Initially Walt Disney was uninterested in making this movie. To get him interested, story men Joe Grant and Dick Huemer wrote up the film as installments which they left on Walt's desk every morning. Finally, he ran into the story department saying, "This is great! What happens next?"
Cels for "Dumbo" are the rarest in the industry. The animators, after the scene was safely "in the can", would strew the used cels in the corridors and go sliding on them. In addition the gray paint (used for so many of the elephant skins) would "pop" when the cel was flexed. Many irreplaceable cels were destroyed this way.
A very tightly budgeted, scripted, and produced film, because Walt Disney needed the film to bring in much-needed revenue after the expensive failures of Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). Final negative cost of Dumbo was $813,000 (making it the least expensive of all Disney's animated features), and it grossed over $2.5 million in its original release (more than Pinocchio's and Fantasia's original grosses combined).
While trying to comfort Dumbo, Timothy says, "Lots of people with big ears are famous!" According to animation historian John Canemaker on the 2001 DVD release commentary, the line was recognized by audiences of 1941 as a reference to Clark Gable. The line was also featured in the original theatrical trailer.
During production there was a long and bitter animators strike, in which half of the studio's staff walked out. Some of the strikers are caricatured as the clowns who go to "hit the big boss for a raise".
"Dumbo" was the first Walt Disney Animated Classic to be released on videocassette. Its first video release was in 1981 for rental only, and put on sale in the summer of 1982. It was then repackaged in 1985 and 1989 and again in 1994. Then it was first released on DVD in 2001 and again in 2006, and the newest release in 2011. Dumbo has never gone out of print, thus considered the longest Disney animated feature on video to be in print since it came out.
HIDDEN MICKEY: When the drunken Timothy is sliding down the staircase-shaped bubble Dumbo has blown, his laugh is actually that of Mickey Mouse. Also, when Timothy coughs on Jim Crow's cigar smoke, that cough is also that of Mickey (it was specifically heard in both Giantland (1933) and Two-Gun Mickey (1934)).
There's a reference to "The Little Engine That Could". While Casey Jr. is trying to get up a hill, the train sounds like it's talking. It says "I think I can, I think I can." Then when the train gets up the hill and starts going faster, it changes to, "I thought I could, I thought I could."
Walt Disney's distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, had qualms about releasing this 64-minute feature as a major motion picture. They tried to persuade Disney to either cut it to short-subject length, extend it to at least 70 minutes, or have it released as a B picture. Disney stood his ground, and the film was released as an A picture as Disney intended.
A sequel direct to video/DVD titled Dumbo 2 was announced back in the early 2000s. With a story that takes place after the original involving Dumbo and a group of young circus animals to get separated from the WDP Circus and try to find their way back to the circus. This proposed idea appeared to have been canceled with no more than storyboards and animated drawing sheets being made during preproduction.
During the song "Look Out For Mister Stork" the lyrics state, "Remember those quintuplets and the woman in the shoe." The latter is of course in reference to the classic nursery rhyme "The Old Woman In The Shoe". The former is a reference to The Dionne Quintuplets from North Bay, Ontario, Canada. The Dionne Sisters were well-known for having been the first complete set of quintuplets to survive birth, where many multiple-child births of the time were more fatal. The Dionnes were often exploited to the public before finally being reunited with their family.
The "Casey Junior" segment was originally much longer. It was drawn and animated, then heavily edited, cutting several minutes from its run time. The full length segment can be seen on Disney's The Reluctant Dragon (1941) DVD.
Jim Crow's name derive from a minstrel show character of the same name. He was created by Thomas D. Rice (1808-1960) in the 1830s. The character as originally depicted was dressed in rags, battered hat and torn shoes. Rice blackened his face and hands and impersonated a very nimble and irreverently witty African American field hand. Crow was a popular and influential character, though later derivative characters and terms have made his legacy controversial.
One of the crows calls Timothy Mouse "brother rat." This is the traditional name for cadets at Virginia Military Institute, an group which adopted the name for themselves in the 1850's after rich folk used it as a pejorative against them, describing their shabby, "ratty" uniforms. (In 1941, it had also been the title of two recent movies, Brother Rat (1938), and its sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940), both starring Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman.)
This is the only known voice acting role for Edward Brophy (1895-1960), who plays Timothy Q. Mouse. The actor is otherwise known for roles in live-action films. Brophy was a prolific character actor whose career stretched from the 1920s to the late 1950s.
The film contrasts wildly with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), "Pinocchio" (1940) and "Fantasia" (1940). Due to Walt Disney's instructions, supervising director Ben Sharpsteen worked to simplify production and keep it inexpensive. The film lacks the lavish detail of its predecessors, the character designs are simpler, the background paintings are less detailed, and the character animation reused cels.
Dumbo eventually grossed $1.6 million during its original release. While Dumbo was the 4th Disney animated feature film, it was only the 2nd to turn up a profit. The only previous one to have done so was "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937).
There is some controversy about the crows of the film, who are meant to represent African Americans. While the association of African Americans and crows, both black, predates the film, there are still film historians like Richard Schickel who pointed it out as offensive and/or racist. But there are those who find their portrayals positive and progressive. Most of the crows were played by African American actors in an era which there was limited casting potential for them, and the crows are actually among the few friendly and intelligent characters in the film.
In an article on "Dumbo" (1941), writer Don Markstein (1947-2012) pointed that the premise of the film strongly resembles another children's story of the same era. The one it resembles is "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1939). In both cases, the stories are about an innocent child cruelly ridiculed for a physical deformity (huge ears, red nose), who achieved extraordinary success not in spite of but because of that attribute.
In 2001, a sequel of "Dumbo" (1941), called "Dumbo II", was announced. It was to be directed by Robert C. Ramirez, who had previously co-directed "Joseph: King of Dreams" (2000). Dumbo was to include a relatively large cast of new characters. The project was in development for years, but in 2006 John Lasseter terminated plans for this film and other sequels to Disney's classic films.
The original Dumbo story, that the film is based on, was created for a toy storytelling display device called Roll-A-Book. It involved moving pictures and accompanying text to tell the story. In Dumbo's case it only had eight drawings and just a few lines of text.
Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946), a United States Army general, mentioned in his memoirs that viewing "Dumbo" in 1941 was one of his happier moments. The film "1941" (1979) , which is set in that year, depicts Stillwell attending a showing of Dumbo. Scenes from "Dumbo" are seen in the other film.
Timothy Q. Mouse has a theophoric name, a name invoking a deity. "Timothy" derives from Greek name "Timotheos", which is variously translated as "honouring God", "in God's honor", or "honored by God". The root words in Greek are the verb "timao" ("I honor") and "theos" (god, God).
The film features a stork delivering babies. The origin of the folklore belief is uncertain but widespread. The story is elaborated in German traditional accounts. "...storks found babies in caves or marshes and brought them to households in a basket on their backs or held in their beaks. These caves contained adebarsteine or "stork stones". The babies would then be given to the mother or dropped down the chimney. Households would notify when they wanted children by placing sweets for the stork on the window sill."
Bringing the original Dumbo story to Walt Disney's attention is credited to Herman "Kay" Kamen (1892-1949). Kamen was Disney's head of merchandise licensing and a prototype of the Roll-A-Book storytelling device was displayed to him. He was mot much interested in the device but thought the story had potential.
When Walt Disney purchased the rights to the original Dumbo story and its characters, his idea was to adapt it into an animated short. However, he eventually decided that there was enough story potential to turn this into the subject of a feature film.
"Dumbo" (1941) is the first low-budget Disney animated feature film. Previous Disney productions were more ambitious, and more expensive to produce but often failed to produce much revenue. Walt Disney decided to change methods in this production.
The animation of Dumbo is credited to Bill Tytla (1904-1968). He is considered among the best character animators of his era. His other main credits include the animation of Grumpy in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), Stromboli in "Pinocchio" (1940), Chernabog in "Fantasia" (1940).
The lullaby "Baby Mine" from this film has become one of Disney's best remembered and regarded songs. It has been covered by several artists over the years, often with commercial success. The American Film Institute has included it in a list of the 100 best film songs.
While the film won an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, its key song "Baby Mine" failed to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It lost to the song "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from the film "Lady Be Good" (1941). Controversially, the winner was not actually an original song, since it had been previously performed in 1940.
While the watercolor painting technique used in the film was unusual for a Disney animated feature film, it was hardly new to the studio. Watercolor painting was used for the production of Disney's animated shorts.