BRER RABBITOriginal Medium: Folklore
Produced by: Inapplicable
First Appeared: Antiquity
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Mixing live action with cartoons didn't begin with Roger Rabbit — in such series as Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell, it goes back to the very early days
of animation. Nor was the technique new to Disney, whose very first nationally-distributed cartoons (the "Alice" comedies) starred a live-action little girl. In fact, the first really big splash the Disney Studio made with a feature produced that way was in 1946. Song of the South was released on November 12 of that year.
Unlike Roger's movie, with its seamless blend of human and animated characters, Song of the South had only a few scenes where the two types met. Mostly, it consisted of sections that were either one or the other. In the live-action scenes, which were set in Georgia during the 1880s, an elderly plantation worker called Uncle Remus told stories to Johnny, a young boy from the boss's family, of mythical creatures from Africa, which had been handed down by his ancestors. The stories all had relevance to what was going on in Johnny's life, and gave him ideas for coping with adverse situations. The stars of the animated sequences were those mythical creatures themselves — Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and several minor players.
While the animals were all from authentic folklore, the characters of Uncle Remus and Johnny were created by author Joel Chandler Harris. He based Johnny on his own childhood self, and Remus on men he'd known, named George Terrell and Old Herbert, whose stories had fascinated him and helped shape his young life. The first volume, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, was published in 1880. There, in dialect so thick it sounds almost like a foreign language today, the animals all had apostrophes in their names, e.g., "Br'er Rabbit". The word was short for "Brother", indicating a perception of oneness with Nature on the part of the ancient tellers of the stories, and the E was pronounced the same as that of the word it abbreviated, i.e., with practically no vowel sound at all. In the Disney version, the apostrophe was left out, and the E was pronounced as in "fed" or "deck".
Brer Rabbit was the "trickster" character found in folklore all over the world — a little guy, fast on his feet, who gets the better of his larger, fiercer opponents by outwitting them. Brer Fox was his smart, potentially deadly adversary, who generally fell into the trickster's traps by partially outwitting himself, and Brer Bear was Brer Fox's big, strong, but not very bright sidekick. The voices were all done by face actors with few if any other credits in voice work. Rabbit was Johnny Lee (probably best known as Algonquin J. Calhoun in the 1950s TV series Amos & Andy), Fox was James Baskett (who also played Uncle Remus to child actor Bobby Driscoll's Johnny — Driscoll was also the voice of Peter Pan), and Bear was Nick Stewart (whose career ran from the 1930s to the '80s).
The movie was preceded by more than a year by a comics version. As had been done earlier with Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Disney produced a Sunday-only newspaper comic to give it a little pre-release publicity. King Features launched Uncle Remus & His Tales of Brer Rabbit on October 14, 1945. Unlike the Snow White comic, which only adapted the movie, Uncle Remus ran for decades, telling one story after another about the characters, some based on the legends and others new. Writers and artists who worked on it over the years include Paul Murry (Mickey Mouse), Dick Moores (Gasoline Alley) and Riley Thomson (also an animation director). It was in this series that Brer Rabbit's girlfriend, Molly Cottontail, was introduced.
Dell Comics adapted the stories from Song of the South into comic book form, published as part of its Four Color Comics series (the catch-all title that also did Woody Woodpecker, Kona and practically everything in-between) about when the movie came out. Dell also ran Brer Rabbit stories in Walt Disney's Comics & Stories. He and his entourage became frequent guest stars in the long-running Li'l Bad Wolf series — in fact, Brer Fox became a regular associate of Li'l Bad's father, through their common membership in The Foul Fellows' Club (also known at various times as The Dirty Dozen and The Badfellows' Club). During the 1950s, there were a couple more Four Color issues devoted to Brer Rabbit. He was also the subject of a Big Little Book, and a minor flood of other merchandised products.
The Song of the South characters remained popular throughout the 1950s and well into the '60s. But about the late 1960s or early '70s, it seems to have been decided that a depiction of an uneducated black man, forcibly prevented most of his life from reaching his intellectual potential, but nonetheless succeeding in using icons of his own rich cultural heritage to impart wisdom to a child of wealth and privilege, was in some inexplicable way demeaning to other members of his race. The movie stopped being re-released. The newspaper comic ended on December 31, 1972. In 1975, Gold Key Comics put Brer Rabbit on the cover of an issue of Walt Disney Showcase, but he had to share it with Bucky Bug. He hasn't completely disappeared from comic books, but neither has he been seen there on a regular basis.
Song of the South has since re-appeared in theatres, at least temporarily — it was re-released in 1980 and '86, complete with tie-in merchandise. It's even been made available on home video, but not not in the U.S., as the dialect in the live-action sections has been deemed inappropriate for American audiences of the 1990s and 21st century. The animated characters are sometimes seen, but are nowhere near as prominent as they once were.