‘Dumbo’ Began Life As A Failed Novelty Concept

In 1941 Walt Disney needed a hit, so he turned to a simple children’s story gimmick for redemption.

Dumbo
Walt Disney Productions

We are not far off from the apocalyptic future imagined by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. You may be able to debate whether or not cannibalistic slavers will ever rule over society, but considering the recent corporate consumption of 21st Century Fox, there is little doubt that all future entertainments will be referred to as “Disneys.” The Mouse House’s total box office domination is a cultural certainty, and the impending arrival of the Disney+ streaming service should even have Netflix quaking in their boots. The Walt Disney Company is a monolithic monster, but we’re happy to ignore its viral planetary takeover as long as we get a decent Fantastic Four movie out of the deal.

The sovereignty of Disney was not always a certainty. In 1940, with only three feature films under their belt, Walt Disney Production’s prosperity looked rather grim. Both Pinnochio and Fantasia were duds. America was on the precipice of World War II, and global distress distracted from animated pleasantries. Walt needed a hit, and he needed it achieved on a barebones budget.

A year earlier, a new company called Roll-A-Book sold Disney the rights to an unpublished eight-page story entitled Dumbo, the Flying Elephant. Actually, they weren’t really pages, they were panels, like a comic book, wrapped around a scroll jammed inside a little plastic box. The reader would turn a knob on the side, and the panels would rotate from north to south through a small window on the front of the box. Finally, a solution to all that heavy page-lifting. Phew.

Written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl with illustrations by Helen Durney, the story doesn’t focus on a baby elephant but simply a tiny fella with enormous pink ears. He becomes the laughing stock of the circus after he fumbles a rubber ball balancing act, but his good friend Red the Robin takes him to the Wise Owl for emotional support. Recognizing the humorously large ears attached to his head, the Wise Owl suggests that he may be able to catch some wind beneath them. He gets some quick lessons from both Red and the Wise Owl, and the story concludes with Dumbo swooping into the big top arena and finally receiving uproarious applause from the audience. Acceptance feels good.

Bing bang boom, there is not much there, but the simpler the better as far as Walt Disney was concerned. When he purchased the rights from Roll-A-Book, he intended to transform the short story into a short film. However, Disney felt that both Pinnochio and Fantasia failed to connect because they were emotionally complex. Dumbo presented a story of a cute little underdog born from an elementary drawing style that instantly plucked heartstrings. Cute is cute and easily sellable.

Disney assigned trusted storymen Dick Huemer and Joe Grant to stretch the eight pages into a 64-minute feature. They wrote the script in chapters and submitted them to Disney in that fashion. The big man would nod his head, offer encouragement and advice, and the writers plugged away until they had something no American could refuse. Red the Robin was switched out for Timothy Q. Mouse, Dumbo was transformed into an even more adorable baby, a bad case of paternal separation anxiety reared its ugly head, and a fiery catastrophe was positioned as the climactic hurdle for the hero.

With the adaptation secured, the film launched into a rapid-fire production at the start of 1941 with a schedule to get the film into theaters by October of the same year. Supervising Director Ben Sharpsteen was given instructions to make it as inexpensive as possible. Where their previous efforts allowed for rich, fluid detail, Sharpsteen embraced cartooning on Dumbo. Not only did that mean less linework, but also liberal use of “held cels” (usually reserved for stationary elements like chairs or tables) for character animation. Backgrounds were often reduced to blank surfaces or flat colors. If a corner could be cut, Sharpsteen scissored away.

To make matters worse, almost immediately after completing preliminary animation on Dumbo, most of the staff went on strike because Disney refused to sign with the Screen Cartoonist’s Guild. Labor unions were taking over Hollywood at the time and were causing more than their fair share of anxiety. This strike is often considered the moment in which The Walt Disney Company ceased being a family organization and became the proper corporation we know it today. The strike lasted five weeks and left only 694 employees on the payroll. Disney elicited some petty revenge on the people he deemed responsible (primarily renowned animator Art Babbitt) by inserting their caricatures into Dumbo as a group of maniacal circus clowns. Don’t cross the mouse.

When RKO Radio Pictures finally received the completed project from Disney, the distributor was more than a little disappointed by Dumbo’s runtime. RKO pleaded with Disney to either bulk up the feature, cut it down to a short, or allow them to push it out with a B movie strategy. Disney refused. Again, they didn’t have the money or the desire to create any additional work. RKO eventually shrugged their shoulders and released the film as is.

Miraculously, Dumbo was the smash hit Disney desperately needed. With a budget of only $950,000 (half the price of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and a third of the price of Pinnochio), Dumbo raked in $1.6 million (that’s $27.5 million today) during its initial theatrical run. The cute little underdog elephant snatched American hearts, and Time magazine was planning on naming Dumbo “Mammal of the Year” until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor radically altered that news cycle. Still, the film planted itself in the cultural consciousness, and the next year the Academy Awards gave it the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture and nominated it for Best Original Song (“Baby Mine”). After the war, in 1947, the Cannes Film Festival gave it their award for Best Animation Design.

What about Roll-A-Book, the originators of the Dumbo tale? Ah. Four years after selling Dumbo’s rights to Disney, Roll-A-Book changed its name to Characters, Inc. Their prototype concept never landed in the market with any real significance, and by 1970 they dissolved completely. Finding copies of the original Roll-A-Book seems nearly impossible and it’s unclear as to how many/if any were ever produced. In 1941, a softcover version of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant was published minus Helen Durney’s illustrations. The Disney brand is not mentioned anywhere on the book itself, but it is believed that the drawings within were created by house artists.

The Walt Disney Company would continue to struggle financially throughout World War II. Despite Dumbo’s box office success, their follow-up film Bambi struggled to recoup its much larger, more confident budget. They threw themselves into military propaganda films as well as a new theatrical rerelease strategy with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1947. If you didn’t love their films on the first go-around, you’d adore them on your second, third, fourth, fifth watch. Persistence was always the key for Walt Disney. Fake it till you make it. As long as he kept himself on that big screen, he knew we would accept him eventually.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.