South sat on Variety’s list of “Top-Grossing Films” from January 26th to April 5th that year, reaching as high as #5 on February 2nd. The film’s success was so pronounced that Disney then re-released it again for a limited engagement a little over a year later in June 1973.

Meanwhile, Song of the South’s business in the subsequent decade was similarly impressive—grossing nearly seventeen million more dollars during two additional reissues between late 1980 and 1987. As a result of this, I will argue throughout the next several chapters that, in relation to various historical factors, Song of the South is really a product of the 1970s and 1980s. Although produced in the 1940s, the film only became timely thirty years into its existence, and started its run as a successful cult text for the next twenty years. It is the 1972 reissue of Song of the South—more precisely, the myth that the film was always popular—that is remembered today.

Still the question remains—what did happen over the course of thirty years that shifted Song of the South from an anachronistic disappointment, to being seen as a highly sought-after “classic”? Answering that question—documenting what led up to the film’s eventual success in the 1970s—is the goal of the present chapter. It was not simply the decline of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the White Backlash in the late 1960s, though that was one important factor. Even within African-American communities, there was often an ambivalent attitude towards Song of the South, especially after James Baskett won an honorary Oscar for his performance at the time, then passed away shortly thereafter. Through the subsequent decades, Baskett’s “historic” achievement—the first Black man to win an Academy Award—complicated some people’s attitudes towards the movie itself. Another factor explaining Song of the South’s re-emergence was that Disney itself was changing—both the corporation and its media offerings, and the cultural and critical assessments of the company among American audiences.

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