Flying to New Heights: Celebrating 75 Years of Walt Disney’s Dumbo
“In the inspiration of mind and spirit that go into the making of Disney picture-making one essential is clarity,” Walt Disney believed. “Failure to make clear the nature of the thing being produced is one of the surest causes of dullness and failure to learn.” After the glowing success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and the artistic triumphs of Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) that ultimately met with difficult reception, Walt had certainly learned quite a bit. And whilst a number of his artists dedicated themselves to Bambi (1942), another artistic foray, Walt took a swing at a different kind of picture. It was a feature film not as grandiose as those that preceded it, but was perhaps even more effective in emotional impact. The film was Dumbo (1941), now celebrating 75 years since its release.
Created at a time when a combination of factors put a severe limit on Walt’s ability to pour resources into new films, Dumbo was the first of a new string of features, a film made efficiently and effectively under the strictest of parameters. But Walt was not going to do anything halfway no matter the restrictions. As historian J.B. Kaufman comments, “Artistic greatness does not depend upon surface extravagance.”
So it was back to the basics. A solid and simple story that came to the Studios quite unlike most Disney subjects. Where classic fables or successful stories were gathered and sought out, Dumbo came to Disney at the urging of the manufacturer in the form of a toy “Roll-a-Book” project, in which a child could scroll through the illustrations of the story. Walt’s interest must have been piqued in a special kind of way; he acquired the rights to the story, which was subsequently published as a children’s book by the husband and wife team of Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl. Walt asked two of his key story men, Joe Grant and Dick Huemer to explore the story. It was something uncomplicated, beautifully simple, and ripe with opportunity for expansion. When Grant and Huemer came to it, they found its potential for a feature length film quite appealing. What was a charming little story became a high-flying masterpiece on the screen.
“From the first time I ever saw this film, one of the things that has always struck me about it is that there’s not a wasted frame anywhere,” says Kaufman. “It’s like a perfectly constructed machine where everything dovetails together just right.” Indeed, Dumbo is a masterwork of cinema, with sophisticated cinematography and editing techniques that are still studied today. Every decision of Walt’s serves the story, a classic tale of the underdog, where the innocent Dumbo overcomes adversity in its many forms and learns to fly. It’s a story that tugs at the heartstrings, often bringing tears to audiences. And the pathos “makes the ultimate resolution that much sweeter,” as Kaufman puts it. Good storytellers earn their happy moments, and Walt does so with sublime effort.
With sequences as diverse as the rousing Casey Jr. Circus Train’s journey to the circus grounds , the emotional meeting of Dumbo and his mother to the tune of “Baby Mine,” or Dumbo’s surreal visions featuring “Pink Elephants on Parade,” the picture combines beautiful imagery, appealing characterization, and delightful music. Fusing the bold artistic spirit of Walt’s previous feature films with the more concise mastery of the Silly Symphonies short cartoons, Dumbo is seamlessly constructed. Each sequence builds and transitions into the next, such as when dancing pink elephants wonderfully morph into scattered clouds over a sweet sunrise.
One sequence that is often overlooked comes near the beginning of the film. As the circus arrives in a new town on a wet and stormy evening, a group of burly roustabouts construct the massive circus tent with aid of the elephants. Powerful and affective, the scene consumes the viewer with a montage of shots and booming music. As Kaufman puts it, “In that sequence it’s just overflowing with effects animation. You got the failing rain, you got the elephants and roustabouts trucking through the mud, you got the lanterns, the tent poles themselves and the tents. It’s a really lavish sequence right in the middle of these others that have a much brighter appearance. That’s a very canny move.” Walt and his team are so consummate in their craft as to pace the story with this crucial beat. It’s a scene full of mood and emotion, with even a touch of sentiment as the little Dumbo “assists” his mother, helping tap the massive stake into the ground with his tiny hammer.
Released in the final months of 1941, Dumbo came in the middle of what Walt oncedescribed as “the toughest period in my life.” With the increasing pressures of the Second World War on the European film market, The Walt Disney Studios faced economic struggle. Changing labor sentiments in Hollywood gave birth to a strike that changed the Studios’ culture. Walt himself worked tirelessly to adjust to these many changes and twists of fate. And when the attack on Pearl Harbor finally launched the United States into the great conflict, he again stood up to a new challenge.
The resilience of Dumbo mirrors the resilience of Walt. As Kaufman describes, “He had this uncanny knack for taking a bad thing and turning it into a good thing.” Walt was ready to meet any challenge. If there were new financial constraints, then he’d deliver a feature film made along a new set of parameters, perhaps not as lavish as Pinocchio or ambitious as Fantasia, but just as glorious an experience for the audience. When future success looked anything but certain, Walt, like the character of Dumbo, learned how to fly. As Timothy Q. Mouse declares to the young elephant, “The very things that held you down are going to carry you up and up and up!”
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer, filmmaker, and contracting historian for The Walt Disney Family Museum.
Sincerest thanks to J.B. Kaufman for granting an interview!
-Disney, Walt. The Quotable Walt Disney. Ed. Dave Smith. New York: Disney Editions, 2001. Print.
-"Interview with J.B. Kaufman." Telephone interview by author. September 19, 2016.
-Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. New York: Disney Editions, 2000. Print.