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Why Labor Strife Was the Elephant in the Room for Disney’s Original ‘Dumbo’

Tim Burton’s live-action “Dumbo” launches March 29, a remake of the Disney classic that opened Oct. 23, 1941. That film is remembered as one of Disney’s shortest (64 minutes) and sweetest. It should also be remembered as the animated movie that launched Disney’s studio in Burbank — and one that was completed in the midst of a tense animators strike. In the 1930s, Disney animators were working at five Los Angeles locations; on Dec. 2, 1940, Variety said the high cost of the studio’s first three animated movies was due to a “lack of facilities to properly push production.” The cost of “Dumbo” was estimated at $1 million, about half of the earlier pictures. The film’s brief running time may have been due to budget or the fact that animators staged a five-week walkout during production. “Dumbo” was completed when some animators crossed the picket line; after the Labor Dept. ended the strike, Disney laid off more than 200 of the strikers.

The animators wanted to join the Screen Cartoonists Guild, a move Walt Disney resisted. Workers staged a walkout, and on July 9, 1941, Variety reported, “There was the added charge that subversive and communistic elements were active in the controversy. The latter was obviously aimed at Herbert Sorrell, business representative of Moving Picture Painters Local 644 and strike leader, who had been charged with being a communist.”

After the strike was settled, Variety reported on Aug. 12 that Disney had laid off 207 employees, “who recently returned to their jobs after being on strike, while 49 non-strikers would be dropped. Company executives insisted it was a question of either dropping that number or else closing the studio. … However, the union claimed the move was a direct violation of the arbitration award laid down by James F. Dewey, ace conciliator of the Labor Department.”

On Oct. 3, 1941, three weeks before “Dumbo” opened, Variety said Disney distributed $25,000 in wage adjustments to members of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. The amount covered bonus deals with individuals, but “the question of severance pay and vacations is now being debated.”

Disney wasn’t having an easy time financially. While “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a huge profit-maker in 1937 — despite its then-high cost of $1.6 million — “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” (both 1940) were not big hits, and cost a huge $2.4 million each. The studio vowed “Dumbo” would be made for less than $1 million, with the consolidation at the new Burbank studios said to be a factor.

“Dumbo” became the first feature-length cartoon to be produced entirely in the new Burbank plant, moving ahead of “Bambi,” which had begun preliminary work in 1937, while “Dumbo” started in 1939. Variety reported that “Peter Pan,” targeted for 1942, was delayed; the film eventually opened in February 1953.

Audiences embraced “Dumbo” for many reasons: The climactic flying sequence, the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number, and the traumatic separation of Dumbo from his mother. A Variety story on Dec. 17, 1941, said Roy Disney had delayed general release of “Dumbo” a few months, until Dec. 18, to take advantage of kids’ school holidays. The delay was risky because Disney was hit by “frozen foreign markets” and an “inability to sell high-budgeted Disney features abroad.” It seems incomprehensible that Disney movies ever had trouble finding an audience, but the attack on Pearl Harbor had happened less than two weeks earlier, and the world war was an overseas factor for every studio.

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