Dilys Powell was a stalwart and a powerhouse of film criticism, with a career spanning decades. She was one of the few journalists who took the job of being a film critic as seriously as any other title. More impressive is the professionalism she brought even though her tastes were originally far more literary than filmic; when given the task of writing weekly film reviews for The Sunday Times in the late 1930s, she realised that it was her duty to become an authority on cinema, in order to be the consummate critic of it.
And she did; she seriously considered questions of stardom, direction and artistry long before it was common to do so. However, she was also admirable for her pragmatism and efficiency with words (she relished the challenge of writing within strict limits), and never let any prevailing ideology cloud her immediate reactions to a film. She was unafraid to take down the epic scale and grand aesthetics of Gone With the Wind with dry wit, and was brutally honest when she felt hopelessly old fashioned (as was the case when confronted with many avant grade auteurs).
While I revere Powell’s work, I don’t always agree with her. She never cared for Brief Encounter, and was always a little too focused on script and realism for my liking. Yet she understood cinema and respected it when so few in the established arts and literature presses did.
And she loved Disney. Always one to recognise a show runner, Powell heaped praise on Walt Disney’s visionary work. Reading through her reviews from the 1930s and 40s is a reminder of just how groundbreaking Walt was. Although Dilys Powell rarely gave out unqualified or hyperbolic praise – and she generally disliked the bland cutesy-ness of Disney fare – she recognised the innovation present in the characterisation and the sheer ambition of Disney’s animation.
As I was lazily breezing through The Dilys Powell Film Reader, I stopped and read the section on Disney, and found an interesting array of opinions that demonstrate Powell’s critical eye:
Much of this is so superb in colour and rhythm that it makes me wish more than ever for one Disney cartoon conceived and executed in complete seriousness.
– On Pinocchio, 1940
Moussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ is treated to an exhibition of devilry at once grand and horrifying in conception and design; and with Mickey Mouse as the Sorceror’s Apprentice, Dukas’s piece becomes the source of a fine comic exuberance of design.
– On Fantasia, 1941
Bambi is to be the last long Disney until after the war; the producer has, apparently, resolved to make his farewell appearance in a blaze of inoffensiveness.
– On Bambi, 1942
…OK, I’ll admit to being a little biased because I agree entirely with the relatively scathing write-up of Bambi. However, I was a little saddened to see Powell’s 1942 review of Dumbo missing from the collection. I know collected editions have to be brutal in their curation. But Powell (like me) used Dumbo as the yardstick to judge other animated features, and during the 1940s most critics held up Snow White as the masterpiece because they did not give the time or effort to form their own opinions. Like Powell, though, I would urge cartoon connoisseurs to consider Dumbo.
What is cutesy in other Disney films is emotional and real in Dumbo, and the titular character is the epitome of adorable. Powell describes the elephant as ‘small, defenceless, absurdly sensitive and infinitely pathetic’, immediately recognising the genius in Bill Tytla’s characterisation (Tytla used his own infant son as the model for Dumbo’s wordless mannerisms):
I’ve bawled my kid out for pestering me when I’m reading or something, and he doesn’t know what to make of it. He’ll just stand there and maybe grab my hand and cry… I tried to put all those things in Dumbo.
– Bill Tytla
Of course, it is also visually as spectacular as any Disney film, though it is barely an hour long and was produced on a fraction of Bambi‘s budget. Everyone remembers the pink elephants, but there was also the travel sequences where the anthropomorphic steam engine makes his way across the map, and the rain-soaked silhouettes of labourers erecting the circus tent (I was too young to get the racist overtones of the song). And while music and mouse are present to cut through the silence, the most memorable sequence is entirely without dialogue (‘Baby Mine’, *sniff*).
Dumbo then, and Dumbo now, is defined and redefined by the collective worth of Disney. In the era before the theme-parks, before home video and with only one princess to its name, Disney was not considered the super-brand as discourse has it today. Rather, it is the figure of Walt Disney himself that loomed large over the barometers of quality, success, suitability and artistry. Sadly, Dumbo suffers because it was simpler, cheaper and shorter than it contemporaries. But Dilys Powell was smart enough to see that ingenuity went a long way in animation, and she was not too snobby to say that Dumbo was the most effective Disney of the pre-war era.
The Dilys Powell Film Reader, ed. by Christopher Cook (Oxford: OUP, 1992)
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981)
Original film reviews available from the BFI Library, BFI Southbank. Photo of Dilys Powell also from the BFI.