When I was a boy, my regular Saturday babysitter was the Haverford movie theater across North 60th Street from my father’s West Philadelphia radio repair shop. (There was one TV in the store, a small-screen test model that none of the family paid attention to. I asked Dad what it was. He said, “It’s a radio, except you see the people talking.”)
This was a long, long time ago, so far back that movie lobbies didn’t sell popcorn yet. I settled for Juicy Fruit, kind of a prequel to gummy bears: yellow, orange and red drops shaped like fruit. They also came in black and green, the latter suspiciously resembling peas in a pod. Those flavors made me gag, so I’d hold them up to the movie screen. If they blocked light or were spinach-color, they got tossed on the floor. (Belated apologies to the ushers!) One Christmas, Hollywood reissued a green-tinted version of Frankenstein, but thanks to my one-eyed juicy Fruit telescope, I already had a pretty good idea of what it would look like.
I’m rambling towards a point, but first I want to recapture (for myself, at least) what it was like going to movies during the era of Captain Marvel (he of the Shazam!), I Love a Mystery and Spy Smasher. Saturday “kiddie” matinees (I hated that grownup-coined expression!) always included a cartoon, a short comedy (Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Behind the 8-Ball or a Pete Smith Specialty, in order of likelihood and preference) and a double feature.
My cinematic sophistication started early on. Almost from the first, I fidgeted through endless rubber-stamped westerns that were filmed in front of the same recognizable rocks, impatiently waiting for the high point of the show, the horror film. Grownups claimed these were supposed to be bad for children because “they give kids nightmares.”
Not this kid.
This was World War II, remember. The things that frightened me I heard on the radio or had to listen to my father read from The Evening Bulletin each night at the dinner table. (To this day, I equate newspapers with knots in my stomach.) When you’re worried that your uncles might not come back alive from Germany or the Pacific, the hackles raised by werewolves, ghosts or walking mummies are merely diversions. The movies that I watched back then did not give me nightmares.
With one exception.
There was one film that upset me so badly, it left permanent emotional scars. Ironically, it was not one of the badmouthed Saturday “monster” movies I loved, but a film that critics recommended so enthusiastically for children that I was taken to it as a “special treat.”
I am referring to Walt Disney’s Bambi.
Sometimes I employ puckish humor in this column, but I am being perfectly serious now. This is pay-back time - I will never forgive Walt Disney for the death of Bambi’s mother. Nor am I unique in nurturing deep-seated anger against this animated feature. When I mention Bambi during panel discussions at science-fantasy conventions, many of my colleagues and fans nod their heads in vigorous agreement. Stephen King has cited Bambi’s mother’s death as one of the cruelest moments in cinematic history, though he remembered it as taking place during the climactic forest fire, which is not correct; it occurs much earlier in the film.
The rage I am expressing is not the institutional Disney-bashing epitomized by Richard Shickele’s engrossingly mean-spirited book, The Disney Version. As a child, I loved Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and adored the ineffably magical Pinocchio, even though each contains transformation scenes, queen into witch and Lampwick into jackass, that are disturbing on more levels than any lycanthropic or vampiric shape-change I’d ever seen, but that’s a different topic. The point is, we trusted Disney to tell us spellbinding stories that, no matter how frightening, always ended happily.
Bambi was a betrayal. I couldn’t deal with it. Decades later, I realize I shouldn’t have had to try.
It’s no use pointing out that Felix Salten’s book depicts the seasons of life, its births, deaths, changes and renewals, and Disney was just being faithful to the material he adapted. This argument doesn’t hold water, and not just because the version of Nature shown in Bambi is thoroughly anthropomorphized (Disney’s later “true adventure” films were criticized for this same tendency).
The mother’s death devastates impressionable children because of how Disney chose to structure events leading up to and following it.
The 69-minute film opens with the birth of the baby Bambi. The prevailing mood is peaceful, yet a few menacing images are introduced early. An oversized head of an owl looks predatory. A turbulent storm has rain drops that are at first frightening. The most unsettling element is the way Bambi’s father is depicted: remote, distant, coldly aloof. Young Bambi’s security clearly rests, solidly and solely, with his mother.
The second sequence of scenes is composed of a carefully orchestrated series of moments that alternate between joy and apprehension. Discovering the great meadow for the first time, the young deer wants to rush out of the forest into this enchanting environment, but his mother warns him to “be very careful.” She ventures into the potentially dangerous place first, telling Bambi that “if the meadow’s safe, I’ll call you.” Soon, Bambi is allowed to romp onto the lea, where he has a grand old time frolicking with cute birds and rabbits, though a warning note is sounded by the frogs he meets as they croak, “Watch out! Watch out!” Bambi meets Felice, the doe he will someday mate with, but this gently amusing scene is supplanted by the raucous appearance of stags who romp and fight while Bambi’s father watches with his customary aloofness.
Suddenly, the stags sense danger. “Man is in the forest.” Stabbing cries of crows and an agitato triplet motif that suggests that Bambi lurked in Bernard Herrmann’s subconscious when he composed the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The animals run towards the safety of the forest, but Bambi becomes separated from his mother. The music and the bird cries accelerate. Bambi hides. When the danger passes, his mother finds him and says, “Come on out, Bambi. Come on. It’s safe. We don’t have to hide any longer.” Thus Disney again reminds each child that this child-deer with whom they are identifying depends squarely on his mother for well-being and safety.
A brief transition from autumn to winter ushers in the film’s happiest comic moments as Bambi bonds with his insouciant rabbit friend Thumper and the winsome skunk Flower. Yet even this sequence closes bleakly as the hungry Bambi murmurs how long winter is. His ever-protectful mother reassures him that “it won’t last forever.” This premonitory sentiment leads directly to the sequence in which she is shot to death by hunters, a scene deliberately patterned on the earlier meadow sequence, in which Disney programmed his audience to expect both deers to survive.
It is spring. Bambi’s hungry mother ventures into the meadow with her child. As before, sudden danger is signaled by menacing triplets. The deers, sensing the nearness of hunters, bound off in the direction of the woods. Gunshots ring out. Bambi’s mother urges her son to “Keep running!”
Bambi runs into the forest, panting “We made it! We made it, Mother! … Mother?” But his mother does not reappear. Bambi roams forlornly through the woods calling for her, his voice echoing eerily. No friendly animals come to comfort him. He is totally lost and alone. The forest grows darker. Snow falls. Bambi begins to cry. His father appears and says calmly, without any trace of emotion or tenderness, “Your mother can’t be with you any more.” Bambi follows him, looking very small. The snow comes down faster and faster. Bambi casts one sad backward look. The snow thickens. The screen goes dark …
And now comes the cruelest scene of all, the moment that traumatized me, and I suspect a whole generation of American children: Springtime. The forest animals break into a chorus of “fa la las”, a song that Leonard Maltin’s book The Disney Films calls “Twitterpated.” This musical number is surely intended to brighten the mood, and to be fair to Disney, the scene supposedly takes place months after the mother’s death, but 1940’s kids were totally “un-savvy” to cinematic time compression; television had not yet begun its constant bombardment of reruns and instant replays. Thus, when I first saw this “twit- twittery” scene, like Hamlet, grief-stricken because his father’s memory is so soon forgotten, I was horrified at the coldhearted rejoicing that in real time, remember, happens IMMEDIATELY after Bambi’s mother (my mother!) dies.
To this little boy’s mind, it was an epiphany of hideous insensitivity.
A friend gave me a videotape copy of Bambi as a gift, but for a long time I refused to watch it again. When I finally did, I wanted to see whether I’d overreacted as a child, but I did not. Though Disney didn’t know it (and should have!), the death of Bambi’s mother and the ensuing “happy” song scene, employ techniques of psychological manipulation that a professional horror writer knows all about.
The circumstance that, many years ago, spurred me to replay and study Bambi to see why it gave me nightmares was the appearance of the Disney animated feature, The Lion King, whose plot depends on the death of a parent. One film critic labeled The Lion King “a Bambi for the 1990s.” Now granted, today’s children are much more conversant with film - and tragically - real violence, but on that basis, I still wouldn’t have taken my own daughter to The Lion King, and I never did, nor have I ever seen that film.
Critics, after all, are grownups … and who trusts people who invented the word “kiddies”?