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A JOURNEY THROUGH THE DISNEY ANIMATED CLASSICS
Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

Episode 7: Dumbo
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Daniel is joined by esteemed American art historian Dr Carmenita Higginbotham to discuss one of the most beloved of the Disney classics, ‘Dumbo’. They talk about its representation of race, gender and class, how ‘Dumbo’s’ coming-of-age narrative relates to the wider Disney canon, and how to make sense of the controversial final act.

Host
Daniel Lammin
Guest
Carmenita Higginbotham - Professor of Art History, University of Virginia

Credits
Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek

Show Notes
By the end of 1940, Walt Disney Productions was in serious trouble. Both 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia' had been enormously expensive and done poorly at the box office, and combined with the costs of the new studios in Burbank, much of the earnings from 'Snow White' had been used up. The company had gone public in April 1940, raising $3,500,000 in capital, but work was already underway on 'Bambi', a project that was proving even more difficult and costly than its predecessors, and with more staff to pay, that capital was disappearing fast. There were also rumblings of unrest at the studio, concerns about unfair wage gaps, unrealistic work schedules and a work atmosphere lacking the energy of the old Hyperion studio. In the midst of this rose a small film, a straightforward project with a modest budget that would not only offer a moment of financial respite and a burst of energy to the studio, but would go on to be regarded as one of their greats - a tiny film about a tiny elephant with big ears and big dreams.

“What's the matter with his ears?
I don't see nothin' wrong with 'em.”
Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo (1941)

Travelling on the train Casey Jnr. through Florida as part of a circus, the elephant Mrs. Jumbo is visited by Mr Stork (Sterling Holloway), who delivers to her a beautiful baby elephant. The only problem is, Jumbo Jr. has disproportionately large ears. The other elephants mock him, calling him Dumbo, and after trying to protect her new baby boy from a group of bullying kids, Mrs. Jumbo is locked up. Dumbo, now alone, is taken under the wing of Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), and they come up with a plan to make Dumbo famous in order to have his mother released. At first, Dumbo tries to be a clown, but after a night of getting accidentally drunk, they discover that Dumbo can actually fly. With encouragement from a group of crows, Dumbo perfects his skills, becomes a celebrity and is reunited with his mother at last.

'Dumbo' is one of the shortest Disney feature films, running only 64 minutes. It was based on a story by husband and wife writers Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl, and was published as a Roll-a-Book, a short-lived format where stories were written on a rotating scroll. No known copies of the Roll-a-Book version are believed to exist, though the illustrations by Helen Durney still survive. Walt Disney was made aware of the book in 1939, and was instantly drawn to its storytelling possibilities.

Following the failure of 'Fantasia', production on animated short subjects was dialled back, with the Silly Symphony series cancelled entirely. Disney originally intended for 'Dumbo' to be a 30-minute extended short, but early development suggested that this wouldn’t be a sufficient length for the scope of the story, and it was decided to expand it into a feature. Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were given the task of developing the story, and between January and March 1940, they wrote a 102-page treatment for the film. However, rather than presenting it as a single document, they delivered it to Disney in chapters, bit-by-bit, building his interest and enthusiasm as they went.


‘Dumbo’ Storyboard © Disney

For many of the Disney staff at the time, 'Dumbo' was the smoothest and most enjoyable production they had worked on. Grant and Huemer’s story was beautifully constructed and ready to go straight into production, and to cut back on costs, Disney ordered that a simpler visual approach should be taken. It would be more in-line with the storybook "cartoon" look of the Silly Symphonies as opposed to the rich textures of 'Snow White' and 'Pinocchio', and with most of the experienced animators busy on Bambi, would be handled by many of the younger, less-experienced staff. Six months after Grant and Huemer had begun developing the story, work on the animation officially began.

JOE GRANT & DICK HUEMER
At the height of Disney feature animation in the 1940s, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were amongst the most powerful members of the Disney staff, often reporting directly to Disney himself.


Joe Grant during the making of ‘Fantasia’ © Disney

Joe Grant was born in New York City in 1908, and worked as a caricature artist for the Los Angeles Record in the 1920s. His skill at capturing the look of celebrities caught Disney’s eye, and Grant joined the studio in 1933 to animate the caricatures in the short 'Mickey’s Gala Premiere'. During production on 'Pinocchio', he was placed in charge of the newly-formed Character Model Department, and every model sheet and marquette had to be given his approval before work could continue.


Dick Humuer © Jennifer Grant Castrup

Dick Huemer, born in 1898, was also from New York City, and began working for the Raoul Barré cartoon studio in 1916. He also worked for the Fleisher Brothers, developing Koko the Clown, and for Charles Minz, before joining Disney in 1933 to work on the Silly Symphonies.

Grant and Huemer began working together when they were put in charge of developing 'Fantasia', and their partnership reached its peak with 'Dumbo'. Both would go on to develop many of the propaganda shorts during the Second World War, but while Huemer remained at the studio until 1973, Grant left in 1949. He did return however in the late 80s to assist with story development on 'Beauty and the Beast', and would become instrumental in the development of films at both Disney and Pixar until his death in 2005. The Oscar-winning Pixar film 'Up!' (2005), which he worked on, is dedicated to him.

It was a little book that was done up in the form of a scroll, and I think there was something like 6 or 8 pictures in it, and it showed Dumbo as a character and the name. And we took it in the room and said, it can’t be a bad idea, although it’s kind of skimpy. The fact that you’ve got a handicapped elephant and a circus background, it’s got a story in there somewhere.
Joe Grant

Grant and Huemer’s treatment greatly expanded on Aberson-Mayer and Pearl’s story. Walt had initially shut down development on the film when early story work wasn’t to his satisfaction, but it was Grant and Huemer’s approach and enthusiasm that encouraged him to return to the project.

Among their first ideas were the iconic Pink Elephant sequence and the opening with the storks delivering the babies to the animals. They also changed Dumbo’s sidekick from a red robin to a mouse named Timothy, and an extended sequence later cut included Timothy telling Dumbo why elephants are scared of mice, that the difference of size used to be inverted and that the giant mice would terrorise the tiny elephants. Other differences with the final film include Dumbo’s trunk coming to life in the drunk sequence, the tree sequence involving a wide variety of different birds, and Dumbo even speaking at points. Throughout the writing and development process, the story and characters were refined down to the film as we see it today.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE
Disney instructed director Ben Sharpsteen to keep 'Dumbo' as simple and inexpensive as possible, and as a result, many of the techniques developed in the early animated shorts were favoured over those developed in the feature films. In many ways, 'Dumbo' is the ultimate Silly Symphony, the culmination of the style and look of that series.


‘Dumbo’ Concept Art by Mary Blair © Disney

You can take the characters and, even though they’re not as realistic as they are in “Bambi”, they have those human emotions. And that’s something that Walt learned with the Silly Symphonies. He learned with films like 'The Flying Mouse' and 'Elmer Elephant' that you could take short little cartoons and short little characters, and make people, not just laugh, but cry, and that’s what comes out in 'Dumbo'. And this was something the studio really needed.
Paula Sigman, art historian

Rather than create elaborate backgrounds, a process was used where the backgrounds developed for the story sketches were copied as photostats and used for the final artwork. They were far less detailed than those in the other features, and added to the story-book quality of the visuals. Unlike most of the feature films, which used oil paint and gouache, the backgrounds in 'Dumbo' were painted in watercolour, a technique usually only used in the shorts.


‘Dumbo’ Character Model Sheet © Disney

Character designs were also simplified, and it was for this reason that much of 'Dumbo' was animated by the younger, less experienced members of the animation staff. Held-cels were used when characters were not required to move, rather than animating every one of the 24 frames per second. The look of many of the animals, and their anthropomorphic behaviour, was partly inspired by the work of major American cartoonist T.S. Sullivant.

One veteran animator who did work on Dumbo was Vladimir "Bill" Tytla, one of the great early Disney animators. He was concerned about being typecast, having been the lead animator on Stromboli in 'Pinocchio', and Yensid and Chernabog in 'Fantasia', so he took on the gentler Dumbo as his next assignment. Even though the animators had access to real elephants for reference, Tytla decided to base the movements and personality of Dumbo on his young son, who was at an equivalent age at the time.

Work went quickly on the film, helped by the strength of the story treatment, the simplicity of the design and the economy of the approach. Rather than this speed having a negative impact on the quality of the work, it gave it immediacy and energy. For the Pink Elephant sequence, the animators were let loose, often following their own instincts rather than elaborate storyboards, and pulling on influences such as illustrator Heinrich Kley and surrealists such as Salvador Dali. There are even visual references to major works of German expressionism in both the framing and action in the film itself, such as Timothy’s shadow over the Ringmaster’s bed recalling the vampire in Murnau’s 'Nosferatu' (1922).

The approach to the music was also different to what had been done before. Frank Churchill (who had been a composer on 'Snow White') and Oliver Wallace composed the music, with Wallace and Ned Washington (who had been a lyricist on 'Pinocchio') composing the songs. Unlike the previous Disney features though, the songs in 'Dumbo' commented on the action rather than advancing it, and none of them (apart from 'When I See An Elephant Fly') were sung by major characters in the film.

By May 1941, not even a year after formal production had begun, principal animation on 'Dumbo' was completed. Only a few weeks later, members of the Disney staff would go on strike, a major turning point in the history of the studio.

THE CROWS
In the final act of 'Dumbo', a group of crows find Dumbo and Timothy high in a tree, and watch as Dumbo discovers he can fly. The original treatment, which had featured one crow and a number of other birds, reduced it to a group of only crows, all based on African American stereotypes of the time. Ward Kimbell, who animated the crows, used live-action reference of dancing brothers Freddie and Eugene Jackson for their movements, and their personalities reflected popular black artists of the time such as Cab Calloway. However, while the secondary members of the troupe were voiced by black singers from the Hall Johnson Choir, the leader of the group, originally named Jim Crow but later changed to Dandy Crow because of the obvious racist connotations, was voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket.


Pencil Animation of Timothy Q. Mouse and Jim Crow © Disney

Some concerns were expressed while making the film that the depiction may be considered racist, but these concerns were never escalated. In the years since however, there has been much concern that the stereotypes depicted are racially insensitive. Many classic Disney animators and historians defend the sequence and the characters, while others, such as Karina Longworth in her podcast 'You Must Remember This', have linked them to the complex tradition of minstrelsy and Disney’s troubling relationship with that tradition.

Unlike the racist stereotypes in 'Fantasia', it has not been possible for the studio to censor or remove the sequence, as the crows are intrinsically linked to the climax of the film. There were rumours that the sequence would be removed when the film arrived on Disney+, but instead it remains intact, and along with many other films, is accompanied by a warning that “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

RELEASE
On the 11th September 1941, the completed 'Dumbo' was delivered to RKO for distribution. Just over a year had passed since production had begun on the film, and its budget, around $900,000, was significantly smaller than the other animated features. RKO initially pushed for the runtime to be extended, but Disney pushed back, concerned that the story had been stretched as far as it could go.


Theatrical Poster, 1941 © Disney

'Dumbo' premiered on the 23rd October 1941, and was an instant critical and commercial success. Unlike 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia', it made a profit in its first run, and was the most successful Disney film of the 1940s. 'Dumbo' (is) the most enchanting and endearing of their output,” wrote Cecilia Ager in her review for PM in October 1941, “maybe because it is the least pretentious of their works, the least self-conscious. It tries only to be a wonderful example of the form they themselves created - the fable expressing universal truths in animal guise.”

The public connected with 'Dumbo' in a way they hadn’t with the previous films, and TIME Magazine planned to feature Dumbo himself on their cover in December 1941. However, when Pearl Harbour was attacked, this plan was scrapped. The film also continued the studio’s Oscar success, with Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace winning the Oscar for Best Score at the 1941 Academy Awards. The film even received accolades at the 1947 Cannes Film Festival, winning the award for Best Animation Design.

Love for 'Dumbo' has endured in the decades since. The beautiful innocence of Dumbo and the heartbreak at his separation from his mother are still just as affecting, and the 'Baby Mine' sequence is seen as a benchmark moment in the Disney canon. In the Cine-Explore commentary for Dumbo on the 70th anniversary Blu-ray in 2011, historian Paula Sigman described the film as a “wonderful exploration of loss and abandonment, and finding oneself and learning to believe in oneself.”

In 2011, TIME Magazine named it one of the 25 greatest animated films of all time, and many film critics, including Leonard Maltin, name it amongst their favourite films. In 2001, it was announced that a sequel was in development called 'Dumbo II', but the project was cancelled by John Lasseter when he took over as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006. A live-action remake, directed by Tim Burton, was released in 2019.

The simplicity of 'Dumbo' and the joy in making a film that you knew where you were going from beginning to end, was something that Walt never really had again, and that his artists never experienced again. After 'Dumbo', everything really did get more complicated. Walt was more distanced from his artists. The Disney studio was a very different place after 'Dumbo' and in a sense, 'Dumbo' and its light and joyfulness represented perhaps the apex and the end of that golden age of the Disney studios.
Paula Sigman, historian

By the time 'Dumbo' reached theatres, Walt Disney Productions was a very different place. The union strike that had begun in May 1941 had fundamentally changed the fabric of the studio, and Walt’s relationship with his staff and the films they made was starting to shift. The film had been a much-needed financial success, but the United States was about to enter the Second World War, which would even further impact on their operations and result in a collaboration with the U.S. government. More pressing though was a film that had been in the works even before 'Pinocchio', another simple coming-of-age tale but one told on a magnificent scale, one where the artists at Walt Disney Productions would reach even further towards unattainable perfection. 'Bambi' would be one of their greatest achievements and bring about an end to the Golden Age of Walt Disney animation.

From time to time, people ask me, which is the favourite of all the pictures that we’ve made? Well, it’s the one that you’re going to see right now in this program, the story of a little elephant with big ears, 'Dumbo'. From the very start, 'Dumbo' was a happy picture. It really started from a very simple idea, and like topsy, just grew. We weren’t restricted by any set storyline, so we could give our imaginations full play. In other words, if a good idea came to us, we’d put it in the story. It was really a happy picture from the very beginning to the end.
Walt Disney, in the introduction to the Disneyland TV
broadcast of 'Dumbo', 14th September 1955

HOME VIDEO HISTORY

U.S. releases of the original 1981 VHS, the 2001 60th anniversary DVD and the 2011 70th anniversary Blu-ray.

  • 'Dumbo' was, along with 'Alice in Wonderland', one of the first Disney animated classics to be released in VHS. Its first release was in 1981, followed by further releases in 1982, 1985, 1991 and 1994. It was also released during this time on Betamax and Laserdisc.
  • Its first DVD release was in 2001, to coincide with its 60th anniversary. It was released again in the format in 2006 in a Big Top Edition.
  • For its 70th anniversary in 2011, the film was released for the first time on Blu-ray in a new digital restoration, and featuring a number of retrospective features and deleted material. The disc was first released internationally, before being released in the U.S. in September. It was again released on Blu-ray in 2016 for its 75th anniversary as a Disney Movie Club exclusive, along with its first Digital HD release.
  • The film is available on Disney+.

ON THE NEXT EPISODE
The Golden Age of Disney animation comes to a breathtaking end with 'Bambi', one of the most beautiful and enormous productions ever undertaken by the studio.
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