Reviews

Dumbo, 60th Anniversary DVD (2001)

Emily Woodward

Now seems remarkable not only for its adorable child's tale, but for its overt depiction of Disney's peculiar brand of patriotism.


Dumbo (60th Anniversary DVD)

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Cast: (voices of) Edward Brophy, Cliff Edwards, Sterling Holloway, Herman Bing, Verna Felton
Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: G
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
First date: 1941
US DVD Release Date: 2001-10-23

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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