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American staple for values and beliefs in both young children and adults alike. Created by the Walt Disney Company and released in October of 1941, Dumbo required little revenue to create and produced substantial profits for the Disney Company during a time of financial insecurity. Dumbo marked the end of a “golden age” in animation films, retiring great legends that played a crucial role in the initial phases of developing Disney as the American icon that it is today. A great film can be defined in many ways, Dumbo’s significance lies in its simplicity.
What is considered the “golden age” of Disney lasted from 1937 to 1942 and included the films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). While each movie is significant in the evolution of Disney as a large enterprise corporation, Dumbo had all the great qualities of a Disney film and was relatively cheap to produce. In the A-Z Disney Dictionary, it’s estimated that “Dumbo was made for only $812,000, partly because it was able to move very quickly through the animation department due to its succinct story and clear cut characters, and it made a welcome profit for the studio”.
Dumbo was in development stages towards the end of the Great Depression and was released just prior to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor which lead the United States into World War 2. Movies like Fantasia and Pinocchio required certain special effects, which at the time caused the studio to lose much of its profit margins.
Conflicts in Europe and economic struggles at home required wise production making decisions for success.
Walt Disney started his animation career in Kansas City where he worked for the newspaper as a cartoon artist. During this time Walt had begun to take an interest in the film industry, so he created his own animation studio. Laugh-O-Gram studio had some success with its production of a small animated series called the Alice Comedy. Shortly after the company claimed bankruptcy, Walt moved to Los Angeles where he and his brother established Disney Brothers cartoon studios, later known as Walt Disney studios. Walt Disney established his studio trademark through the development and distribution of the iconic Mickey Mouse and his companions such as Donald Duck, Daisy, Goofy and Pluto.
Walt was a cartoon enthusiast with a keen eye for plot progression that employed innovative ideas which pushed the boundaries of new technology and animation film. At the time, Cel animation dominated the industry and required many frame-to-frame drawings to create a single scene; an elaborate method that was quite laborious and time-consuming. As Technicolor progressed within the film industry, animators like Walt took full use of this new creative space and made great capital gains within this transitional technological time. Technicolor enabled the animation industry to incorporate a larger scheme of colors and produce full-color films, for instance, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which was a booming success.
Unions were rising up in different areas at this time and the animation industry was no different. While animators did the work for the love of art, design and creation, tensions between management and workers at the Disney studio had begun to rise after the success of Snow White. Workers felt the profits were not being shared mutually. In the fall of 1941, animators from Disney Studios went on strike. Tensions brewed and even some of Walt’s closest colleagues like Art Babbitt joined the protests. The strike changed the fabric of Walt’s social circle and many animators left the cooperation for good. Dumbo was in the end of production just prior to the strike and consequently was one of the last films generated by this initial group of men who had launched Disney to unprecedented greatness.
Dumbo packs an emotional punch and incorporates beliefs that relate to issues occurring in the world during its development like classism, race, and war. Classism is an apparent theme within the social dynamics of the elephants. The performance animals are seen as well off and more intelligent than some of the other species and entertainers such as the stage clowns. Basic socialization is made evident through the timely use and execution of disapproval exhibited by the elephants. Concepts like alienation and conformity play out in many of the scenes. The elephant matriarch played by Verna Felton makes many crude passes at Dumbo’s mother which relate to her disciplinary and parental abilities. One of her direct quotes from the movies goes as such: “Ladies, ladies, it’s no laughing matter at all. Remember we elephants have always walked with dignity, his disgrace is our own shame.” Concepts like deviance are also lightly shown, for instance, the scene where Dumbo and his friend Timothy become intoxicated after drinking from a pail outside of the clown’s tent or the crows that partake in cigar smoking.
Racial tensions and class issues were thriving at the time of Dumbo’s production and it is apparent within the film. When unloading the train and raising the tent for the circus, men of dark color are seen laboring in the rain and mud while the song of the roustabouts play with lyrics that read “we work all day, we work all night. We never learned to read or write. We’re happy-hearted Roustabouts” and ends with the phrase “grab that rope, you hairy ape.” Later in the movie, the race is even directly mentioned by Timothy in a pep talk to Dumbo after taking him to see his mother in confinement, in an attempt to get Dumbo to cheer up he states to him, “Remember you come from a proud race.” From a strictly observational standpoint, the separation of the different types of animals in the circus could be seen as racial and/or class segregation.
War had been raging in Europe and while the United States was trying to maintain nuclear status during this time of conflict the loom of war seemed unavoidable for the American people. Dumbo outlines a type of American patriotism in the scene where Dumbo is illustrated as a warplane, shooting peanuts with his trunk at the other elephants which could be viewed as the antagonist or enemies of Dumbo. The aerial perspective of the stork and the geographical layout is depictive of war-type scenarios, like bomber planes and target points. Dumbo was even set to be on the cover of Time Magazine in 1941 after its release but due to the attacks on Pearl Harbor that took priority in the news and the Dumbo cover was cut.
Although Dumbo’s character was essentially a mute having no lines throughout the entire production his plight resonated with its viewers. Disney is iconic for its use of imagination, values and beliefs that lead its viewers into a world of fictional characters in which they are emotionally drawn. Walt Disney states that “Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, and dreams are forever.” Dumbo teaches its viewers the power of belief in ones self, the value of friendship and encouragement, and tells an enduring story of self-actualization and the pursuit of fame. Dumbo is a film that represents simplicity at its best, a perfect recipe for what is Disney. Dumbo and the other films created during the “golden age” in an essence established the distinctive trademark of the Disney Studios.
The strike settled some worker grievances like pensions and medical insurance paving the way for future animators. Disney is a place where one can showcase their artistic abilities and entrepreneurs can excel to new heights. Paula Sigman, a Disney historian states “The simplicity of Dumbo and the joy in making the film. That you knew where you were going from beginning to end, was something that Walt never really had again and his artists never experienced again. After Dumbo, everything really did get more complicated. Walt was more distanced from his artists. The Disney studio was a very different place after Dumbo and in a sense, Dumbo and its light and joyfulness represent perhaps the apex and the end of that sort of “golden age” of the Disney studios.” The “golden age” presented outstanding classics that will forever captivate the hearts of masses. The films created during the “golden age,” including Dumbo, opened a realm of possibilities for animation film which would last for decades to come.
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