I Geek Disney: Interview with Christian Willis, Webmaster of songofthesouth.net

“It wasn’t yesterday nor the day before, but it was a long time ago…back when the critters, they were closer to the folks and the folks they was closer to the critters–and if you’ll excuse me for saying so, it was better all around” Uncle Remus from Song of the South

They sound like fond memories, much like many older fans have of seeing Song of the South when it was released. But that’s all they are now with so much controversy surrounding it.  Christian Willis is a fan of Song of the South; he’s also a collector of Song of the South merchandise. Even more, he’s the webmaster to http://www.songofthesouth.net/index.php, a website dedicated to the Song of the South feature, collectibles, history and to help people see that Song of the South is really not what they’ve been told it is.

Toy-Lines recently interviewed Christian about his website, collection, and all things Song of the South.

TL: Christian, thank you for agreeing to the interview.

Christian Willis: No problem! I’m always glad to answer questions about the movie.

TL: Why Song of the South?  How were you introduced to this Disney feature and how old were you?

CW: I believe I saw the movie in theaters when I was 6 years old (1986). Around that time, my grandfather also read me some of the Disney Uncle Remus stories (which I still have on cassette tape). I watched all of the Disney movies as a kid, so this was just naturally one of them.

TL: What made you create Songofthesouth.net?

CW: Back in 1999, there wasn’t a lot of information on the Internet about this movie. I originally started my web site just as a place for displaying my growing collection of Song of the South memorabilia, but I started getting a lot of questions from people trying to find out about the movie. I didn’t know the answers myself, so I started to build on a web site that would answer them.

TL: How do visitors to your site react? Do you get e-mails from them?

CW: Generally I get lots of positive comments, from people who are just learning about the movie to people who saw it back in theaters in 1946! I love hearing from people about the movie. I do get the occasional person who doesn’t like the movie and/or what I’m doing, but those are pretty rare.

TL: Why do you like Song of the South so much?

CW: It’s a fond memory from my childhood. Plus, I love collecting stuff, so the two just kind of converged! I can’t say the movie is in my top 10, but I’ve taken up the cause to present the public with information about this film.

TL: Favorite character?

CW: Brer Fox! I love his expressions and how conniving he is.

TL: Favorite scene?

CW: The scene where Brer Fox and Brer Bear are waiting for Brer Rabbit to stumble upon the Tar Baby. The comedic interaction between Brer Fox and Brer Bear always crack me up!

TL: Favorite song?

CW: Let the Rain Pour Down. I really like how the Hall Johnson Choir performed it, and the contrasting verses (upbeat in the morning, tired and slow in the evening).

TL: When did you first start collecting Song of the South?

CW: I was at an insulator show in Bakersfield, CA, in 1997 (I also collect glass insulators). Under an antique dealer’s table was a set of records. The familiar faces of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear sparked my memory about a movie I had completely forgotten about. After that, I started looking in antique shops with my dad, picking up records and books here and there.

TL: What was your first item?

CW: The record set was the Tales of Uncle Remus from 1947, 78 rpm (Capitol CC-40).

TL: What is your favorite item?

CW: That’s a really hard question to answer! I suppose if I had to pick one, it would be the 1956 “Big Surprise Package” record set from Disneyland:

http://www.songofthesouth.net/memorabilia/records/detail.php?id=15

I’ve seen exactly two of these since I started collecting. In the Disney record price guide I have, it’s briefly mentioned but has no value because they have never seen one.

TL: How many collectibles do you have of it?

CW: I’ve slowed down over the past few years, but at last count I believe I was at about 515 items

TL: What was the most expensive item you ever bought?

CW: I believe that was the 1956 Scotch Tape lobby poster set. Another one I’ve yet to see another of!

http://www.songofthesouth.net/memorabilia/theater/decorations/56-posterset.html

I paid a lot more than the original cost of $3.50, that’s for sure…

TL: Do you have the Japanese Song of the South laser disc?

CW: I do. I understand there are a couple of different variants, but I just have the one. Sadly, I have no way to play it!

TL: Are all the items on the site from your collection?

CW: For the most part. There are a few books and records here and there that I have listed even if I don’t own them, in the hopes that someone out there has one and is interested in selling!

TL: What does your friends & family think of your collection?

CW: They’re supportive I suppose. They’ve been putting up with my weird collections since I was a little kid!

TL: When was Song of the South first released?

CW: It was released on November 12, 1946 in the United States.

TL: Was it ever re-released theatrically again?

CW: Yes, it was re-released 4 times: 1956, 1972/73, 1980, and 1986.

TL: But it never aired on television, The Disney Channel or for home viewing?

CW: Bits and pieces aired over the years in the U.S., but I’m honestly not sure if it was ever aired in its entirety. In other countries, like the UK and Australia, it was still being aired as recent as the 2000’s.

TL: Song of the South is based off of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus tales. Have you ever read them?

CW: I own and have read parts of the book “The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus”. While I recognize Harris went to great lengths to reproduce the dialects in writing, it’s a very hard read at times!

TL: There is much controversy surrounding the film.  I feel that most comes from people who don’t know the truth of it, for instance, that the film is set after the Civil War when slavery is abolished.  Would you agree?

CW: Yes; I believe at least part of the reason this movie is so shrouded in mystery and controversy is because it’s unavailable to the public. Regarding the slavery aspect specifically, the general public probably doesn’t know that the Joel Chandler Harris stories occurred after the Civil War. Back in 1946, Walt Disney may have thought setting the date was unnecessary. Today, however, I think it would be wise to make that clear by prefacing the movie somehow.

TL: Do you think Disney is helping The Song of the South by not releasing it or explaining this crucial fact or hurting it?

CW: I believe they are hurting the movie, without a doubt. After all, this is an Academy Award-winning movie we’re talking about. In my opinion, Disney needs to bite the bullet and release the film, with a preface or introduction explaining when the film was made, what era it depicts, and what Walt’s vision was when he made it.

TL: It’s been said that Brier Rabbit represents the slaves while Brier Fox and Brier Bear represent the slave owners.  In the tales Brier Rabbit always outsmarts them.  Is this true?

CW: Yes, that’s the general consensus. Although, in the movie, Uncle Remus is telling the stories to Johnny (Brer Rabbit), who uses the morals to outsmart Ginny’s bullying brothers (Brer Fox and Brer Bear).

TL: What’s the best way to explain The Song of the South to people so they see it in the proper way?

CW: Walt Disney grew up with these stories, and always wanted to bring them to the screen in a way that only he could (combining live action and animation). This was a product of the 1940’s. While it may contain what some would consider stereotyping today (as quite a lot of the movies did at the time), I don’t believe Disney had any malicious intent. He was simply telling an interpretation of Joel Chandler Harris’ stories.

TL: What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people you collect Song of the South?

CW: I guess surprise would be the best way to describe it. And sometimes confusion, until I describe the movie

TL: How do you feel about Splash Mountain being a ride based off of Song of the South having the characters in it but no mention of Uncle Remus? Does this help or hurt the controversy?

CW: I think it was a clever way for the Imagineers to keep Song of the South alive. Even if they don’t mention Uncle Remus anywhere, if guests do enough digging, they’ll find out what the ride is based on!

TL: Many African-Americans support this film, like Floyd Norman, Disney’s first black animator, Hattie Davis, who played Aunt Tempy in the feature, as well as James Baskett who played Uncle Remus. Why does Disney never use this info in support of the film?

CW: I wish I could answer that; I’m not sure. I guess it could be said that the critics are more vocal than the supporters. Disney is always under pressure to not ruffle any feathers.

TL: James Baskett won an honorary Oscar for his role of Uncle Remus, the first African-American male to do so during those years. He also voiced Br’er Fox.  Did he provide any other voices?

CW: According to the 1946 press book, he originally was trying out for the voice of a butterfly in the film. He also supposedly filled in for Johnny Lee (voice of Brer Rabbit) during the Laughing Place sequence because Johnny Lee was called away on a USO tour.

TL: For how long did the “Uncle Remus and his tales of Br’er Rabbit” Sunday Comic Strip appear? Was it ever released in a collection and have you ever read it?

CW: Good question! I believe it ran from 1945 until well into the 1950’s (if not later). Unfortunately I don’t know the exact dates. I don’t believe it’s ever been released in a collection, but I do have several Sunday proof copies. I was fascinated by all the different characters they came up with, and once upon a time I was going to create a Brer Encyclopedia to catalog them all. Unfortunately, it’s just too hard to find the comic strips.

TL: Were there ever any Br’er Rabbit comic books?

CW: Absolutely, lots of them! I have a whole section in my memorabilia for comics: http://www.songofthesouth.net/memorabilia/books/index.php#comics

TL: Have you ever read Floyd Norman’s “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah Christmas” comic strip?

CW: No, I haven’t! I’d love to learn more about that!

TL: What’s the deal with the “Splash Mountain” rap? Shouldn’t that be banned for how terrible it is?

CW: As a child of the 80’s, that makes me cringe. Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain, however? I LOVED Ernest as a kid (still do), and I’ll never forget watching that on TV when it aired! I forgive them because of that.

TL: Looking through your site one of my favorite things is the live action stills, especially the ones of Uncle Remus sitting with Johnny and the one of Uncle Remus with Ginny, Johnny and Toby. What are your thoughts on these two stills?

CW: From the movie standpoint, I think it shows that both Uncle Remus and the children didn’t care about race, and surely that’s the most important thing to take away from this movie. From an acting standpoint, these pictures tell me that James Baskett was a real class act. It’s truly a shame he passed away before he could add more movies to his career.

TL: How many Song of the South characters make a cameo in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)?

CW: I’ve seen Brer Bear, the Tar Baby, the 3 moles, and the 3 hummingbirds.

TL: How many items did Disney sell when Song of the South was first released and is there a “Holy Grail” for Song of the South collectors?

CW: There were several books available, the Tales of Uncle Remus 3-record set, and sheet music for 6 of the songs:

http://www.songofthesouth.net/movie/campaigns/1946.html

In my opinion, the “holy grail” from 1946 would be the campaign book. It’s chock full of articles, ads, merchandise, and photos:

http://www.songofthesouth.net/memorabilia/publicity/press/46campaign.html

TL: Is new merchandise made today?

CW: Absolutely. Disney continues to profit off this movie today, releasing limited edition pins, figurines, etc. I have to admit, I stopped keeping track. I couldn’t keep buying these items with the knowledge that they are making money on Song of the South while refusing to release the actual movie. It seems awfully hypocritical to me.

TL: In your opinion do you think people think the feature is controversial because they’ve been told so and never saw it for themselves or learned anything about it for themselves to make a decision?

CW: I certainly think that’s part of it, yes.

TL: Your “In Humble Defense Of” section on your site is very well written and thought out.  How long did it take you to write it, and in essence would you say that this is what your site is about?

CW: Thank you! That’s my second version, by the way. The first version was terrible (I was still young and trying to figure out what I was defending about this movie). Since then, I’ve had a chance to really refine my stance. It probably took me a week or so of writing. It really just boils down to Disney deciding for all of us that we cannot watch this movie. I have a problem with that. Whether you love or hate this movie, it should be available for future generations to learn from it.

TL: Do you think Disney will ever release Song of the South?

CW: Yes, I do. At the end of the day, Disney is a business, and they’re out to make money. I would bet they’ll release this movie before the copyright expires.

TL: You were selected to write praise for Jim Korkis’ “Who’s Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories” alongside legendary film critic Leonard Malton and Disney’s animator Floyd Norman, as well as being named in the Acknowledgement section.  How did this happen?  Were you given an early copy to read and did you prove any help to Mr. Korkis?

CW: I was honored to be contacted by Mr. Korkis about his book in May 2012, and was given an early copy to review. I helped out where I could, but the overwhelming majority was all Mr. Korkis. I also have a ton of respect for Floyd Norman and Leonard Maltin, so to be asked to contribute a quote alongside them was a real honor too!

TL: Do you have any last words to readers in defense of Song of the South who don’t know what a treasure it is?

CW: My advice: Watch the movie all the way through (it’s usually available on YouTube), and look at it through two sets of eyes:

1) The eyes of a child. Is race even a consideration? Do they treat each other any differently?

2) The eyes of Walt Disney. What was he trying to bring to the world? Racial stereotypes or racial harmony?

TL: Christian, thank you so much for the interview.  I wish you the best of luck with your website and here’s hoping we one day get a Blu-ray copy of Song of the South released from Disney.

CW: Thank you again for the opportunity! Here’s hoping!

Sincerely,

Christian

To visit Christian’s Song of the South website please click the link http://www.songofthesouth.net/index.php

The Toy-Lines Crew

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