“Bambi” Is Even Darker Than You Thought


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It is one of the most famous murders in the history of cinema. A mother and child take a walk on the first warm day after a harsh winter. Seduced by the changing weather, we do not see the danger coming. In fact, we never see him at all, because the man with the gun remains out of sight. We only see the mother’s sudden alarm; her panicked attempt to get her child to safety; their separation in the chaos of the moment; and then the child, out in the cold as the snow begins to fall again, alone and crying for his mother.

The movie in question is, of course, the 1942 Walt Disney classic “Bambi.” Perhaps more than any other film made for children, it is best remembered for its moments of terror: not only the murder of the hero’s mother but the forest fire that threatens all the main characters with annihilation. Stephen King called ‘Bambi’ the first horror movie he had ever seen, and Pauline Kael, a longtime film critic for that magazine, said she had never seen children so scared of them. supposedly scary adult films as they were by “Bambi”.

Unlike many other Disney classics, from “Cinderella” to “Frozen,” this Fright Fest isn’t based on a fairy tale. It was adapted from “Bambi: A Life in the Woods,” a 1922 novel by Austro-Hungarian writer and critic Felix Salten. The book made Salten famous; the film, which altered and eclipsed his source material, rendered him virtually unknown. And it also made the original “Bambi” obscure, even though it had already been both widely acclaimed and passionately reviled. The English version, as translated in 1928 by future Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers, was hugely popular, earning rave reviews and selling six hundred and fifty thousand copies in the dozen years before the film was released. The original version, meanwhile, was banned and burned in Nazi Germany, where it was seen as a parable about the treatment of Jews in Europe.

As it suggests, “Bambi” the book is even darker than “Bambi” the movie. Until now, English-language readers have had to rely on Chambers’ translation, which, thanks to a controversial copyright ruling, is the only one available for nearly a century. This year, however, “Bambi: A Life in the Woods” entered the public domain, and the Chambers version was joined by a short story: “The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest” (Princeton), translated by Jack Zipes, with beautiful black and white illustrations by Alenka Sottler. Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, who has also translated the Grimms’ fairy tales, argues in his introduction that Chambers got “Bambi” wrong almost as much as Disney. Which begs two questions: how exactly did a tale about a fawn’s life become so controversial, and what is it really about?

Felix Salten was an unlikely character to write “Bambi”, as he was an ardent hunter who, by his own estimate, shot and killed over two hundred deer. He was also unlikely to write a parable about Jewish persecution, since even after the book burnings he promoted a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. And he was an unlikely character to write one of the most famous children’s stories of the 20th century, since he wrote one of his most infamous works of child pornography.

These contradictions are well summed up by Beverley Driver Eddy in her biography “Felix Salten: Man of Many Faces”. Born Siegmund Salzmann in Hungary in 1869, Salten was just three weeks old when his family moved to Vienna, a new popular destination for Jews, as Austria had recently granted them full citizenship. His father was a descendant of generations of rabbis who shed his religious roots in favor of a broad-minded humanism; he was also a hopelessly incompetent businessman who quickly plunged the family into misery. To help pay the bills, Salten began working for an insurance company as a teenager, around the same time he began submitting poetry and literary reviews to local newspapers and journals. Eventually, he started meeting other writers and creators in a café called the Griensteidl, opposite the national theatre. These were the fin-de-siècle artists collectively known as Young Vienna, whose members included Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schoenberg, Stefan Zweig and a writer who later repudiated the group, Karl Kraus.

Salten was, in his youth, both literally and literally promiscuous. He openly conducted many affairs – with maids, operetta singers, actresses, a prominent socialist activist and, serially or simultaneously, several women with whom other members of Young Vienna also had affairs. alliances. In time he married and settled down, but all his life he wrote everything he could be paid to write: book reviews, theater reviews, art reviews, essays , plays, poems, novels, a book-length advertisement for a disguised carpet company. as reportage, travel guides, booklets, forewords, afterwords, film scripts. Its detractors considered this torrent evidence of piracy, but it was more directly evidence of necessity; almost alone among the members of Young Vienna, he was driven by the need to earn a living.

Yet, like his father, Salten could be reckless with money. Anxious to look like an insider, he insisted on eating, drinking, dressing and traveling in the manner of his wealthier peers, with the result that he constantly racked up debts, some of which he dispatched in dubious ways – for example, “borrowing” some and then selling a friend’s expensive books. And he might also be reckless in other ways. Prone to be touchy, either by temperament or because he felt the need to prove himself , he spent much of his young life fomenting disputes (he once walked into the Griensteidl and slapped Kraus in the face after the latter criticized him in the press), then resolving them through lawsuits or His personal judgment and critical judgment could be impulsive and errant, and in his thirties he borrowed prodigiously to produce a modernist cabaret, of the kind that was all the rage in Berlin, only to see it become a critical and financial disaster.

The production that earned Salten the most infamy, however, did not bear his name: “Josefine Mutzenbacher; or, The story of a Viennese whore, told by herself. Published anonymously in Vienna in 1906, it has been printed continuously since then, in German and English, and has sold approximately three million copies. Despite the subtitle, no one seems to have ever considered the possibility that it was written by a prostitute, or even by a woman. During Salten’s lifetime, almost everyone thought he had written it, except those who loved him too much to believe he could produce something so dirty and those who hated him too much to believe he could. produce something so well written. Salten himself has twice claimed not to be responsible for it, but has otherwise been silent or coy about it. Nowadays, everyone from academics to the Austrian government considers him the undisputed author of the book.

Written in the tradition of bawdy women’s memoirs, a la Fanny Hill, “Josefine Mutzenbacher” recounts the sexual adventures of the main character beginning when she was five years old and continuing after her transition to prostitution in her early teens. after the death of his mother. Today, what shocks the most in the book is Josefine’s youth. At the time, however, most of the scandal was about her unabashed embrace of her career, which she enjoyed and credited with both lifting her out of poverty, educating her and introducing her to a good world. larger than the poor suburb of Vienna where she (like Salten) grew up.

“We repeated this conversation many times in my head – don’t go out of script.”
Cartoon by Sarah Akinterinwa

Perhaps inevitably, scholars have tried to draw parallels between “Josefine Mutzenbacher” and “Bambi.” The two main characters lose their mother while still in their youth; both books introduce readers in detail to the urban frontiers – the poor suburbs, the flophouses, the forests – of which most decent Viennese were largely unaware. Yet for the most part, these comparisons seem strained. “Josefine Mutzenbacher” occupies roughly the same place in Salten’s work as her homage to carpets: the one that lies at the crossroads of ambition, graphomania and scarcity.

But the place of “Bambi” is different. If there’s a straight line in Salten’s scattered career, it’s his interest in writing about animals, which was evident from his first published work of fiction, “The Wanderer,” a short story about the adventures of a dachshund, written when he was twenty-one. Many other non-human protagonists followed, most of them unfortunate: a sparrow who dies in battle, a fly who throws herself to death against a window pane. Salten’s novel “The Dog of Florence” concerns a young Austrian destined to spend every other day of his life as the Archduke’s dog; in the end, he is stabbed to death, in his dog form, while trying to protect a courtesan he loves from being attacked. (In an even more drastic transformation than “Bambi” underwent, that story became, in Disney’s hands, “The Shaggy Dog.”) “Fifteen Rabbits” features, at the start, fifteen rabbits, who debate nature of God and the reason for their own persecution as their numbers gradually dwindle. “Renni the Rescuer,” about a German Shepherd trained as a fighting animal, features a carrier pigeon traumatized by his wartime service. And then, of course, there’s “Bambi” – which, like those other stories, wasn’t particularly kid-friendly, until Disney adapted it to the bill.

If you haven’t seen Disney’s version of “Bambi” since you were eight, here’s a quick recap: The title character was born one spring to an unnamed mother and a distant but beautifully wooded father. He befriends an enthusiastic young rabbit, Thumper; a mild-tempered skunk, Flower; and a female fawn named Faline. After his mother dies the following spring, he and Faline fall in love, but their relationship is tested by a rival deer, a pack of hunting dogs, and, finally, a forest fire. Having triumphed over the three, Bambi fathers a pair of fawns; at the end of the film, the hero, like his father before him, watches over his family from a distant rock.

“Bambi” didn’t particularly do well on its first release. It was hampered in part by audience participation, which was declining due to World War II, and in part by public expectations, since, unlike previous Disney productions, it featured no magic or Mickey. Over time, however, “Bambi,” which was Walt’s favorite movie, became one of the most popular movies in the history of the industry. In the four decades since its release, it has grossed forty-seven million dollars, more than ten times the loot of “Casablanca”, released the same year. Perhaps most notably, it also achieved a dominant position in the canon of American nature tales. In the words of environmental historian Ralph Lutts, “It’s hard to pinpoint one movie, story, or animal character that has had a greater influence on our view of wildlife.”

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