Revisiting Disney's Dumbo
Walt Disney’s Dumbo, The Flying Elephant was released on DVD October 23, the 60th anniversary of its first theatrical run. The animated film remains a deeply moving picture and conveys various universal themes—the fear of being separated from one’s mother, facing discrimination on the basis of physical appearance—with a simple eloquence that is neither preachy nor trite.
At the time of its release in 1941, Dumbo was hailed by critics as Disney’s least pretentious work. Nothing in the movie heralded a technical breakthrough, as the studio had done with Pinocchio (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). And certainly nothing in Dumbo can match the computerized wizardry of modern Disney “classics” like The Lion King (1994). Despite their merits, however, these other films do not come close to achieving Dumbo‘s raw power. Indeed, the little elephant with the big ears, who wants only to reunite with his mother, has moved audiences like few other Disney protagonists (a notable exception being the young buck Bambi in the 1947 film of the same name). And Dumbo‘s compelling narrative provides a forum for Disney’s more extremist views.
Watching Dumbo as a kid, I didn’t question its content or probe for meaning beyond the elephant’s tale. Only after revisiting the film as a young adult have I been able to see why it was “special to Walt Disney,” according to critic Richard Schickel, in his book, The Disney Version. Published roughly 20 years ago, this book angered many Disney fans by suggesting that Walt—born 100 years ago December 5—was less than perfect. The book portrays the artist as a paranoid man, and not a little contemptuous of his colleagues, particularly the numerous Jewish moguls who reigned in Hollywood during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. According to Schickel, Dumbo reflects Walt Disney’s deepest convictions regarding the United States and its entry into WWII. The titular protagonist represents the innocence of the heartland, where Disney himself grew up, and his story reflects how this innocence comes under attack by “political forces” abroad and “subversive elements” at home.
Dumbo was released roughly six weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was Disney’s fourth animated feature film—following Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia—and the first with a contemporary U.S. setting. With his big blue eyes, jaunty cap, and youthful exuberance, Dumbo (voiced by Verna Felton) is set against the other circus elephants, who may be seen as representing the European Allies. Key among these is Dumbo’s mother (voiced by Sarah Selby), separated from her son throughout much of the film, just as America was cut off from Great Britain and other allies at the time of Dumbo‘s release.
But the parallels are more complicated than this sounds initially. At the beginning of the film, the other elephants treat Dumbo with cruel condescension. They know precisely how big an elephant’s ears should be, and they ridicule Dumbo for not measuring up. The rest of the circus community also ostracizes him. With its assortment of jeering clowns and faceless roustabouts, this community exhibits a sinister mob mentality, suggesting Fascism and, by association, Nazism. Significantly, the circus is presided over by a preening, bombastic Italian ringmaster, an apparent caricature of Mussolini (voiced by Herman Bing).
In his suffering at the hands of the ringmaster and his own fellow pachyderms, Dumbo functions as Disney’s own alter ego. Indeed, Disney saw himself as a victim in the three-ring circus that was Hollywood. He felt that the Hollywood studio system of the ‘30s and ‘40s threatened his creative control. The studio heads he opposed included Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack Warner at Warner Bros., and Harry Cohn at Columbia. Each had a vested interest in Disney’s animation empire and was eager to buy him out. Though often pressed for money, Disney refused their offers. In particular, he resented Harry Cohn’s so-called “ruthless” tactics. In his book, Disney’s World, critic Leonard Mosely recalls an incident in which Disney, referring to Cohn, vowed never to “let that fat Jew rescue me from bankruptcy.”
Disney projected his own sense of alienation onto “others” in Hollywood, namely, Jews, blacks, and union workers. In retaliation against the studio moguls, who were predominantly Jewish, he refused to employ Jews in high-level positions at his studio or as actors in his live-action features. Not until 1969, two years after Disney’s death, did a Jewish actor, Buddy Hackett, feature prominently in a Disney film, The Love Bug. Disney Studios also denied black workers even minimal opportunities, as technicians and support personnel. Such racism is apparent in the crow sequence in Dumbo. Appearing well outside the circus limits, the black caricatures are shown to be anonymous members of a marginal group. Only one is given a name, “Jim Crow.” Even as outsiders, however, the crows still manage to torment poor Dumbo.
Mosely reports that Disney saw union workers as a third parasitic subset of U.S. society. It is significant that many of Disney’s employees had gone on strike in the spring of 1941, costing his studio some $2 million and paralyzing operations for almost three months. The release date for Dumbo had to be pushed back several months, awaiting final changes that could only be made after production resumed. These changes included the insertion of a new scene featuring drunken clowns. Thinly veiled caricatures of the strikers at Disney, they scheme to “hit the big boss [the ringmaster] for a raise.” Oddly, the evil ringmaster becomes the “victim” here.
According to Mosley, Disney summed up many of his beliefs in an off-the-record attack against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose liberalism Walt opposed. Disney denounced Roosevelt for calling the 1900s the “Century of the Common Man.” “Balls!” Disney said. “It’s the century of the Jew, the union cutthroat, the fag, and the whore! And FDR and his National Labor Relations Board made it so!” Ironically, soon after Dumbo‘s, release, Walt would turn his filmmaking efforts to the FDR’s war effort. However, Disney never ceased to see Roosevelt’s government as a threat or to resent the loss of creative control he had previously wielded over his projects. Disney’s subsequent efforts, for the next four years, consisted mainly of short cartoons commissioned by the government to boost wartime morale. In later decades, his work mellowed, taking on the cheerful, rather antiseptic cast of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with cuddly live-action features and kiddy TV shows, such as Pollyanna and the Mickey Mouse Club. Dumbo now seems remarkable not only for its adorable child’s tale, but for its overt depiction of Disney’s peculiar brand of patriotism.