Sunday, March 24, 2013

It Happened in the Forest

I think the most terrifying moment of my childhood occurred when, at age 4, I was seated in a movie theater watching Bambi with my mother when, without warning, a shot rang out and Bambi’s mother fell dead to the ground, a victim of a hunter’s bullet. Up until that instant, I had been entertained by a light-hearted cartoon. Suddenly, like Bambi, I was thrust into a coming of age moment.

The thought of losing one’s mother to a violent death would probably traumatize most young children. It has always seemed incongruous to me, Walt Disney, a man who built an empire on children’s tales, would pen such frightening fare for impressionable young minds. Turns out, he didn't.

Disney was a master of appropriating other writers’ creations and branding them with the Disney stamp. Cinderella (written by Charles Perrault in 1697), Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi, 1883), The Little Mermaid (Hans Christian Andersen, 1837), Beauty and the Beast (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, 1740), The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling, 1894), 101 Dalmatians (Dodie Smith, 1956), Mary Poppins (P.L. Travers, 1934), Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie, 1902), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (The Brothers Grim – Wilhelm and Jacob – 1812). In fact, when you strip away all the authors responsible for much of the “Walt Disney’s (fill-in-the-blank)” empire, there’s barely enough original creativity left for the rats… ahem, a mouse.

Bambi – from the Italian word “Bambino” (baby) – is indeed a coming of age film, tracing the deer’s life from birth through adulthood. The tale was written by Felix Salteen, whose own Bildungsroman is worthy of novelization. Born Siegmund Salzmann, Salteen was an impoverished Hungarian Jew who moved to Vienna, Austria and became a self-taught writer, journalist, and theater critic. He began by writing letters to newspapers and short stories. That led to a job writing obituaries, which he did with such passion, he soon made a name for himself. Salteen became prominent in Vienna’s Jewish literary scene and coffeehouse culture. In 1923, he wrote Bambi: A Life in the Woods.

Most people associate Walt Disney with Bambi; few recognize Felix Salteen for his creation. As a writer – and a creator – I find that sad, and rather unfair.

Salteen fled Austria when the Nazis arrived in 1938. The Third Reich had banned Bambi in 1936. Six years later, Disney brought the story to the big screen. I doubt Salteen, who had sold his rights to the story in 1933, ever saw a dime from the movie. He died, three years after its release.

Felix Salteen wrote another novel the same year he wrote Bambi; The Hound of Florence, about a man who changes into a dog every other day. But then, you've probably seen it… as Walt Disney’s The Shaggy Dog.

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