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February 16

February 16, 1904 – Birth of Song of the South Actor, James Baskett

James Baskett (C), preparing for a scene in Song of the South

“[Baskett was] the best actor, I believe, to be discovered in years.” – Walt Disney

On February 16, 1904, James Baskett was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1939, he moved to Los Angeles and had a supporting role in the film Straight to Heaven, followed by more supporting roles in Revenge of the Zombies in 1943 and The Heavenly Body in 1944. In 1944, he was asked to join the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show, playing the lawyer Gaby Gibson.

In 1945, after spying an advertisement for open auditions, Baskett auditioned for a bit part in Disney’s upcoming film Song of the South, originally called Uncle Remus and based on the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus stories, originally published in 1881. Baskett had little experience in film, but impressed Walt so much that he was offered the lead role of Uncle Remus. Baskett was also the voice of Brer Fox in the animated sequences, and the voice of Brer Rabbit when Johnny Lee was unable to do the voice for a sequence due to another commitment. Film critic Leonard Maltin remarked that Baskett was “ideal as Uncle Remus, eliciting just the right kind of warmth and humor, and later poignancy, from the character.”

After the film’s release, Walt continued to stay in contact with Baskett. This friendship led to Walt lobbying the Academy to give Baskett an Oscar for his portrayal, for Walt said Baskett worked “almost wholly without direction” and had devised the characterization of Remus himself. On March 20, 1948, Baskett was awarded an honorary Academy Award “for his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world, in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.” This made Baskett the first actor in a Disney film to win an Academy Award, as well as the first African-American man to win an Oscar. On July 9, 1948, only a few short months after this victory, Baskett died of heart disease at the age of 44. His wife, Margaret, wrote Walt Disney a thankful letter, telling Walt that he had been a “friend in deed and [we] certainly have been in need.”

Although Song of the South was the only film Baskett appeared in, due to his untimely death in 1948, the role, and film, are an important part of Disney history that should not be forgotten or brushed aside. Baskett, in my opinion, should be honored by Disney as a Disney Legend – without the warmth Baskett presented as Uncle Remus, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah would not have been as memorable as it is now. The film is a victim of selective judgment by the critics: Gone With the Wind is lauded, although it truly does deal with slavery, whereas this film is set in the period of Reconstruction. Baskett’s portrayal of Uncle Remus shows a man who continues to keep a cheerful disposition, no matter what hand life has dealt him, and is truly respected by every other person in the film, from Bobby Driscoll’s Johnny, to Lucile Watson’s Grandmother. The range of emotion Baskett shows, including the dramatic scene after Jonny is attacked by a bull, only adds proof to what Walt told his sister Ruth, that Baskett was one of the greatest actors to be discovered in a long time. Baskett certainly could have achieved a lot had he lived longer, and it is a crime to let his legacy die, along with the technical and artistic merit of Song of the South by hiding this film away from the public. Baskett should be honored as a Disney Legend for his portrayal, plain and simple. He played Uncle Remus the way he should have been played: with warmth, wisdom, and a wonderful human being.

 

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