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Bambi, the Austrian Deer

by Paul A. Schons

Originally published by the Germanic-American Institute in September, 2000

Everyone knows Walt Disney's Bambi. Far fewer know that the author of the original book was the Austrian writer, Felix Salten. Siegmund Salzmann, who as an author, used the name Felix Salten was born on September 6, 1869. He lived in Vienna for most of his life, but fled to Zurich at the time of World War II. He wrote the story of Bambi in 1923. The idea came to him while on vacation in the Alps after being charmed by the wildlife there. He based the name, Bambi, on the Italian word "bambino", meaning baby.

Salten was an influential theater critic. In his early career he wrote for the Berliner Morgenpost, the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, The Beautiful Blue Danube magazine and the Neue Freie Presse. He was the author of a number of books in addition to Bambi. His novels include Olga Frohgemuth (1910), Martin Overbeck (1927), Tierromane: 15 Hasen (1929) (Animal Novels: 15 Rabbits), and Djibi, das Kätzchen (1945) (Djibi, the Little Cat). His better known works include Bambis Kinder (1940) (Bambi's Children) and Florian, Das Pferd des Kaisers (1933) (Florian the Emperor's Horse). Florian is a tale about a proud Lipizzaner stallion who after World War I is reduced to the level of pulling a cab through the streets of Vienna and reflects in its imagery the reduction of the proud Austrian Empire to a small and poor nation.

During his life in Vienna Salten was a close friend of many of the leading writers of the day including Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Hermann Bahr. He married the actress Ottilie Metz and had two children Paul and Anna-Atherina. In 1930 at the invitation of the Carnegie Foundation Salten traveled to the United States. He published his impressions in 1931 with the title, Fünf Minuten Amerika (Five Minutes America). Salten was the president of the Austrian writers' association, Österreichischer P.E.N.-Club from 1927-1933.

Bambi was published in 1926 by the Zsolnay publishing company in Vienna and printed by the Kiesel printing company in Salzburg. The original title was "Bambi, ein Leben im Walde" (Bambi, a Life in the Woods). The American, Walt Disney, acquired the film rights to the book in the late 30's. The cartoon film first appeared in 1942. The author, Felix Salten, saw the film himself for the first time at the European premier in Zurich's Rex movie theater.

In the United States there was some controversy surrounding the Disney version of the film at its first appearance. The story depicts human hunters in rather negative perspective. Thus the American Rifleman's Association made a public statement against the film's depiction of hunters and asked that the film be prefaced with a pro-hunting statement. (Reported by Newsweek). The Disney Corporation, of course, earned a great deal of money through the film and through the sale of a wide variety of products related to the film, including the book in republished form with Disney illustrations. Salten, who died in 1945, earned very little in the arrangement.

Salten's daughter Anna (Wyler), however, who inherited Salten's holdings and renewed the copyright in 1954, entered into more satisfactory arrangements with the Disney Corporation. After her death the rights passed to her husband who sold the rights to an organization named Twin Books. Twin Books, in turn, feeling that it was owed more than the Disney company would give, brought Disney to court. At that time, Disney brought out that the copyrighted publication of 1926 was, in fact, not the first publication. Felix Salten had published the story earlier in 1923, but in that original publication had not included a copyright notice. Disney, thus claimed that the book entered into the public domain in 1923. Disney further claimed that even if the 1923 publication were found to be protected, that Disney had the rights anyway as Ms. Wyler had not renewed the copyright until 1954 which would be after the deadline if the 1923 origination date were found to be valid. The court upheld the Disney claim. In 1996 however, on appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court reversed the decision.

Felix Salten's granddaughter, Lea Wyler, and her father Weit Wyler founded an international relief organization, Rokpa International, with headquarters in Switzerland. Lea Wyler lives in Switzerland today and directs the activities of Rokpa. In 1993 for her charitable work she received the meritorious award medal of the "Hospitaliter" for "compassionate activity for the sake of others".

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