Welcome to Revisiting Disney! Today, we’re looking at that movie which, I’ll be honest, I made my parents watch over and over again: Dumbo! Like last time, I have labeled each category so if you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free. And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
Dumbo is the fourth of Disney’s feature length animated films. It was released on October 31st, 1941, putting its release date between Fantasia and Bambi. Because the Disney studio’s second and third films, Pinocchio and Fantasia, did not actually make the studio any money, the studio was under pressure to make some money with their next picture. In fact, although Pinocchio and Fantasia are in the top five of the American Film Institution’s top ten animated films list, the studio lost money on them. Ironically, they also lost money on Bambi, another film that appears in the top five.
On the DVD edition of Dumbo, there are numerous special features and in one, the modern animators, and several film historians talk about Dumbo as a callback to Snow White; it runs as a bit more lighthearted than the other early five Disney movies. Plus, it takes place in a circus, so it tends to get major points as a fun movie because of that.
In addition, Dumbo did make money. It had been, according to IMDB, a film with a very tight budget because Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi (the next year) were all very expensive films to make. Dumbo is one of the least expensive Disney films ever produced and it grossed over 2 million when it was originally released. It did so well, in fact, that Time Magazine had planned to put it on the December 1941 cover (this cover was bumped in favor of one discussing the attack on Pearl Harbor).
I found it very interesting that, according to the IMDB, Walt Disney was very reluctant to make this film. However, two men who worked on the story (Joe Grant and Dick Huemer) started writing the story in serial installments, placing a new installment on his desk in the morning. Finally, Walt became very excited and invested in the story. It ended up, according to the special features on the DVD version, being his personal favorite film.
The early ’40’s were a truly wonderful time for Disney, musically speaking. This film was nominated for both Best Music, Original Song (Baby Mine) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture at the 1942 Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. The team behind that success was made up of Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace.
I’ve mentioned Frank Churchill before, so I’ll take a second to talk about Oliver Wallace. Wallace worked on the scores for Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice and Wonderland, Old Yeller, and Lady and the Tramp. Wallace was born in 1887 in London, dying in September 1963 in LA. He was nominated for five awards during his career though the Oscar for Dumbo was the only one he ever won.
The music for Dumbo is delightful; providing the same gentle nudge as the other Disney films have, just the right level of emotional manipulation. “Look Out For Mr. Stork” is a really fun opener that introduces viewers to the world of this circus and sets up the longing that Mrs. Jumbo has for a baby.
The music picks up with the mood of the film, drifting into “Casey Junior” as the train moves down the track, carrying the circus to its next destination. This moves into “The Song of the Roustabouts,” sung by The King’s Men, my favorite number as a kid. This number is upbeat and fits the events beautifully, conveying the hard work that goes into the setup of a circus.
The other numbers written for the movie are “The Clown Song,” “Pink Elephants on Parade,” “When I See an Elephant Fly,” the Academy Award Nominated “Baby Mine,” and “We’re Gonna Hit the Big Boss for a Raise.” “We’re Gonna Hit the Big Boss for a Raise” was written, in part, as a response to the strike that occurred in the Disney studio in the early 1940’s; some of the strikers were portrayed later as the clowns.
The Oscar-nominated “Baby Mine” is a tear-jerker. It’s a moving song that is sung while Dumbo is visiting his mother; it accurately shows the love between mothers and their children, as she comforts the poor little elephant. It reminds me a lot of Bambi and the way Disney shows the mother/child bond through that film. If you aren’t crying before this number starts, you will be soon. It’s beautifully animated and beautifully sung.
This particular Disney film has drawn quite a bit of controversy in modern years because of some of the things portrayed, including the drunk scene, the creepy clowns and “When I See an Elephant Fly.”
Of course, I can’t find the original place I heard the piece of trivia I’m out to share, so I apologize for that. It might have been on the DVD behind-the-scenes feature. Either way, there is a story that the crows were designed after a pair of African American brothers who were famous in Vaudeville. They were highly respected performers that the studio wanted to honor. According to Robert Siegel, the Jackson Brothers (with a background in Vaudeville) were both live models for the scene and gave Walt lots of ideas for both the “When I See an Elephant Fly,” and other dance numbers.
Basically, this bit of history can be seen to show that the use of these characters was meant originally to honor a well-respected team of performers. Is it possible that this might be a publicity stunt by the Company because the scene makes almost every “Top Most Racist Moments in a Disney Film” list?
Yes. Yes, it is. The fact that the Lead Crow’s name is Jim (making him Jim Crow) certainly doesn’t help the Studio’s case. But perhaps it was legitimately an homage (although the name is still an issue). Call me too optimistic, but I’d like to think that it’s just one of the giants of the entertainment industry pointing out and recognizing the talents of other giants in the industry (although in a clumsy way. I get the vaudeville homage thing, but the name still causes me to wince).
Dumbo is unique in that the backgrounds are watercolors and done very simply. Unlike the detailed animation for Pinocchio and Bambi, Dumbo seems almost more concerned with using a wide variety of light colors that give the whole film a more whimsical quality. In the opening scene, when we see the United States, it’s a labeled map in bright and fun colors. The animals and people still look realistic, despite the whimsy.
The film is unique in its style of animation. In his The Art of Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms, Finch points out that Dumbo was probably the most “spontaneous animated feature that the Studio has ever produced” and a “vacation for the animators” (Finch 1975: 107). It seems like the studio really enjoyed making the film, and that joy translates in the animation. Dumbo also won the award for Best Animation Design at the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.
Dumbo opens with a song, showing the storks delivering babies to the winter quarters of a circus in Saratoga, Florida. As all the adorable animated baby animals are dropped off with their proper parents, one lone elephant is waiting sadly. When morning comes, she is loaded on the train to start the circus season.
Luckily, the stork carrying Mrs. Jumbo’s new baby has just gotten lost. He finds her and delivers the baby, who, it turns out, has giant ears. Although he is adorable, the other elephants make fun of his large ears. This prompts his mother to shut them back in their stall, setting up a trend of motherly protection.
The next scene, the song of the Roustabouts, was always delightful, as the animals and the people work together to set up the circus. I was struck this time with how well the animals were trained; they set up the tent and never tried to run away.
Finally, the circus has arrived in town and is open for business. When Dumbo is introduced to the crowd, they laugh at him; he is often tripping on his ears and falling into things. When a particularly determined kid pulls on his ears and scares Dumbo, his mother gets very angry. In an attempt to protect her child, she spanks a child, throws the ringmaster across the tent, destroys the tent and ends up in solitary confinement. Maybe this was an overreaction, but her baby was in danger and something had to be done to protect him.
When the other elephants hear this, they ostracize Dumbo, flat out ignoring him. With his mother in prison, he has no one. Luckily, he meets Timothy Mouse, who takes him under his wing and tries to help him become a star. Sadly, Dumbo messes up his big break by tripping on his ears, destroying the Big Top and putting the other elephants in casts.
As a result, Dumbo is handed over to work with the clowns, who make him a part of their show. Everyone laughs at him and he is, although not a talking baby elephant, clearly very upset. Timothy, however, gets him in to see his mother, leading to the beautiful number, “Baby Mine,” which I talked about in the Music section.
The clowns, who are using the baby elephant as a prop in their act, decide that they should make him jump from more than 20 feet, maybe somewhere between 80 and 180 feet? They then march out to the “Big Boss,” trying to get a raise. I’ve been trying to pinpoint what in my childhood lead to my dislike of clowns, and I think these clowns played a major part. They are uncaring about the fate of this baby elephant, and use him as the butt of all their jokes. Bad form, clowns, bad form.
The clowns drop their champagne in the water and when Dumbo drinks it to cure his hiccups (and Timothy falls in), they proceed to get drunk. Very drunk. Yes, in a movie for kids. This leads to “Pink Elephants on Parade,” which, as I recall from my childhood, was quite fun to watch. As an adult, I found it to be surreal and a little on the weird side. However, I can’t deny that the animation is lovely and really fun.
After this scene, that frankly, could not be animated today (there is in fact a drunk toddler elephant who is hallucinating dancing pink elephants), a flock of crows show up and find Dumbo and Timothy asleep on a branch. They decide that, clearly, he can fly. After they pass some time making fun of Dumbo and his ears, Timothy gives them a dressing down.
At this point, Timothy and the crows discover that Dumbo can, in fact, fly because of his ears. The thing that people make the most fun of him for is actually something that gives him special powers. The crows know he’s nervous to fly because he’s an elephant and give him a feather that they tell him it’s magic. This gives him confidence in his abilities and he discovers he is able to fly.
Timothy and Dumbo return to the circus, ready to be pushed out of the burning building during the clown’s act, but are preparing to fly instead of landing in the mud (like they did the last time). As they speed down, Dumbo loses the feather and begins to panics. Timothy hurries to build his confidence and Dumbo, believing in himself at last, soars around the arena.
While soaring, he has a bit of fun and gets revenge on everyone who had picked on him. Afterward, he becomes an overnight star with movie deals, a series of fighter plans based off of him and enough pull to get his mother out of prison and buy her a private train car. Reunited, they travel with the rest of the circus to the next location, a happy ending for an overall fairly peppy story, despite the sometimes dark subject matter.
Like Snow White, Dumbo manages to balance the darker aspects with enough lighter moments and gags to make the overall film seem much happier; the things that stand out are the funny parts, the catchy music and the lovely backgrounds.
Surprisingly, Dumbo is actually based on a book. Unsurprising, it was very difficult to track down any information on this text because the Disney version is so popular, but I have done my best. On Goodreads, I learned that the original story was written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl. It was originally a Roll-A-Book, which means that it had several illustrations, with a wheel at the top that you twist to get the next picture; though it was reprinted as well.
Adrian Bailey, in his Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy, discusses the original story as similar to Pinocchio; the main character faces many problems in the world (while Pinocchio is a jerk, Dumbo is separated from his mother and ostracized from the world).
For the most part, the film is very similar to the book, although Dumbo’s mothers’ name was changed and Timothy Mouse was actually a bird in the book. It looks like Disney picked a happy book for children as the basis for their latest movie. Well done, Disney.
I feel like I have started the last few “History Sections” this way, but yes, WWII is still happening. At this point in time, the end of October in 1941, the United States has yet to enter the War. This will change when, on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese military attack Pearl Harbor.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, according to Gordon Wright in his The Ordeal of Total War, was less about Japan being an ally to Germany and more a result of tension between the US and Japan at that time. Wright says that this tension had been “building up since 1937, when Japanese armies invaded and occupied a large part of north China” (Wright 1968: 41). In an attempt to force the Japanese military to leave China, the US responded with trade embargoes, particularly regarding weapons, which irritated the Japanese.
Wright goes on to say that, in late 1941, there were two options before Japan and Germany; attack Siberia and use that as a gateway to Russia, or go for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “The Pearl Harbor scheme,” Wright says, “was designed to knock out American striking power in the Pacific,” and served as a bit of retaliation for the embargoes (Wright 1968:41).
I mention this because this was all brewing long before Pearl Harbor was attacked. As a result, I would guess that the climate and tone of the United States was less happy (part of the reason that the other, more realistic Disney films were not immediate successes). Dumbo was also created at an interesting point in the Disney Company’s own history, during the labor and union movements.
Disney had moved to their new studio after the success of Snow White in the late 30’s. The studio opened right before Christmas in 1939, very soon after the War had begun in Europe. Despite this new chapter in the studios’ life, unpleasantness was soon to follow.
While Walt Disney himself wanted to design his new studio as what Bob Thomas calls “a workers’ paradise,” many did not agree (Thomas 1992: 94). There were multiple new employees, and some of them were not happy with their salaries, the work that they were doing and the way that the studio was often felt impersonal.
By 1940, Thomas says, “all of the talent and crafts at the Hollywood studios had been organized into guilds and unions” (Thomas 1992: 94). At the Disney Studios, there were two different groups who were fighting both each other and the management of the studio. Walt tried to convince the workers to not strike, but on May 29th, 1941, they did.
The strike was ugly, long and bitter. Walt was frustrated by the strike and “unwilling to compromise;” the strike also “shattered the benign image the Disney studio had presented to the world” (Thomas 1992:94). This lead to Walt accepting an offer from the United States government that lead to Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. We’ll talk more about that next week and the week after.
Dumbo teaches a variety of lessons, but the major one, I think, is that everyone has something about themselves that they don’t like. Dumbo hates his ears, Anne Shirley hated her hair, and those are things that most people love about those two characters. When Dumbo learns to live with his ears, he discovered that he could fly. What made him different made him stronger.
Dumbo also, like Bambi, showcases the strength of a mother’s love. Dumbo is in danger and his mother risks everything to save him. Maybe he’s not in physical danger yet, but the kids are blowing in his face and pulling his ears. Dumbo can’t get away, so his mom steps in to teach them a lesson. Does it escalate into a much more violent rage? Yes, but it comes out of a mother’s love. There’s a reason you don’t mess with baby bears, and that saying should be expanded to include elephants.
Dumbo can also teach the importance of standing up against bullies. Timothy the Mouse sees that Dumbo is being picked on and he stands up to the other elephants to defend him. Timothy is always standing up for and encouraging Dumbo throughout the film. In a lot of ways, Timothy Mouse can be seen as a moral lesson: stand up for people and protect people who can’t protect themselves.
Finally, Dumbo is a story about the triumph of an underdog. He is not the smartest, oldest or prettiest elephant, and the other elephants make fun of him. Despite that, he becomes the most popular and famous elephant in the world, so famous that they design a series of fighter planes after him.
We as a society love movies where the underdog wins, and in a world with a growing threat of WWII, the ideas that the underdog can win, that it’s important to stand up for people who need our help and that what we don’t like about ourselves is often a gift are appealing ones that are also good remember.
DOES IT HOLD UP?
Dumbo is one of those Disney movies that today is really looked at harshly. Could they make this movie today? No, I don’t think they could. The toddler elephant becomes intoxicated, he is bullied and ostracized and his mother goes to prison.
However, even as an adult, this film never ceases to amaze me. The backgrounds are still classic, the music is still fun, and it still takes place at a circus. Of course, the good guys win at the end, the bullies are punished and everyone learns that different is not bad. Despite all the negative things people can say about it, Dumbo is one of the most popular Disney films, with two VHS releases and multiple DVD releases. It may not be as technically revered as Pinocchio, but it is sure a fun ride.
At its heart, Dumbo is a classic underdog story where the plucky little elephant discovers that he is special, because of the very thing he hates about himself. It’s a story that I think all of us can relate to at one point or another, and as we watch Dumbo succeed, as we root for him to triumph, we are reminded in some way of the underdog in ourselves. When Dumbo wins, we win. And I think that’s pretty amazing.
For next week: Saludos Amigos
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
Bailey, Adrian. Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy. Everest House Publishers. New York, New York. 1982.
Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1975.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company. New York and London, 2002.
Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1992.
Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945. Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London, 1968.Pin this article to read later! And make sure to follow us on Pinterest.