Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles for the Pirates of the Caribbean red carpet event, where we were able to spend a day celebrating the 75th anniversary of the iconic Disney movie, Bambi. I am still in awe that I interviewed the original voices of Bambi and Thumper. All travel and accommodations were covered by Disney, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Bambi was released in 1942 during World War II, and still holds the number 3 spot on the American Film Institute’s “10 Top 10” greatest animated films of all time. As of May 23, and in celebration of it’s 75th anniversary, Bambi joins the Walt Disney Signature Collection on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere, followed by the Blu-ray, DVD, and On-Demand release on June 6. You can pre-order the Blu-ray/DVD on Amazon (affiliate link)!
The Signature Collection release includes a variety of bonus material, including recordings of Walt Disney discussing the challenges and triumphs during the production of Bambi; deleted scenes and characters; stories and effects that Bambi had on the studio, other films and artists, and so much more.
There is also an exclusive Disney Movie Rewards offer for a tank top featuring the Paul Felix art inspired by BAMBI, which will be available via Disney Movie Rewards with every digital purchase/redemption of BAMBI. For more information on the promotion, click here.
Meeting the Voices Behind Young Bambi and Thumper
What a privilege and honor to sit down with Donnie Dunagan (voice of young Bambi) and Peter Behn (voice of young Thumper). I think the most endearing part of the interview came at the very end, when Donnie got teary-eyed and had the entire room of bloggers feeling weepy, too. We laughed and we cried together. It was incredible. Here is just a small window into the things that we learned from Donnie and Peter.
Peter got the part of Thumper mostly thanks to his father, who wrote screen plays in the 20s and 30s. Peter was 4 years old at the time that he got the part, though recordings took place on and off over a two year period. Peter never actually auditioned for the part of Thumper. In fact, his dad brought him in to the studio to audition for the part of Bambi, but was told that his voice wasn’t right for the part.
I absolutely loved Donnie’s story about how he ended up in “show business.” I’ll let him tell the story in his words:
“How many remember studying in school (about) the depression? It was grim. Ladies, I promise you, you cannot imagine. It was grim.
We were dirt poor. And I mean, certified dirt poor in the South. And my mother would take me down to the corner about two blocks away where a wonderful man danced on the corner on Saturday with a Victrola that you crank up and put on the sidewalk.
And I’m standing there at 3 ½, four years old. People were there laughing about this wonderful man dancing on the corner for nickels and pennies. And I started imitating him. And I was barefoot. He had tap shoes. He’s cheating, right? And I’m barefoot. And I start dancing. Then they decided to put me in a talent contest. People went to talent contests in those days in local theaters because they were dirt poor and there was no entertainment.
I won the darn thing, which was a miracle. And I sang to a song I think called a tisket a taskit with a paper bag as my hat and a stick from a tree as my cane. Won the darn thing. In the audience was a wonderful man who was….a bona fide genuine talent scout in those days.”
He came to California after the talent scout discovered him and was in a few movies. Then, he says, “Mr. Disney called my mom on our kitchen phone.”
Donnie had an agent at the time, but, as he puts it, “this guy was born with a bad attitude and he was rude to my mother all the time. And I’m five years old. And he didn’t want us to do Bambi. He said, ‘oh, you can’t do that, that’s an animated cartoon thing.’ So I fired him. I fired him at five years old. My mother was very nervous about it but it worked really good, right.”
Neither Donnie nor Peter went on to have careers in theater. Peter Behn had a career in real estate and building houses. Donnie Dunagan went into the US Marine Corps.
Interestingly, because Bambi came out before the age of Blu-ray players and digital releases or even VHS players, neither of them saw the movie much while they were growing up. They both saw Bambi in the theater at the premiere, but then didn’t see it again for many years.
Donnie shared quite a funny story about when Bambi was re-released in 1977. He was a retired commander in the Marine Corps Boot Camp. Bambi started appearing in the newspapers, and the rumor was that Disney was going to add credits and show it at the Base theater. Donnie was terrified that all of the drill instructors and captains working under him would see his name in the credits and give him a hard time for being Bambi.
Donnie said, “I could just see them, those drill instructors and captains working for me. ‘Dear mom, guess what. My commanding officer is Bambi.’ Bambi was a champion guy, right? He beat up the bad dogs and everything. But most of the young people then had not seen it. They thought Bambi was a little crazy guy on the ice. I pushed my chicken button. I didn’t say nothing.”
When asked what it was like working with Walt Disney, Peter Behn responded: “Well, bear in mind, Disney by that time had really become quite a businessman and it wasn’t just Bambi that he was working on. I did meet him a couple of times but not on a regular basis. He wasn’t one dealing directly with me anyway.
Anyway, he was with me and showed me the little Disney zoo that they had. At one time they had deer and some rabbits and other creatures so the animators could actually see the anatomy of the animals and help them with their drawings. And so I do remember being out there at that time. And he was a very nice man.”
Donnie added, “Let me share with you a different bit of a experience then say along Peter’s excellent sharing with you. Only because I had been in seven other films as a young kid. Sometimes if you’re quiet they forget you’re there, you know. It never really happened with me but my wife here would argue with that. I was very disappointed in some of the studio activities with the people who were supposed to be the leaders, the executives, the owners, the number one producers.
Sometimes they would come around, different jobs and I was in a whole bunch of them, right? And the employees and cameramen and sound guys would say ‘oh my, here comes the boss. Watch out here comes the boss.’ What does that tell you about leadership? It means you’re seeing artificial things, right? I’m an old troop commander. I understand that word leadership reasonably well, okay? Mr. Disney was not like that.
He had his sleeves rolled up and he was working and they introduced us to him. We had a great time. Most of the time I saw him, he was participating in things. He wasn’t, ‘oh my gosh here comes the boss.’ He was, ‘Here comes Walt, here comes Mr. Disney, he’ll help. Ask him about this. Ask him about that.’ That’s called leadership. Very different. And that’s why Disney was successful.”
When asked what it was like to see their own facial expressions expressed on the animated characters’ faces, Donnie said, “Remember when the mother is shot? Thank goodness off-camera. When that recording was required I did not do it as well as I should have.”
His sound coach told him to say his lines again. And again. Still, there was not enough emotion in his cries for his mother.
Donnie went on to say that a very bright young lady told him, “Your mother is in trouble.”
“Now, she didn’t tell me this is fun. She said your mother’s in trouble. Donnie, your mother’s in trouble. Call your mother, call your mother. That caught my attention pretty quick. You know I’m just a kid, right. Mother, mother, mother.”
The last question asked was, “What do you envision and hope for the legacy of Bambi going forward? This is the 75th anniversary which is amazing to me. But going forward into the future, what do you see for Bambi? What do you hope it accomplishes in this world?”
Peter piped up quickly, “Well, very frankly one of my strongest feelings about the movie is the amazing fact that back in the 30s, Walt Disney was so far ahead of his time in the environmental concerns. I think the movie is truly a very strong statement in favor of protecting the environment and the concern that man was ruining it or even make it worse which unfortunately I personally believe.
It’s one of my strong beliefs that we have to do everything we can to keep it from getting worse. But it’s just, it’s a forward awareness and thinking that Walt obviously brought to the movie. He had to know what he was doing. I think it was very strong. And I think as time goes on perhaps that aspect of the movie will resonate and become even more important and people will be more aware of that aspect of the movie. At least I hope so.”
Donnie added, “If I live to be 1000 years old I couldn’t say it better than Peter did. The environmental profile, the forests, the reckless fire is spoken to by children in schools now. And I listen to them. And they pick up on that right away. Here’s an extension of Mr. Walt Disney’s Bambi, okay. I get one of these by children every month from all over the world, (along with) at least 2 to 3 handwritten letters a week from children all over the world. If this doesn’t tell people that Bambi is forever, I’ll do push-ups in that parking lot for you.”
Make sure to check out the new Collection release of Bambi available now!
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