“The Last Time I Saw Paris” was not original to the movie Lady Be Good. It was in fact a year old at the time the movie was made and therefore ineligible for a Best Original Song Oscar. Which it won anyway, beating the moving, arguably well-more-famous “Baby Mine,” the lullaby from Dumbo. It’s not the Academy’s worst mistake in the category, much less in general, but it’s still a pretty serious failing despite the movie’s win in Scoring of a Musical Picture over a whole lot of forgettable stuff.
It’s spring, and the circus is on the move from its winter home in Florida. On board Casey Jr., various animals greet the arrival of a flock of storks. Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton for her one line) names him Jumbo, Junior. But when he reveals positively enormous ears, the other elephants dub him “Dumbo.” When a crowd of unsupervised children mock him over his ears, Mrs. Jumbo protects her son—and is locked up for it. Dumbo gains the friendship of one Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), who becomes his protector against the others. He’s kind to Dumbo even when Dumbo is made a clown. And then one day, Dumbo accidentally gets drunk, and he and Timothy end up in a tree. Timothy decides the only answer is that Dumbo flew there.
From here, we get into the Magic Feather and so forth, and the power of belief, and all sorts of other things that would eventually become major themes in Disney works. But the crows who discover Timothy and Dumbo up in that tree are where, for a lot of people, the movie comes to a screeching halt. And it certainly is true that the leader of the crows was called Jim Crow in the script and was voiced by Cliff Edwards, probably best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket and certainly known as a White Guy. Also, the drawings of the crows are a bit Stereotype Of Southern Blacks.
On the other hand, people will tell you that all of the crows were voiced by white actors, and that isn’t true. In fact, the crows were led by Hall Johnson, who also voiced “Preacher Crow,” and quite frankly the fact that he isn’t better known is its own problem. He was, in fact, one of the great masters of the form of the spiritual. He wrote Run, Little Chillun, one of the many works produced by black creators for the Federal Theater Project. He coached some of the finest black singers of the twentieth century, including Marian Anderson. He isn’t talked about enough, and his erasure in the narrative of this movie is a little disappointing, even beyond that of James Baskett.
Also, let’s be real, “When I See an Elephant Fly” is just a great song. It’s witty, and it’s sprightly, and it, too, is better than “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” It’s hard to get mad at it. Much easier to get mad at “Song of the Roustabouts.” Which is basically “hey, we’re happy and cheerful and uneducated and destined to die poor.” There’s a take on it that it’s darkly sarcastic, and I don’t know if I completely buy that, but I also do agree with the take that the movie explicitly compares the roustabouts to the elephants, in that their labour is necessary to making the circus in ways that isn’t appreciated.
And the movie is not supportive of the circus. For one thing, I’ve said for years that the plot should not have been able to happen. Those kids’ parents should sue the hell out of the circus for neglect. Yes, their children are horrible little monsters, but on the other hand, they should not have been able to get close enough to touch a baby elephant without a whole lot of adults there keeping an eye on them. Rogue elephant? If those children hadn’t been manhandling an elephant that was only a few weeks old at most, she wouldn’t have gone rogue, and it doesn’t take a degree in zoology to know that.
Yes, all right, the movie also contains an explicit parody of the then-striking animators. No one ever accused Walt of being pro-union. It’s especially jarring given that the clowns are therefore just about the only human characters drawn with any, well, characterization. (Which is why the facelessness of the roustabouts has never bothered me; the story of this movie is not in its humans, which is why I’m not interested in the Tim Burton version.) But when the circus makes money, whose money is it? The roustabouts say they get paid late, and of course Dumbo works for peanuts.
“Pink Elephants on Parade” is so visually inventive that even Disney ripped it off for the “Heffalumps and Woozles” sequence in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and when Disney is clever enough to rip itself off, the scene is usually worth repeating. At least, except for that stretch where they were ripping things off as a cost-saving maneuver, which would be well in the studio’s future.
In fact, at this point, the studio wasn’t even sure it would have a future or how much of it they might have. Amazingly, this was only the second Disney feature to turn a profit, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the next would be Cinderella. This is in part because the film was shot on the cheap. It’s the shortest Disney feature, at a bare 64 minutes, and its watercolor backgrounds were done that way because it was less expensive than the other means they’d used in features like Fantasia. For a very long time, it remained the studio’s most successful feature, and in fact it’s never been out of print on home release, which is kind of shocking all by itself.
Dumbo is himself a sweet, gentle protagonist, one cruelly separated from his mother for a situation that never should have happened. He learns to trust himself, because the thing that he is mocked for is secretly his greatness. The crows see in him another outcast, someone else who is mistreated because of the circumstances of his birth, and they treat him kindly because of it. Timothy takes advantage of the folkloric fear elephants have of mice and protects someone who has lost his protector. Honestly, there are more than a few decent role models in this movie. And some really fine music. And extremely good animation, given how little was spent on it. I’m fairly sure Tim Burton has not reproduced its best qualities.