Walt Disney, a seven-year-old budding artist from rural Missouri, was shot by his brother Roy.
Walt was stunned. That week he had learnt to draw the farm’s wild rabbits in his first cartoon doodles, sketching their floppy ears and wide eyes peeping at him through the grass. He refused to eat the stew of rabbits as a protest.
Three decades later, he created one of his best-loved animated characters — Thumper the fun-loving rabbit, who helps his pal Bambi to dodge the human hunters with their guns.
How much more horrified Walt would have been if he’d known the grim truth about Bambi. Felix Salten has retranslated the 1923 original novel to make it more accessible for children.
Walt Disney created one of his best-loved animated characters — Thumper the fun-loving rabbit, who helps his pal Bambi to dodge the human hunters with their guns
Bambi: A Live in the Woods is a dark, gritty, and cruel story about Germany’s rise to anti-Semitism. Thugs and brownshirts invaded peaceful forest animals’ homes and killed them in an act of bloodlust.
Bambi’s best friend is his cousin, Gobo, who is shot and wounded near the beginning of the story. The man who found him, then nursed him to his health before releasing him with a collar on his neck.
Gobo believes humans are the animals’ friends, and trusts his collar to protect him from harm. Instead, it makes him an easily-spotted target for the next hunter, and he’s dead within a week.
The novel was banned on Hitler’s orders in 1936, not long after the Nazis came to power. It was once a popular bestseller. However, the originals are very rare as so many copies were destroyed.
Walt Disney didn’t read the original. This version, which was first translated into English in 1928 and is the foundation of the film, is gentler. The politics are downplayed, and all the emphasis is on conservation — much more likely to appeal to a family audience.
It was a 70-minute animation film that won three Oscars and was released in 1942.
Felix Salten has transcribed the 1923 book in a new translation (pictured). The story is not intended for children.
No one who wept for Bambi’s mother will ever forget her death scene. She is seen grazing with her baby fawn and she encourages Bambi, who’s now out in open, to flee for shelter from the thickets.
Two shots sound and he is safe. His forlorn cry, when she does not join him, is heart-breaking: ‘Mother? Mother!’ Encyclopedia Britannica calls it ‘an unusually tragic moment for a children’s film’ and ‘emotionally devastating for many viewers’.
But to Professor Jack Zipes, the translator of the new edition of the book, released next month, and the world’s leading authority on literary fairytales, this hardly begins to capture the pessimism of Salten’s original.
‘The darker side of Bambi has always been there,’ Zipes says. ‘It is a book about survival in your own home. Every single animal in the book has been tortured. And I think what shakes the reader is there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill.’
That reflected Salten’s experience of anti-Semitism. After World War I, Salten worked in Vienna as an editor and journalist. He changed his name to Siegmund Salzmann so that he was less visible as Jewish. Both in Austria and Germany, Jews are blamed for postwar economic catastrophe.
His story shows that even trees can be depressed. The autumn leaves are joined by two branches. They have an interminable discussion on their fates and what happens to them after they fall.
‘These leaves talk very seriously,’ Zipes says, ‘about really dark questions humans have. We don’t know what is going to happen to us when we die, we don’t know why we must die.’
All the characters speak with an ornate elegance, like intellectuals conversing in a Viennese cafe — the natural habitat of scientists and writers such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig.
Disney liked this version of Bambi. Sidney Franklin was MGM’s head of production and he purchased the story from him in 1937. He had previously tried to make it a live-action movie with animals but failed.
Franklin had only paid $1,000 for film rights. That’s a mere $20,000 in today’s dollars. Salten, a penniless widower, was hiding in Vienna in the fear of a Nazi invasion. Disney Studios, which had enjoyed a big hit with Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was looking to create animation that would be as realistic as possible.
‘To retain the charm of these creatures,’ he told his artists, ‘our animated drawings must fully capture the natural movements and attitudes of living animals.’ He believed it would give the story ‘a tremendous amount of appeal’.
To study the movement of deer, he first took animators with him to Los Angeles Zoo. On the studio’s grounds, he built a private zoo with Faline (a Faline-named fawn) and other woodland animals.
The cartoonists were also aided by wildlife artists who viewed countless hours worth of live footage. Bambi was a European roe in the book and became an American whitetail deer.
But Bambi became a classic, one of Disney’s biggest earners ever. It was a hit with the public upon its rerelease in 1947. By 2005, when the 60th anniversary ‘platinum edition’ DVD was released, the film had grossed $102 million in its lifetime. Pictured: Walt Disney
Disney loved the result. When he saw an early sequence, drawn-in outlines without colouring, of Bambi meeting a butterfly, he exclaimed: ‘This is pure gold.’ The scene survived into the finished picture, as the little deer goes cross-eyed, looking at the insect that has landed on his nose.
The critics were not as impressed. Even with the 12 minute cut from the script, it took 3 years. The budget grew to $1.7million ($29m) today. It grossed slightly less than that at the box office, and The New York Times sniped: ‘In search for perfection, Mr Disney has come perilously close to tossing away his whole world of cartoon fantasy.’
It was also condemned by the hunting lobby. Outdoor Life magazine called Bambi, ‘the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen and conservationists’.
Disney looked depressed. ‘When we released that picture there was a war on,’ he grumbled, ‘nobody cared about the love life of a deer.’ Coming after Fantasia and Pinocchio, which were also flops at first, it left the studio $4.3 million ($73m today) in debt.
But Bambi became a classic, one of Disney’s biggest earners ever. It was a hit with the public upon its rerelease in 1947. By 2005, when the 60th anniversary ‘platinum edition’ DVD was released, the film had grossed $102 million in its lifetime.
Felix Salten did not see one penny. He sold his rights to MGM at $1,000, and this was the most he ever got.
A belated court case in the 1990s over the book’s disputed copyright ended in the Disney studio’s favour. Salten received a bonus when Disney purchased another story about a squirrel, Perri. It was a brief feature, and is almost forgotten today.
Salten fled Vienna after the Germans annexed Austria in that year. He died in exile in Zurich, in 1945.
However, his impact on generations of children continues, even if it is through the bitter and morbid story about a hunted buck.
In the 1950s, Disney bought another of his quirky animal stories, The Hound Of Florence, and based The Shaggy Dog — a live-action comedy — on it.
The real surprise of the saga, though, is what became of Bambi’s friend, Gobo — the trusting deer who thought his leather collar would protect him.
Gobo was reimagined by Disney as Bobo, a rabbit like those he’d sketched as a child on the farm. Then Bobo was renamed Thumper, the little furball who takes Bambi skating on a frozen pond and teaches us: ‘If ya can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.’
That’s a far cry from existential despair in the face of Nazism.