The Lost Films of Gene Deitch

Gene Deitch had been fired as chief of Terrytoons and decided to make animated features his own way. Jules Feiffer had briefly worked for Terrytoons and he had a story, Munro , that was right for animation. So Deitch undertook the making of Munro but now he needed financing. Out of the blue came William Snyder who had recently signed up a studio group in Prague to do contract work. Snyder agreed to help Deitch make Munro if he agreed to manage the Prague outfit. So, in 1958, Deitch took off for Czechoslovakia. There he made Munro, which won an Academy Award. He fell in love with the city and also with a Czech animator named Zdenka. So Deitch took up permanent residence in Prague and developed projects brought to him  by Bill Snyder.

Zdenka and Gene Deitch.

Snyder held an option on The Hobbit, which he wanted to make into a film but was unable to get financing. Even so, Deitch put together a plan for the film version. Snyder’s option was about to run out in 1964 when Tolkien became a phenomenon. Now the book became a hot property. In order to keep his option, Snyder had to produce a film. He ordered Deitch to slap together a version within a month. This quickie was shown once, in New York. That was enough to protect Snyder’s option and the Tolkien estate had to buy it back from him before signing on to a lucrative Hollywood contract and a disppointing movie. It’s too bad Deitch was not able to direct his original concept. Anyway, about halfway down this linked page is a Flash player where you can see the very first animated version of The Hobbit. Or you can go to YouTube.

Dragon from Deitch’s Hobbit. [link above]

Prague was  a very contradictory place in the 1960s: on the one hand there was a vibrant and exciting arts scene, on the other, the regime was repressive and frightening. The animation studio was state-owned, of course, but there were few communists working in the place. Mostly the animators were left alone because the government didn’t understand what they were doing.  Then came the Prague Spring of 1968.

For a brief moment everything seemed possible. The studio told Deitch to work up an original property — whatever he wanted — for them. Deitch was uncertain but he storyboarded a concept called Obri (Giants) that came to him as he thought about the Israeli/Palestinean conflict. Two ugly dwarfs confront each other. They quarrel and insult one another. One of them — the blue dwarf — calls up a giant for assistance. The giant clobbers the red dwarf who then summons his own giant who clobbers the blue guy. Eventually the two giants refuse to fight one another and the dwarfs are left to work out their own future. The two frightened dwarfs clutch each other in fear: “Who will protect us now?”

Meanwhile, the contract with William Snyder ended but Morton Schindel of Weston Woods Publishing saw the storyboard and offered to co-produce the feature. That meant being paid in hard dollars! So Deitch assembled a team and began work. The animation was due to begin when Soviet tanks rolled into the city. Deitch bundled his work and Zdenka into a car and took off for Austria.

The emigres were begged to come back and Deitch was promised that he could complete Obri. He and Zdenka returned. Obri was released and was warmly received. The film was entered into the Spanish International Film Festival and won the grand prize! There was one problem: audiences saw the film as an allegory about the Cold War rather than a more general statement about war. When the new hard line government was installed, Obri was pulled from distribution. It was occasionally shown in the US where it was sold by Weston Woods, but it didn’t really fit with their school-oriented program. After 1968, Obri was not seen again until a Canadian Film Fest in 2000. Of course you can view it on YouTube.

In 1970, Deitch’s film group was approached by Edgar Bronfman’s Sagittarius Productions to do a full animated feature of Charlotte’s Web. Deitch was enthused and met E.B. White in New York to discuss how the book should be adapted. The two began a lengthy correspondence about the project (which is preserved here). Deitch engaged the great Czech artist Mirko Hanak to work on the movie.

Hanak study for Wilbur the pig and his mother. If you click on the picture and make it bigger, you can see where Hanak worked the wet paint, sometimes with fingerprints, to create texture on the pigs.

What Deitch didn’t know was that, back in the USA, various people were working to take the project away from him. When he did become aware of the situation, Deitch and his team worked overtime to finish the initial storyboards, 775 individual paintings, and ship them to New York. But the coup had already been accomplished. The storyboards were returned without anyone bothering to look at them and Hanna-Barbera made the animated feature film of Charlotte’s Web. But even though there is no Deitch version, the storyboards still exist. Here is the first of four folders (click Next in the top right corner for each of the following folders) with the storyboard drawings as a slideshow.

Deitch’s association with Weston Woods worked out well. The publisher wanted faithful reproductions of great children’s books and wanted them done properly. Over the years, Deitch animated any number of great books but his most rewarding work may be the films he made from Maurice Sendak’s work. Where the Wild Things Are was the first. Sendak came to Prague in 1969 and hit it off with Gene and Zdenka. Unfortunately, after Sendak returned to the U.S., his parents died and he fell into a depression that would not allow him to work. In 1974, he returned to the project and Where the Wild Things Are was a great success.

Deitch storyboard for Where the Wild Things Are

In 1984 Deitch flew to Connecticut to discuss doing a film of In the Night Kitchen. There is raw film footage of the two discussing Deitch’s storyboard here, about halfway down the page (Flash video). At about 13:30 Sendak shows Deitch a copy of In the Night Kitchen where a school principal has drawn a diaper on Mickey as he falls out of his clothes and through the dark.  “Who would do such a thing?”  Indeed. Also on that page are clips from two different soundtrack versions of Wild Things  and a piece of In the Night Kitchen. These films and one based on the Nutshell Library may be purchased from Weston Woods for $60.

Sendak and Deitch in Connecticut discussing the Night Kitchen.

So with these successful Sendak collaborations, where is the “Lost Film”? Well, first there is the film that never was, Brundibar, Sendak’s last book and one that Deitch says he would have loved to do, Brundibar is set in Prague — or at least Sendak’s drawings are based on Prague pictures, including some that Deitch sent him. But there are all kinds of projects that never make it to the working stage. The lost Deitch/Sendak film is Zlateh the Goat.

Sendak illustration for Zlateh

 Zlateh the Goat was a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer that Sendak illustrated. Deitch decided that the best way to interpret Sendak’s art was via photography as opposed to animation. So he shot a live-action version of the movie in 1971. The movie was essentially dialogue-free. So why was it lost? Because of No Child Left Behind. That Act stipulates that films of books must include every word of the book if they are to be used as classroom material. So, Weston Woods dropped Zlateh from their catalogue. But you can see it here (Flash video) along with other stuff about the movie and the book.

From Deitch’s film.

Most artists have great projects that somehow were denied, many never get past the idea stage. Deitch is no worse off than most, still it’s hard to think of all this work gone for naught. Gene Deitch doesn’t think a whole lot of his Hobbit film – if he had managed to complete the full project, that would be a different matter – and Obri and Zlateh had their moments, but the unfinished Charlotte’s Web has to hurt, still, after all these years.

Note:
Gene Deitch has several websites for his stories. There is the Animation World Network auto-biography and there is GeneDeitch Credits. Fantagraphics should be putting out a version of all this pretty soon and, in the meantime, there is still For the Love of Prague: The True Love Story of the Only Free American in Prague During 30 Years of Communism.

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