Friday, June 29, 2012

Animals in Cartoons: Tripping the Elephants Electric

pink elephants 34 electricity

I’ve been thinking about the relationships between animals and humans in Disney’s Dumbo, about the fact that it centers on animals—elephants in particular—and not on humans. This animal focus is not at all unusual. By this time, 1941, there’d been a substantial history of cartoons centered on animals. If anything, cartoons were more likely to center on humans than animals.

At the same time I’ve been trying to get a handle on what, for lack of better terms, we can think of as the metaphysical implications of animation as a medium, specifically, animation as opposed to live action film-making. I’ll leave the metaphysics as an exercise for the reader; I’ve not yet figured out how to do it. But I’ve got half a clue about the animals.

Of Animals and Cartoons

Why elephants? Akira Mizuta Lippit has a most provocative suggestion in Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (pp. 186-187):
The Oxford English Dictionary places the first known usage of the word anthropomorphism in the context of “an injunction against attributing human traits to animals” in the second half of the nineteenth century. (Until this referential shift, the word was used to indicate mistaken attributions of human qualities to deities.) It is during in the nineteenth century, with the rise of modernism in literature and art, that animals came to occupy the thoughts of a culture in transition. As they disappeared, animals became increasingly the subjects of nostalgic curiosity. When horse-drawn carriages gave way to steam engines, plaster horses were mounted on tramcar fronts in an effort to simulate continuity with the older, animal-driven vehicles. Once considered a metonymy of nature, animals came to be seen as emblems of the new, industrialized environment. Animals appeared to merge with the new technological bodies replacing them.
Near the very end of the book Lippit has some intriguing comments about cinema, animation in particular (p. 196):
One final speculation: the cinema developed, indeed embodied animal traits as a gesture of mourning for the disappearing wildlife. The figure for nature in language, animal, was transformed in cinema to the name for movement in technology, animation. And if animals were denied the capacity for languages, animals as filmic organisms were themselves turned into languages, or at least, into semiotic facilities.
If Lippit’s speculations are plausible, and I’m certainly disposed toward them, we can begin to see why so many animals appeared in cartoons. As Lippit notes a bit later, animation “encrypted the figure of the animal as its totem” (p. 197). And so we have Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda, Tom and Jerry and Yogi the Bear, Huckleberry Hound and countless others, funny animals all. In Lippit’s terms, those funny animals are “semiotic facilities.” Facile, in the sense of virtuosity, they are, and fascinating as well.

Elephant as Machine

One of the most fascinating of these semiotic facilities is the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo. Those elephants take on so many forms and aspects that I’m tempted to read it as nothing less than an elephant-oriented ontology. But I’ll refrain, for the moment, and rest content to underline Lippit’s point about the curious semiotic equation that’s been set up between animals and the machines that have replaced them.

Consider the following frames from Pink Elephants. In the first one they have become cars; in the second, a speed boat; and in the third, two roaring trains:

pink elephants 37 cars


pink elephants 39 crash

I would add that not only have animals disappeared because we’ve been killing them off and replacing animal power with with machine power, but as more and more people moved from rural areas to cities and then to suburbia the remaining animals became less accessible to larger and larger segments of the population. City folk didn’t live among animals, though they could keep them as pets and they could see them in circuses, like the one depicted in Dumbo.

The Electric Elephant

Lippet has one more revelation for us (p. 197):
Thomas Edison has left an animal electrocution on film, remarkable for the brutality of its fact and its mise-en-scène of the death of the animal.
The film clip is available on YouTube, along with clips of other electrocutions and brutal deaths and killings.

The elephant was named Topsy and like Dumbo’s mother, who all but went rogue in defense of Dumbo, she was female. She spent her last years at Luna Park on Coney Island, where she killed three men in three years. She was executed on 4 January 1903 before a crowd of 1500 people. Edison’s film was seen throughout the country.

I don’t know whether anyone at Disney’s was familiar with this event, but it seems possible. After all, the resonance of this execution is still with us. When Luna Park burned to the ground in 1944 the fire became known as “Topsy’s Revenge.” In 2003 the Coney Island Museum effected a memorial to Topsy.

Learning of Topsy’s execution hasn’t changed my views on Dumbo. In fact it has only deepened them. It certainly adds resonance to the figure of electricity that is clearly depicted within the Pink Elephants sequence (recall the first frame above), not to mention the generally neon glow of the elephants:


Is this bedridden and horrified elephant in a mental hospital, perhaps for electro-shock treatments?

pink elephants 13 fright

Elephant as Subaltern

Topsy’s electrocution sets up one more resonance. At roughly that time in American history, for a quarter century before and after, lynching was all too common in America. Most, though not all, of the victims were black. Many lynchings were public, with large numbers of men, women, and children in attendance. Many of these public events were photographed and the photographs reproduced and passed around, often in the form of postcards.

This resonance helps clarify the relationship between the elephants in Dumbo, the roustabouts, and the crows, which I’ll explore in a later post. Early in the film there’s a stunning sequence in which the elephants work with the roustabouts, who are Black, to erect the circus tent. As I will demonstrate, that scene is obviously designed to create a strong identification between these two groups.

Then, after the Pink Elephants sequence, Dumbo finds himself up a tree. There he meets some crows and they help him to fly. Those crows are obviously figures for Black men. And the song they sing is a treasure house of ontological juxtapositions, aka category mistakes, that all but explicates itself.

I’ll close this post with those lyrics: When I See An Elephant Fly:

Did you ever see an elephant fly?
Well I seen a horse fly
I seen a dragon fly
I seen a house fly

I seen all that too
I seen a peanut stand
And heard a rubber band
I seen a needle that winked its eye

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly
What'd you say boy?
I said when I see a elephant fly

I seen a front porch swing
Heard a diamond ring
I seen a polka dot railroad tie

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly

I saw a clothes horse and he rear up and buck
And they tell me that a man made a vegetable truck
I didn't see that, I only heard
Just to be sociable I'll take your word
I heard a fireside chat
I saw a baseball bat
And I just laughed till I thought I'd die

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly

When I see an elephant fly
Addendum: The Execution of Topsy

I was thinking more about the execution of Topsy and wondered whether or not it appeared in a recent book on the history of amusement parks: Gary S. Cross and John K. Wilson, The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century (Columbia UP 2005). So I opened up the index, found Luna Park, and there it was: “and Topsy, 1”. Bingo! And on the opening page no less.

For my purposes that’s the important thing, that the incident was listed in a history of the emergence of the modern amusement park. That’s an index, if a weak one, of how the event has resonated.

Topsy’s owners had intended to hang her, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals objected so strenuously that they sought another way. Thomas Edison came to their rescue. Edison was in a rivalry with George Westinghouse over which kind of electricity should be used to power America. Westinghouse favored alternating current while Edison favored direct current. Edison argued that DC was the safer technology and demonstrated his point by publicly executing dogs and cats with AC. The execution of Topsy thus was a significant opportunity to publicize his view of the dangers of AC. That grisly bit of information wasn’t in The Playful Crowd (I found it at the IMDB, here), which only asserts that Edison had been promoting “the electric chair as a human form of capital punishment” (p. 1). And that, presumably, is why he had a film crew there.

Addendum 2: An Elephant Hanged in Tennessee

Commenting on an older post about Dumbo, Jeb informs us that an elephant was publicly hanged in Tennessee in 1916. The article reporting the story ends with this coda:
In an article published in the March 1971 issue of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, author Thomas Burton reports that some local residents recall "two Negro keepers" being hung alongside Mary, and that others remember Mary's corpse being burned on a pile of crossties. "This belief," Burton writes, "may stem from a fusion of the hanging with another incident that occurred in Erwin, the burning on a pile of crossties of a Negro who allegedly abducted a white girl."

The murder of an elephant: a spectacle. The murder of "a Negro": another spectacle.

It was 1916 -- a good year for scapegoats in America.
* * * * * 
Note: This post contains a detailed analysis of the electric zapping scene from which the first image of this post was snatched.


  1. This is a superb post, William -- getting richer and deeper all the way to your stunning disclosure in Addendum 2.

  2. Thanks, Charles. I too was stunned.

  3. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautifully interesting.

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