‘Dumbo’ was Jewish – who knew!


The American dream is often derived from a Jewish fantasy

I came across an odd and intriguing obituary: one Helen Aberson of Syracuse, New York, had died and asked the mourners to contribute to the United Jewish Appeal. Oh, and by the way, nonagenarian Helen Aberson had published one book, a children’s tale titled “Dumbo.” She claimed it was her autobiography!

Walt Disney read the little story of the baby circus elephant with the big ears and purchased the rights to it for ... $400.

The animated feature saved the Disney studio, was an instant success and pleased even the critics but was released without naming Helen Aberson as the author. She got herself a lawyer and sued and won: an additional $1,000. And that was the end of the pachyderm progress.  

I discovered that there was a copy of Aberson’s original words and sketches in the special collection treasure chest at the Syracuse University Library. They kindly sent me Xeroxed pages both of the Aberson text and of the early story board of the Disney version. 

Some of the narrative details surprised me. Dumbo’s plight is not only because of his ears, but also his slight figure. An elephant should be a Jumbo, a giant, not a Dumbo, shy and diminutive, with short legs. And it’s not a mouse who befriends the outcast, it’s a robin!

I have to admit, in comparing the cast of characters, I can’t argue with Disney and his stable of artists. The scene with the Jim Crow chorus – actually a renowned Harlem band – adds a Depression-era touch of authenticity to the movie. The black birds may mock Dumbo, but they also understand and encourage him, just as the “Negro” and Jewish entertainers of the era collaborated on creating popular culture.  

And then, Dumbo’s mother in Aberson’s account has a name, “Ella.” The bond between them plays a major role in the book, another autobiographical touch. 

As a professor at RISD – which has a film department with an animation major, among other choices for undergraduates – I teach a wide range of courses within the liberal arts and associated with the motion picture studio division. I screen “Dumbo” in two elective classes, one on Hollywood history, another on Jewish narrative arts. I use a DVD that promises on its jacket to tell the history of the Dumbo design – but it omits all mention of Helen Aberson!

And then, what about “Bambi”? Felix Salten (nee Saltzman) was a Jewish journalist who created many adventures for diverse animals, ranging from squirrels to horses, from dogs to, most notably, deer. Was Bambi, like Dumbo, also Jewish and wearing a Purim mask to hide the face and the soul of the poet? 

The scene of the death of the mother, surrounded by hunters, has multiple meanings. The frightening ordeal for Bambi is a metaphor for a pogrom and possibly, in addition, a reference to the anti-Semitic riots in Paris at the time of the Dreyfus case. As a former hunter himself, Salten repudiated that assimilationist gesture of joining aristocratic culture and founded an art of ecological resistance, at least as I see and present it. He also had witnessed, as a newspaper reporter, the Dreyfus case and all that followed from it.

But back to Walt Disney. John Galsworthy translated “Bambi” on board a transatlantic ship and sent each page to the Disney studio. In time, Salten was arrested by the Nazis, was interred in a concentration camp in Switzerland and was released upon the intervention of Walt Disney. Salten died shortly after his rescue. I recently made my way to a Holocaust museum in Toronto and saw a bust of the author as a proud part of its collection. (Brown University’s libraries house the complete works of Felix Salten.)

So this report is not intended entirely as a condemnation of Walt Disney’s production of entertainment throughout his fabulous career. It is intended, however, to remind us to recognize how very often the American dream derives from a Jewish fantasy – like Hollywood itself – and how little profit or benefit falls like rain or sunshine upon the creative spirit. 

Disney’s questionable personal politics have been amply presented both by scholars and by biographers, from the E.L. Doctorow diatribe to critics of the ecological assault on Florida and California from the Disney amusement parks, which replace the actual landscape with a plastic wilderness.

Nevertheless, artists have more to say than they may consciously realize. For me as a teacher, the crime of the later Disney output is that he rejects the poignant, even tragic, aspects of folklore. Fairy tales are not merely escapes from the fears and nightmares of children; on the contrary, they permit boys and girls to prepare for life’s disappointments, losses and failures. Dumbo must help his mother – like the sons and daughters of immigrants did. Bambi must grow up without a mother, supported by his friends – a sort of resistance, partisan community of unrelated souls – and make his own way in the world. 

A child leaving the theater might be sad, but is also uplifted by the drama. Without the sad parts, the movie is gratifying only superficially, not profoundly.

My very first movie was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Snow White is rescued from the cruelty and injustice of wealth and power by the working class and by the creatures who hide in the woods but bless the innocent. 

My memory of “Fantasia” is of the Mickey Mouse who, as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is overwhelmed by the miracles of technology but must surrender his illusion of control. 

You can’t stop “progress,” but we must all learn to curb our theft of the powers of nature and the planet itself in all its mystery and eternal authority.

Just so, in “Pinocchio,” a variation on the story of Jonah and the Whale, it will be modesty and thoughtfulness that will turn the puppet into a properly responsible person.

This first group of animated feature “cartoons” from the pen and under the guidance of Walt Disney – with all his, and its, shortcomings – dealt with serious themes that never lose their relevance. After the war, with the moral confusions of the Cold War, during which our allies became our foes and our foes our allies, during which any criticism of the American dream was taboo, Disney lost that touch of magic, of instinct that transcends personality, and I lost interest in his output. He destroyed the marvelous, and heart-breaking, and challenging, themes of Hans Christian Andersen, as well as the insights of Torah tales and Hasidic legends. 

For the purposes of this report, I would claim and conclude that at his best, Disney exploited the brilliance of Aberson, and of Salten, underpaid them, and virtually erased their names and chapters of their lives – just as Superman was two high school boys’ Jewish dream of an American golem, and its creators had to sue for a pittance of the enormous profits made from their sketches and their hopeful words. 

Here’s a professor’s toast and salute to the young Jewish people who dreamed their dream, which is our dream: My dream and yours.

MIKE FINK (mfink33@aol.com) teaches at Rhode Island School of Design.