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Back on the Big Screen:
Dumbo's Opening Night at El Capitan Theatre

Report from the Filmmakers Discussion Panel & Screening in Hollywood
Thursday, May 25, 2006

By Pluto Region1

In celebration of the pending DVD release of Dumbo: Big Top Edition, UltimateDisney.com was invited to a special screening of the film at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. The evening began with an all-star panel discussion featuring famed animator and director Eric Goldberg, who was our host. Goldberg's credits include being supervising animator of Aladdin's Genie and directing Pocahontas and the "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Carnival of the Animals" segments of Fantasia 2000. Dumbo is Goldberg's all-time favorite movie, making him an appropriate emcee for the evening.
Veteran Disney animator Eric Goldberg was the night's emcee.
He was joined by Richard Sherman, one-half of the Sherman Brothers, Disney's legendary team of songwriter siblings, and film/music historian Miles Kreuger, who is also the founder and president of the Institute of the American Musical.

Goldberg began by providing the audience with an overview of the history of Dumbo. The fourth Disney animated feature film, it was released in the fall of 1941, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Both Pinocchio and Fantasia were financial failures at the box office upon their respective 1940 releases, so the studio needed to put out a hit film quickly. Walt reportedly gave the order to keep the film simple and inexpensive. As it turned out, the simple, inexpensive Dumbo found monetary success and saved the studio from bankruptcy.

According to Goldberg, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were the two men primarily crafting the story of Dumbo. Although it was widely known that Walt had cherry-picked his top talent to work on Bambi and to go on a Latin American fact-finding tour, Grant stated that they had the "A-Team" working on Dumbo. Goldberg agreed, "He was right. They had Freddie Moore, Ward Kimball, John Lounsbery, Maurice Noble, Ken O'Connor, [all] doing what many people now consider their career best." Goldberg related a conversation he'd had with longtime Disney storyman Joe Grant about the making of Dumbo. Grant stated that upon returning from Latin America and viewing the finished Dumbo, he asked Walt if he wanted anything changed. Walt reportedly responded, "Don't change a thing. It's perfect."

Miles Krueger discussed the historical context of the film's release: "The war, of course, is really the background for Dumbo. The book came out in 1939, the same year that Hitler attacked Poland. It was a very short and unsuccessful book, written by a woman named Helen Aberson. The rights were quickly sold to the Whitman Publishing Company.
From left to right: Eric Goldberg, Richard Sherman, and Miles Krueger discuss the history and importance of "Dumbo." (Click for a larger view.)
In August 1940, not long after the book came out, it was purchased by the Disney Studios and publicly announced as a fourth coming feature. The film had to be produced very quickly because the studio was in a desperate financial situation. They had lost their entire European market. They couldn’t show Pinocchio or Fantasia in Europe because there was no more Europe; Hitler had the whole continent."

Continuing, Krueger stated, "Dumbo had its world premiere in New York City at the Broadway Theatre on October 23, 1941...the only place in the country where it was playing. There was a shortage of theaters in Los Angeles and it didn't open in L.A. until December 19th and, of course, that was 12 days after Pearl Harbor. And while there was a very big fundraising event for the New York opening in October, the studio felt it was inappropriate to have that kind of an opening for a film just after the war was declared, so it went immediately into continuous showing. It opened in two theaters here and then RKO opened it nationwide in 1942."

Sherman commented on the diverse music which is found in the film: "The songs sprung from the personalities that are performing. I think in creating the story, they [created] a spectrum of personalities. You have the four black crows which are like a jazz quartet. Then you have all these various [characters]...[which call for] a wide spectrum of music." Sherman also remarked on Dumbo's lasting appeal: "A sense of innocence, a sense of joy, and a sense of the value of life. It is truly what Disney represented. He represented all the good things: the glass being half-filled, the happy ending, the belief that goodness will win out...We have a cynical world today and [Dumbo] is kind of a reminder of what the world should be, could be. And I think that is the lasting quality."

Following the panel discussion, we were treated to a special screening of "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree", followed by the main feature, the screening of Dumbo. It is really quite incredible to see these Disney films on the big screen, as they were first witnessed and
always meant to be shown. That said, I noticed some fuzziness in some of the scenes of the film. Whether this was due to a bad print or an unsatisfactory restoration, I do not know.

In watching what is aptly billed one of Disney's most heartwarming movies of all time, it is hard not to cry through many of the scenes, as the elephant with oversized ears is picked on, shunned and ripped away from his mother. The sequence of Dumbo being bathed and wrapped up in his mother's own ears as well as the later segment where he visits his mother in prison and is rocked in her trunk are truly priceless.

The character of Dumbo was animated by Vladimir "Bill" Tytla, one of the most respected character animators of the day. His work in Dumbo is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the medium.

Dumbo cost $813,000 to produce; that is half the cost of Snow White and a mere third the cost of Pinocchio. A hit with both critics and audiences, the film grossed $1.3 million during its initial release and went on to win the 1941 Academy Award for Best Original Music Score. Today, it is widely considered one of Disney's finest works.

The new Big Top Edition DVD will debut on June 6th - look for our thorough review by the end of this weekend. Dumbo's two-week run at El Capitan will end on June 7. Thanks to Buena Vista Home Entertainment for allowing me to attend this special event.

Dumbo: Big Top Edition is now on DVD!
Click to read our Dumbo: Big Top Edition DVD review Read our Dumbo Blu-ray + DVD Review. Buy from Amazon.com

Read our Dumbo Big Top Edition DVD review. Buy from Amazon.com

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UltimateDisney.com | Dumbo: Big Top Edition DVD Review | Disney's Animated Classics List

Report posted June 3, 2006