Donnie Dunagan didn’t do a lot of movies as a child actor (IMDB has him listed with seven movies, some of which are uncredited), but the man has left an interesting impact on my life.
My first exposure to Donnie Dunagan was as a very young child, in what turned out to be his last role, as the young voice of Bambi. As did almost all children, I loved Disney, and 1942's Bambi was an adorable, though very sad, movie. The first half of Bambi is one of my favorite movies. It is a truly beautiful movie, and all of the actors for the young animals are so innocent and funny that I can’t help but love them dearly. I just have a really hard time watching when Bambi loses his mother. I want to re-watch this movie soon, with a full box of Kleenex beside me. Bambi turned out to be the last film of Donnie Dunagan's small but lasting legacy of work.
In 1939's Son of Frankenstein, Donnie played Peter von Frankenstein, the young son of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (played by Basil Rathbone), son of the famed monster creator. The monster was once again played by Boris Karloff. This would end up being the last time Karloff would wear the makeup of the monster for a movie, though he would make special appearances on television a few times. The film co-stars Bela Lugosi as Ygor, Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, and Lionel Belmore as Emil Lang. It follows the traditional style of all Frankenstein films while still having interesting changes. This film also created the character we would eventually know as Igor. The characteristics we associate with Igor mostly come from a blend of Lugosi’s performance in this movie and Dwight Frye’s Fritz in the original Frankenstein. In The Ghost of Frankenstein, the spelling changed from Ygor to Igor, and would become the popular spelling as well as the popular lab assistant name for mad scientists for years to come. Donnie Dunagan’s Peter von Frankenstein is a truly adorable child, coming into most scenes with a rather adorable “Well, hello.” In the film, Peter even befriends the monster originally, because after the initial surprise of seeing him, he is unafraid of the monster. He’s a charming character in a really good movie. It doesn’t hold up as well as the first two films in the series, but it is still a very strong movie in the Universal Frankenstein series.
In 1939's Tower of London, Donnie Dunagan played a young prince in this fairly dark film. The premise revolves around Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone) and Mord (Boris Karloff) attempting to kill all those in line for the throne ahead of Richard, including Donnie’s young prince. Vincent Price also appeared as Duke of Clarence in this film. Though Price's role was small in this movie, it featured his first (of many to come) death scene. The film takes great delight in many gruesome deaths. Rathbone and Karloff were delightful killers in this film, and the audience watches in morbid curiosity as they take heir after heir out. According to Donnie, he had a much larger role while filming, but the final edit of the film cut his role dramatically, possibly due to the fact that that several of those scenes were apparently attempts on his life by Karloff and Rathbone.
Years later, Donnie Dunagan would be a career Marine, serving from 1952-1977, and keeping his career as a child actor a secret for many years. For me, Donnie may not have become anyone of note (as he did not have many roles) but several years ago, he was a guest at the Monster Bash, and the moment I saw him on stage, he became a large presence in my life. Donnie is an amazingly funny, energetic man, and an absolute joy to hear speak. Having worked closely with the icons Karloff and Rathbone twice, his sharp mind has amazing stories to tell. If you ever have the chance to see him at an event, make the time; you won’t regret it! He has amazing stories to tell, and is a genuinely nice man. Donnie Dunagan may not have been in many movies, but he is a fascinating man whom I will never forget seeing.