The Voice of Bambi
Vietnam vet explains how he became the voice of the classic Disney character.
By Angus Wolfe Murray
Being known as "the voice of Bambi" is a double-edged compliment.
At the age of 70, Donnie Dunagan was brought to London as part of Disney's marketing campaign for the release of the two-disc, freshened up DVD version of the film that had me in floods when I saw it in the cinema during the age of innocence - mine and Bambi's.
Donnie has been out of the movie business for 64 years. In fact, he was a Marine his entire adult life, serving in Vietnam on many occasions. He finds the experience of resurrection as "the voice of Bambi" an exhilarating one.
During our conversation, he was giggling away with genuine amusement, although there is a darkness to his story that shadows the memories.
Born in Texas, his parents moved to Memphis when he was very young. "We lived in the poor part of town," he remembers. "And there was this man who danced in the street." Donnie was a barefoot three-year-old and this man taught him to tap dance.
"In those days, people had little money and no television. Spelling Bs and talent contests were very popular." And so, aged three-and-a-half, he entered one, with the astonishing sum of $100 as top prize.
His mother worked as a cleaner in the smart houses and managed to borrow a pair of tap shoes from a young girl. They fitted Donnie well enough and he had a day to practice in them. "Some kind black ladies made me up a costume and I had this top hat that was a paper bag, darkened with boot polish."
He had never been to a theatre before and standing on the stage "with blinding light bulbs in my eyes, I knew there were hundreds of people there, but I couldn't see them. The other acts before me were very good and I thought, 'What am I doing here?'"
Much to his astonishment, he won "and for the next month at home all I heard talk about was a hundred dollars, a hundred dollars..." Something else happened that night, which could only be called the luck of the devil, or the good fortune of the bold. A talent scout was in Memphis, visiting his sick mother, and by chance was in the audience at the theatre. After watching Donnie's winning performance, he was knocking on the door next day, with promises of film contracts and all kinds of Hollywood enticements.
Donnie calls himself "a rogue kid" at that time, precocious perhaps, certainly confidant. "I was reading at three-and-a-half. It was a knack, just a gift." After some trepidation and weeks of discussion, the family, with talent scout in tow, made the long journey to California and, within a month of arrival, "I had a major role in a film."
Thus began a fruitful relationship with writer/director Rowland Lee. They made three more films together "and he let me be myself." The last was Tower Of London, in which Donnie played baby Prince Richard, with Basil Rathbone ("a dignified and cultured man") and Boris Karloff. It was an unhappy set, with huge sections of the film ending up on the cutting room floor. Rathbone was enraged because the script kept being rewritten and, eventually, baby Prince Richard became one of its casualties.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, now aged five-and-a-half "with big brown eyes", he was asked to come to Disney Studios and model facial expressions for their latest animated feature, called Bambi. "I didn't know what a deer looked like," Donnie says. "Being a city kid, we had no opportunity."
Donnie sat on a stool, surrounded by men "drawing away like mad," and was asked to make faces. "There is a scene when Faline's head pops through the brier bush and licks Bambi's cheek and Bambi grimaces. I had to sit on that stool and do that - over and over."
Later, he went into a cubicle and spoke the lines. He didn't know the story and hadn't seen a script, but was told what emotions to recreate, with an emphasis always on naturalness. "I loved it," he says.
In fact, Disney Studios were "not boring." They had the best cafeteria and "great ice cream." The atmosphere was friendly and encouraging. "Other studios were stilted and artificial and people were not nice to each other. This was never the case at Disney."
Bambi was conceived as a film project in 1937 and finished in 1941. "It was the last that Walt Disney did. After that he concentrated on war work, propaganda and training films." It would prove to be Donnie's last, also. "My parents were not good at handling all that money and the family ruptured," he says. It is a painful memory.
And so the voice of Bambi went silent, just at the moment when a child star was about to be born.