Dumbo, directed by Ben Sharpsteen and written by Dick Huemer and Joe Grant, one of the most beloved of early Disney movies, is still dogged by accusations of racism. Not only do I think it racist, but I would even argue that the film is anti-racist in somewhat the same way as earlier proto-civil rights films like John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) and James Whale’s Show Boat (1936); Dumbo’s point of view regarding race not only seems to underscore much of the film’s storyline, but also seems relevant to film’s patriotic ending, which in turn is tied into the fact that the character of Dumbo even shows characteristics of being a superhero.
I never thought much about Dumbo until I taught a continuing education class for high school teachers on Movies, TV and Families for the University of San Diego in 1993. In discussing racism in movies, I brought up the “When I See an Elephant Fly” number when several African-American students, who saw the film when it came out, objected to it being called racist; in fact, they remembered it being well received in their community.
More recently, I began showing the film to my classes in Media Theory, where I often start by asking students to analyze a classic Disney movie for its social and political meaning. (This sort of analysis, unfortunately, tends to be secondary among some animation students, who may reflexively analyze the quality of a film’s animation before anything else.) And it was when I started to analyze the film for my students in this context that I began to see how the issue of race permeated the film.
Before I explain myself, I think it useful to discuss the background against which the film was made. After the enormous success of Snow White, the studio’s two subsequent movies — Pinocchio and especially Fantasia (both 1940) — failed at the box office. This was due, in part, to the onset of World War II in Europe, which cut off a significant source of revenue. (Frank Thomas once told me that he felt the war also made the American public less receptive to the type of film the studio was turning out.) Thus, Disney could no longer afford the extravagant budgets and loose production schedules that had become the norm.
In this context, Dumbo was put into production as a relatively low-budget effort that could be turned out quickly, without all the second guessing Walt Disney was prone to, which tended to destroy any sense of budget discipline. Conventional wisdom also has it that Disney had little to do with the film, though John Canemaker argues in his DVD commentary that Walt may not have been as hands off as is often thought. (However, I should note that the film’s thematic thrust does seem different from other Disney features of the time.)
The studio’s financial problems eventually led, in 1941, to large-scale layoffs. In an interview with Gene Hamm, union activist Steve Bosustow (who worked on Dumbo) said one of the reasons for the 1941 Disney strike was to make sure these layoffs were done fairly. And one can’t help thinking that the increasing tension between labor and management that culminated in the May 1941 walkout might have also affected the tenor of the film itself. (Animation on the film was essentially finished by the time of the strike. Though it obviously proves little, it is interesting to note a number of union activists, including strike leader Art Babbitt, made significant contributions to Dumbo; also, Ward Kimball, who was largely responsible for the “When I See an Elephant Fly” sequence, told me he was sympathetic to the union cause, even though he did join the picket line. )
During the film’s production, the country went through a hard fought presidential campaign in which Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term against Wendell Willkie, who had accused Roosevelt of being a warmonger who wanted to drag America into World War II (which was not really far from the truth). Hollywood, though sympathetic to the Allied cause, with the exception of Warner Bros.’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939), cautiously avoided taking sides. If anything, some important animated films took a pacifist tone: Hugh Harmon’s Peace on Earth (1939) (which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize) and Dave Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels (1939); also, Bambi (1942), which had been in the works before Dumbo got started, seems to me decidedly isolationist. Dumbo, by dint of its rousing, somewhat flag-waving ending, hints at a decidedly different tack. Perhaps given that Dumbo was released less than two months before Pearl Harbor, the difference may be understandable, though isolationist sentiment in the US was still very strong.
The issue of race is first evident in the remarkable “Song of the Roustabouts” number in which an explicit parallel is made between the faceless African-American roustabouts and the elephants, as they work in tandem to put up the circus tent. The linkage is done using parallel editing, where first the African-American laborers do an arduous task followed by a similar action by the elephants. Here are some sample frame grabs to show my point:
While this sort of associative editing goes back to the early days of filmmaking (e.g., D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat  and Intolerance ), the way it is used in sequence probably derives from the Soviet montage films of Sergei Eisenstein and V.I. Pudovkin. (Disney, it should be remembered, befriended Eisenstein when he came to Hollywood in the early 1930s and studied his theoretical writings on montage; also, as John Canemaker points out in his commentary, the Disney studio regularly screened live-action films for their artists so they could study, among other things, editing.)
The song itself (by Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington) has echoes of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Old Man River” from Show Boat. For instance, take these Ned Washington lyrics from the “Roustabouts” song:
Back near breaking
Eggs and bacon what we need (Yes, sir!)
Boss man houndin’
Keep on poundin’
For your bed and feed
There ain’t no let up
Must get set up
Pull that canvas! Drive that stake!
Want to doze off
Get them clothes off
But must keep awake
And Oscar Hammerstein’s from “Old Man River”:
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racket wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.
Both are protest songs about the plight of African-American laborers and generally serve the same purpose in both Dumbo and Show Boat. Again, given the labor unrest at Disney, one cannot help but speculate about the relevance the “Song of the Roustabouts” to it. (I also wonder whether the sequence had any influence on George Pal’s John Henry and the Inky Poo , whose African-American theme also has a decidedly pro-labor bias.)
One of the faceless circus workers in Dumbo.
The characterization of the elephants as part of a racial underclass serves to underscore the plight of Dumbo as a pariah and later his mother when she is locked up for defending him against the cruelty of human children. In fact, the film is full of class distinctions. Not only are the roustabouts faceless, so are other circus workers (again a possible commentary on the faceless minions of the Disney studio). (The lack of detail in the film has been commented on elsewhere as being been linked to the film’s budgetary restraints.)
Eventually, Dumbo is relegated to being a clown, which is about as low as you can be for an elephant. As for the human clowns, they also are essentially faceless, as we never see what’s beneath their masks.
In the end, the only ones who help Dumbo are Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows, who are obviously African American (one [seen above], voiced by Cliff Edwards, is named Jim in the printed credits, but not in the film itself). Both represent people on the lower end of society’s pecking order, and they alone allow Dumbo to fulfill his true potential. And that potential includes fully using his unique powers, or should we say superpowers.
Dumbo was produced in the wake of enormous popularity of the Superman comic books, which inspired both a popular radio show and the Fleischer cartoon series; and it’s interesting to note that the first Superman cartoon was released a month before Dumbo opened.
In the end, Dumbo becomes a international celebrity, much like Superman, who seems to unite America in a world at war. (Note the headline on the left about Britain at war.) And, in a sense, as a representative of America’s minorities, he becomes something of a symbol for unity and reconciliation.