Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book Review: Who's Afraid of the Song of the South (Jim Korkis)

Jim Korkis has long been on the Internet scene. For many years he's written articles for websites that probe the rich backstories of the Disney company history (animation as much as anything else). Jim's stories are always about the casual interactions; the sorts of things NOT found in other books, and the kinds of anecdotes that surface only in oral interviews, long conversations, and even longer friendships with those who lived and breathed the history in question.

People like Jim's stories and always tell him how happy they are to hear them, since they never hear anything like it elsewhere. As Jim says, this always frightens him. What happens if someday Jim is gone--are these stories gone too? So he resolved the write them down. First came The Vault of Walt, a loose collection of stories united only by the thread of Walt Disney himself who shows up as a character in these ditties about the studio, about the park, and about the company history. The book is eminently readable, either in small doses (since they are short stories) or inhaled whole like your favorite entree.

That book came out a few years ago, but there was a revised edition in 2012, which included new stories:

  • The perilous four-month stint of famed Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones at the Disney Studios
  • Why two women you've never heard of were among Walt's most important influences
  • Walt's admiration for and brief collaboration with legendary artist Salvador Dali
  • Walt and Lillian Disney's raucous 30th wedding anniversary celebration in Frontierland
  • How Walt's early infatuation with polo led to an injury that plagued him for the rest of his life
  • The story of Cinderella's Golden Carrousel and the Disney craftswoman who tended it for decades
  • Walt's fondness for chili and cold weenies, with authentic recipes to create his favorite dishes

In typical Jim Korkis fashion, the stories all told in a kind of "fly on the wall" narrative, as if we were right next to the action as it unfolded. The result is layers of details that you never knew, even if you had heard the gist of a particular story before. Jim definitely does his homework.

But what's really motivating today's post is another book. More recently, Jim has penned Who's Afraid of the Song of the South, a book that is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. The first 80 pages are a thesis about the creation and history of this seldom-seen Disney movie. In typical Jim Korkis fashion, the author dwells on minutiae when he can (again: this is where the research shines through and the readability comes from).

There follows several short snippets that were obviously gleaned and gathered during Jim's research, but could not fit into the "thesis" of the first 80 pages, so he includes them anyway, as standalone ditties. I found the choice brave, and I'm happy they are there for posterity. I'm not sure every reader will devour these as readily (and if they do, they will find the reading experience a bit disjointed), but that's OK. I'm glad they are there.

Then, as long as he was writing about controversial Disney subjects, Jim apparently thought he might as well include the proverbial kitchen sink. This last section is meaty (150 pages) and it bounces around all over the place, without even the anchor of Walt Disney the man to tie them together, but that's OK, because the subject matter is likely to interest you. Jim tackles the dark underbelly of the company. There are stories here about Walt Disney's last (written) words, the Sweatbox documentary, the Jessica Rabbit over-sexiness controversy, the Disneyland character orgy poster from many decades ago, and even Ward Kimball's fascination with UFOs. These stories will fascinate you if you've not heard of them before. If you're a longtime follower of the Disney product and know of the topics mentioned above already, you are less likely to learn new facts with these. The final essays in the book rely heavily on already-published sources, so they have a different character than the earlier parts of the book (and the earlier Walt book). They are still highly readable, though, and folks without that deep knowledge or full backlog of E-Ticket magazines will find the collection of stories invaluable.

Disclosure: I received review copies of both books from the author.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.