He Never Saw His Mother Again

I realized yet again that my education is deficient. I am not well versed in classic children’s literature. I was surprised when, many years after seeing the movie, I learned that Walt Disney had not created the character Pinocchio for the 1940 eponymous film, but instead that the marionette had been the inspiration of the Italian Carlo Collodi (the pen name of Carlo Lorenzini) who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio in the 1880s. I did know that the movie The Wizard of Oz was based on a book by L. Frank Baum, but I was surprised to learn decades after first seeing the movie that there was not just one Oz book, but a series of more than a dozen.

Perhaps having realized about such gaps in my learning I should not have been surprised to find out about another similar one. The other day I was reading Laura by Vera Caspary, first serialized in Collier’s in 1942 and published in book form the next year. (I was familiar with Laura from the outstanding film made of it in 1944 directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb, but I was surprised to learn that before the movie was made, the book had been adapted into a play that ran in London and New York.) Early in the book, the wonderfully named Waldo Lydecker describes first meeting Laura Hunt at his apartment door and says she seemed as though “Bambi—or Bambi’s doe—had escaped from the forest and galloped up the eighteen flights to this apartment.” I did not think a note was needed for this reference (I read Laura in a collection entitled Women Crime Writers: Suspense Novels of the 1940s and the editor, Sarah Weinman, explains some allusions in the books that might escape the modern reader), but there was one that told me that Bambi was the “deer fawn who is the protagonist of Felix Salten’s novel, published in 1928. Walt Disney’s animated feature was released in August 1942.” And I found myself surprised that the movie Bambi was based on a novel. I had not known that.

That novel was Bambi: A Life in the Woods, or that was its title in the English version first published in the United States in 1928. The author was the Austrian Felix Salten, and the book was published in Austria as Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschicthe aus Dem Walde in 1923 after having been serialized in a Viennese magazine. Salten was after an adult audience, and in the U.S., Bambi was a Book-of-the-Month selection selling more than a half-million copies by the time Disney made the movie. It was praised in a forward by John Galsworthy, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years later. Galsworthy said it “is a delicious book . . . not only for children but for those who are no longer so fortunate. . . . Felix Salten is a poet. He feels nature deeply. . . . Clear and illuminating, and in places very moving, it is a little masterpiece.”

(Not surprisingly, while the movie follows the basic plot of the book, Disney wanted the film to be lighter than the often dark original, and Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk were added to the animation. Thus, Thumper’s most famous, ungrammatical, oft repeated, and widely parodied line—“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”—is not in the book. I don’t know who, if any, of the seven listed for the movie’s story direction, story adaptation, and story development should get credit for Thumper’s frequently-ignored wisdom. On the other hand, the movie Laura is quite faithful in almost every detail to the novel Laura.)

Not only was I surprised that there was a Bambi novel before there was a Bambi movie, I was surprised by a few things about the book’s author. Bambi: A Life in the Woods, sometimes seen as one of the earliest environmental novels, has been widely regarded, for good reasons, as a strong statement against hunting. Paradoxically, Felix Salten was an avid hunter. Second, even though Salten wrote the book as adult fiction, it almost immediately became beloved by children. It seems ironic then that today it is generally accepted that he was also the author of the book published in 1906 under a pseudonym, titled in English Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself. This book has been in print in both English and German since its first publication and has sold over three million copies. The “memoir” can be considered part of the canon of erotic literature and graphically portrays, largely without a plot, many, many sexual acts of all sorts, although I am glad to report no deer participate in the flagitious activities. (I asked my young Austrian friend whether she knew that Bambi was Austrian. She was not familiar with the book. When I said that author Salten was also thought to be the author of an erotic book “Josephine Something-or-Other,” she immediately said “Josephine Mutzenbacher.” And again, I thought that I should find more reasons to hang out with her.)

(Concluded November 15.)