Seventy-five years later, Bambi and Thumper -- and the no-longer-little fellas who gave them voice -- are still pretty captivating.
The fifth animated feature film to come out of Walt Disney's animation studio in the summer of 1942, based the book "Bambi, a Life In the Woods" by on Austrian children's author Felix Salten, "Bambi" marked multiple turning points for Disney's now-fabled pantheon of classics.
Creatively, the film saw the animation art form blaze new trails with its extremely realistic depiction of its woodland creatures and its colorfully impressionistic, atmospheric background art that allowed the lavishly animated lead characters to better pop onscreen in audience's eyes.
Behind the scenes, "Bambi" would be the last Disney full-length feature released to the public for the duration of World War II, during which Disney and his team labored on government-contracted animation and musical cartoon anthologies until the war ended and work commenced on the studio's next masterpiece, 1950's "Cinderella."
Today, as "Bambi" receives a fresh new Blu-ray and Digital HD release to celebrate its diamond jubilee, two of its most charming contributors are raising their voices once again to share their experiences making the film.
As the voice of and visual reference for the wide-eyed fawn Bambi, actor Donnie Dunagan was the veteran of the duo, with several films to his credit (including 1939's "Son of Frankenstein") by the time he stepped into the recording studio for Disney. He'd go on to a long and distinguished career in the United States Marine Corps: the youngest-ever drill instructor, he was wounded multiple times in combat in Vietnam and earned three Purple Heart medals and a Bronze Star.
Peter Hehn was the four-year-old son of '30s-era screenwriter Henry Behn ("Hell's Angels") when he was cast as the giggly voice of the precocious bunny Thumper, and would leave Hollywood behind when his family relocated when his father began teaching English courses; he'd later attend Yale and enjoy a long career in real estate.
And even as octogenarians, it's clear that being a part of Disney's magical legacy remains enchanting for Dunagan and Behn, who joined Moviefone for one more walk in the forest.
Moviefone: What specific memories do you still hold from recording the voices of Bambi and Thumper? Do you have vivid things that are still stuck in your brain from those experiences?
Donnie Dunagan: Precisely. This was my eighth film total -- first animated -- so I wasn't, I hope, jaded, but I was a bit older. I remember well how courteous, and professional, and gentle with children Disney staff people were. I'm sure they got a bit tired of me pestering them: "What's the storyline?" Nobody ever scolded me for that. "What is this all about?" I was eager to know.
And a nice lady I don't think we ever saw again got ahold of one of the books from 1923, translated by Whittaker Chambers in '28, and sat us down in a room with the young lady that played Faline, and she read parts of several chapters to us, and then gave us her own oral summary what the story was about. I was thrilled! But up to that point, I'd be fibbing to you if I told you I knew what it was about. I didn't have a clue.
But once I had a sense of the storyline, then it mattered a great deal more when the prompting lady in the booth would say, "Say this, say that, say that:" "What's a meadow? Mother, mother, mother," etc.
Peter Behn: I think the mechanics of the operation were more memorable to me than some of the other aspects. Very honestly, I don't think I knew the storyline until I saw the movie in 1942. Because the recording operation was, like, sentence-by-sentence in the sound booth, with the proper inflections of course, directed by the director.
So what I remember most is the mechanics of the recording: the big recording device had a 20-inch disc on it, and a big arm that came over. Actually, it carved a groove in the record, the disc, and plastic came off the end. There was like scraps of this long ribbon that came off. So the different kinds of impressions of what went on. That's what I most remember.
Do you have any specific recollections of your interactions with Walt Disney himself?
Dunagan: Oh yes, yes -- I would call him, in Marine Corps vernacular, a leader by example, setting the example. He was all over the place. I was there for a long, long time, first as the facial model, from the spring of 1940 forward. Two months would go by, they'd come back, come back, come back, come back, and then the voice. So I saw him often, and if I was behaving myself and quiet, they'd forget you were there.
He was all over the place -- all over the place! And leading by, I would call, by example. A bit later, toward the end of my experience -- and reasonably good memory -- my sense was that he was taking a long time to produce, and there was some concern and urgency about this. "We need to get this done, get this done." I remember asking my mother a bit about that, but she didn't have a clue either. We were both aware of things, but we didn't have any spies anywhere. There was some concern that a blind person could see that this was taking a long, long time, and that they needed to get this out.
Then what happened? Pearl Harbor. The hearsay was that Mr. Disney might have wanted to release it Thanksgiving/Christmas of '41. Perfect timing, right? The pressure was on. We're not in the war yet. Then December 7th, Pearl Harbor, changed everything, and he did not release it until about this time [of year in 1942]. Peter and I had a chance to see it up in the [San Fernando] Valley in 1942. I remember well the impression that adults had and children had on the first couple of viewings in regular theaters -- they loved it!
A lot of folks were bothered by the mother being killed. To this day, we hear about that! A grandmother will come up to my wife and I at some charity thing we're at and say, "I remember when the mother ..." I smile every time, like I've never heard it before, right? "I remember the mother, the mother, the mother, the mother ..." One time, because the environment was happy, I said, "How about me? I got shot, too!"
Behn: I saw him a couple of times. Once, outside there was a small zoo on the lot with animals for the animators to observe. I went out to the zoo with him at one point and saw the animals. Held the bunny -- there's a picture of me holding the little bunny, Thumper. So that was my most memorable recollection of meeting him. I didn't spend as much time at the studio. The recording sessions were several months apart over a two-year period.
There was a period when "Bambi" was a role that you played as a kid, and that's what it was for a lot of years. Then "Bambi" came back into your lives as the fans became curious about you and what became of you. You were welcomed into the extended Disney family again. What's that been like for you as adults to participate in that community of people who just love Disney and love "Bambi"?
Behn: In my youth and growing up in college and all those areas, we really never mentioned it to our friends, and it just wasn't in the forefront of consciousness. I became more comfortable with occasionally telling somebody, usually by asking if they've seen "Bambi." It's literally almost impossible to find somebody who's not seen the movie. Then I say, "You remember Thumper?" Yes they do, and I would tell them that I was the voice of Thumper -- primarily, to bring a little joy. People really get a kick out of realizing that they met the person who was the voice.
Tell me about the experience you had this year, 75 years later, to see the film on the big screen with audience full of fans, artists who have been inspired by the film and your work in the film, family members of people who worked on the film. That was a really singular kind of moment for you, I imagine.
Behn: It was as if I saw it for the first time, because of the talk that [film historian] Leonard Maltin and [contemporary Disney animator] Andreas Deja gave regarding ["Bambi" production artist] Tyrus Wong's art, and the impact it had. And Walt, when he saw it, he said was what he wanted. It allowed me to view the movie more from the background than the foreground. I thought that was very revealing. I got an appreciation of it as a moving piece of art, more than just the film.
And to go back to the emotional aspects of the film, Donnie's right, it's very emotional when the mother gets shot. But to me, the intensity of the fire scene, and the father and Bambi working their way through and out into safety, was a lot scarier, and more prolonged, and very emotional, and just so incredibly well-conceived and done from an artistic point of view. It's the part of the movie that I find very memorable.
Dunagan: There's the same quality of shared emotion people have with that film. The story, from birth all the way to maturity -- not many movies do that, not many novels do that, and people can relate. Any age can relate to things that happen in "Bambi," something that a friend, a family member or that we experienced. They have matching sensitivity experiences to "Bambi."
I'm not a behavioral scientist, but I pay attention to human beings, and they have matched experiences. We hear about it all the time. I had a very unique one to "Bambi." When Bambi was shot, after the mother is down, animals that are large, four-legged, on-the ground animals, heavy respiratories, they get down, they don't get up. That respiratory can kick in and they die.
That's why farmers and animal-sensitive people like Peter try to get them up in real life. "Bambi's down" -- the culture of 1941-42, a lot of farmers, a lot of ranchers, they understand what that means. [The filmmakers] wrote this brilliantly in from the book: Here comes Bambi's father. Big rack standing there, very majestically, right? "Bambi, get up! Get up! You must get up!"
Many years later, in August of 1967, I'm shot for the second time in Vietnam. I'm down, and I've got to get up. I'm the only officer left in a big patrol unit. The only one that is equipped up here to call in fire support and things. I'm half-conscious. A wonderful young sergeant, who survived the war, came up over me. "Skipper! Skipper! Get up! Get up! You must get up! We need you, get up!" I was able to get up enough against a bamboo thing to be able to call in fire support. Then they evacuated several of us.
Think of the irony of that for a matching life experience!
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