Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dumbo Interlude: The Bear That Wasn’t

As I was working on Dumbo it became clear that I needed to know more about the emergence of “funny animals” cartoons. While Akira Lippit’s insights from the end of Electric Animal (which showed up in the post Animals in Cartoons: Tripping the Elephants Electric) were on the mark I wanted more, that is, more specifically about animation history.

I think I found, if not IT (such ITs are never really found, are they?), at least something that promises to be very useful. It’s The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (2009), by Paul Wells. The title’s promising and so is the book. I’ve read through a very interesting introduction and hit pay dirt in the first paragraph of the first chapter, “The Bear Who Wasn’t: Bestial Ambivalence.”

Here’s that paragraph:
In Chuck Jones’s adaptation of Frank Tashlin’s children’s book The Bear That Wasn’t . . . a bear emerges out of hibernation into a Metropolis-style factory, where he is viewed as “a silly man, who needs a shave, and wears a fur coat.” Though he maintains he is a bear, his protestations are ignored and he is put to oppressive, repetitive work in the factory, until he too denies his own identity. Finally, reminded of his intrinsic place in the natural order by the passing of a flock of migrating geese and the onset of autumn, he escapes the human world and goes back to hibernation. Tashlin’s pessimistic tale was written in 1946, and in its depiction of an inhumane hierarchy of foremen, managers, vice-presidents, and presidents, and even downbeat zoo animals, it shows a hopeless view of humankind as it seeks to rebuild the postwar world.
Now, we don’t have a factory in Dumbo, but as I pointed out in Dumbo as Myth 2.2: Machines and Fordism, the factory method of repetitive production is alluded to at the beginning of the Pink Elephants episode where elephant after elephant after elephant parades by, as though they came off an assembly line; and, of course, that episode ends with elephants transforming themselves into machines (cars, trains, and motorboats). Similar, Fordism lurked in Fantasia behind those repetitive brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

And, while the circus organization doesn’t have a deep hierarchy of functionaries, hierarchy is nonetheless soundly criticized. In general, the ringmaster-owner is not presented as a sympathetic figure and, in specific, during the pachyderm pyramid act, the one that brings down the house, literally, we hear one elephant remark to another: “To hear him talk, you’d think he was going to do it.”

So, Taschlin’s 1946 book and the 1967 Chuck Jones cartoon are explicit about a critique that was only implicit in Dumbo. Disney’s feature is explicitly about a circus, which is about as unlike a factory as one could imagine. And yet elements of oppressive hierarchy are there and, for that matter, circus work is presented AS work for the animals, and their cynicism is presented frankly as well.

What I’ll be arguing in my last post on Dumbo is that the film hangs Disney on a dilemma. On the one hand it ends up as a celebration of the new and the modern, hence those Dumbombers for Defense and that streamlined high-tech caboose in which Dumbo lives with his mother at the end of the circus train. In the 1950s Disney would become one of the nation’s most prominent prophets and propagandists of high technology, which he celebrated in TV programs about atomic energy (Our Friend the Atom) and several programs about man in space. His last project, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was to be another celebration of technology, though it didn’t work out that way once it was build (after his death).

In fact, EPCOT as Disney conceived seems to have been an attempt to reconcile technology with Disney’s somewhat sentimental attachment to traditional small-town life. That, I’ll be arguing, is the other aspect of Dumbo. The circus is a small town. Everyone knows everyone. Except that this small town is rootless. It travels from town to town, from city to city, putting on a show. In fact, that traditional small town has all but been destroyed by the modern industrial world, the very world Disney wants to celebrate. The best he can manage is to put the town on a train in a circus headlined by a high-tech flying elephant.

But I digress.

My point is that The Bear That Wasn’t displays some of those same themes and motifs that are there in Dumbo. In both cases we have animals imagined as “floating” somewhere around and about and in-between the world of machines and men. That bear is mistaken for a man who hasn’t been broken to Fordist harness. Dumbo’s mother doesn’t allow a human child to pester her son and so breaks from her assigned role as entertainment, the hired help as it were. And Dumbo’s problem is to find a way he can fit into the circus world as a performer.

Needless to say, I’ll be interested to see how Wells develops the rest of his book from a very promising opening paragraph of the first chapter (I’ve not yet read beyond it).

* * * * *

Here’s the cartoon:

* * * * *

It turns out that Tashlin was not happy with what Jones did with his story. He was initially enthusiastic and supportive of the project, he kept hands-off once he’d given approval. After all, he knew, had worked with, and respected Chuck Jones: what could go wrong?

A little thing. As Tashlin explained to Mike Barrier in 1971:
Well, they destroyed the cartoon with one little thing. I saw that, I almost cried. I never talked to Chuck about it, I've never talked to him since. It was a terrible thing. This bear, he goes to sleep under a factory, when he wakes up they try to convince him he's a [man], as you well know, and he keeps insisting he's a bear, and that's the point of it. Up front in the beginning of this thing, when they are telling him he is a man and he is insisting he's a bear, they put a cigarette in his mouth. Now, the picture was destroyed there, because by the acceptance of a cigarette—you never saw where he got it—by putting a cigarette in his mouth, he was already a man. You know what I mean? Psychologically, the picture was ruined. It stopped working from that point on. So that was a terrible experience.
“Destroyed” is perhaps too strong a word. But I DID notice that cigarette, and I saw the film before I read this interview. Can’t say that I thought much about it, but, who knows? I remember it there drooping–drooping, mind you, drooping! lazy bear!–out of the bear’s mouth. Definitely, the film would have been better without it.

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