Friday, May 21, 2010

Dumbo: Voice Over Narration

By now, Hans Perk has posted all available Dumbo drafts and Mark Mayerson is already busy doing the mosaics. Michael Sporn has started reposting earlier Dumbo storyboard and frame comparisons. Work is currently absorbing me more than I expected limiting my time devoted to joining this Dumbo celebration.

In Dumbo, the first few lines spoken by an off-screen announcer trigger many associations yet seem to be there simply to play a trick on our expectations.
Like later Disney movies that begin with a few lines of voice over narration, Dumbo never resumes this framing narrator during the rest of the film. The delivery of the opening lines works as a gag rather than as a narrative device.

Through the snow
And sleet and hail
Through the blizzard
Through the gale
Through the wind
And through the rain
Over mountain, over plain
Through the blinding lightning flash
And the mighty thunder crash
Ever faithful, ever true
Nothing stops him
He’ll get through!

The words themselves don’t contain any information essential to the story (note that the word “flying” isn’t mentioned at all). But their delivery in the manner of a commercial or trailer sets the tone. Or in other words: it sounds like someone announcing a circus act.
And based on what audiences of the time have learned from posters and trailers in advance, they probably expected: A FLYING ELEPHANT and not a flock of storks.

Frame of reference
The circus announcer voice also triggers other associations: the arrival of a superhero, for example. While it’s true that the first Fleischer Superman cartoon premiered only about a month before Dumbo on December 26, 1941 and the 2nd draft of this Dumbo sequence as posted by Hans Perk dates from May 26, 1941 I still believe the connection to Superman’s famous opening lines is no accident.

In fact, the highly influential radio series of the same name premiered on February 4, 1940 with Bud Collyer as Bruce Wayne. The classic announcement was normally delivered by Jackson Beck, as can be heard in this first episode of the original radio series: The Baby from Krypton

Faster than a speeding bullet!
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
[different in this first episode]
Look! Up in the sky!
It's a bird!
It's a plane!
It's Superman!

There are also the wind sounds in both versions. But in Dumbo right after the last word we hear an airplane motor that evokes the arrival of a daredevil pilot like Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) in Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939) or Jim Lane (Clark Gable) in Test Pilot (Victor Fleming, 1938). The weather conditions here do have a lot in common with those in Only Angels Have Wings where a series of post delivery flights from Barranca over the Andes is perturbed by equally bad weather.

Aircraft themed adventure films were en vogue back then. The famous line “Calling Barranca” even made it into a Tex Avery Warner Bros. cartoon from 24.08.1940 (Ceiling Hero) that parodies the then current airplane craziness. It is available on youtube here.

Although such pop culture references were quite common in short cartoons, Walt Disney was always careful not to let them slip into his features so they wouldn’t feel dated when re-released. Dumbo - being more of an extended cartoon than a “normal” feature film - contains unusually many of them (the quintuplets, the war in Europe, the strike even). It is also Disney's first full-length feature set in the present and in the US.

Plant and Payoff

Images from the 1941 Dumbo trailer
But back to the airplane sound: In the 1941 trailer we see Mr. Stork in front of a background that doesn’t hint at the bad weather. Later, when Dumbo is falling from the tall red building the sound of a descending airplane is drowning out Timothy’s dialogue about the magic feather (announced as “the most sensational climax ever filmed”). What’s more, we never actually see Dumbo fly with his ears.
In the finished film the payoff to the plant (or set-up) of the airplane sound comes indeed during the climactic scene when Dumbo falls off the red building. Dumbo has been flying before with the help of the magic feather. But only after he has lost the feather and gained confidence in his own abilities (or superpowers as Harvey Deneroff puts it). So it is only consistent that he doesn’t sound like a soaring aircraft until he spreads his ears and starts to fly all by himself.

For a different perspective on Dumbo as a superhero read
Harvey Deneroff’s controversial 2009 article.

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