Disney, of course, did not create this little circus out of whole cloth. He drew and depended on a history, not only of the circus itself, but of circus movies. While the word “circus” dates back to ancient Rome, the modern circus originated in 18th Century England while the traveling circus dates to the second quarter of the 19th Century in America.
Joshua Brown was the first to adopt the canvas tent as a performance venue in 1825. At roughly the same time Hachaliah Bailey organized a traveling menagerie around an African elephant and others soon entered the menagerie business, with some adding circus performances as well. “With that,” writes Dominique Jando,”the unique character of the American circus emerged: It was a traveling tent show coupled with a menagerie and fun by businessmen, a very different model from that of European circuses, which for the most part remained under the control of performing families.”
By mid-century some 30 circuses toured the country and became quite popular, perhaps the most popular form of mass entertainment in the country. [I say “perhaps” because I’m getting this information from articles about circuses; I’ve read articles about minstrelsy that claim it as the most popular form of entertainment. As far as I can tell, nothing of importance hangs on the truth of these claims. Both were popular forms of entertainment.] William C. Coup, P.T. Barnum’s manager, conceived the circus train in the early 1870s and thus completed the configuration we see in Dumbo.
Jumbo, the Real One
You may recall that Dumbo’s mother was Mrs. Jumbo and his given name was Jumbo, Jr. Jumbo was a real circus elephant,
the greatest circus attraction in American history. He traveled in a private railroad car which Barnum called “Jumbo’s palace car”, a crimson and gold boxcar with huge double doors in the middle to give Jumbo easy access up a ramp. Twelve feet tall at the shoulders and weighing six and a half tons, Jumbo could reach an object 26 feet from the ground with his seven-foot trunk.
Nor is Dumbo’s parentage the only allusion to circus history. The “Save my baby!” act in which Dumbo achieved his initial, if humiliating, triumph was the invention of Paul Jung, one of the great clowns in circus history.
Of course, Dumbo wasn’t the first circus film. 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. The genre continued after World War II though the circus itself isn’t as much a presence in American life as it was before the war.
Dumbo, however, uses the circus in a way that seems a bit unusual for Disney. The circus’s association with small-town America plays to Uncle Walt’s nostalgic streak. It’s thus a comfortable and comforting setting. The comfortable exoticism of the elephants is dead center in the weakest aspect of the Disney sensibility.
And perhaps that’s what made the setting such a useful one for the strategies of Myth Logic. Disney could depend on a range of conventional expectations in his audience and therefore could work against them. He needed those conventions as a foil.
For the film 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’s 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 those vicious and snobbish matrons. This circus is not at all the Magic Kingdom of Disney’s TV series and theme parks. But it is a rather biting depiction of mid-century America.