The Classic Animated American Film, Dumbo, preceded Walt Disney’s first Animated Feature Length films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio. Dumbo also arrived right before the American Animated classic Bambi. These films were undoubtedly made during a time of extreme racial oppression in the United States (the country where Walt Disney films were originally set to be consumed).
It would come to no surprise that these films, though filmed primarily for children entertainment, would not only exhibit problematic racial stereotyping, but also would perpetuate systematic and institutional racism in the new age of the moving pictures. As a film consumer of the 2010s, Dumbo is a historically provocative and racial revealing experience. In short, the film allows viewers to see into the racist past of the United States. Even as young children, film consumers of today were taught what “racism” was, in at least in the most simplistic ways.
Dumbo allows for an adult film consumer of this era to reminisce on not only America’s segregated past but also on his or her own reflected childhood, because what child has not seen Dumbo? Through language alone, Dumbo allows viewers to experience a piece of the past. The character Timothy Q. Mouse, who performs a role similar to Pinocchio’s conscience Jiminy Cricket, speaks on behalf of the viewers of the films. He encourages Dumbo and holds faith in Dumbo when all hope seems lost (a canon that would continue throughout character writing in Walt Disney’s productions).
This relationship between the viewer and this ‘conscience-like’ character becomes obvious in the film because soon into the screenplay, it is realized that the only person who feels for Dumbo the way the viewer does is Timothy Q. Mouse. With that idea in mind, viewers will not only sympathize with Dumbo but also suture in on the conscience-like character (Timothy Q. Mouse) and take his language and identify it as his or her own. The character Timothy Q. Mouse seems to understand race the way that a viewer should have in the early 1940s. To Timothy, each animal at the circus is a different race. He makes this clear when he tells Dumbo that elephants are a very proud race and attributes that fact to Dumbo’s ostracization from his elephant “race”.
Timothy Q. Mouse states, “Remember, you come of a proud race. Why you’re a-a-a– a pachyderm… and pachyderms don’t cry.” Whether it’s subconscious thoughts of the viewers of today, or the blatantly racist and societally charged thoughts of viewers of the past, this dialogue allows for the film to become racially relevant to its consumers. The consumers must then begin to understand the race relations in the film, and clearly Timothy Q. Mouse has implied a certain hierarchy of race in Walt Disney’s Dumbo world. The Elephants seem to be near the top of this hierarchy throughout the film. They are referred to as the “Climax” of the Circus, and, in particular, one elephant turns to her pack and says, “Don’t forget that we elephants have always walked with dignity.”
Through this language, elephants in the film are metaphorically regarded as the racial majority group not only by themselves but also by the other animals (/races) in the film. As viewers hear this language being used, racial stereotypes begin to stir, and soon, a new race is introduced into the film—the crows. The crows are introduced preceding a scene featuring a piece of music called “Pink Elephants on Parade”. The scene begins when Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse become accidently intoxicated by drinking water that has been tainted with Champagne. This results in a number of hallucinations of oddly colored circus animals accompanied by the piece “Pink Elephants on Parade” written by Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington.
These Hallucinations, presumed to be due to drunkenness, and the psychedelic music accompaniment become important in the introduction of the crows. (It should also be noted that drugs and alcohol were stereotypically attributed to the black community and in particular the community of black musicians during the 1940s and into present day—this fact further enhances the portrayal of racial stereotypes in the film.) The crows bring out some of the first-born stereotypes of African Americans. There is no coincidence that Dumbo, after being kicked out of the Elephant racial group and intoxicated beyond comprehension, would end up in bad place.
In fact, it is to be expected that Dumbo would hit rock bottom, but unfortunately for him, rock bottom is high up in a tree, and not only that, but it is symbolically the worst place he could end up. The scene opens with a pan of the landscape accompanied by flute melodies that symbolize the serenity of early morning. Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse are asleep high in a tree below a flock of crows looking down at them. Suddenly, the sounds of the flute are interrupted by the crows obnoxious speech, “Well, looky here, looky here. My, my. Why, this is most irregular.” Simply from the dialect used by the crows, it is very clear even today that these crows are to be compared to the most oppressed minority group of the time—African Americans (or negroes in the 1940s). The crows in this scene embody a very negative view of the 1940s Negro. They are loud and rambunctious.
They smoke cigars and harass Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse. They leave no room for a positive thinking on the black community and can even be compared to the minstrel shows of the time. Walt Disney could have used a number of animals to represent black people of this time, but he chose to use one of the only black colored animals with the brightest colored mouth. Since the leader of the flock is played by a white voice actor, the dialect of the crows would exactly mimic Minstrelsy.
Without a doubt, these crows represent these characterizations among animal characters and in the Richard Crawford’s writing on minstrel shows of the American past he states, “… the mask enabled white stage minstrels to amuse audiences by imitating characteristic black ways of talking, moving, dancing, laughing, singing, and playing music instruments” (Crawford 198). This scene maintains Minstrelsy by using the crows as an animated-animalized blackface and further perpetuates the idea that the crows are, in fact, exhibiting minstrelsy. Since stereotypical black speech movement, dancing, laughing, singing, and musicianship all play a huge role in the making of this scene, then it would be right to say that minstrelsy was the goal of Walt Disney productions in the making of Dumbo in 1941.
Overall, the purpose of this scene is to show that Dumbo has ended up in the black neighborhood and faces complete humiliation by a minority group. Much can be said about these racial issues, but most importantly, there is a question of how viewers of the film understand the relationship between Dumbo with his conscience-like character versus the stereotypical 1940s negro-like crow characters. My answer to this question would be found in a different view of language—the language of music. If music can be compared to the language of a subculture or a dialect of minority group, then it is easy to see that Walt Disney, the writing staff and the musical directors of Dumbo wanted to portray this in the film.
Walt Disney had a very specific view in mind for his films. Ross Care in his essay “Make Walt’s Music” says, “While not a musician himself, Disney did demand a certain element of quality in his musical scores: he wanted class, but nothing too classy, and seriousness, but not the type of music to be taken too seriously.” The question that viewers of Dumbo would then encounter is: musically, what was Walt Disney trying to portray in the film? Musically, the crow scene uses Jazz to portray the black community. The idea of jazz music, being a fairly new genre of music that comes from African Americans, was a perfect way for Dumbo to lose its serious tone for just a moment in the plotline.
In the scene Dumbo ends up falling from the tree where the crows have been taunting him. Again, the crows rudely approach Dumbo for more taunting and finally Timothy Q. Mouse Says, “Go on. Fly up a tree where you belong” (23). Though this line is a racially loaded statement, it goes unnoticed and the crows begin to perform a Jazz piece called “When I See an Elephant Fly”. The piece was created and recorded by Cliff Edwards (known for voicing Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and his hit single “Singing in the Rain) and Hall Johnson, a famous Julliard trained African American composer and choral director. Noticeably, this scene exhibits problematic racial issues and these ideas are perpetuated through the music of the score, however an educated African American composer was a part of the creation of this music. This fact brings forth a very important historical reality: during this time, stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination were a reality.
When Timothy Q. Mouse tells the crows to go fly up a tree, it goes unacknowledged. That can be easily compared to the production of the film. Historically, it should not be surprising that an African American would be a part of music that portrays black stereotypes—Dumbo is a perfect example. Another important question to examine is why Jazz was an appropriate musical genre to introduce to the film during the crow scene. After watching the crows rudely harass the antagonist, Dumbo, and after Dumbo has experienced what is assumed to be a part of “negro experience” at the time (drunken hallucinations), a Jazz piece would serve as the final icing-on-the-cake. These three racial stereotypes allow the film consumers of this time to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Dumbo has landed in heart of the black community and he must return back to his natural place in the racial hierarchy.
At that point through the text of the song, the crows tell Dumbo that there’s no way elephants could fly, which is exactly what Dumbo needs to learn to do in order to be accepted back into his race once again (and of course, the negro-crows turn out to be wrong in the end). Finally, the scene ends with Timothy Q. Mouse and Dumbo walking into the distance determined to prove the crows wrong and become elephant again. At that point, the Jazz subsides and the traditional musical narrative takes over the score once again. Analyzing the deeper meaning behind the scenes of Dumbo proves that there is more than racial issues in the images and texts of Disney films.
The creation of the film also proves that racial issues played a role in its production. It is obvious that the writers of Disney films exhibit racial views in their writing, but also that music plays an important role in perpetuating racial stereotypes. The animated characters of the film were not only drawn to be racially stereotypical, but the actors and musicians that voiced these characters were black themselves. These facts allow viewers of the film today to realize the true racial complexities that surrounded Walt Disney Productions. Overall, Dumbo is an example of how language, animation, and music can all come together to preserve a problematic obscurity of race in the beloved classic animated films of Walt Disney.