The Original Dumbo

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

At the end of March, a live-action (with a CGI Dumbo) feature film directed by Tim Burton will be released to once again tell the tale of the little elephant with huge ears who could fly.

While some of these live-action re-imaginings have been well-made and certainly have been hugely financially successful (which is why even more have been announced), none of them seem to me to have captured the magic and memorable moments of their cartoon inspirations.

Burton’s re-imagining of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland ended up pulling in more than a billion dollars in ticket sales and sparked a merchandising bonanza.

The original Dumbo is perhaps my favorite Disney animated feature film of all time for a variety of reasons and I will confess that it filled me with a sense of unease that Tim Burton, known for his dark and askew interpretations, would be re-creating this gentle film.

The film is not a sequel, nor is it really a remake. The film tells the basic story through the eyes of a live-action cast and goes off in a different direction. The animals do not talk. There are no classic musical songs. It is much longer than the original.

As we await the premiere of Burton’s version, let’s take another look at the original animated film.

A book cover from the original Dumbo The Flying Elephant, by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl.

Dumbo originated with Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl (Aberson’s husband at the time). Aberson claimed she was the sole author and Pearl the illustrator but after their divorce, Pearl claimed he was co-author and co-creator, and identified himself as such in newspaper interviews.

For the Roll-a-Book where the story first appeared, the illustrations were actually done by artist Helen Durney (galley proofs of her artwork are kept in Syracuse), and it is suspected that the 1941 book credited to Aberson and Pearl had illustrations done by Disney Studio artists—not Pearl—and that the text was influenced by early story work on the film by the Disney Studio. The original story was roughly 4,500 words long.

Andra Frank, who was 4 years old when Dumbo was written, was the next door neighbor of Aberson and remembers that she was a one-girl test audience for Aberson telling her the story (and other stories).

The original story appeared as a prototype Roll-A-Book. A Roll-A-Book was a distinctive format. It featured about a dozen illustrations or so with text that appeared on a short scroll that was built into a box and the reader would twist a small wheel at the top of the box to get to the next panel illustration into a screen.

Apparently no known copies of this original Roll-A-Book survive today, even in the Library of Congress, and that has led some historians to conclude that it might not have actually been produced other than a few test copies. It was not unusual for Walt to see manuscripts before their official publication and to then purchase the rights to the story.

Supposedly, one of managers in the Disney story department, John Rose, first brought the story to Walt's attention. Rose may have been made aware of the product through Disney merchandise genius Kay Kamen, who reportedly saw a prototype with the Dumbo story while in New York. President of Roll-a-Book Fred O’Hara sold all rights to the story to Walt Disney on June 14, 1939.

Aberson and Pearl felt that the prestige of being connected with Disney would spark attention for other future books from them and would guarantee more money than could be generated by sales of the untested Roll-A-Book. People at the studio at the time seem to remember that Aberson was a New York schoolteacher.

The contract was recorded with the U.S. Copyright Office on April 28, 1940, along with a separate assignment of the copyright on the book from Roll-A-Book to Disney.

Story man Joe Grant remembered in an interview that he saw the Roll-A-Book for Dumbo: "It was sort of a little novelty idea. As you rolled the little wheels on top, the pictures would appear like they would in a film."

Storyman Dick Huemer said, "Somebody at the studio [Korkis note: probably Otto Englander among others] had started working on it and there were quite a few sketches that I remember, but no storyboards yet. Mostly talk, getting together with Walt, and taking notes, and studying them. Dumbo was put aside a while to concentrate on another picture, I suppose, then Joe Grant and I picked it up."

To help convince Walt to proceed with the film, Grant and Huemer broke up their 102-page treatment into short installments with cliff hangers that they slipped under Walt’s office door periodically from January through March of 1940.

As Huemer remembered, “Joe Grant and I wrote it up a chapter a time and submitted it to Walt. He used to come down and say, ‘That's coming along good. We'll make it!’ Then we got sketch men and went to work and put together what we call a Leica reel.”

(A Leica reel filmed the storyboard sketches in order and sometimes features a “scratch track” of temporary voices, music and sound effects so that everyone gets an overall view of what the film will look like when it is completed.)

While fans often say the name "Dumbo" with great affection, they forget that it was intended to be a derogatory epithet to humiliate and belittle the baby elephant. His real name was Jumbo Jr. since his mother named him after his father Jumbo.

Jumbo is a reference to the famous Barnum and Bailey African circus elephant who was the largest elephant in captivity and the first international animal superstar. He does not appear in the book or the film. While the character of Dumbo doesn’t speak in the film because he is a baby, Dickie Jones (the voice of Pinocchio) was considered briefly for voicing the role.

In Aberson’s original story, Dumbo is not a baby elephant, but rather "a midget elephant whose ears were EXTRA BIG and EXTRA PINK.” He messes up his one solo appearance in the big top, when he falls off a box while trying to balance a big rubber ball on his trunk.

Aberson’s story states:

"That night, the circus train carried two very sad elephants. One was Mother Ella. The other, little Jumbo. They had put him in the donkey car. And on his water pail, they had crossed out the 'J' in Jumbo and painted a big 'D'. And from that moment on, little Jumbo was known as DUMBO.

“As further punishment, the ringmaster turned Dumbo over to the clowns. They painted a big clown grin and silly looking eyebrows on Dumbo and put a dunce cap on his head… Dumbo was heartbroken and would cry himself to sleep.”

He wanted to be able to fly so that he could fly away from the circus and the humilation.

"Right from the beginning, Dumbo was a happy picture," stated Walt Disney. "It started out from a simple idea, but, like Topsy, 'it just grew.' Since we weren't restricted by a set story, we gave our imaginations free play. When a good idea occurred to us, we just put it in the picture. And we all had a wonderful time.

“It has often been said that the attitude of the people engaged in making a motion picture is reflected in the finished product. Dumbo was a fun picture to make and the result is a fun picture to watch.”

"The story's original authors, Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, steered us in the direction of simplicity," said Ken O'Connor who was one of the art directors on the film. "They gave us a skeleton line that we could build on with little touches without destroying it or changing it much."

Helen Aberson was born June 16, 1907 in Syracuse, New York, and died at the age of 91 in Manhattan on April 3, 1999, of Parkinson's Disease. She married Pearl on February 14, 1938, and then divorced him in Reno in 1940, and later married import-export businessman Richard Mayer in 1944, and had a son named Andrew.

Aberson was a Syracuse talk-radio host for awhile and did clerical work in Manhattan before writing the story that was apparently, according to her son, a little autobiographical in representing struggles she had faced.

He also suggested that the idea for the story was partly "inspired" by the classic tale of the Ugly Duckling, who is physically different than the rest of his peers but that difference later propels him to much greater success. The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has a similar theme.

A scene from Disney's "Dumbo." © Disney.

Pearl was a writer for The New York Journal-American newspaper and moved to Florida to become a columnist for The Miami News in 1940. Pearl never wrote another children's book, but Aberson apparently kept on writing children's stories into the 1960s. None of them were ever published, and it is unclear what ever happened to copies of those stories.

When Disney’s film was released, Aberson was not part of the publicity campaign, and she and Pearl only received a total of one thousand dollars for the story.

Disney's contract with Roll-A-Book and Aberson/Pearl provided for publication of one edition of Dumbo the Flying Elephant under their names and royalties for only that edition in 1941. That book version only sold 1,430 copies according to records in the Disney Archives. Disney published five different book versions of their own Dumbo story in 1941, with total sales of over 900,000 copies.

At 64 minutes, Dumbo is the shortest in length of all the Disney animated features and, at the time, Disney’s film distributor RKO complained about it.

They asked Walt to add at least another 15 minutes to the film, but Walt refused. They asked Walt to shorten the film so it would be the length of a featurette, but Walt refused. They asked Walt to let them release the film as a “B” movie so they could team it up with another short movie, but Walt refused.

Walt said, “You can stretch a story just so far and after that it won’t hold together.” He was right, and the film became hugely successful coming in ahead of schedule and under budget.

By the time the Christmas holidays approached, Dumbo which had been completed at a final negative cost of roughly $813,000 was well on its way to making $2.5 million domestically.

A scene from Disney's "Dumbo." © Disney.

Snow White and Pinocchio had been nearly an hour and a half while the original release of Fantasia was over two hours. Both Pinocchio and Fantasia lost money because of the closing of the foreign markets due to World War II so Walt needed an inexpensive film to generate some income for his studio.

The short length of Dumbo made it ideal to be shown with a few simple edits as an episode on Walt’s Disneyland television show (September 14, 1955 and rerun December 21, 1955) as well as being the first Disney animated feature to be released for sale on video tape in summer 1982.

Changes and additions were made to Aberson’s original story. In her version, there was no Timothy Mouse to help the little elephant achieve his full potential. Instead, there was a small red robin named Red in a red vest and a pearl-gray derby. There were no helpful, supportive crows but Professor Hoot Owl, a psychiatrist and notary public who lived in a tree and was obviously a quack whose only advice was, "If you want to fly, go ahead and fly! Ten dollars, please."

The name of the circus in the film that is seen on a blue and pink sign on a white building as the train leaves is “WDP Circus,” standing for Walt Disney Productions. Sarasota, Florida was the winter home for John Ringling’s “Greatest Show on Earth” beginning in 1927, which is why the WDP Circus is there in the middle of Florida as well.

The December 29, 1941 issue of Time magazine had a review of Disney's Dumbo. It included in the review of the film a paragraph focusing on animator Bill Tytla's work and the unique inspiration for the baby Dumbo:

"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 (Peter).

“There's nothing theatrical about a 2-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."

The Disney artists took trips to the Cole Brothers Circus to get a feel for circus life. A live stork was brought in for reference of the character of Mr. Stork, the first Disney character voiced by actor Sterling Holloway. An elephant was brought to the Disney Studio and live action of the artists sketching him for reference was used in a sequence for the behind-the-scenes segment of The Reluctant Dragon (1941).

The advertising for Dumbo proclaimed it was "Walt Disney's funniest full-length feature." Dumbo had its world premiere Thursday evening, October 23, 1941 at a benefit performance for a charitable organization called the Vocational Service for Juniors. It was held at the Broadway Theater (that had just finished its run of Fantasia), formerly known as the Colony Theater, where Steamboat Willie had made its debut in 1928. New York's governor, Herbert Lehman, and his wife attended with Walt and his wife, Lillian for the black-tie affair. Continuous performances for the general public began Friday morning at 9:30 am.

Critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that the film was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney's wonder-working artists…bNever did we expect to fall in love with an elephant. But after meeting up with Dumbo at the Broadway Theatre last night we have thoroughly transferred our affections to this package of pachyderm.”

“Dumbo is the nicest, kindest Disney yet,” wrote Cecilia Ager in PM. “It has the most taste, beauty, compassion, skill, restraint. It marks a return to Disney first principles, the animal kingdom—that happy land where Disney workers turn into artists; where their imagination, playfulness, ingenuity, daring flourish freest; where, in short, they’re home.”

Time magazine observed, “[Walt Disney’s] fifth full-length cartoon movie, profiting from the shortcomings of its predecessors, is notable for its freedom from the puppeteering of Snow White, the savage satire of Pinocchio, the artiness of Fantasia, and the woolgathering of The Reluctant Dragon. Like Three Little Pigs, Dumbo is a catchy fable with a moral…Seldom has Disney articulated his characters so aptly…But the charm of Dumbo is that it again brings to life that almost human animal kingdom where Walter Elias Disney is king of them all.”

Variety stated: “Walt Disney returns in Dumbo to the formula that accounted for his original success—simple animal characterization…There's a pleasant little story, plenty of pathos mixed with the large doses of humor, a number of appealing new animal characters, lots of good music, and the usual Disney skillfulness in technique.”

The film was so popular that Time magazine planned to feature Dumbo as “Mammal of the Year” (parodying its annual “Man of the Year” issue that is now known as “Person of the Year”) on its December 29, 1941 cover. The United States’ sudden entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor earlier that month now found General Douglas MacArthur on the cover instead. The original article and review with some changes still appeared inside in the “Cinema” section providing background on the film.

Major General Joseph Stillwell later mentioned in his memoirs that watching Dumbo at a movie house in 1941 was among his happiest moments during the war. In the 1979 Steven Spielberg film 1941, Stillwell (portrayed by actor Robert Stack) is seen being moved to tears sitting in a theater watching Dumbo as chaos ensues in the streets outside the theater.

“Sure, we’ve done things that have had a lot more finish, frosting and tricky footwork, but basically, I think the Disney cartoon reached its zenith with Dumbo,” stated Disney Legend Ward Kimball. “For me, it is the one feature cartoon that has a foolproof plot. Every story element meshes into place, held together with the great fantasy of a flying elephant. The first time I heard Walt outline the plot, I knew that the picture had great simplicity and cartoon heart.

"Dumbo was an incredibly fast production taking roughly a year and a half to make. Walt was sure of what he wanted, and this confidence was shared by the entire crew. Dumbo from the opening drawing went straight through to the finish with very few things changed or altered.”

The original ending that was planned was much longer and more elaborate than in the released film. The Casey Jr. train is colorfully decorated as it chugs its way toward the Rocky Mountains and its eventual destination, Hollywood.

Inside, Dumbo has just been made the leader of the herd by the gossipy elephants and he is surrounded by a bevy of beauties who are giving him a manicure and massaging his ears. Dumbo’s mother is knitting her son a sweater that features his insignia and wings.

Timothy Mouse sits on a big desk signing contracts for Dumbo and tearing up others in disgust. The film was to end with the train going off into a sunset with the glistening lights of Hollywood in the distance.

In 2001, Disney ToonStudios considered making a direct-to-video Dumbo sequel that would’ve taken place the day after the performance in the film and seen the title star lost in New York City with some of his fellow children circus animal friends. They would have been hunted by animal control with one scene featuring them hiding in a candy factory but facing unexpected perils.

While artwork had been done and tentative voice casting as well (with Dumbo talking), that project was shelved in 2006, when John Lasseter came on board and cancelled several other straight-to-video sequels, fearing that they diminished the originals.

Will Tim Burton’s new version be a worthy addition to the Dumbo legacy? We’ll soon find out.