Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dumbo Part 25


This sequence shows the aftermath of Dumbo's flying.

The montage is a great snapshot of the public's preoccupations at the end of the 1930's. Dumbo setting an altitude record relates to the public's ongoing romance with aviation at the time. People like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Wiley Post were all celebrated aviators of the period (the latter two dying in flight). "Dumbombers for defense" relates to the war in Europe, which the United States would join in 1941. The Hollywood contract had been sign of success at least since the 1910s, when performers started to make big money and in the '30s, movies and radio were the two major mass media. Dumbo's contract also explains Timothy's absence from the final scenes.

What follows the montage is the transformation of the circus. There have previously been scenes of Casey, Jr. in dark and stormy weather. He's now bedecked with flowers and chugging effortlessly in the bright sunlight. The elephant gossips are all smiles and celebrating the one they formerly ostracized. Dumbo's mother has gone from her depressing prison to a luxury car and now nothing stands in the way of her physical contact with her child. The crows have the vicarious pleasure of an outcast triumphing with their help.

The few animators credited here are effects animators, so we're completely without credits for the character animators.

Having watched this film over an extended period of time, the thing that strikes me most is how the main characters of the early Disney features are so passive and so victimized. Snow White does nothing on her own behalf except decide to become a housekeeper for the dwarfs. Pinocchio takes no positive action until he decides to save Gepetto. Dumbo's only positive action is to fly without the magic feather. Bambi goes with the flow until he fights another stag for Faline.

A character's arc implies growth towards a new viewpoint, but in the early Disney films it's like there's a binary switch that gets hit as the climax approaches. The characters don't grow towards maturity, they achieve it in an instant (and in Snow White's case, not at all). While heroes generally have mentors to guide them, in Dumbo the mentors are just about the whole show.

Dumbo's bath sequence isn't critical to the plot; it can be removed without changing the story. But it is crucial emotionally, as it is the only time we see Dumbo after his ears are revealed when he's not under attack of some sort. As a character, Dumbo is pretty much a cipher except for this sequence. There's nothing particularly individual about the way he panics when separated from his mother or the way he is scared when the elephant pyramid falls or when the clowns push him from the building.

This lack of personality, except in the most general terms, may be a reason for the film's success. Dumbo is a blank slate that the audience can write on with their own feelings of victimization. During the depression, there was no shortage of those feelings.

The recurrence of helpless heroes and savvy mentors may say something about Walt Disney himself and may mesh with the zeitgeist of the time. Walt had an older brother who looked out for him and stuck by him as he tried all sorts of questionable schemes and fell victim to a series of predatory businessmen like Charles Mintz, Pat Powers and Harry Cohen. That's practically a blueprint for Pinocchio, and Pinocchio taking responsibility for his actions may correlate to Disney taking ownership of his creations.

If Walt had Roy, America had President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1940, he was running for a third term, a first in American history, and he had shepherded the country through the Great Depression. The feelings of helplessness in the face of larger forces and the need for a saviour were reflected in Dumbo.

In a lot of ways, Disney and the zeitgeist separated in the post-war years. With America having won the war and become a world power, the idea of helplessness was only good for movies aimed at children. Films for adults became a lot more psychologically complex in the '50s and while there was still a lot to be afraid of (the burgeoning youth culture, the cold war and science run amok), the passivity of Disney's animated heroes was no longer mainstream. Even young Jim Hawkins gets to shoot somebody in Disney's live action Treasure Island.

Dumbo was the only Disney feature set in contemporary times until 101 Dalmatians and the only film to address racial issues until The Princess and the Frog. Racial and ethnic stereotypes show up in films like Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, but there is no attempt to get beyond stereotypes. If anything, the Disney films shunned present-day problems and were set in the past or in fantasy, where problems were straightforward and solutions were cut off from real-life complexity. The world of 1940 leaks into Dumbo and it's one of the things that makes the film so interesting. In several ways, the film is a precursor to Ralph Bakshi's work and it's a shame that in the intervening 30 years, neither Disney or anyone else was willing to pursue contemporary issues in the form of an animated feature.

Having completed this latest mosaic, I'd like to thank Hans Perk once again for the studio documents that make this (and the other) mosaics possible. I'd also like to thank everyone who took the time to comment.

13 comments:

Steven Hartley said...

It looks like this sequence was rushed while in production - and maybe because the layouts weren't credited and only three effect artists got the credit: Kossoff, Tobin and Reed.

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I'd like to thank both Hans Perk for posting the draft and also to thank Mark Mayerson for creating such great mosaics in your own time and of all the effort.

Now that Dumbo is finished, I guess my Pecos Bill mosaic is still going on and after that; I was thinking of doing Alice in Wonderland as a mosaic.

Thank you once again, it's been a fun time looking at these...

Eric Noble said...

You bring up a very interesting point about Disney films after the war. I think that they helped to contribute to the stereotype as animated films being only for kids. Thus the patterns Disney set back then are now the neverending standards by which all animated films must follow if they are to be made in Hollywood.

I am constantly amazed by your keen insights into these film. Actually comparing Dumbo to Ralph Bakshi's work is quite apt. Both have animation that could be considered sloppy, but deal with more adult issues. Disney just did it more subtly.

I love reading your mosaics. I hope we get to see more soon, maybe of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or sections of Fantasia?

Steven Hartley said...

Eric, I hope to see more mosaics soon, although there is a complete draft to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - but the only section of Fantasia that Hans Perk has scanned is the famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" section - all the rest have got been put on Hans Perk's site - although he might post all of the pages of the drafts before long.

Zartok-35 said...

Well, it's been a fun ride, thanks for doing these mosaics up, they are lots of fun to investigate.

Shots 11 and 12 must be animated by Bill Tytla.

Hans Perk said...

Not at all impossible, Steven...

Hans Perk said...

To Mark, thanks for the great mosaics, of course. Many people seem to only be able to understand the information in the drafts if presented in this way, and therefor your work is instrumental in getting this out to the masses! Lots of kudos!

Galen said...

Mark, this has been fascinating all the way through. I want to echo many others when I say that your analysis is equal to any writing on film that I've ever read.

One question though: When you say Dumbo was the only Disney feature to address racial issues until The Princess and the Frog, are you forgetting Song of the South? Or is there a reason it doesn't qualify in your view?

Mark Mayerson said...

No, Galen, you're right. I ran through the animated features in my head but somehow skipped Song of the South.

I think that film both embraces and subverts stereotypes, too. I really wish the studio would release it. While it's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the film as racist (and there are parts of it that make me uncomfortable), I do think that in many ways the film is anti-racist, portraying the white people as insensitive fools.

Galen said...

James Baskett was the second African-American Oscar recipient, for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. I wonder though what was the reasoning behind his "honorary" Oscar? Why wasn't he nominated for a regular Oscar?

Mark Mayerson said...

No idea, Galen.

Floyd Norman said...

Just the times, I would imagine. Remember, Baskett was not even allowed to attend the Atlanta premiere because of his color.

Galen said...

A little Googling yielded this info from the book "All About Oscar":

"Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper claimed it was her idea to honor Baskett as a humanitarian gesture. Some Academy board members opposed the award because Baskett played a slave, feeling that Negroes should play only professionals, doctors, lawyers, scientists. Similar objections were raised in 1939, when Hattie McDaniel won the Supporting Actress for playing a servant in Gone With the Wind. According to Hopper, Jean Hersholt threatened after a heated argument that, if Baskett didn't receive an Oscar, 'I shall stand up tomorrow night and tell the world the whole disgraceful story.' The board gave in and asked Hollywood's then-most-popular star, Ingrid Bergman, to present Baskett the award."

I read elsewhere that Baskett was known to be sick; he died in 1948. It is a great and historic performance; too bad that we aren't officially allowed to see it. (I cherish my VHS copy of the Japanese laserdisc.)

stevef said...

Thank you for the time and effort involved in posting this. Amazing.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you have to go all the way to "The Aristocats" to even find the next black voice actor in a feature - Scatman Crothers.