Thursday, May 7, 2020

Zip A Dee Doo Dah—Murfin Home Confinement Music Festival 2020

Zip A Dee Doo Dah sung by James Baskett in Song of the South.

No song exudes the exuberance of Spring like Zip A Dee Doo Dah.  In Disney’s 1946 break though combination of live action and animation it had everything—a pleasant rustic lane, chirping blue birds of happiness, clouds of pink cherry blossoms, and a carefree singin’ Darkie.  Uh oh—that’s where the storm clouds rolled in that pretty much kept the film and James Baskett’s performance as Uncle Remus from public viewing for 50 years.
The film was based on Georgia author Joel Chandler Harris’s collections of re-told Gullah folktales narrated by Uncle Remus, a kindly, happy-go-luck plantation worker in the Reconstruction era South.  Written in what passed for Black dialect the stories related the adventures of  Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear with roots going back to African tribal yarns to entertain a young white boy with fables with hidden life lessons.
Harris, an Atlanta journalist, considered his wildly popular books to be tributes to the stories he heard as a boy regionalist writers who used dialect in their work.
The original Disney theatrical poster for Song of the South featured only the white actors and cartoon characters so the film could be advertised and shown in the segregated South.
Walt Disney had wanted to bring the stories to the screen since the success of Dumbo in 1941 but shifting to war-time shorts and training films put the project on a back burner for years.  When it was revived Baskett, a busy radio actor with a little film experience, who had voiced Preacher Crow in Dumbo was his first choice to play Uncle Remus.
The movie was a big success and Zip A Dee Doo Dah, written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert, won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Original Song.  But Baskett was not nominated for either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor.  There was considerable controversy over the snub and protests organized by the pesky NAACP.  In 1948 the Motion Picture Academy tried to atone by presenting Baskett with a special Oscar—the same designation once used for an award to Shirley Temple.  It was the first time any type of Academy award was presented to a Black manHattie McDaniel had previously won Best Supporting Actress in Gone With the Wind.

Ingrid Bergman presented James Baskett with his Special Oscar.
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.
With the Academy Award under his belt and a regular part on the half-hour radio version of Amos ‘n’ Andy Baskett was looking forward to a booming career when he suddenly died of a heart attack on July 9, 1948.  He was only 44 years old.
Disney re-released Song of the South just once and showed clips from the film on the Disneyland and Disney’s Wonderful World of Color TV shows.  But by the late ‘60’s the film was under attack as pandering to racist stereotypes by organizations that included the NAACP which had once championed it.  Disney withdrew the film from circulation and from the regular rotation of the studio’s video re-issues. 
Zip A Dee Doo Dah was included in various CD collections of Disney songs, and, as we see, is seen on YouTube.  You can be the judge of how appropriate it is.

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