COVER STORY: Tears of a fawn

His legs were wobbly. And so were yours as you were carted sobbing from the cinema in mother's arms. But at least you still had your mum. `Bambi' was close to Walt Disney's heart and, as Kevin Jackson reveals, was deliberately conceived as his masterpiece. So why was it a flop?

Not everyone loves Bambi, or even Bambi. In March 2002, an irate citizen of Slovenia, who had presumably just encountered Disney's immortal, spindly-legged, liquid-eyed fawn for the very first time on video, posted on the internet a long and heavily capitalised screed against the film under the heading "A Horrible Experience": "If you're a kid reading this, a word of caution - DONT WATCH BAMBI UNTIL YOURE OLD ENOUGH TO HANDLE REALLY REALLY DEPRESSING SCENES, and what's the point of that unless you've got a suicidal tendency ... there should be a label on this one, like the ones for explicit lyrics. It should say `watch this before killing self only'..."

Harsh words for an acknowledged children's classic - a film generally said by Disney lovers to be one of the four or five greatest jewels in the tiara of the studio's animated Golden Age of the late 1930s and early 1940s, sparkling brightly alongside Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo and perhaps (if you like that kind of thing) Fantasia. Curious words, too, since Disneyphobes generally accuse productions like Bambi not of Dostoevskyan gloom but of - among other crimes against taste - flagrant sentimentality, sickly- sweet affirmations of small-town, small-c conservatism, and general cutesy- pie anthropomorphism. Unlike the brilliant Warner Bros cartoons, with their bracingly heartless cocktails of anarchy, wildly inventive pop-surrealism and good old-fashioned mayhem, Disney's creations always had a fatal tendency towards the soppy, the sappy and the syrupy.

Still, this charge of "depressing" is hardly novel. Mr Angry of Ljubljana is just one of thousands, possibly millions of unwitting viewers who have assumed Bambi to be a charming tale of a gangling baby deer and his flopsy bunny pal - which, in parts, it surely is - only to find themselves or their toddlers sobbing uncontrollably when his poor mother is murdered, or screaming and scared witless by the forest fire which threatens to destroy the animals' Arcadia. There are no exact figures for the number of tykes who have been led blubbing from the cinema during screenings of the film, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the figure must be truly whopping.

In fact, Bambi has quite often been judged as unsuitable fare for the young even by those parents willing to concede that Disney was generally on the right lines in intuitively following the wisdom of the Grimm Brothers, and believing that tales for the very young ought not altogether to hide the fact that the world they are entering can be a place of terror and pain. The very same audiences who had cheerfully put up with the terrors of the Wicked Witch in Snow White, who had endured the wrench of Dumbo's forced separation from his mother, and who had paid up handsomely at the box office for the experience, finally called it a day when wee Bambi was suddenly orphaned by a hunter's rifle. The film flopped. It grossed just $1.23m at the domestic box office, against a production budget of well over $2m. (Mr Angry might not be suprised to learn that one of Bambi's creative team did commit suicide: Frank Churchill, the composer, in 1942, just a few months before its premiere.)

It was partly a question of national morale: by the time Bambi was eventually released, in the late summer of that year, picturegoers in the United States were in desperate need of good cheer, not a fable of bereavement and irrevocable loss. The film only began to gather funds - and genuine popular appreciation - on its first re-release five years later, by which time victorious and wealthy America was in a much more robust mood, and liberated Europe was hungry for all the glorious Technicolor products they had been missing in the duration. The "classic" status of Bambi has its origins in that 1947 revival.

This abbreviated production history prompts at least two questions: why and how did the film come to be so dark? And why did elite opinion eventually prevail over initial popular scepticism to establish Bambi as a high-water mark of Disney animations? The best answers are to be found in the character and circumstances of the man who - not forgetting the production-line nature of their making - can none the less be seen as their true creator: Walter Elias Disney himself.

Disney was always a troubled, difficult man, and he brought Bambi to the screen in troubled times for his studio as well as for the larger world. Critics who like to seek biographical parallels between life and work seize excitedly on the fact that Walt's own mother, Flora, died on 26 November 1938, while Bambi was in pre-production, and that his father Elias followed her to the grave just three years later, as the film was nearing completion. Disney was overcome with grief and remorse at his mother's death, and locked himself away in his office for ages, refusing to speak to anyone about the subject. Flora's death was strictly unmentionable from that point on; and Walt's first executive decision when he came out of silent mourning and returned to work was a strange one - he told the team working on Pinocchio to destroy all the footage that mentioned the puppet-maker Geppetto's wife, and to recraft the story so that Geppetto became an old bachelor.

These are murky waters, and it is well to remember that Disney had commissioned work on Bambi as early as 1937, or 1936, or 1935 - accounts vary, but all put the starting date well before his mother's death. What does bear remarking is the fate or condition of mothers in the four narrative features: absent in Snow White, censored from Pinocchio, abducted in Dumbo and killed in Bambi.

All fairy stories and folk tales, Bettelheim tells us, play out the conflicting emotions that children feel for their parents; it is - to say the least - notable that four out of the four initial Disney fables should be tales of orphanhood. Did Walt always feel like a motherless child? It's certain that he frequently felt lonely, and persecuted, and it was usually as a result of his single-mindedness and rage.

The rise of the Disney Empire, like the post-war rise of the United States, now seems so historically inevitable that it comes as a great surprise to many to discover just how often the whole enterprise almost fell apart. The early years of Disney's gradual ascent were repeatedly marred by poor business decisions, damaging feuds, defections and at least one really collossal swindle by a shyster called Pat Powers; any one of these might have wiped out a less determined or far-sighted man. Every time Disney scored a new triumph, it seemed, nemesis came thundering down; every time he hatched a visionary new project, the accountants, bankers and other bean-counters were there to tell him he was committing financial suicide.

They told him, for example, that Snow White was going to be so expensive and so unprofitable that it would kill the studio stone dead. Walt fought them with every gift he had, of which the greatest was showmanship. On one occasion, he brought a group of investors in, showed them the bits and bobs of rough footage in progress, and plugged all the gaps as they went along, providing the storyline and acting out each and every character with such verve and energy that everyone who saw the display said that it deserved a fistful of Academy Awards. Walt wasn't a very profound or reflective man, and his taste was generally - as it had to be - plebeian, but no one who saw him in this possessed mode could walk away without the awed conviction that they had just been in the presence of genius. Snow White went ahead, premiered in December 1937, and grossed the then mind-bending sum of $8.5m on its first run alone. Not that Disney's workers saw much direct benefit from the profits.

Disney was a notorious tightwad, which is not the same as a greedy or corrupt man. Apart from the horrible little dark cigarettes he chain-smoked, and which eventually did for him, he was a man of remarkably few vices. Compared to the other studio bosses, for example, who took full advantage of the regiments of hopeful, well-upholstered young women who came in search of stardom, Walt was as chaste as Savonarola. (Nor did he tolerate hanky-panky in others. He spurned his one-time friend Spencer Tracy when the married actor took up with Katharine Hepburn.) What he most liked to do with his money was plough it back into production - not, Heaven forfend, by paying his hugely gifted team so much as a dime more in wages, but by making Disney products bigger and better, year by year. Even those who query Disney's claim to being an artist must concede that his lust for perfection owed more to plain, old-fashioned artistic ambition than to Mammonism. Which is one reason why the thrillingly profitable Snow White was followed by three elegant box-office duds: Pinocchio, Fantasia... and Bambi.

There are other reasons, too. Bambi is not usually classed as a war film, but it was a film made in time of the approach and then the hideous reality of war. It was adapted by the screenwriter Larry Morey from a novel published in 1926 by the Viennese writer Felix Salten - Bambi, ein Leben im Walde ("Bambi, A Life in the Woods"). The screen rights had already been bought by another producer, Sidney A Franklin, who graciously yielded them to Disney, and so won himself a fulsome credit at the beginning of the film which baffles some keen-eyed viewers to this day. The inital plan was that Bambi would follow Snow White as the second major Disney feature, but it rapidly ran into so many technical problems that other projects were brought forward and Bambi was kept ticking over with little more than a skeleton crew.

Meanwhile, the sense of triumph that came in the wake of Snow White proved predictably short-lived. Walt and his brother spent $3.8m on building a splendid new production complex to take over from the (by now impossibly cramped) facility on Hyperion Avenue. The great move took place in 1940, by which time it was clear that war had put paid to the so-called "foreign" market which accounted for 45 per cent of Disney's total revenues. The banks did what banks tend to do in such circumstances, and closed down the company's credit lines. There was only one way out of the jam: to float the company on the stock exchange. It worked, but at horrible psychological cost for Walt, who felt that his life's creation had been stolen from him and talked darkly of quitting the business, or worse.

It may have been his sheer pig-headedness that saved him from suicide, because the bank crisis was rapidly followed by a still more bitter internal crisis. Disney's staff, justifiably angered by his quasi-feudal conduct of business - he would pay people according to how much he liked them, rather than on grounds of seniority, productivity or responsibility - took the first steps towards unionising. It sent Walt blind with anger, since he regarded unions of any kind as a bunch of Commie scumbags; it was in the course of these years that his fairly good-natured temperamental conservatism rapidly curdled, and turned him into the grimly reactionary anti-semitic, anti-black, anti-gay autocrat of recent legend.

The strike began on 29 May, 1941 and lasted for nine weeks. Subtle political forces were at work in the background, since plenty of influential people favoured the growth of unions and regarded Disney as something of an embarrassment. So Nelson Rockefeller soothed Disney's feathers by slipping him $70,000 to go off on a tour of South American countries, to bolster the government's "Good Neighbor" policy of calming an ominous wave of sympathy for Nazi Germany in that region, and winning friends for Uncle Sam. By the time Walt returned, the strike had been formally settled, and he had to kow- tow to assorted reforms. (He did also go on to make a series of influential propaganda films for the Hispanophone market, so Rockefeller's money was doubly well spent.)

His resentment lasted for years, and his sense of being persecuted and bossed about by Government deepened when America entered the war. On the day after the Pearl Harbour attacks, the US Army moved into the Disney complex and turned a large chunk of it into an anti-aircraft unit, ready for air attack by the Japanese. The attack never came, but the unit stayed in place, to Walt's fury, for seven months. No other studio, he liked to point out, had suffered a comparable inconvenience.

Against this tumultuous background of debt, stock-market flotation, strikes, governmental meddling, international diplomacy and war, the Bambi unit kept patiently at work. Walt's attitude to their labours was, you could say, God-like: nowhere visible, everywhere present. By this stage of his career, Disney was no longer drawing very much, nor writing anything longer than the odd scene or line, and he had even given up providing the distinctive falsetto voice for Mickey Mouse, partly because his smoking had driven his vocal cords irreversibly bass-wards. So what exactly, as a small child once had the guts to ask, did Uncle Walt actually do? Walt's answer: "I pollinate" - meaning that he would drift from department to department, offering a fresh idea or two, a hint there, a phrase there.

It was a fair enough description in its way, though it left out the element of semi-benign tyranny and the mood of fear. Some employees admitted that they were grateful for Walt's excessive smoking, since his trademark hacking sound as he walked the corridors acted as an efficient early warning system. Run, hide or look busy.

Bambi's mode of production was as unusual as its overall brief. Where the standard practice in earlier days had been to assign a particular character to a given animator, the narrative of Bambi was broken down into sequences and scenes, and each one given to a team. The four principal team heads were old Disney hands - Franklin Thomas, Milton Kahl, Eric Larson and Oliver Johnson - but Disney was asking them to do something quite new. It boiled down to this: the background world of Bambi was to be real - as accurate in line and shape and colour as if the whole thing were being photographed rather than drawn. And though some of the cuter animals, such as Thumper the Rabbit, were allowed to drift back towards the classic circular shape of earlier Disney, on the whole the creatures were to look as much like their real-life counterparts as possible.

Disney set up what amounted to a miniature zoo within the studio, so that his illustrators could examine the shape and movement of animals at close quarters. The Maine Development Commission, scenting a possible cash-in, sent two four-month-old fawns to the zoo - Bambi and Faline. (When fully grown, the creatures were set free in Griffith Park.) But after a while, the pampered and increasingly pudgy quadrupeds stopped behaving like wild animals and started acting like dozy pets, so Disney despatched a camera crew for a seven-month trip to the Katahdin region of the Maine Woods, with instructions to shoot extensive colour footage of everything in sight - not just animals, but trees, grasses, ponds, rivers, cloudscapes and even mud. When you look at the backgounds in Bambi, you are really looking at Maine - although some aspects of the forest were fortuitously inspired by Disney's trip to Neuquen province, in Argentina, as part of his "Good Neighbors" tour.

By the time of its completion, Bambi had cost the studio well over $2m dollars. The world premiere was originally planned for the modest Lincoln Theatre in Damariscotta, Maine - a charming town once described by the poet Allen Ginsberg as "honky Nirvana" - by way of thank-you to Maurice Day, the Damariscotta-born Disney employee who had first brought the novel to Walt's attention. (A personal note: I am delighted to report that this cinema still thrives, a lonely High Street survivor in the age of multiplexes and malls. I watched Supersize Me there last September.) But the state of Maine objected, since it had now been put on the alert that Bambi's mum is shot, and so feared that the local hunting fraternity would be offended. So Disney re-scheduled the premiere for 30 July 1942 at Radio City Music Hall - a gala that itself had to be postponed thanks to the runaway success of Mrs Miniver at the venue.

Reviews were more favourable than otherwise, though it was the negative ones which seemed to capture the prevailing audience opinion. Bambi - as Mr Angry of Slovenia discovered for himself 60 years later - was just too depressing.

As several film historians have noted, Bambi marked the end of an era. There would be no more full-length animated features from Disney for eight years, until Cinderella in 1950, unless you count a very strange production entitled Victory Through Air Power, in which Goofy was called up to demonstrate the benefits of bombing campaigns directed against civilian targets. Walt, who had a bee in his bonnet about such matters, financed that oddity from his own pocket. It would not be until The Lion King that the studio would again tackle "realistic" animals in their own kingdom; and by that time, Walt was long dead - or, if you believe the rumours, frozen somewhere in cryogenic suspension, awaiting his rebirth and cure from lung cancer: a Waltsicle.

Walter Benjamin once suggested that, in the modern era, the best definition of a masterpiece is that it should either create a genre or bring one to a close. Bambi certainly did the latter - never again would the Disney animators strive to achieve the particular mode of intense "naturalism" which their chief demanded of the film. As to the former: every historian of the Disney studios agrees that the influence of Bambi would tell most deeply not in the sphere of animation, but in the hugely profitable series of wildlife films that the company went on to make in the 1950s and after, for which wildlife footage was cunningly rendered into cute anthropomorphic yarns. The convention survives to this day, in all but the most solemn nature documentaries. This is, no doubt, a regrettable legacy. But if we bow to Benjamin's definition of the term, we will have to concede that Disney's REALLY REALLY DEPRESSING tale of a sprightly fawn is, truly, a masterpiece. m

`Bambi' is released on DVD on 13 February. This two-disc edition includes deleted scenes, script notes, a making-of-the-film documentary and stills of the original artwork

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