Eriksmoen: North Dakotans were major voices in Disney's 'Bambi'

Getty Images / Special to The Forum

During the height of the Great Depression, two young North Dakotans living in Los Angeles were in pursuit of making a name for themselves in show business. Not only did each of them find a niche where they achieved success, but the two fell in love and got married.

Paula Winslowe was one of the most active actresses on radio, and John Sutherland was an illustrator for Walt Disney. John later started his own film company, which produced short animated films. The one project Paula and John worked together on was Disney's animated movie, "Bambi." Paula was the voice of Bambi's mother, and John reportedly was the voice of Bambi as an adult.

Paula Winslowe. Special to The Forum

Winifred Paula Reyleck was born March 23, 1910, to Winslowe and Josephine (Capser) Reyleck in Grafton, N.D., where her father was the owner of a large department store. Following Winifred's high school graduation in 1927, Winslowe retired, and the family moved to Los Angeles.

This was a time when "talkies" were beginning in the motion picture industry. Since Winifred possessed "a pleasant contralto voice, could sing a bit, and had enough acting talent," she believed she might find work in the motion picture industry, and she was right. However, it was not as an actress, but in voice dubbing for silent movies.

Now that films had sound, there were producers who believed they could establish a market by re-releasing former silent movies with freshly added sound and dialogue. This provided work for Winifred for awhile, but the dubbing project eventually failed because movie fans were not impressed.

Winifred then joined the Marta Oatman Players, a traveling acting troupe, and she adopted the stage name Paula Winslowe. She did very well, landing starring roles, but the pay was poor and the travel was exhausting.

In 1932, Paula joined Don Lee's network of 12 California radio stations, acting and doing commercials. In 1934 and 1935, she presented the Woodbury soap commercials on the "Woodbury Program," hosted by Bing Crosby. By the mid-1930s, Paula was frequently featured on coast-to-coast network programs, appearing with Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and other celebrities, and she was also a frequent guest of hostess Louella Parsons on Hollywood Hotel.

Paula made her motion picture debut in 1937, although she did not appear on screen. On June 7, movie actress Jean Harlow died suddenly while co-starring in the film "Saratoga." "The film was 90% completed," and MGM used a look-alike body double to complete the final scenes, along with Winslowe as a voice double.

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On Dec. 6, 1937, Paula received her biggest break when CBS chose her to star opposite Edward G. Robinson in "Big Town," a radio series about running a newspaper. On Dec. 3, 1938, she co-starred with Clark Gable in the dramatic presentation of "Danger Lights" on Star Theater, which was about the same time she began dating John Sutherland, an illustrator employed by Walt Disney.

John Elliott Sutherland was born Sept. 11, 1910, to Ronald and Adelaide Sutherland, in Williston, N.D., where Ronald was a banking representative for the "Banking Department of Minnesota." Ronald represented banking interests in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana.

John Sutherland. Special to The Forum

During the first decade of John's life, banks in this area flourished, and the Sutherlands prospered. However, because of the severe droughts that occurred during the 1920s, many farmers could not repay their loans and a large number of banks closed.

The Sutherlands then moved to Great Falls, Mont., and later to Los Angeles. After working as an illustrator for Walt Disney on the Mickey Mouse cartoon "The Beach Party" in 1931, John Sutherland found employment as a park ranger in Montana and South Dakota and saved money to attend college.

He graduated from the University of California Los Angeles in 1937, earning a degree in political science and economics, and then took a job in the college's comptroller office. To earn extra money, he also tutored students, and one of his students was the son of actor Spencer Tracy.

When the actor learned Sutherland was a skilled illustrator, he suggested that his friend, Walt Disney, should rehire his tutor. The studio hired him as an illustrator on Sept. 12, 1938, largely because they were gearing up for a new major project. Disney had recently purchased the rights of the book "Bambi" and was planning on making an illustrated motion picture from it.

When production on the movie began in earnest on Aug. 17, 1939, Paula and Sutherland believed that it was time to tie the knot, so they got married one month later. Paula must have briefly been married before, because the California marriage license records show her name as "Winifred Goodwin."

When the script was completed in July 1940, auditions for the voices of various characters took place. Paula was awarded the roles of Bambi's mother and the pheasant, and Sutherland auditioned for the roles of the mouse and Mr. Hare, which he did not get, but was awarded the role of Bambi as an adult.

On Aug. 21, 1942, the movie "Bambi" was released. The most moving scene in the film occurred when Bambi's mother sensed danger was apparent because of the presence of hunters. She told her son to run as fast as he could to their den and not look back, but as they started to dash off, a shot rang out and only Bambi was still running.

I saw the movie at the tender age of 4 when it was re-released in 1947, and it is the only motion picture where I actually cried. I was not the only person affected by this scene, because many hunters were outraged that they were depicted as the villains of the movie. Paul McCartney of The Beatles "credited the shooting death of Bambi's mother for his initial interest in animal rights."

I will conclude the story of Paula Winslowe and John Sutherland next week.

"Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.