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 this film are the rarest in the industry. The animators, after the scene was safely "in the can", would spread 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 cels were destroyed this way.
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 film historians like Richard Schickel who pointed it out as offensive and/or racist. There are those who find their portrayals positive and progressive. Most of the crows were voiced 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.
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.
A very tightly budgeted, scripted and produced film, because Walt Disney needed it 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 the original grosses of "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" combined).
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".
This 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 repackaged in 1985 and 1989 and again in 1994. It was first released on DVD in 2001 and again in 2006, on Blu-ray in 2011 and the newest release (with Digital HD) in 2016. It has never gone out of print, and is considered the longest Disney animated feature on video to be in print since it came out.
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 to the top of the hill and starts going down, it changes to, "I thought I could, I thought I could."
The film's distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, had qualms about releasing this 64-minute feature as a major film. It tried to persuade Walt 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.
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)).
During the song "Look Out For Mister Stork" the lyrics state, "Remember those quintuplets and the woman in the shoe." The latter is 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; many times during that era not all children in multiple births survived. The Dionnes were often exploited to the public before finally being reunited with their family.
A sequel direct-to-video/DVD production titled "Dumbo 2" was announced back in the early 2000s. The story was to be about Dumbo and a group of young circus animals getting separated from the WDP Circus and try to find their way back. This proposed idea appeared to have been canceled with no more than storyboards and animated drawing sheets being made during preproduction.
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 its list of nominees for 100 best film songs.
Jim Crow's name derives from a minstrel show character of the same name. He was created by Thomas D. Rice (1808-60) 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 in his day, though the name was eventually to become associated with the segregation, both official and unofficial, that was prevalent in the US--mostly in the South--after the Civil War.
One of the crows calls Timothy Mouse "brother rat." This is the traditional name for cadets at Virginia Military Institute. The term dates from the 1850s, when a group of cadets adopted the name for themselves after some wealthy locals used it as a pejorative against them, describing their shabby, "ratty" uniforms. The same year this film came out there were two films (released by Warners, not Disney, with that name in the title: Brother Rat (1938), and its sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940), both starring Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman.
A deleted scene from this film provided a backstory for the old steam locomotive Casey Junior, showing how he came to lead the circus train. He originally pulled passenger trains on a respectable Ohio line but could not compete with newer streamlined engines, and was nearly destroyed in a crash. This would have added poignancy to Casey's existing scenes in the film, but Walt Disney ordered it cut as incidental to the main story. Instead, the footage was skillfully re-purposed (in black and white) in Disney's feature The Reluctant Dragon (1941), in the scene where Robert Benchley is shown how musicians, voice and Foley artists create a soundtrack for an animated cartoon.
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 animators reused cels.
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 Last Time I Saw Paris" from Lady Be Good (1941). Controversially, the winner was not actually an original song, since it had been previously performed in 1940.
In an article on Dumbo (1941), writer Martin Markstein (1947-2012) pointed out that the premise of the film strongly resembles another children's story of the same era: "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer". 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.
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 windowsill."
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, often playing not-too-bright gangsters, cops, bartenders and assorted flunkies, particularly in Warner Bros. gangsters films in the '30s.
Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946), a United States Army general, mentioned in his memoirs that viewing this film 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.
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 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.
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 not much interested in the device but thought the story had potential.
The film eventually grossed $1.6 million during its original release. While it was the fourth Disney animated feature, it was only the second to turn a profit. The only other one was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
While the watercolor painting technique used in the film was unusual for a Disney animated feature, it was hardly new to the studio. Watercolor painting was used for the production of Disney's animated shorts.
The animation of Dumbo is credited to Bill Tytla (1904-68). 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) and Chernabog in Fantasia (1940).
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 II" 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 most financially successful film for the Disney studios in the 1940s. At the time it was only the second Disney animated feature to turn a profit on its first release. It would be another nine years before another animated feature would be profitable, with the release of Cinderella (1950).
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).
Casey Junior is based on a 2-4-0 steam locomotive, most likely of American design, and numbered "8" on the Illinois Central Railroad and "1" on his own railroad, but in real life a Baldwin steam locomotive and numbered unknown variously on the Illinois Central Railroad and an unidentified number of other railroads. Animator Ward Kimball, who drew Casey, owned an 1881 Baldwin Mogul 2-6-0 steam locomotive, which he ran on the Grizzly Flats Railroad. Casey Junior is based on that particular locomotive.
Rushed through production, this deliberately streamlined and simplified film was designed to be a less complicated antidote to the complexities of Fantasia (1940), which had proven to be a box-office disappointment.