After the dizzying success of Snow White, Walt Disney continued to produce beautiful animated films with high production values, but they were very expensive to make, and thus Pinocchio and Fantasia were disappointments at the box office. With the war in Europe, audiences that would have flocked to those two films were cut off. Disney’s 4th feature animated film, Dumbo, was a deliberate attempt to make a lower budget, simpler production that could recoup its investment. And it paid off.
The story was an original tale composed for something called “Roll-A-Book,” which was a box with a scroll of pictures and story inside that you could turn with a knob to view the individual scenes. It is an obscure toy, and nobody has ever found an original copy of the Dumbo Roll-A-Book. The Walt Disney Co. doesn’t even have one. However, the original story, which is simpler and doesn’t have Timothy Mouse, is available. The original Roll-A-Book, if it ever existed at all, is one of those holy grails of Disney lore that would be worth a lot of money if anybody ever unearthed one. Walt Disney saw the potential for a film, and he bought the rights to the story.
Interestingly, the low budget aspect of Dumbo and the watercolor backgrounds were inspirations for Disney’s Lilo & Stitch from 2002.
At 64 minutes, this is Disney’s shortest feature film. RKO Radio Pictures, with which Disney had its distribution deal at the time, was unhappy and wanted it to be either longer or shorter, or to be released as a B picture. Walt Disney stood his ground, and Dumbo was released without alteration and got respectable business, turning a profit.
For years, however, the film has been looked at askance by critics with white guilt who see racism where there isn’t any. A prime example is Richard Schickel in his book The Disney Version, who writes, “There was one distasteful moment in the film. The crows who teach Dumbo to fly are too obviously Negro caricatures.” Clearly, Schickel has missed the entire point of the black crows in the context of this story, which is about as ennobling toward African Americans and anti-racist as any film of the early 1940’s could be. In a film populated by evil characters who try to put down the innocent little elephant with the freakish big ears for being different, the very obviously black crows, themselves easily understood to be marginalized members of society by virtue of their blackness, are the only ones who befriend Dumbo (other than Timothy Mouse, who should in theory have been his enemy, but Dumbo is too innocent to be prejudiced against mice). The crows start by mocking Dumbo, but when they hear Dumbo’s story, they quickly relate to his oppressed condition, and they become his biggest champions, teaching him to fly, bringing out the inner elephant, teaching him to rise above his station. It is no coincidence that Dumbo learns to fly by being given a black feather to hold in his trunk, as an example to inspire him to his own potential, and then when he accidentally loses the feather, he graduates to a new independent confidence in himself, inspired by his black mentors. Unlike Mr. Schickel’s disparaging notion that that the crows are “too obviously Negro caricatures,” they are instead very respectful and intentionally very obvious African American portrayals, because the fact that they are black completely informs the parable.
While Disney made some insensitive racial gaffes in the early 1940’s, Dumbo is not one of them. There are racist traces that have been expunged from Fantasia, for instance (albeit only 20 seconds or so of footage), and the Disney Company still doesn’t quite know what to do with Song of the South, which has mostly been under wraps in the U.S. since its last wide release in 1986 (although it was reportedly shown on British television in 2006.) Disney has every right to be proud of the crows in Dumbo, because they did the crows right. Four of the five crows were voiced by African American actors in a time when Hollywood was just growing out of using white actors in blackface (believe it or not, Judy Garland appeared in blackface as recently as her 1938 film Everybody Sing.) Former Our Gang actor Eugene Jackson was rotoscoped dancing with his brother Freddie in the Disney Studios to get the moves down for the crows. The joking banter between all the crows is a complete channeling of the type of repartee that one would have heard in the Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway bands, some of which made it onto their records. Black comedy acts of that era were still doing a later version of the minstrel show schtick that featured characters like Jim Crow. People forget today that black Americans bought tickets to the minstrel shows in droves (despite their racist content), and they loved characters like Jim Crow. While the lead crow isn’t called Jim Crow in the final cut of the film, he is named Jim Crow in the script. You still read critics saying dumb things, such as “the name Jim Crow refers to the Jim Crow Laws and that’s a bad thing.” Ridiculous. Why would Disney name a comic character after a set of racist laws? The Jim Crow Laws were named after Jim Crow, yes, but the Disney crow is not so named because of the racist Jim Crow Laws. The Disney Crow is so named because of the minstrel show character that became one of the stock comic characters of the American stage in a bygone era. I have no intention of defending every aspect of the creation and evolution of the Jim Crow character, because it is inextricably intertwined with racism and blackface minstrelsy, but the positive side of it is that Jim Crow was a stock character who became a staple of black comedy even into the present era, and Disney was playing on the positive and funny aspects of all that, even to the point of using real black actors and real black song & dance men to voice and dance the crows. Combining Disney’s respect for these talents with the poignant message of the crows teaching a little persecuted elephant to rise from his oppression gives Dumbo a lot more credibility on the racial front than just about any other film of its era.
For years, I thought that Dumbo was a disposable film, a little throwaway children’s story following such towering masterpieces as Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia. For instance, I found the pink elephant scene, where Dumbo and Timothy Mouse get drunk, to be psychedelic filler that stops the plot. Now I see it as a grand effort by Disney to inject serious art into the film, mostly surrealism in the spirit of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. The pink elephant scene is actually a breath of fresh air between the grinding realism of Pinocchio and Bambi. Some of the morphing elephants are quite brilliant as they turn into snakes and boats and other things. The ultimate morph is at the end of the scene where the flying elephants turn into clouds at the break of dawn.
So, Dumbo is a much deeper film than its 64 minutes would indicate. Some artists and animators have even intimated that it might be one of the greatest animated features ever made. I had to watch it again about 40 years after the last time to begin to understand why.