|Ingrid Bergman presented James Baskett with his Special Oscar.|
On March 21, 1948 James Baskett received an Oscar from the lovely hands of Ingrid Bergman for his starring role in a landmark motion picture. What? You say you never heard of him? Maybe if you are old enough you will remember the role that earned him the statuette—Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.
But if you are younger than 40, you may be mystified. Although occasionally re-released to theaters until 1980, it is the only classic Disney film that was never made available on VCR, CD, or Blu-ray for home viewing. Only clips have been shown on Disney TV shows and included in musical compilation CDs.
It seems like Uncle Remus, a character created by white southern writer Joel Chandler Harris in the post-Civil War era as the transmitter of folk tales from the slave quarters that had roots in African folklore, had become a racial hot potato. Many Black critics and their white allies in the Civil Rights era disparaged the character as a crude racial stereotype, a romantic apologist for a peculiarly benign version of slavery, and an appropriation of black culture. Both the movie and Chandler’s once wildly popular and influential folktales that he collected on a plantation were consigned to cultural oblivion.
Even Baskett’s moment in the sun was not an unmixed honor. He was presented an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his role in the film that Disney had released more than a year earlier in November of 1946. The score by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Paul J. Smith was nominated and the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert, which Baskett memorably sang, won the Academy Award. But Basket was not nominated for Best Actor, or even for Best Supporting Actor.
Instead he was given a special Honorary Oscar, the same category of award given a few years earlier to Shirley Temple. Although unlike Temple, he received a full sized trophy, the message was clear—that a Black man could only receive a patronizing pat on the head and not be seriously considered to be judged with serious white actors. Still, just getting it at all might be considered to pass as a milestone. Baskett was only the second Black to get an Oscar of any kind and the first man. The only other award had gone to Hattie McDaniel as Best Supporting Actress in Gone With the Wind.
Baskett was born on February 16, 1904 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was a young man with big dreams. He later said he had a “passion for pharmacology” which he studied at the city’s Technical High School. He dreamed of operating his own drug store. But financial difficulties forced him to drop out of school.
He drifted into acting, although untrained, in Chicago where he got work in the Black troupes led by Salem Whitney and Homer Tutt. In the late 1920’s Baskett moved to New York where he joined Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s company. He was soon a leading member of a thriving Black theater movement. He not only appeared in Robinson’s stage shows, but in low budget films the dancer produced and starred in including Harlem is Heaven. He appeared in several of Lew Leslie’s annual Blackbird productions and in 1929 starred with Louis Armstrong on Broadway in the musical revue Hot Chocolates.
By 1933 Baskett had gone west to Hollywood. He made a journeyman’s living as reasonably steadily working actor but one flying far below star status or even as a contract player at a major studio. Working under the names Jimmy Baskette or Jimmie Baskette he got bit parts and walk-on in B-Movies like 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang. He also did local stage and radio work.
In 1939 he got a featured role in a major race movie, Straight to Heaven staring with a fellow veteran of the Bojangles Robinson productions in New York, Nina Mae McKinney.
The following year he did his first work for Disney as the voice of Preacher Crow in Dumbo. More work in small parts in studio films like Revenge of the Zombies at Poverty Row Monogram Pictures with John Carradine and Gale Storm. Work like that paid the bills but was no highway to stardom.
Baskett got his big break in radio in 1944 when Freeman Gosden, co-creator of and star of the long running Amos ‘n’ Andy program cast him in a regular feature role as fast talking and semi-shady lawyer Gabby Gibson. Gosden, co-creator Charles Correll were both white and played all of the parts in the show in its long run as a five night a week 15 minute series from 1928 to ’43. The show then became a once a week 30 minute situation comedy with a full cast. Many black performers like Baskett were brought on to play the extended number of characters in the new version.
The show brought Baskett his first taste of modest fame as well as a comfortable weekly paycheck. But he still sought out other work in films.
When Baskett heard that Disney was casting for a film based on the familiar Uncle Remus stories, he went down to auditions hoping to land another voice part in the animated sections of the film. And he was quickly cast as a talking butterfly. But when Walt Disney himself reviewed recordings of the auditions, he quickly ordered a call back for Baskett and personally attended the audition. Although dozens of actors remained to be interviewed for the star part, Disney announced, “He’s my man!”
Baskett played not only Uncle Remus and the butterfly, but also voiced the villain of the stories, Brer Fox. He was so versatile a voice mimic that when Johnny Lee, the voice of the trickster hero Brer Rabbit was called away from recording sessions for a USO commitment, Baskett seamlessly stepped in for one of the film’s most famous sequences the Laughing Place story.
When live filming began in 1945 Baskett was only 41 years old. Although he had a full head of gray hair, he was much more youthful looking, and thinner, than the elderly Uncle Remus. A grizzled beard, a good deal of make-up, ragged clothes and a beat-up hat transformed the actor.
Song of the South was Disney’s first feature film with live action. It also was the first to incorporate live action and animation. In his most memorable moments on screen, Baskett sang Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah with animated blue birds singing on his shoulders.
When the film premiered in Joel Chandler Harris’s home town of Atlanta, Georgia, the star was not allowed to attend the premier due to local segregation laws. Disney claimed it was not a snub, but to spare Baskett the indignity of having to stay in a segregated hotel apart from the rest of the cast and possibly even being forced to sit in a segregated balcony for the premier showing itself.
Disney was personally very fond of Baskett and was said to be looking for other projects in which to feature him. Between his continuing part on Amos ‘n’ Andy and his honorary Oscar, it looked like his career was really ready to take off.
But less than four months after his night of glory, Baskett died in Los Angles of a heart attack on July 9, 1948. He was only 44 years old.