The Dumbo That Never Was

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

In 1956 on the Disney television episode “Plausible Impossible,” Walt Disney finally showed the charming soup eating scene in pencil test format from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on his weekly television program and told the audience why it was eliminated. He looked at the camera and said, “Even though we liked the sequence, it was not essential to the telling of the story.”

It took eight animators, primarily Ward Kimball, nearly eight months to do that scene, and yet it was cut before it went to ink and paint and camera. That was an expense in time and money that the Disney Studio could ill afford at the time and yet everyone at the Studio knew that when it came to a Disney animated project that the story was king.

Even in retrospect, an objective critic can see that even though that scene is wonderfully funny, it would not have increased the appeal of the final film and may even have diverted an audience’s attention from the true focus of the story.

Years later, Walt was still eliminating things from the feature films in order to strengthen the storytelling including the shortest animated feature Disney ever made, Dumbo.

“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. 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,” stated Disney Legend Ward Kimball.

Frequent readers know that my favorite Disney animated feature is “Dumbo”. I’ve written about the early development of the film before here and here.

A new DVD of the film is scheduled for release and new extras are being prepared. I’ve been asked to participate but I won’t count on my participation until it actually happens. Both the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel have twice asked me to participate on camera, sharing information about Walt Disney World and, after re-scheduling me multiple times during a several-day shoot because they were running behind schedule, ended up not filming me at all.

So, in case I don’t get the chance, I am sharing some new information I have discovered about Dumbo with the MousePlanet readers.

The Disney feature film Dumbo originated with a story written by Helen Aberson and illustrated by Harold Pearl, and was adapted for the screen by the legendary story team of Joe Grant and Dick Huemer.

While it is indeed the shortest Disney animated feature at only 64 minutes in length, Walt resisted pressure to pad the story and finally said, “You can stretch a story just so far and after that it won’t hold together.”

As usual, he was right, especially when it came to Dumbo and all the unnecessary tangents that could have been explored and would have watered down the impact of this sublime tale were removed in pre-production.

In the original story, there was no Timothy Mouse to help the little elephant achieve his full potential. Instead, there was a small red robin named Red who tried to solve Dumbo’s problems by taking him to 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."

Recently, I ran across some early work done on Dumbo at the Disney Studio around the end of 1939 and the first few months of 1940. While the film itself was produced fairly quickly for its release in 1941, apparently like all Disney animated features, there were all sorts of story tangents that were explored and abandoned.

Aberson’s son, Andrew, remembered that Disney asked her to go to California in 1939, "She was out there until 1941. She was on the premises and they were consulting with her.”

However, Disney Archivist Dave Smith could find no official record of a "Helen Aberson" ever being an employee of the Disney Studio, but added that it is still possible she did come out and work briefly at the studio as a consultant. Storyman Joe Grant vaguely remembers meeting Helen and seeing her look at the preliminary drawings for the film.

Here is a written description from some of that early story development period that shows the film was going to be tied more closely to the original version of the book at first. While I think in the early years, Walt made the right decisions when he cut sequences from the animated features, it is always intriguing to take a look at what might have been.

“Dumbo is an unhappy little elephant’s child, unhappy because he was born with such prodigiously large ears that he is a laughing stock. Since his parents belong to a menagerie, it had been hoped that he would develop into the heroic proportions of his sire and become a king among elephants. Instead of all this, he is forced into the role of a clown by a heartless ringmaster who jeers at his inability to avoid tripping over his own ears. In spite of his role, he still feels heroic and his feelings are hurt. Oh, if only he had a chance to prove himself a hero! He is on the verge of despair.

“Then a little bird-friend comes along and tells Dumbo to pull himself together and not be a sissy. ‘No good in your envying my ability to fly. Why don’t you fly yourself? Put your ears to some use instead of tripping over them. Just you watch me. I’ll show you how it works.’ So one evening they practice until Dumbo begins to feel that perhaps he really can fly. Finally the day arrives when his little friend insists that his courage be put to the test. One of the stunts he usually performs is to climb a flight of stairs and fall out of a window. Then he is caught and bumped hard on a blanket.”

Later, the story sketches for the climatic final scene show a mean-looking clown with a painted smile repeatedly whacking Dumbo’s rear end with a large board to push him up the stairs to the window.

“Get up you ugly little brute!” growls the callous clown.

Then the scene cuts to the front of the window on the building facade with a sad-looking Dumbo hesitating to jump. His bird friend flies at his eye level and shouts, “Now’s your chance!” Dumbo looks down to see the clowns holding a circular mat and yelling “Jump!”

Dumbo’s face is covered with clown make-up so he looks like he is smiling but his eyes show that he is frightened.

“You’re not scared?” says the bird and Dumbo replies, “Y-y-y-yes!” (Whether Dumbo could talk or if this was just a storyman’s attempt to show what Dumbo was feeling is unclear.)

However, Dumbo spreads out his ears and leaps and finds himself zooming around the interior of the big top. There is a long shot of Dumbo gracefully flying with the audience cheering and his bird-friend saying “That’s the stuff!”

The bald, big nosed, black mustached ringmaster is nonplussed. The scene cuts to the ringmaster who is angry and shouts into a standing microphone “Ladies and gentlemen!” trying to regain control since this is his circus and he is filled with “furious bewilderment”.

This was all accomplished in nine quick sketches. None of these sketches were used in the final film. In some sketches Dumbo appears with a grotesquely painted clown face but not in others and that seems to indicate to me that these were done very quickly early in the process to try to get a handle on this section of the story.

In first few passes at the story, Dumbo is psychologically scarred and that is the core of his problem for not discovering his true potential to soar.

In the original storyboard there was a psychiatrist, Dr. I. Hoot the owl. He is an owl in appearance, yet he behaves like a human being with no animal-like characteristics other than his appearance. There is self admiration demonstrated by his stance as he sways forward with jovial condescension and pretends interest in the problem. Basically, the character encapsulates all the fears that people might have about the effectiveness of psychiatrists and their probing of the subconscious.

If an elephant were to have a nightmare resulting from a profound psychological upheaval, what visions would he have? Well, one of the early story ideas revealed it was to be an appalling dream tied to an innate fear of mice, as well as a desire to fly.

One early color concept sketch has a Dumbo so fearful that his eyes are wide in alarm and beads of sweat are literally flying from him as a very small Timothy Mouse grabs the tip of Dumbo’s trunk with two fingers. The shadows on the tent show a tiny Dumbo. Timothy’s shadow is easily 10 times Dumbo’s size and resembles a fanged rat. Timothy is explaining how elephants inherited a fear of mice. It is a story that goes back to prehistoric times when mice ruled the earth and elephants were “little bitty fellers”. When the “Mouse’s Tale” is over the shadows decrease to the proper scale of the characters. It is this confrontation that helps trigger Dumbo’s nightmare.

Storymen Joe Grant and Dick Huemer even wrote lyrics for a nightmare sequence for a Frank Churchill song called Pink Elephant Polka in May 1940 which may have inspired the later Oliver Wallace song that was used in the movie, Pink Elephants on Parade with lyrics by Ned Washington.

The Grant and Huemer lyrics state: “At first you float right off the ground, and you stretch and bounce around to do the Pink Elephant Polka. You grab your partner by the ear. You hold tight or she’ll disappear, to dance that Pink Elephant Polka. What a feeling, dancing around on the ceiling. You’ll be tickled pink and you’ll never be blue. You jump through her. She jumps through you. You fade out singing ‘Toodle-oo’ when you do the Pink Elephant Polka.”

This version doesn’t capture the terror of the Technicolor pachyderms who are constantly in a state of metamorphosis. As Huemer later recalled of the Washington and Wallace collaboration, “That feeling is written in there of a musical nightmare. Ned Washington wrote the lyrics, and he would be in on the story meetings and would present his songs and he’d tap them out with his fingers.”

Grant and Huemer also wrote lyrics for a song Timothy Mouse was going to sing, Sing a Song of Cheese, about Timothy’s obsessive love of cheese. It was probably cut because it really didn’t further the plot nor did cheese motivate or dissuade any of Timothy’s actions anywhere in the final story.

For Dumbo, since the Aberson story begins with a celebration of spring as a time when babies arrive at the circus another unused song was written titled It’s Spring Again, by Washington and Churchill. Other songs, written and eliminated, included It’s Circus Day Again (Washington/Churchill) as well as Spread Your Wings (Washington/Churchill) which was to be used in the beginning of the film to set the theme of flying (a theme that is now introduced in the beginning by the elegant storks flying throughout the night sky to deliver babies): “If the birds can do it, then there’s nothing to it, rise and spread your wings” states the song.

Thanks to the music, even the design of the crows in the film changed as remembered by Ward Kimball: “The voices we used for the other crows were from the Hall Johnson Choir, a group from a well-known black church in Los Angeles. That’s why the development and differentiation of the characters really began on the night that we started recording. After listening to the voices, I decided that maybe the squeaky, high voice might be the little crow with the kid’s cap and pink glasses, and Jim Crow would be the big, dominating boss crow with the derby. Later, I began to graphically redesign the characters to make them emphatically different types. This took place in a lot of pictures we worked on. In the beginning you’d only have a miscellaneous set of characters, but by the time the voices were set, you may have a pretty good idea how they would individually look, react, and even function in the sequence.”

The original ending that was planned was much longer and more elaborate than 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.

While my admiration for the Grant-Huemer story team is without bounds, it is important to remember that many other Disney artists also worked on the early development of the film. One scene that always gets a laugh, which had visual development by Otto Englander, is early in the film when the mother kangaroo in her cage is rocking back and forth with a creaking rocking chair squeak on her feet and tail while her baby is in her pouch.

“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,” stated Walt when the film was released.

So while it must have been painful for Walt to cut all of these wonderful sequences that would have been the highlight in any other film, Dumbo is a much better movie for these many revisions, although it is still fascinating to imagine what the film might have looked like if some of those segments had been retained.