Disney Film History: Dumbo

Dumbo poster

I believe more than anything the reason I started writing these “Whole Picture” articles in chronological order. Starting from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we saw how the Walt Disney company made money, then lost money going into the 1940s due to production costs and the lack of an international market due to World War II. Dumbo is a unique film in that regard because it wouldn’t have been made the way it did without everything the Disney company had felt the last couple of years all coming to a head. So what is so special about Dumbo? Well, there are many answers to that question. Let’s take a step back though and maybe we can answer that.

Dumbo was originally a children’s story by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, but this story wasn’t even a book. The Dumbo story was put into 8 sketches with hardly any text to demonstrate a new children’s toy called roll-a-book, something I would associate with the current toy, the view-master. The 8 pictures tell the story of a flying elephant who believes in himself after being convinced by a robin. Abused by a clown and forced to jump off a platform onto a trampoline, the elephant jumps and instead glides away with the ringmaster announcing his awesomeness. This roll-a-book was brought to Walt Disney by the head or Merchandise Kay Kamen in 1939. He loved it and decided to purchase the rights to the story. Funny thing though, it was hardly a story. Snow White, Pinocchio, and the Reluctant Dragon were all stories with a distinct narrative. Dumbo was just few sketches thrown onto a toy.

Originally intended to be made as a short-film, Walt decided the only way to do justice to the story of Jumbo Jr. was to make it a full length film. With no complete story to go off of, just a scene, storymen Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were put to work. The ended up actually writing the story as if it were really a book before storyboarding took shape, allowing them to reference their own piece of work. This is interesting to note because it had never been done at the Disney studio up until that point, and would never happen again that any storymen would actually write out the book themselves. Usually, if they don’t have a story to go off of, a script is written and then storyboards are made, not a book.

Due to the financial failure of Pinocchio and the soon-to-financially-fail Fantasia and Reluctant Dragon films, Dumbo was given a small budget, only $950,000. That is half the cost of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and only one-third of the cost of Pinocchio. Despite the lower budget, Disney still wanted some name actors to be a part of the film. Edward Brophy, a character actor best known for films like Freaks, The Thin Man and The Champ, was given the part of Timothy the Mouse. (Timothy Mouse replaced the robin character since it was seen as somewhat of a gag that a mouse and an elephant would be friends.) Cliff Edwards, who had voiced Jiminy Cricket, was asked to return to the studio to provide the voice for Jim Crow and sing a song for the film’s soundtrack. Sterling Holloway and Verna Felton, who were character actors at the time, were asked to star as voices in the film. Both Holloway and Felton would become mainstays at the studio, giving voices to several other films over the next several decades. I’m not entirely sure as to the decision to keep Jumbo Jr. as a silent character. Was it a budget concern? Was it an intentional silence? We might never know, but the title character truly thrives without it and it adds serious depth to the film.

Dumbo

Also due to a lower budget, Disney gave the orders to keep the film simplistic and focus more on characters than backgrounds and details. Ben Sharpsteen, who was the supervising director on the film made the budget work with less detailed drawings and still cels that were used in several scenes, not just one. Some expenses were made though, like bringing in animals to classrooms so animators could be a feel for how these elephants looked and moved. (A scene of animators drawing an elephant cane be seen in Disney’s previous film The Reluctant Dragon.) Water color backgrounds, a technique used for Disney short films, helped keep budget costs down as well. This was a technique also used on Snow White but wasn’t used again until Lilo and Stitch in 2002.

What Dumbo did gain from it’s low budget was the animation department’s ability to really delve into characters instead of worrying about the fine art of the film. Vladimir “Bill” Tytla was in charge of animating Jumbo Jr. and gave an acting performance of a lifetime. In fact, many of the characters in Dumbo don’t only act well, they also pull serious emotions out of their audience. Up to this point, Disney feature films had been visually stunning and had connected with the audience in drama and comedy, but not at this level. The scene in which Jumbo Jr. visits his mother who is locked up is still a tear-jerking moment in my book and one of the best scenes in all of animation.

Other characters also bring out emotion like the leader of the elephants or the clowns that give Jumbo Jr. such a hard time. I’ve talked with several people over the last few weeks about this film and many of them were passionate about the showcasing of cruelty towards our protagonist as well as their stories of tear-jerking moments from the film. Those answers I got about a cartoon film from 1941 drove my point home that this film was different in that it had that additional sense of drama added to it due to the animators jumping on the project and delving deep into these characters.

Timothy Mouse and Jim Crow

It can also be noted that during production of the film the Disney studio went on strike. The strike of over 300 people at the studio, due to layoffs and lack of raises and bonuses promised after long hours at the studio, lasted five weeks and after all was said and done, tarnished Walt Disney as the “father” figure and killed the family atmosphere the studio had. This impacted the film directly as many of the animators on strike were caricatured in the film as clowns. I think this also indirectly impacted the film, adding a  larger sense of “I can do my job better than you” mentality amongst the staff, while also many pushing themselves to do their best work in fear of losing their job.

The film debuted in theaters in October of 1941 and was distributed by longtime Disney partner RKO Radio Pictures. RKO initially saw the film and wanted Disney to change it. The film being the shortest of the Disney animated features at only 1 hour and 4 minutes, RKO wanted them to either lengthen the film or turn it into a short film. Walt Disney refused to change the film and RKO did agree to run it as a feature length film on the note that Disney had been a success for them in the past. Everyone was anxious to see what the film would do at the box office considering the failures of the last three films. Despite World War II and the lack of an international audience, Dumbo earned $1.6 million in it’s initial theater run and was seen as a savior for the Walt Disney studios, bringing morale back up for the first time since the strike. Critical reception was also overwhelming, with plans for Time magazine to put the lovable elephant on it’s cover as “mammal of the year” but that didnt’ occur after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Time dedicating their December 1941 issue to the attack. Even though it never made the cover, in 2011, Time named Dumbo one of the top 25 animated films of all time. Dumbo was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, “Baby Mine” and won Best Musical Score at the 1941 Academy Awards.

Dumbo has left it’s deep roots as one of the foundations of Disney and has spread itself out into other formats for the company. Dumbo’s Circus was a live action puppet show for Disney Channel in the 1980s, several books have been published about the adventures of Jumbo Jr. by the Walt Disney company, and let’s not forget the most popular attraction at any Disney theme park, Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Any commercial for a Disney park, Dumbo is shown and has become a serious must-do for any first time traveler’s vacation.

The film has seen some backlash with allegations of Jim Crow and his cohorts being displayed as African-American stereotypes but I for one don’t buy into these racism allegations. If you look at the other films of the time or even after Dumbo, characters are shown as stereotypes, but should not been seen as racism. Just merely adding to the story as Walt had always intended. Walt always believed that story and characters are at the heart of every film and that’s really what Dumbo is; a terrific story about quality characters told in the best of ways by his animation team and despite the ups and downs of low budgets, a new war, or even a civil strike, Walt and his crew of great people made things work, and not just for themselves, but for the enjoyment of everyone.

What are your thoughts on Dumbo? Do you like the film or do you hate it? Why so? Keep the conversation going and leave your comments below.

Josh Taylor
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Previous Film: The Reluctant Dragon
Next Film: Bambi

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Posted on March 20, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. “Dumbo” is a classic, and I too never pay attention to the racism allegations of Disney movies, not even for “Song of the South”.

  2. Never saw it until I watched with my grandson. Was heart wrenching and enjoyable. While the clowns were changing in silhouette, one of the voices sounded like Curly from the Three Stooges. Have been unable to find any information acknowledging this possibility.

  3. I need to watch this again. I haven’t seen it for so long! Great post, Josh!

  1. Pingback: Disney Film History: Bambi | Modern Mouse Radio

  2. Pingback: Disney Film History: The Reluctant Dragon | Modern Mouse Radio

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