Bambi, it’s an American classic, one of Walt Disney’s saddest films and this week it celebrates its 73rd anniversary. The film debuted on August 13, 1942 in New York City and was Walt Disney’s fifth film. The animated picture about a deer was based upon the famous book Bambi, A Life in the Woods which became one of the most popular books of its time.
The film centers on a newly born white-tailed deer named Bambi who, along with his new friends Thumper, a rabbit, and Flower, a skunk, explores the new world they have just entered. Along the way they discover a doe named Faline who captivates the young Bambi.
Throughout all this exploration of the forest Bambi remains very close with his mother and continually asks her about the world around him. His mother and father caution him that even though the woods seems like a lovely place, there is a danger all around.
Bambi soon learns that first hand when his mother is shot by a hunter. Through this tragedy Bambi learns a valuable life lesson that would lead him to become the Great Prince of the Forest.
Meeting Donnie Dunagan and His Wife
On numerous occasions I’ve had the privilege to sit down with Disney Legend Donnie Dunagan, the voice behind young Bambi. I met with him and his wife at their home in Texas to discuss what life is like 73 years after meeting Walt Disney and being personally chosen by him to be the star of his 5th animated film.
I was greeted by the smell of his wife’s fresh baked cookies and lemonade as I entered Donnie’s home on my first visit.
As we talked in preparation for the interview I learned that the Donnie and his wife Dana enjoy square dancing and have even performed at the State Fair of Texas. I knew from that point that this was going to be an exciting conversation not only about Disney but also his life outside of showbiz.
Donnie and his wife Dana are two of the nicest individuals that you will ever meet and I was excited to be invited into their home to talk about Donnie’s career as a child actor.
For the longest time Donnie kept his career in show business, that he was the voice of Bambi and starred in the classic Son of Frankenstein a secret. This he held close to his chest throughout his time in the military and even held the secret from his wife.
Dunagan’s Military Secret
Dunagan, a retired Marine, served nearly a quarter of a century in the military. Drafted in the 50’s, he rose through the ranks being promoted 13 times becoming a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.
One of the reasons Dunagan kept his Disney past a secret was a fear of being mocked by his fellow military comrades. There’s something about being Bambi that lacks credibility as a strong leader…
That secret somewhat came to an end when a fellow marine called him to his office and asked him to audit the auditors. Dunagan, who was busy with other things asked him, “General, when do you think I’m going to have time to do that?” That’s when the General patted a folder on his desk and said, “You will audit the auditors. Won’t you, Maj. Bambi?”
Despite that incident, few if anyone else learned Donnie’s secret. Not much time passed, however, before the truth almost came out as Disney planned a re-release of Bambi which would include him in the credits at the end of the film.
As Dunagan said, “If they put credits on that thing and they show it at the base theater or anywhere and one of the drill instructors or Captain that reports to me or recruits, ‘Dear mom guess what. My commanding officer is Maj. Bambi!’ I pushed my chicken button and said I’m not saying anything to anyone.”
On The Battlefield with Bambi
He also shared with me a story from when he was wounded on the battlefield. It reminded him of the scene where Bambi’s mom was shot. He reflected on the situation and said to himself, “Get up, you’ve got to get up. And a great sergeant came over and helped me. I remember thinking that’s exactly what happened in the film.”
The Secret Uncovered
In 2004 a local newspaper article was published detailing Donnie’s child stardom and that Donnie Dunagan was the familiar voice of Bambi. Even his wife for the longest time didn’t know about it until a few years after they were married when she discovered a shoebox of pictures and memorabilia from his time in the movies.
Looking back on keeping his time on the silver screen a secret, Donnie remarks, “Maybe I should have told people earlier myself instead of someone discovering it. More children would have had fun with it. More grandmothers would have come up and given me hugs. My wife thinks I’m flirting sometimes… I’m not I get more hugs because of Bambi than anything on this earth!”
***Stay tuned to part two of my interview with Donnie Dunagan as we discuss the film Son of Frankenstein. We also we’ll talk about his time working on the Disney film lot and what almost caused him to get kicked off the set.