Walt Disney’s Bambi turns 75 this year. To mark the June 6 release of its Signature Collection Blu-ray combo pack, the studio made available for interviews the original voices of young Bambi and Thumper, Donnie Dunagan and Peter Behn.
I spoke to each man separately. Dunagan, now 82, had a brief but distinguished career as a child actor. Giving voice to Bambi would prove be his last work in film. After enlisting in the Marine Corps at age 18, Major Dunagan went on to receive a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
An engineer at heart who spent much of his career in real estate, Behn’s one and only contribution to cinema turned out to be the voice of Thumper. Given the number of times he solicited laughter during the interview, it’s clear that Behn, who is also 82, remains a master of comic relief.
(Original 1942) Bambi Trailer
Strangely enough, both gentlemen spent decades keeping their Disney connection a secret. (Though I suppose it’s easy to understand why drill instructor Dunagan didn’t want to give his grunts any Bambi material to work with.)
Other than a few new bonus features — the studio unearthed audio of Walt Disney recorded during the production — unless you’re in need of a Digital HD copy, the Blu-ray transfer is identical to the stunning Diamond Edition that came out in 2011. We begin our talk with Donnie Dunagan.
Scott Marks: At the age of three-and-a-half you tap danced your way to winning a talent contest prize of $100. That was a lot of dough for a kid in the ‘30s who was coming out of the Great Depression. Do you recall feeling any pressure when — at the age of what, seven or eight? — you became the family breadwinner?
Donnie Dunagan: Oh, yes. We were dirt poor…I was very sensitive to that. I was reasoning well by age five, which means by age six I was kinda like six going on nineteen. I hope I was not jaded, but I was very aware of things. It was one movie after another starting with Mother Carey’s Chickens [which we shot] in November and December of 1938. I did six or seven films before Bambi. Some of them were fun to do. Son of Frankenstein was a riot. Boris Karloff was a fun guy. But as a kid, making one film after another kind of steals your childhood.
A couple of the movies were…I did not say it at the time, I hope, but they were kind of boring. I wanted to chase puppy dogs and ride a bicycle. (Laughing.) Bambi was really a fun thing. The Disney people were outrageously good to work with. That was a big adventure.
SM: Normally, I would ask how Walt went about selecting you to provide Bambi his voice. But I have a friend on Facebook named Elizabeth Rye who thinks the world of you, and she provided me with the following background material: “Donnie was hired first as the model of the deer, and then Walt, realizing he had a dynamo on his hands, gave Donnie the job of voicing the character as well.” How’d she do?
DD: Very well! Please send her my best. Mr. Disney gave me the invitation with his sleeves rolled up. He was a worker. He wasn’t a pompous executive running around like I saw in some of the other studios, frankly. He was a real “lead by example” kind of person. He sat down with us at a table…it may have been at the studio. It was a brand new cafeteria kind of environment…that’s not precise in my memory now. I was eating ice cream, I remember well, and he asked my mother if I would do the voice. We said something very clever like, “You bet!” (Laughing.)
In the interim I had sat on a stool many times while a whole bunch of men with a million pencils were gathered around asking me to look afraid, look left, look right. I had rather large eyes as a child. There’s a scene early on in the movie where Bambi does something foolish and winds up in a thicket sitting in a puddle of water. Then Feline, the little girl deer who eventually becomes his partner in life, sticks her head through and gives him a lick on the cheek, causing a big frown to cross his face.
The artists said, “Look like something really bad has happened to you.” How can I? I’m having the time of my life and find it difficult thinking up bad things. “Has your mother given you something bad to eat lately?” one of the asked. I had recently been sick, and two weeks before my mother had given me a dose of Castor Oil. I told the artist how bad it tasted.
“Pretend like you just drank a lot of Castor Oil, Donnie,” he said. “What do you think?” I made a frowny face and they said, “Hold it!” (Laughing) It became known as the “Castor Oil kiss” scene.
SM: Bambi was your last appearance on film. You had worked consecutively in seven movies, and then, at the peak of your powers, you disappear from show business. Talk about leaving the audience wanting more. Why didn’t you hang in there? You could have been another Roddy McDowall.
DD: I would have loved to have done it. Pearl Harbor interrupted Mr. Disney. A lot of people today, including some college professors I’ve discovered, don’t realize that Mr. Disney, on his initiative, turned over the Disney Corporation, and all the artwork, to the War Department. For many years he did not make animated films for entertainment. That must have cost him some serious economic losses, but he did it anyway.
Pearl Harbor was invaded right before the release of Bambi. That, along with some other tragedies that occurred, broke up my family. I wound up living in a boarding house at age 14, supporting myself from then until now. I never talked about the movies I was in, never boasted about them. I played a lot of football, I boxed both before and during my time in the Marine Corps and never said a word about any of it. I would watch some films from time to time. Looking at the performances, I would think to myself, “I could have played that role.”
SM: With a middle name like Roan, and in light of your future military ranking, you’d have been a shoo-in to voice Major in Cinderella.
DD (Laughing hard): That’s very good! Bambi resonates today everywhere.
SM: That it does. I watched it last night and cried like a baby. I missed my mother...I was swept up by the emotion and the artistry. I get the feeling that somewhere in your past, a notion that real men don’t voice cartoon fawns prevailed. Whether you wanted it or not, you wound up appearing in a cinematic milestone. I am so happy that you decided to speak up on the movie’s behalf.
DD (Clearing his throat): Thank you, Scott. You know what else I hear? I hear a lot about the environment now. Children in particular, more than the adults. I almost wish it was the other way around. Children pick up on the recklessness of the camp fire destroying the animal’s home. Mr. Disney was way ahead of the world. He and his artists presented it so well that 75 years later we’re still talking about it!
SM: For years you hid the fact that you were the voice of Bambi. How did the studio track you down?
DD: Disney, Inc. found out that I was still alive about a decade ago. It has allowed me to do more…I had never talked about it before, didn’t brag about anything. Nothing. Never do. Now that it’s been exposed, I love it to death. I have been able to get more good done through my association with Bambi than I could have with five decorations in the White House. I’m not kidding. This had been a wonderful adventure.
SM: It’s been a delight speaking with you. In addition to your work on Bambi, thank you Major Dunagan for your 23 years of service for our country. Before going…I didn’t want to say anything, but are you sure this is Bambi? You don’t sound like him.
DD (In his best falsetto): BIRD! BIRD! BIRD!
One hour later, a call came in from Peter Behn.
SM: How did it come to pass that you landed the role of Thumper’s voice?
Peter Behn: I was four years old, so I wasn’t exactly making the rounds of the studios on my own. My father was in the movie industry. He was a scriptwriter back in the early days, starting in silent films. He wrote several scripts for King Vidor, including one that’s quite well known called The Big Parade.
SM: One of Hollywood’s first attempts at an anti-war film.
PB: When movie became talkies, he wrote a picture for Howard Hughes called Hell’s Angels. He went on to be a college professor at the University of Arizona. We later moved back East — that’s where the publishers were — and he became an author of children’s books.
SM: For years, Donnie hid the fact that he was the voice of Bambi. Did you have similar feelings towards Thumper, or have you always been proud to admit you worked on the film?
PB: Since I became an adult and got a grasp on what really happened, I’m very proud to have been involved with it, and honored to have worked on something that’s been around for 75 years. But when I was younger I never talked about it. My friends never knew. My wife didn’t know about it until a year or two after we were married.
SM: It was the same thing with Donnie. His wife found a suitcase filled with Bambi memorabilia and put two and two together. I can’t think of a time in my life when Bambi wasn’t relevant. Have you ever encountered someone who hasn’t seen the movie?
PB: As an adult, I don’t go around broadcasting the fact that I was Thumper, but when the time is right I do occasionally ask people if they’ve ever seen the movie. It’s very difficult to find someone over the age of ten who hasn’t.
SM: You were fortunate to have received the majority of the laugh lines.
PB: That’s true. I think of Thumper as the spokesperson for the movie. It’s he who ties together the story and provides a little comic relief. At least for the first half of the movie.
SM: I know a lot of people refer to Bambi as Walt’s depiction of the Circle of Life. For me it’s always been a child’s primer on adult neuroses. When did you first see the film in its entirety? Did it traumatize you, or, after having spent two years working on it, were you able to separate your emotions from the finished film?
PB: I don’t think my working on it had anything to do with the final feel for it. It was sort of piecemeal. I think there were eight recording sessions over two years. It’s a very emotional film. I know for a lot of people the critical moment in the movie is Bambi’s mother getting shot. And it is of course important. But to me, it’s the frightening images of the fire scene that are far more dramatic.
My take on the movie is that it’s a very early, intuitive appreciation of the environment and the recognition that the environment it being affected by man, if you will. To think that Walt Disney expressed that concern back in the ‘30s…I feel very personally attached to the environment and concerned about the future. I think Walt Disney realized this at the time, and this was a very early statement.
SM: Before Smokey the Bear, there was Bambi. I’m a little hazy, but Disney allowed the government use of his characters for a year or two to promote fire safety. After that, it was up to them to find another mascot. This was your one and only movie. How have you made a living since Bambi?
SM (Laughing): Still the comic relief!
PB: I was a real estate broker. For a while I built houses in Vermont. That essentially was my business life. I probably should have been an engineer. I like working with my hands.
SM: Do you and Donnie still keep in touch? Do you guys ever go hunting together?
PB (Laughing): No. He lives in Texas, and I live in Utah. He has his life, and I have mine.