Meeting Donnie Dunagan, a former child actor who voiced the character of Bambi, is an incredible trip through the history of film. Dunagan worked on seven films between 1938 and 1941, and indeed his life in movies is only the tip of the iceberg of his personal story.
As I pull out my old school Radio Shack cassette recorder Dunagan sharply begins the interview commenting on the difference in technology of his analog youth and the current digital landscape. Dunagan looks fit and in his late 70s totally in shape. He holds advanced degrees in addition to serving for years in the military along with various entrepreneurial pursuits. “It makes you wonder how we won WWII using just 3-by-5 cards and landlines,” Dunagan laughs. Speaking to Free Press Houston at a downtown hotel Dunagan has come to talk about the Disney release of Bambi as a two-disc DVD (Blu Ray and regular DVD in one package). “I think they thought I was dead because Disney didn’t contact me until 2005,” when Bambi was released on disc originally.
Make no mistake, Bambi is Disney’s finest animation achievement. Walt personally supervised the production. A documentary on the DVD on the pre-production of the animated film lasts twenty minutes longer than Bambi (which clocks at 70 minutes) and reveals the exacting process whereby the animators perfected the animal characters. Copious records were kept of the production meetings, and the minutes are heard in voice-over along with photos of the animators and excerpts from the film. Bambi unfolds in a swirl of impressionistic colors that take the viewer both through nature’s seasons as well as Bambi’s maturation. Bambi is an archetypal cartoon and the basis for numerous similar stories throughout the years. Just watch the multiple shots of Bambi standing on the rock plateau with his father and The Lion King all of a sudden becomes a copycat.
“Bambi is like a song that will never end, love is a song that will never end. Bambi will never end,” Dunagan says. Through his life Dunagan rarely talked about his experience in Hollywood. “I was married a couple of years before my wife discovered I was in six or seven films,” grins Dunagan. I had talked to Dunagan’s wife Dana right before I went into the interview and some of the things she told me made my jaw drop. Dunagan values his privacy, doesn’t like to talk about his work in the military, rides a Harley and doesn’t suffer fools easily.
Dana revealed that the way she discovered her husband had been in movies was that one day he had thrown an old box away. “It was on the curb, ready for the trash.” When she looked at the contents she found autographed photos dedicated to Donnie from Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and the Andrews Sisters among a host of others. Dana then mentioned that Donnie later delivered papers to Bugsy Siegel while supporting himself with odd jobs in his teens. She thought he should write his memoirs especially concerning his involvement in military intelligence but Dunagan prefers to maintain a tight lip on such matters.
I ask if they live in San Antonio (They don’t, actually living in West Texas.) as that’s the birthplace listed on his imdb.com bio. “His parents were actually immigrating into the US and he was born on the boat in international waters. The captain signed the papers inside the 12-mile limit and his birthplace was listed in Texas,” says Dana.
Dunagan grew up in Tennessee and was discovered by a talent scout, which led to his being cast as a precocious curly haired child in movies at age four. For his depression era parents this was a financial boon.
“If you ask me a question, if I can I will answer,” Dunagan tells me looking directly in my eyes. But now he’s found something he likes to talk about. Some of his military nicknames like Old Potato or Martial Arts Guy don’t bring the kind of smiles to the faces of children as discovering the man addressing them in their classroom is the face of Bambi. Dunagan was originally employed by Disney animators to pose and make faces as they composed their drawings. At that point in his life Dunagan has never seen a deer.
“Children get this film, 80 year olds get this film,” smiles Dunagan. “In the course of the film you see several life themes or life cycles. Nothing I’ve ever seen in any language – love, real love, not the word we throw around recklessly; danger, and courage in the face of danger; broad humor and subtle humor; these are the cycles some of us live.”
For the scene where Bambi receives his first kiss, the animators wanted Donnie to grimace, and his efforts didn’t spark creativity until someone suggested recalling a bad food incident. Then Donnie remembered some castor oil he’d ingested previously and the contorted expressions came naturally. When Donnie ad-libbed some lines it was a natural fit to cast him as the young Bambi voice. Dunagan sites a couple of his favorites parts including the skunk that Bambi names Flower. “Kids ask me about that part a lot.” But Dunagan’s true inspiration comes from “the last quarter of the film when Bambi is shot, no blood showing, and is down. Bambi’s down, semi-conscious but down and here comes the big stag. ‘Get Up.’ I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve used that with adults and teens. When you’re down, down is easy and up is hard. And to myself I sometimes say, not all the time out loud, ‘Get Up. Get Up.’ As corny as that sounds, when somebody knocks you down in life you have to try to get back up.”
But the best is yet to come. Now I ask Dunagan to talk about his other films. “Karloff could’ve been a stand-up comic. He was my first lesson in leadership,” recalls Dunagan who was the son of Frankenstein. “Mr. Karloff was my first sense of how it is to be respected and be a leader without walking around telling everybody you’re the boss. Mr. Karloff was liked and admired, teased with affection by guys who were moving these heavy sets around. Basil Rathbone was respected every bit as much but he was like a Presidential figure, he was treated special. Karloff could care less if he swept the floor, he was a wonderful open guy.” Dunagan worked with director Rowland V. Lee three times, on his debut Mother Carey’s Chickens, then Son of Frankenstein, followed by Tower of London, which reunited him with Karloff and Rathbone.
“The theme of Tower of London was killing, from day one. The whole movie is based on killing the young Prince, heir apparent to the throne,” relates Dunagan about his role, noting that over a dozen scenes have him in some kind of danger that is averted at the last moment. At the studio preview Dunagan remembers: “Rathbone, who never got angry at anything was angry at the film. They cut out all the scenes that had a direct reflection or imagery of killing a child. The war was on in Europe, there were reports in newspapers of women and children being killed. If you watch it carefully the movie’s disjointed, often going from one scene to another scene without the middle.
“I’m having the time of my life talking about this. I prefer it because I don’t really talk about my career in counter intelligence for 11 years, armed to the teeth, full credentials,” acknowledges Dunagan. “A little regret for not telling my fellow workers about Bambi because now I see the joy it brings. It’s not my style: ‘Hey guys I’m Bambi.’”
The perfect wrap question for the interview has to be about Bugsy Siegel. “I was his paperboy but I didn’t know who he was until they shot him,” remarks Dunagan. “I’m supporting myself with two paper routes. I had the bicycle, I had to roll my own papers.” Dunagan usually billed customers $1.10 for the month. Siegel had a doorman that was a giant Asian gentleman who would courteously pay Dunagan ten dollars and tell him to keep the change. “I was miffed when I saw the news in my own newspaper. I was going to lose that regular tip.”
– Michael Bergeron