Gene Deitch: An American animation giant who lived and worked behind Prague’s iron curtain for over 40 years

By on July 29, 2015

One of the more interesting stories in the world of animation has to be the story of Oscar-winning animation king Gene Deitch, 90+ years old, who is the “the only free American living and working in Prague during 30 years of the Communist Party dictatorship.”

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Gene Deitch, originally born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1924, began contributing graphics, and eventually became the art director for The Record Changer, a jazz magazine, working for them from 1945 to 1951. He was also an amateur sound recordist who made tape recordings of artists like John Lee Hooker and Pete Seeger, and during that same time he began working at the then cutting-edge Hollywood-based animation studio UPA, beginning in 1946, working as an assistant Production Designer on the first “Mister Magoo” cartoons for UPA/Columbia Pictures. Within five years, he was the Creative Director of UPA’s New York studio, where among his many gold-medal winning films were the famous Bert & Harry Piels beer commercials. He was already famous by the mid-fifties, and his TV commercials were the first ever shown, during an entire month of screening in 1954, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

He moved over Terrytoons in 1956, who named him their Creative Director (Terrytoons had been purchased by CBS). Terrytoons produced eighteen CinemaScope cartoons per year for 20th Century-Fox, and won its very first Oscar nomination. Deitch created and directed the “Tom Terrific” series for the nationally broadcast “Captain Kangaroo” children’s show. “Tom Terrific,” along with “Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog,” was the very first animated serial for network television.

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In 1958, Deitch set up his own studio in New York, Gene Deitch Associates, Inc., where he and actor Allen Swift concocted an animated cartoon based on, in his words, a “dedicated junk man.” It was titled “Samson Scrap & Delilah,” and the slogan for the series was a twist on DuPont’s famous one, “Better Things For Better Living Through Junk.” Mostly, however, Deitch and his team made TV commercials.

One day in 1959, William Snyder of Rembrandt Films got in touch with Deitch and offered him work for a ten-day consulting job. Snyder had been a marginal distributor of 16mm films, specializing in the educational and institutional markets, long before video. After World War II, he’d been scrounging around Europe, looking for bargain films he could acquire for U.S. distribution. He had a special love for puppet films, and had been looking for some in Munich. “The very best puppet films,” he was told, “are by Jirí Trnka of Czechoslovakia. But unfortunately, no one can go there.” (La Planète Sauvage was animated at Jiří Trnka Studio, which we told you about here.)

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Deitch recalled how it came about: “One day I got a call from somebody I’d never heard of named William L. Snyder. He said he had heard that I was the best animator in New York, and he had a special project he wanted me to help him with. So I said, ‘Fine, I’ve got my own studio, tell me what it is, and I’ll help you.’ He said, ‘Well, it has to be done at my facility.’ I was on the West Side of Manhattan, and I thought, ‘Jesus, if this guy’s got some studio on the East Side, it’s going to be a real schlep to get over there.’ He said, ‘My facility’s in Prague.’ I said, ‘Don’t tell me there’s an animation studio in Prague, Oklahoma!’ He thought I was crazy. He said, ‘No, this is in Czechoslovakia.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute; isn’t Czechoslovakia one of those Communist countries? I’m sure as hell not going there!’”

Snyder’s Czech company were doing something special, particularly with those magical puppet films of Jirí Trnka, but he was looking for a way to break into the American market (and therefore the rest of the world), and had decided to bring over an American animator to help his studio animation team create films which would open doors for the eventual U.S. distribution of their company’s animated films.

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Snyder managed to convince Deitch to get a passport and go to Prague for ten days to work for his Rembrandt Films, arriving on Saturday, October 28, 1959. He was armed with a contract between myself and William L. Snyder, “doing business as Rembrandt Films,” which included, at Deitch’s insistence, the clause: “Deitch shall not be required to remain in Prague for a period of more than 10 days.”

While in Prague, he settled into the Alcron hotel, the spy-equipped hotel for foreigners, and was taken to Rembrandt’s animation studio, located in a building that had housed the Prague stock exchange until the communists crashed it. The studio’s “Snyder Unit” was located on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. No elevator. He had brought with him a handful of Terrytoon films to screen for his new colleagues and showed them how he did storyboards and other things the American way.

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Deitch, a true blue American, had a hard time in Czechloslovakia at first, isolated from his old colleagues, and hunkered down in this distant and seemingly God-forsaken communist-gripped misery. He had even a more difficult time once he returned from this first trip abroad. He was accused by some of being some kind of commie pinko who had suddenly come out of the closet, or a spy, or an enemy agent, or some claimed he might even be working for the C.I.A.. Maybe it was something else: he was just a masochist, escaping from the commercial jungle of American animation by going to work in a much simpler work setting?

He tried convince the people back home that he’d just taken this temporary consulting job to help Snyder get his Rembrandt company up and running and making the kinds of cartoons that would sell in America. At the time, the Screen Cartoonists Union were vocally upset about “runaway animation,” which was just then beginning to “run away” from the U.S. to where it could be produced cheaper, like Korea, where “The Simpsons” is animated now, and in the early sixties it was simply too soon to accept that someone from the U.S. might go to work somewhere like Prague, even temporarily.

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In April 1971, while trying to discuss with the Union what he felt was happening in the world of animation, Deitch would compose a letter to the Cartoonists Union, which said, in part, the following:

“In my view, any good, well-made animation films produced anywhere in the world helps to promote animation in general, and thus provide work for all of us. It seems to me that the real ‘iron curtain’ is between TV commercial production, and all other forms. The fact is that the current US animation pay scales are based on the high-spending economy of TV commercial production. TV-entertainment, theatrical entertainment, and teaching film economies can hardly afford top-quality animation production in an industry dominated by the big spenders in the blurb business.. The fact is there is very little, if any, ‘runaway’ TV-commercial animation being done. The films I was doing in Prague (story films for children) would not be made at all if it were not possible to produce them abroad. Thus your union would not get this work anyway…. The need for animation films of all kinds has grown incredibly. There is now room for all, and world production and competition not only raised the standards of our work but it increased our effectiveness. More cultural contact and exchange of work is needed between peoples, not less!”

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Something quite unexpected happened during Deitch’s first trip to Prague: he fell instantly in love with the city, and he soon learned that working at the Bratri v triku studio in Prague, where Snyder’s company was ensconced, was actually quite enjoyable for the employees, and set up in such a way that Deitch began to realize he’d been all wrong about it.

He learned that the studio was not full of communists, but actually just full of animators — there were only a handful of communist party members in the 165–member staff of the Prague animation studio. He learned that Czech State Film supported the studio, because it contributed to the national cultural image abroad, and the State’s film distribution company automatically bought every film they made, good or mediocre, and no one worried about the studio going broke in those days, as they needed to worry about when the market economy came. Sure, the pay was substandard, compared with America, but basic living was cheap, and there were perks. The State Film maintained country recreation hotels for all employees, all free or dirt cheap. The studio was stocked with all sorts of sports and camping equipment for loan at no cost. There was lots of prestige and public honor for animators, and there was the constant stream of parties.

Something else happened in Prague that made Deitch want to stay — he fell in love with his animation production manager, Zdenka Najmanova, whom he later married. The highly-respected American animator at the very top of the animation business remained based in Prague the rest of his life.

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Deitch, still running his own New York-based company at the time, decided to make a second trip to Prague in March of 1960, bringing with him this time two projects in particular that he had invested quite a bit of himself into. “Samson Scrap & Delilah” was intended as a pilot for a TV series, and the other, “Munro,” he figured was a one-shot.

“Munro” was something Deitch had developed with Jules Feiffer, cartoonist and satirist, and based on his delightfully absurd little story called “Munro,” about a rebellious little boy who is accidentally drafted into the United States Army. The story was Pfeiffer’s reaction to his experience serving in the Army.

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“Munro” is a wonderful little short film, which satirized the absurdity and blind reliance to bureaucratic processes, especially with regards to the military, as we would later see in, for instance, Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic Catch-22, where the hapless Doc Daneeka was assumed by everybody to be dead after a flight where he was said to have been on crashed, even though he was not on the plane and was interacting with characters after the incident. The real star of the film, however, is Gene Deitch’s three-year-old son Seth as the titular title character, who provides Munro with the appropriately desperate child’s voice, saying things like “I’m only four!” The animation fully embraces the limited animation movement of UPA with almost non-existent backgrounds, although the background colors convey Munro’s mood quite well. The narration is handled deftly by veteran actor Howard Morris.

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Once in Prague, Deitch explained that he intended to work on both projects, splitting his time from New York and Prague. He arranged for Zdenka to send him the 35mm film tests of the penciled animation scenes, and then he would then edit the scenes together on the Moviola viewing machine in his New York studio, and send back his comments and revisions.

When Snyder saw “Munro,” he got it into his head that it could well be an Oscar contender. Every year, three or four animation films were nominated by a committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Short Film branch, and a final vote was made by members of the Short Film division who can vote only at screenings of the nominated films. In order to qualify, the rules stated that the film must be shown to a paying audience at a commercial movie theater in Los Angeles County for at least three consecutive days prior to November 30th of the year of production, or it must have won the Best-in-Category award at a recognized film festival.

For “Munro” it was 1960, and the film almost didn’t make it, as unfortunately, the Prague studio lab mistakenly trashed the negative, so the the entire film had to be re-shot, re-cut, re-developed, and re-printed, and it came down to the wire when Snyder, on the very last possible day eligible, got it screened at a previously arranged theater, and it qualified!

In the spring of 1961, after Deitch had already been working well over a year in Prague and had nearly forgotten about the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, when Snyder had informed him that “Munro” had been nominated, which was quite a feat itself, but then it would go on to win the award, the first short composed outside of the United States to be so honored.

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Around that same time, Deitch was awarded the contract from MGM to bring a new set of “Tom & Jerry” shorts to life, which included the theatrical Tom & Jerry cartoons for MGM (later collected on the Tom and Jerry: The Gene Deitch Collection DVD set), as well as new “Krazy Kat” and “Popeye” television cartoons for King Features, and a contract with Paramount for a whole series of “Nudnik” shorts.

“Tom & Jerry” is probably Deitch’s best-known work, and had originally been created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for MGM in 1940. MGM had second thoughts about producing new shorts after firing the duo and the entire cartoon staff in 1956, but were starting to come around by the early 60s. Unfortunately, Deitch had no particular love for “Tom & Jerry,” citing them as the “primary bad example of senseless violence – humor based on pain – attack and revenge – to say nothing of the tasteless use of a headless black woman stereotype house servant.” None of these projects, in fact, were what Deitch really wanted to do, but it was work, it would keep him and his team working in Prague, and it was great experience for the Czech animators, having a go at these typical American cartoon characters. “‘Tom and Jerry’ I always considered dreck, but they had great timing, facial expressions, double takes, squash and stretch,” Deitch said another time, which were “techniques the Czechs had to learn. The Czech style had nothing in common with these gag-driven cartoons.”

Throughout the early sixties, Deitch continued to do great work, and was nominated for several more Oscars for his films “Self Defense for Cowards” (1962) and “How to Avoid Friendship” (1964). Meanwhile, Snyder’s company, Rembrandt Films, had also made several children’s book adaptations for the library and educational film market, including “Anatole” by Eve Titus, “The Frowning Prince” by Crockett Johnson, “Many Moons” by James Thurber, and “Madeline and the Gypsies” and “Madeline and the Bad Hat” by Ludwig Bemelmans.

By the mid sixties, Snyder’s ambitious plans and his company financial situation had run into trouble, so he turned to Deitch with the idea of combining five of these children’s films into one new film, creating a whole new short feature (52 minutes), called “Alice of Wonderland in Paris.”

“Alice of Wonderland in Paris” (or “Alice in Paris”) — based on Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass characters, with characters from several other well-known children’s stories combined to form a new story — told the story of Young Alice, having become a celebrity for her adventures in Wonderland, who is in her bedroom dreaming about visiting Paris and sharing adventures with story book girl, Madeline. A talking mouse named François rides a bicycle into Alice’s bedroom and wants to conduct a survey about her favorite cheeses.

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Alice, inspired by reading the story Madeline, wishes to go to Paris. A beret-wearing mouse named Francois, grandson of the world famous mouse Anatole, gives Alice some cheese that his company makes, which uses the same magical mushroom she ate in wonderland as an ingredient, to shrink Alice to rodent size.  Together on bicycles they travel to Paris, trade famous children’s tales and enjoy cheese tasting.  Together, they ride through Paris, where François narrates a series of short stories with a Parisian theme.

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“Alice” was voiced by Norma MacMillan (Alice), Allen Swift (Francios; The King), Carl Reiner (Anatole), Howard Morris (Frowning Prince), Lionel Wilson (Minstrel; Royal Mathematician), Trinka Snyder (Princess Lenore), Luca Ennis (Queen), and it was released by Childhood Productions in the United Sates, playing Saturday matinees for several weeks. It was released with a companion featurette, the 38-minute “White Mane,” a Cannes Film Festival winner about the friendship of a boy and his stallion.

In the early sixties, Snyder became the first person to discover and acquire the film rights to J.R.R.Tolkien’s then-unknown 1927 children’s novel, The Hobbit, but in order to hold his option, Snyder had to produce a full-color motion picture of The Hobbit by a certain date in 1966, and so to meet this deadline while he tried to interest the studios in a much bigger motion picture, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, and so Deitch worked on a one-reel animation film of The Hobbit in 1966, and it became the first film ever made of a Tolkien story.

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Snyder was never able to keep his company financially afloat and profitable, and even though Deitch and his animation team had won him the Oscar and three other nominations, including two nominations in one year — something no other animation director had done before — he was only ever able to to secure the MGM deal for Deitch and later on, he was forced to sell the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings due to a lack of cash and some failed attempts at distribution deals.

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Go here for more classic animation produced by Rembrandt Films.

From 1968 until his retirement in 2006, Deitch has continued to maintain his own studio, located in Prague near the Barrandov Studios, where many major films were recorded. He the leading animation director and adapting children’s picture books for Morton Schindel’s Weston Woods company, based in Connecticut.

Of special note was his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” which took five years to complete (Deitch refers to as the “Mt. Everest of children’s books” ) due to Sendak’s penchant for changes.

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His also worked diligently for years on “Gene Deitch: the Picture Book Animated” (1977), in which he describes graphically the painstaking process of designing a picture book, and “Tomi Ungerer: Storyteller” (1981), an interview with the iconoclastic writer and illustrator, who insisted on partaking in a glass of whisky during the filming, ever-present just outside the frame.

There have been additional tributes to Gene Deitch’s films over the years, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the most recent in April 1996. Deitch’s memoir, For the Love of Prague, is based on the experience of being “the only free American living and working in Prague during 30 years of the Communist Party dictatorship.”

In 2003, Deitch was awarded the “Annie” by ASIFA Hollywood for a lifetime contribution to the art of animation. Gene Deitch’s sons Kim Deitch, Simon Deitch, and Seth Deitch are artists and writers in underground comix and alternative comics worlds.

Read more here.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.