Monday, January 11, 2016
Secrets of Pink Elephants Revealed
These days the circus is, for better or worse, an exotic and marginal form of entertainment. By contrast, it was a major form of popular entertainment in the United States and Europe in the 19th Century and well into the 20th. Elephants were central to the entertainment. As Janet Davis noted in an article about Ringling Brothers’s decision to retire their elephant acts:
Audiences spoke solemnly of “seeing the elephant” as an awe-inspiring encounter with a wondrous being. Others, who missed her appearances, pined for an opportunity to “see the elephant.” Soldiers during the Mexican-American War and Civil War even spoke of “seeing the elephant” as a metaphor for the incomprehensible experience of battle.
The sensational popularity of the Crowninshield Elephant led the way for others. The first elephant appeared in an American circus at the turn of the 19th century, and by the 1870s, impresarios defined their shows’ worth by the number of elephants they had. In response to decades of evangelical censure for displaying scantily clad human performers, circus owners pointed to their popular elephants as proof of their broader mission to educate and entertain.
With the advent of moving picture in the 20th Century the circus film became a minor genre. Charlie Chaplin made one, the Marx Brothers made two, Charlie Chan did a circus film, and Tod Browning’s Freaks is one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Disney too made a circus film, Dumbo, released in 1941, and it centers on a baby elephant whose extraordinarily large ears made him, and his mother, pariahs in the closed community of the circus’s animal menagerie. The circus’s association with small-town America played to Uncle Walt’s nostalgic streak. And the comfortable exoticism of the elephants is dead center in the weakest aspect of the Disney sensibility.
Yet in some ways Disney chose to play against his carefully cultivated small-town sensibility. Dumbo exploits the circus setting in ironic ways that are not characteristic of other Disney films, before or since. In the first place, this circus is not depicted as a source of wondrous entertainment. It is depicted as a place of hard work done by bored and cynical animals, avaricious and cruel clowns, and a megalomaniacal ringmaster. Dumbo himself is treated rather cruelly by vicious and snobbish matrons. This circus is not at all the Magic Kingdom of Disney’s TV series and theme parks. Rather, it is a biting depiction of mid-century America.
First we get a flood of elephants:
It seems to me that that would entail real problems. It is one thing to show this cute big-eared baby elephant getting tipsy and blowing funny bubbles and seeing things, but do you really want to depict him bumbling around and somehow managing to fly without really knowing what he was doing? While there’s no technical difficulty in doing that, it does seem to me that keeping it realistic, even within the terms of the cartoon, would require that you besmirch Dumbo’s cuteness, or come dangerously close to doing so. Further, it would rob the “learning to fly” sequence of its interest. There wouldn’t be any dramatic point to it. Finally, it would reduce the difference between Dumbo’s circus world and the crow’s world to one of mere geography. We see Dumbo stumble around in the circus, he somehow begins flapping his ears, takes to the sky, and ends up in a tall tree – all before our watchful gaze. How dull, but disillusioning.
Instead, Disney takes us into this marvelous surrealistic sequence of transmogrifying pink elephants. What that does is eradicate the circus world from out minds. And that circus world was a pretty cynical one. It’s not simply that Dumbo and his mother were ostracized, but that the circus itself was not a place of fun and fantasy, but just a gig. Whatever it is that children have in mind when daydreaming about running off to join the circus, this is not the circus they dream about. The cynicism displayed by the animals in the opening day parade, for example, was marvelous, as was the nastiness of the clowns.
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Note: I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about Dumbo and have posted a rather long working paper on my Academia.edu page: Walt Disney’s Dumbo: A Myth of Modernity. Here's the abstract:
Dumbo is Walt Disney's myth of modernity, a film in which he uses a story about infant-mother separation as a vehicle for assimilating modern technology and management structure to the evolved mechanisms of the human mind. This paper considers psychoanalytic and evolutionary psychology, examines the structure of scapegoating as a means of social contral, considers parallels with the story of Genesis, the role of machines and animals in the modern world, the interplay of nature and culture, the distinction between animals that talk and those that don't, and features extensive descriptive an analytic work on the film, with many frame grabs.
Posted by Bill Benzon at 12:15 AM | Permalink