Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Walt Disney, part V: How would you like being left out alone, in a cold, cruel, heartless world?


It's sentiment, cheaply, but Walt passes the savings on to you.

Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
With Edward Brophy (Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (Mrs. Jumbo and the Elephant Matriarch), Cliff Edwards (Jim Crow) (yeesh), and Herman Bing (the Ringmaster)

Spoiler alert: an elephant flies

Like a big gray phoenix, Dumbo rose from the ashes in late 1941.  The previous year had seen Walt Disney expend nearly everything his studio had on a pair of ambitious, state-of-the-art features that had either severely underperformed (Pinocchio) or just flat-out crapped the financial bed (Fantasia), in large part due to the way that Walt's uncompromising artistic vision and penchant for massive mismanagement tended to go hand-in-hand.  (Having also just taken his company public in early 1940, I'm wondering if Walt ever heard the term "business judgment rule" from his counsel, taking solace in the fact he was probably safe from a shareholder action.)  Presently, Walt's mismanagement was reaching beyond even his quixotic efforts to screen a three million dollar film in thirteen theaters.  Things came to a head late in Dumbo's production cycle, when the promises Walt had made in the wake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' world-historical success came undone in the wake of his two business-leveling failures, plus the move of his studio to a massive new complex in Burbank.

The thing to know about the Disney strike of '41 is that it wasn't because Walt was the worst.  In fact, as far as the two-decade-old animation industry went, Walt was arguably the best.  That doesn't mean he was always a good boss, nor even always good at getting people to agree he was good boss, which was, of course, always his primary job as a coordinator and critic of talent, rather than a great talent himself.  But, on average, Disney paid its employees more than any game in town.  The problems started when it became increasingly apparent that some people, who'd earned Walt's favor, were pulling that average up a lot more than others—and given Walt's personality, I doubt it's possible, even in theory, to truly reconstruct the random interactions which led to the utter chaos of his studio's compensation scheme.

Edging toward bankruptcy is a good way to find an organization's pressure points, and one was Walt himself.  In 1941, Walt began ordering layoffs, slashing paychecks, and authorizing transparently-bad ideas like The Reluctant Dragon in the hopes of generating any cashflow at all.  When the Screen Cartoonist's Guild (founded in the midst of the Fleischer Studios' own strike in '38) came a'calling, Walt gathered everybody he hadn't already sent home, so they could listen to an unrehearsed rant that amounted to calling everyone who still worked for him a lazy ingrate.  Unsurprisingly, this didn't boost morale, and the SCG-affiliated workers (around 300 of them) got a leader in ace animator Art Babbitt, one of Walt's stars.  Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, Walt took this as a personal offense.  Walt actually tried to attack Babbitt on the picket line once, though he was restrained.  (Which is funny to think about: within the next year, Babbitt would be a Marine taking islands in the Pacific, whereas even in 1941 I doubt Walt could get through a whole fistfight without making a wheezy request for a cigarette break.)  Babbitt wasn't the only recognizable name affected: Bill Tytla, Thornton Hee, John Hubley, and Mary Blair's brother-in-law, Preston, were amongst the many employees who ultimately left Disney in the aftermath of the strike.  Babbitt did, too, of course.  But before and after the war, he kept getting courts to force Walt to hire him back.  I expect that, at a certain point, he'd started to take it pretty personally, as well.

There are those who say that Dumbo parodies the strikers by turning them into the titular elephant's tormentor-clowns.  I don't think this is true (for one thing, Babbitt animated this key sequence, plus the timeline simply doesn't work).  And yet it's interesting to watch Dumbo with the strike in mind, given its depiction of labor exploitation, petty hierarchies, and catastrophic managerial failure: from its "happy-hearted" roustabouts, to the clowns that have all the good ideas and just want the "big boss" to share the profits they make, to the enslaved elephants themselves, some of them more sympathetic than others... and right down to the fact that the ringmaster takes his orders from a mouse who appears in his dreams, leading, of course, to the physical destruction of his entire circus.  (And if that doesn't sound like a canned history of Fantasia to you, I just don't know.)  I'm sure it signifies pretty much nothing; it's probably more-or-less all in the book-adjacent device Dumbo was based on (a strange idea regarding prints on a cylinder that never caught on beyond the sale of the rights to Disney), though in that, it was a robin, not a mouse.  But it can still look like it means something—at least from the distance of almost eighty years.

Beyond that unintentional mirror, the interruption of the strike doesn't show up much if at all in Dumbo.  Yet the results of the strike's underlying causes sure as hell do: beyond an opening couple-hundred frames of a flock of delicately, realistically animated storks, each carrying a more-or-less realistically animated bundle of joy (all of which looks like it came from a completely different movie), and beyond a rather-famous stylistic tour de force toward the end of the picture (which, even so, bears a certain minimalism that belies its lack of expense), Dumbo is jarringly cheap after the lush magnificence of Fantasia and Pinocchio and Snow White.  At 64 minutes, it's even jarringly short—barely a feature at all!

I don't think this cheapness hurts it too much, not even as much as it probably should; but let's get back to that later.  Those elegant opening frames are quickly contradicted in the most asinine way they could be when our story proper begins, and Mrs. Jumbo the Elephant receives her bundle of joy a few days late, at last delivered to Mrs. J's circus by a stork with a markedly different anthropomorphized design (and, in case that's too subtle a distinction, who also wears a very stupid Western Union-style messenger's uniform).

This bundle, I'm sure you know, she names Jumbo, Jr.; but it is not long before Mrs. Jumbo's fellow elephants, beholding the "deformity" of his enormous ears, christen him "Dumbo" instead, amidst other cruelties.  The Jumbo family, already ostracized, is rent asunder when poor Dumbo is put on display for imbecilic children to gawk and poke at, whereupon his mother reacts in the only way a mother could, with angry intervention.  Her resulting imprisonment doesn't soften the other elephants' contempt for the child; in fact, it intensifies it.  And, at this, a small circus mouse named Timothy can stand no more, appointing himself Dumbo's mentor and guardian.  Speaking softly into the ringmaster's ears, Timothy even gets Dumbo his first big gig; yet this only leads to more tragedy, when Dumbo's ears get in the way, leaving Dumbo no place to go in this circus except to the clowns, who throw him off a burning building every night for the amusement of laughing crowds.  In fairness, their routine is actually funny, but it's not much of a life for Dumbo.  Falling into a deep depression and hitting the bottle hard, Dumbo and Timothy awake high up in a tree—and, despite the incredulity of a murder of skeptical crows, it turns out that while Dumbo's tremendous ears may not be great for his terrestrial mobility, they do possess some unexpected aerodynamic properties.  And now that Dumbo can fly, nothing will ever be the same, for this is Dumbo's ticket to happiness and the good life, forever.

I actually have a pet theory that the last twenty minutes of Dumbo is Dumbo's death dream.  Either way, it's pretty extra.

But that's the simple beauty of Dumbo, which (in story terms) is basically nothing more nor less than Better Pinocchio.  Banished is the awful lumpiness of Pinocchio's stop-and-start structure, for as weird and sometimes-arbitrary as Dumbo frankly is, every scene does manage to logically connect to the next; gone is the fickle, obnoxious scold of Jiminy Cricket, replaced with the stalwart and energetic and much more charismatic Timothy and the ultimately-compassionate crows; and the strident Victorian moralizing and victim-blaming of Pinocchio is cast aside, too, offering a vastly more direct and engaging narrative for us to appreciate.

It has rather better songs, to boot, and Dumbo is the first Disney musical that has more than one genuinely good song.  The pity is the best is more aptly-characterized as a song fragment: "Casey Junior," the brief, bouncy ballad of Dumbo's bizarrely-anthropomorphized circus train, sung by the Sportsmen; the group also contributed "The Roustabout's Song," delivered during the assembly of the tent, possibly my second favorite as a piece of music.  Dumbo is, as much as any Disney film, in debt to the popular music of its period, but that's much less of a crime here than it sometimes would be (and it's less incongruous, given Dumbo's status as Disney's first contemporaneously-set film, anyway).  "When I See An Elephant Fly," the film's climactic piece, by Cliff Edwards and members of the Hall Johnson Choir—and delivered by the crows they voiced—certainly ranks quite high, as well.  It's easily the cleverest lyrically, based as it is on an array of terrifically excellent, sarcastic puns ("I've seen a horse fly...").

(So I guess this is as good a place as any to mention that Dumbo's slightly racist.  But that's less because the crows are stereotypes—of what, cool guys?—than because the lead crow is named Jim Crow, and as irresistible as that much-stupider pun may or may not have been, I'd like to think it was possible, even in 1941, that he still didn't need to played by a white guy in vocal blackface.)

That leaves us with Dumbo himself, and this tiny elephant calf may be the most important difference between this picture and Pinocchio, on top of being, by my lights, the most important Disney character since Donald, if not Mickey.  He'd prove to be the prototype for so many after.  Broken down to his fundamental elements, and there's not much to him but "elements" in the first place, Dumbo is the quintessential fairy tale protagonist: the suffering martyred flesh upon which is wrought a magical transformation that gives him access to vindication and a better world.  It's unclear if the deeper lessons of Dumbo actually sunk in till long after the fact—he's the ur-example of a line of heroes (in fact, mostly heroines) that doesn't restart till 1950, and, after that, perhaps not till 1989—but when we think about Disney movies as a whole, or any "Disney formula," we can't help but consider Dumbo as an early attempt at perfecting it.

For the time being, of course, this couldn't have been recognized.  All they knew in 1941 is that they'd brought to life the very manifestation of sweetness and unjustified torment, and that this combination had made them a great deal of much-needed money.  Dumbo was designed, and chiefly animated, by Bill Tytla—seeking to challenge his reputation as a creator of monsters (Stromboli, Chernabog), and burnish his reputation as a creator of touching emotional moments (Snow White and Grumpy), if Tytla could have fashioned a more unbearably pitiful thing, it's hard to imagine what it would look like.  Under Tytla's sensitive ministrations, Dumbo is hardly anything but downcast eyes and fear, punctuated every-so-often by bright, heartbreaking looks of hopefulness, always wreathed by the cutest possible disability, and often wearing his distinctive (humiliating, but distinctive) clownshow hat.  His child's innocence is emphasized all the more by his muteness; unmistakably yearning, but silent about it, he's the "Disney protagonist" pared down to its most foundational essentials, and so he represents the studio's greatest achievement so far in that mysterious twelfth principle of Disney animation, the one that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston never really managed to explain in their textbook Illusion of Life, because, of course, no one could—"appeal."  While the other eleven (squash-and-stretch, secondary action, arcing motion, etc.) were all, to some degree or another, objective and even scientifically-measurable things, "appeal" effectively just meant je ne sais quois.  It did not mean "cuteness," necessarily, but cuteness was definitely a shortcut to it, and Dumbo must take just about the least distant path from the screen to a viewer's heart possible.

Meanwhile, if there's almost nothing else to his personality besides those things, it's not like there should be: after all, Dumbo is here for one reason, to hurt on our behalf, and then to ultimately triumph by way of a change in circumstance bordering upon a metaphorical resurrection.  I imagine that's why animation scholar (he is an animation scholar, now, right?) Tim Brayton compared the film to a passion play—and while he immediately decried his own idea as stupid, it's also obvious he only said that to cover his ass, because he was right.

Now, I still don't know if Dumbo alone would make for a great movie—at least, amidst these particular environs.  I said we'd get back to the cheapness, and Disney's dampened ambitions, and even Dumbo himself, though carefully-animated, isn't too special beyond his design and the protective feelings that design evokes.  So sometimes Dumbo's cheapness just shows up in odd ways: I don't know who came up with the idea that, if an animal isn't moving, they should be rendered as a background painting, but it's a really discombobulating one, and one that shows up too often in a lot of Golden Age films, but especially in Dumbo's animal montages.  Sometimes that cheapness shows up in very interesting ways: Dumbo has a marked tendency to anonymize its human characters (animating them as shadows on curtains, animating them under masks and makeup, and once even animating them without eyes or mouths entirely).  The only human you might possibly remember is the ringmaster—Dumbo's slaver—which, it has to be admitted, does have a logic to it.  Hence it's relatively clear to me, anyway, that Dumbo would've done even better had it leaned into this anonymization as an absolute formal choice, rather than what it actually does, which is simply use humans who did have a fully-animated faces whenever that was the easiest option, betraying itself in these moments as merely inexpensive, rather than what one might prefer to call "austere."

But mostly, Dumbo's cheapness shows up in endemic ways: less detailed backgrounds (watercolor, for speed, and not a patch on Snow White's own watercolor backdrops); less action; less nuanced drawing (and a lot more big, broad cartooning, that feels more like the Silly Symphonies, notably that fucking stork); way less effects work; and less detailed paintwork for the cels.  It adds up to less just about everything, in fact, with only a couple of conventional showpiece sequences to offer for the whole hour though at least the first—Dumbo's abortive big debut—is an excellent demonstration of Disney animators' kineticism, and their mastery of what squash-and-stretch could offer characters as compressible but muscular as Dumbo's fellow pachyderms, and the second is the reasonably thrilling (if worrisome) subjection of Dumbo to the clowns' flames.

That omits, then, the unconventional showpiece, which only means we've saved the best for last: for if anything in Dumbo bids for "Disney masterpiece" status, it's the thing the film is doubtless best-remembered for, "Pink Elephants on Parade"—another fine song by the Sportsmen, incidentally, and I suspect the aggressive posture of their music here is radically underappreciated, though it was always going to be, when matched with animation this viciously unconcerned with your sanity.

It could be analyzed at the same length as this whole review: beginning as an innocent if deeply weird bubble-blowing contest (the result of Dumbo's chance encounter with "alcohol," though God knows what kind of hallucinogen it would actually take to see this), we soon transition into neon pink "elephants" popping almost physically out of a black screen, unwilling and unable to maintain a consistent shape for more than a second or two at a time, and constantly fusing and separating to make new forms while they ignore the rules of time, space, identity, stylistic cohrrence, and color balance, like those rules never existed.  Directed by Norman Ferguson, who (based on the "Dance of the Hours" from Fantasia) had a real thing for marrying elephants with bubbles, it's probably the least characteristic five minutes of Disney's Golden Age, and maybe the least characteristic piece of animation from any Disney age—though it obeys Disney's principles of animation, it's only in the most technical way, and serves at least as much as a perversion of them, a demonstration of what "squash-and-stretch" and "clear staging" and "overlapping action" actually mean, when they're taken beyond caricatured realism and to their maximum extreme.  Yet you can see its influence echoing down throughout Disney history.  It was bound to be followed: it is, in its rendition of psychosis, the scariest thing Disney ever did (only Hunchback of Notre Dame's "Hellfire," which is about religious terror and, yeah, sexually enslaving a woman, comes to mind as a real competitor, and still doesn't reach this formless, borderline-cosmic horror).  I can't even imagine the reaction of someone watching in 1941 who didn't know it was coming.

Somehow, it fits: "Pink Elephants on Parade" is one of the superlative metaphoric deaths, the darkness before dawn and rebirth, and I don't think Dumbo could possibly work without it.  (By the same token, I don't know if it works without its raced angels, either, and Dumbo winds up being something of a plea for toleration and solidarity, questionable execution aside.)

Even so, not everything in Dumbo works at the highest level; in fact, not most of it.  Well, it gets by on other strengths instead—it's certainly famed for its ability to make any kid (or grown adult) cry.  Yet I find this happens less with Dumbo and his mother, and more in the impotent protectiveness of Dumbo's best friend Timothy, especially the way they slump off, Dumbo's trunk holding Timothy's tiny little tail.  That's the core of Dumbo's power, I think, beholding this gesture of friendship and support while you hold two contradictory thoughts in your head: your knowledge that he can fly, and will fly, right next to your conviction that, in this desolate moment, all Dumbo has left is hope and love, and he's holding onto both—by the very thinnest of threads.

Score: 8/10

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