• U.S.

Cinema: Mammal-of-the-Year

8 minute read

In beleaguered Europe, in blood-stained Russia, on the tank-tracked Libyan desert, above & below the earth’s seas, Santa Claus was getting short shrift. Even in the U.S., his last, best hope on earth, Adolf Hitler and his hissing Japanese friends had tried to thwart him. But their attack came too late to destroy all the fruits of a U.S. Christmas. Now, more than ever, Americans were thankful for what they were about to receive. They were thankful, too, for Dumbo.

Last week this lovable little baby elephant with blue eyes and a winning manner seemed to be all over the place. His name was in lights on the marquees of some 200 cinemansions. He was getting a big play in a majority of the nation’s big-city department stores. Toyland was his without a struggle. He was selling giant green peas and bottles of ink, gasoline and women’s collars. As a children’s book, Dumbo of the Circus, he was sensational — 50,000 copies at $1 each. The tunes from his picture (Dumbo) were heard everywhere.

Manhattan had seen him first (TIME, Oct. 27). One look at his pincushion shape, outsize ears, spriggy elephant trunk, wistful bemused expression, and 350,000 New Yorkers (to date) took him to their cosmopolitan bosoms.

Many a man with big ears has become famous,* and Dumbo, who can wrap himself up and go to sleep in his, is no exception. The advent of war made him more than ever a superb expression of the democratic way of life. He could only have happened here. Among all the grim and forboding visages of A.D. 1941, his guileless, homely face is the face of a true man of good will. The most appealing new character of this year of war, he is almost sure to end up in the exclusive kingdom of children’s classics. He may not become a U.S. folk hero, but he is certainly the mammal-of-the-year.

War Baby. Dumbo is already a legend at the Disney studios. He arrived there in manuscript form (authors: Helen Aberson & Harold Pearl) in the spring of 1939. Everyone was feeling out of sorts. They had shot the works on Pinocchio and Fantasia. Disney’s artists were tired of tracing blueprints for their prodigal perfectionist boss. They wanted a chance to express themselves.

Dumbo turned out to be their chance. Dreaming of further epics, Disney couldn’t get interested in the little fellow. He tried to make a short out of him. At length he turned the little elephant over to one of his best writers, moody, sad-eyed Joe Grant, to see what he could do.

That was what Grant and his happy-go-lucky partner, Dick Huemer, were waiting for. Knowing that Disney, the idea man, gag man, visionary and impatient genius, would never sit still long enough to read a long-story treatment, they decided to give him the episode treatment. One of the early ones closed: “Dear Reader, if you are at all fainthearted, or impression able, we earnestly advise you to stop right here. Read no further! Do something else! Go to the movies—or to bed —anything; but skip the rest of this chapter.” They were scarcely a quarter of the way through their story when Disney steamed into their office one morning, the latest installment bunched in his hand. “This is good!” he sputtered. “What the hell happens tomorrow?”

The Grant-Huemer script, which had the germ of every important episode of the final screen version, gave Dumbo a voice, but it was quickly evident that the way to insure the taupe-colored little elephant’s appeal was to keep him mute. He is, except for a few burps after he has inadvertently imbibed champagne and an occasional infantile yip.

Able Director Ben Sharpsteen and his staff fretted over Dumbo’s characterization and form, had about decided to give him a head shaped like a human’s when Artist Vladimir (“Bill”) Tytla asserted himself. Dark, ponderous Tytla is generally assigned to the “heavies,” created the devil-giant for Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain. Since he was doing the big elephants, he had to draw a Dumbo stand-in for the sequence in which Mrs. Jumbo receives her baby via stork.

“I gave him everything I thought he should have,” said Tytla. “It just happened. I don’t know a damn thing about elephants. It wasn’t that, I was thinking in terms of humans, and I saw a chance to do a character without using any cheap theatrics. Most of the expressions and mannerisms I got from my own kid.

There’s nothing theatrical about a two-year-old kid. They’re real and sincere—like when they damn near wet their pants from excitement when you come home at night. I’ve bawled my kid out for pestering me when I’m reading or something, and he doesn’t know what to make of it.

He’ll just stand there and maybe grab my hand and cry. … I tried to put all those things in Dumbo.” Tough little Timothy Q. (for nothing) Mouse, Dumbo’s wise-guy protector, was sired in much the same way by impish Artist Fred Moore. Says he: “The greatest problem with Timothy was not to make him too cute. We had to get a tough guy with a big heart. … I just played around with him . . . had him walk a couple of dozen steps in 12 frames, then in eight . . . until I got just the right cockiness to it. … When I finally got rolling on him, he was the easiest fellow I’ve ever done.” These performances set the tone for all of Dumbo. Sequence Director Norm Ferguson merely sat down and listened to Oliver Wallace’s and Frank Churchill’s score for the pink elephant sequence, which Dumbo and Timothy view through champagne eyes, and “just let it come out of the music.” Disney v. Mars. While his top employes were having fun, Disney was suffering.

Hip-deep in debt ($4,000,000), he couldn’t see his way out. Of his four expensive full-length features, only Snow White was really making money.* He had to trim his sails, give up his costly epics. He began paring his staff of 1,181 employes to a basic 450, and a long and acrimonious strike hit him. As a result he left Dumbo to his staff, for the most part played critic, suggesting sensitive little touches here & there.

When Disney quit his stricken plant, his fiscal worries, and sailed for South America last summer (“At that point I would have gone to China to get away from it all”), Dumbo, though nearly finished, was no ray of light on his horizon.

He and his staff returned with ideas for six shorts (now in production) designed to acquaint the U.S. with its southern neighbors by using Donald Duck and other old Disney standbys in the role of fall guys.

The journey itself was not necessary to remind Disney of the fact that his fairy-book animals are loved literally by everybody everywhere, even by the warriors of World War II. He had been swamped by requests for insignia for the Allied armed forces. To date his men have supplied 66, have 300 outfits on the waiting list.

Donald Duck, in aviator’s clothing, pulling a worm with a Hitler head out of the ground, is flying with General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. Decked out in a British Admiral’s uniform, he is also treading the decks of the aircraft carrier Illustrious.

The Three Little Pigs are busily persuading Canadians to buy defense bonds; the Seven Dwarfs will soon join them in the new series of war shorts. Three new characters made of carrots (Dr. Carrot, Carroty George, Clara Carrot) have been photo-wired to London, are advising the British that if they want to see better during blackouts, they had better munch carrots.

Dumbo has yet to be drafted, but his number is about up. The little fellow’s good fortune has not only served to restore Disneymen’s faith in themselves as artists, he has also rekindled the light in Disney’s eye. He didn’t cost much ($600,000), and he is expected to gross almost as much as Snow White did in the U.S. He may get his boss out of debt, and he has once again proved to him that, in cartooning, personality is the thing.

* Julius Caesar, Lord Byron, Columbus, Socrates, Lincoln, Mussolini, P. T. Barnum, Michelangelo, Clark Gable, et al. *To date, Snow White (cost: $1,300,000) has grossed a healthy $7,157,000; Pinocchio is $300,000 shy of its $2,500,000 investment; The Reluctant Dragon has earned a little more than a third of its $686,000 production cost; Fantasia, scheduled for general release soon, is within $500,000 of paying for itself.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com