Stop for a moment and enjoy these iconic animated characters doing their cool, jazzy shuffle. Back in the forties, African American dancers were hired by the Walt Disney Studios to provide visual reference for the Disney animators. The result is some of the finest, funniest cartoon animation you’ll ever see in a Walt Disney animated motion picture.
I’m sure you already know the movie I’m referring to. It’s a genuine Disney animated classic and it’s already been seen by generations of dedicated fans around the globe. The movie is quintessential Disney with a plot line that will tug at your heart and put a smile on your face. Add a few jazzy tunes and it’s knock down, drag out funny. Of course, it showcases a brand of humor you could never get away today. Drunken clowns, an acid trip of a dream and a host of black crows singing scat. It’s every marvelous thing we can’t do today and we’re all the poorer for it. Walt Disney’s “Dumbo” is the kind of movie you’ll watch and rewatch as I did when I was a kid. If you’re anything like me, you’ll keep saying to yourself, I can’t believe this movie is so damn good.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a Saturday afternoon in nearby Highland Park with Disney Legend, Ward Kimball. Among the many things we spoke about was the jazzy crow sequence in the movie, “Dumbo.” Kimball’s comments were laconic and insightful. He spoke in a measured cadence that was characteristically Kimball as he took me back to the early forties when a very young Walt Disney was busy bringing the animated classic to the screen. Kimball was the animation director, and was determined to make the film’s third act the most entertaining. Inspired by the black entertainers of the early forties, and fueled by catchy tunes provided by songwriter, Ned Washington, (When You Wish Upon a Star) the sequence is pure Disney magic. If you remember the story, a group of cool crows nesting in a field decide to have some fun at the elephant’s expense. After Timothy Mouse scolds the feathered group, they soon have a change of heart and decide to encourage the little elephant. The song they sing is pure fun and entertainment and the animation is inspired. It’s the turnaround song for Dumbo and his life will never be the same. If you’ll recall, I did the same thing many years later in another Walt Disney movie called, “The Jungle Book.” Much like the black crows singing scat, we had little Mowgli encouraged by another group of cool birds who encouraged him with a song. Yet, there was no controversy over these singing birds who just happen to sound like another famous musical group from Liverpool.
However, let’s get back to the little elephant in the room. Or, in this case, the locale farmland where Dumbo finally gains the courage to soar among the clouds. Dumbo needed a “magic feather” to provide courage, and it makes one wonder if the Walt Disney Company needs a “magic feather” to give it courage as well? I knew Walt Disney and I’m convince the Old Maestro would not be keen on his animated classics being revised by the PC Police. Walt Disney was not a racist nor were his animators. Walt Disney was an entertainer and his animated motion pictures reflected and emulated the popular show business performers of his day. African American singers and dancers inspired the Disney animators and they had a ball bringing that same joy and entertainment to the big screen. Should that delightful third act of Dumbo bring you discomfort, we’d better start reediting all the live-action movies made in the early forties because they’re filled with the same. The world has changed and the culture has changed. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. However, it is totally wrong to revise history simply because it makes you uncomfortable.
Finally, as I spoke with Ward Kimball, I told him how much I enjoyed the black crows doing that jazzy little shuffle he animated. The black crows perform, “When I See an Elephant Fly,” and I guarantee it’s Disney animation at its finest. However, should that dance offend you, I’d like to remind you that George Clooney playing a poor Southern white in, “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou,” did the same goofy shuffle and nobody found that offensive. After all, weren’t the “Soggy Bottom Boys” the white equivalent of the black crows? Alas, sarcasm seems wasted on today’s clueless generation. The reason the head crow is named, “Jim,” is Disney taking a cartoony jab at the oppressive South. Walt Disney’s animated classic is not racist, nor were the people who made the movie. I was privileged to know and work with most of them. The only thing these talented men and women wanted was to bring the very best Disney entertainment to the screen. In this crazy era of PC nonsense, I thought you should know that.