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The History of Walt Disney's "Dumbo"

Updated on February 1, 2011
Original poster for "Dumbo."
Original poster for "Dumbo."

Disney needs help:

     In 1937, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" proved to be a big hit and was the first of a number of animated and live action films over the years to literally save the Disney Studios from going belly up. Based on the success of "Snow White," Walt Disney went on to make what while today are considered two great animated films in "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia," were originally box office bombs. Disney found himself in a financial pinch. Two box office bombs in a row and the loss of revenue from distribution in Europe and Asia threatened to put the Disney Studios out of business. Disney needed a money maker and fast. So, early in 1941, Disney commissioned work to begin on a film based on the book by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, "Dumbo," with the orders to director Ben Sharpteen to keep the film inexpensive to make and simple in story.

     What this lead to was a piece of animation many animators at the time felt was a return of sorts to classic Disney animation after making more "artsy" films, as well as more of a focus on acting. The film also ended up being less detailed then the last three films, having simpler character designs and implementing a number of held cells to save on money. The backgrounds were also painted using watercolor, a trick that had been used on "Snow White" and much later in 2002, would be used on Lilo and Stitch" as something of a tribute to "Dumbo."

Animators on STRIKE!

    It wasn't very long though that Disney found more trouble. The 1930s saw the rise of many unions in Hollywood, with a union formed for animators formed in 1938. While the top Disney Artist were some of the best, if not the best, paid artists in the industry, many of the lower lever artist at the studio were not as well paid. Various questionable business practices on the part of Walt Disney himself led many Disney Animator to start to join up with the newly founded animation union. This angered Walt who would weed out the animators joining up with the new union and fire them. But it was after the firing of major animator Art Babbitt that three days later on 29 May 1941, Disney faced a strike, right in the middle of production of Dumbo.

"Dumbo" saves the circus...and the studio!

     Five weeks later, and after a trip to Latin America for Disney as a goodwill ambassador (more on that in my review for "Saludos Amigos") the strike finally ended, but not without it's repercussions. Much of the "family" feel amongst the staff diapered after that, a number of major animators at the studio left, many for good, and a number of the staffers who went on strike were "punished" by being caricatured in "Dumbo" as the clowns who go to "hit the big boss for a raise". "Dumbo" finally was released later that year, making it one of the fasted Disney films made. Despite being released about a month and a half before Pearl Harbor day and the United States entry into World War II, it went on to be a box office miracle for Disney and just like "Snow White," literally saved the studio. It would end up being Disney's most financially successful film in the 1940s as well as one of the first of his animated film to be shown on tv as well as the first Disney Animated Masterpiece film to be released on video.

Original "Dumbo" trailer

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