When Walt Disney told his artists to model Bambi on a California mule deer, Jake Day insisted the real Bambi had to come from Maine.
Edmund Ware Smith’s stories of the outdoors often featured Jake Day and a band of friends back home. They called themselves ‘Jake’s Rangers. Day illustrated Ware’s books, as well as books by Henry Beston and articles in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. He also worked as an editorial cartoonist for the Maine Sunday Telegram before joining Disney’s studio in California.
Disney had obtained the film rights to the timeless story of a young deer’s coming of age. It was originally a novel, Bambi, A Life in the Woods, written in 1923 by Viennese author Felix Salten. Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet spy, translated the book into English. (Chambers famously testified against Alger Hiss in his perjury trial, compared with the Salem witch trials.)
The book is considered one of the first environmental novels. The Library of Congress placed Bambi on its National Film Registry because of its eloquent message of nature conservation.
Bambi, The Deer
The Bambi who appeared in the novel was a roe deer who lived in a European forest. But roe deer don’t live in the North American wilds. So Disney decided to use a mule deer from Arrowhead, Calif., as a model for Bambi.
Jake Day would have none of it.
To get the right deer and the right forests, Disney would have to go to Maine, he said, and find a white-tailed deer.
Disney challenged him to prove his point.
Jake Day returned to his Maine home, which his family had owned since 1798.
Day took his camera, his backpack and his friend Lester Hall to the Mt. Katahdin region. They then spent months shooting more than a thousand photos of Bambi country.
Disney had given Jake Day a list of things he wanted photographed. The list included hazel nuts, marsh grass, oak leaves, pine cones, birch bark, low-bush and high-bush blueberries, red maple and speckled alder trees.
Jake Day shot trees glittering with ice, snowy beaver dams and trees charred by fire. He photographed the details of the forest floor: the lichen, leaves, ferns, pools, rotting logs, pitcher plants, autumn leaves, a bear cub’s footprints in the mud. He shot at all hours of the day – sometimes at 4 a.m.
Day and Hill studied the script for Bambi in their tent at night to decide what to shoot the next day. What kind of log should Bambi trip over? What was the right setting for Thumper?
Bambi, The Film
Jake Day and the white-tailed deer prevailed. He helped arrange for two four-month-old Maine fawns to model Bambi and his sweetheart Faline. The fawns took a four-day train ride from Maine to Hollywood.
The Disney artists didn’t know how to draw deer, and were given special instruction by an animal anatomist. For nine months they sat in a circle around the real Bambi and Faline and sketched them as they lost their spots and grew into adulthood. A few of the drawings became deer fodder.
Disney was particular about the movie’s images. The artists drew 2 million drawings for the film. Only 400,000 were used. When an artist heard Disney coming down the hallway to nitpick their work, he used code words to warn the others: “Man is in the forest.”
A boy was chosen for Bambi’s voice, but it took so long to create the film his voice changed in the middle of it. They found another boy, Donnie Dunagan, who later joined the Marines. Dunagan didn’t tell anyone about his role in the film because he feared being nicknamed ‘Bambi.’
Back To Maine
Bambi premiered in London on Aug. 8, 1942, then in New York, and had its first public showing – appropriately – in Portland, Maine.
By 1944, Jake Day was tired of California and returned with his family to Damariscotta for six months every year. In a wooden shed behind his house he carved birds and animals for sale, painted, photographed and hiked. He designed the Baxter State Park logo, where he was named ‘Artist in Residence.’
He climbed Mt. Katahdin on his 75th birthday and would have done the same on his 80th but the black flies were too bad. He died at 90 years old in 1983 at home in Damariscotta.
In 2011, Bambi was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The American Film Institute ranked as third on the list of the Top 10 animated movies.
Images: Bambi movie poster By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3891543. This story was updated in 2020.