Short Cuts: Gene Deitch Animation

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Originally posted on Row Three.

Los Angeles’ fabulous repertory company Cinefamily shows an animated series every month hosted by Cartoon Brew‘s Jerry Beck. It’s always a great program, but a recent program focusing on the work of animator Gene Deitch is easily the most impressive of all the ones I’ve been to, despite the fact that I was not familiar with Deitch’s work beforehand. Deitch started off as an animator with UPA in the 1950s, then moved to Fox’s Terrytunes, with stints doing Tom & Jerry, Popeye, and Krazy Kat as well, before finally taking an opportunity to head an animation studio in Prague (where he still lives and works). Quite a varied and unusual career, held together by his unique eye and constant quest for new visual styles and innovative ways to use the medium. Deitch himself was here for the program, talking with Jerry about his career and his films, which was pretty special as he’s rarely back in the United States anymore. And of all the filmmakers who I’ve seen at Cinefamily screenings, he was probably the most engaging, with the most fascinating stories to tell.

But great stories are even better when the films they support are good, and I was quite simply blown away by the quality and creativity of these films, especially considering he was working with MGM and Fox, who are not as well known for pushing the envelope as UPA and Warner Bros. Deitch pushed it anyway, using a very angular, minimalist visual style as well as a highly abstract sense of story and narrative.

Watch what he does with Tom and Jerry here, taking two familiar characters and putting them in a very self-aware, meta-narrative story.

But more of the shorts we saw were original characters, like Flebus, a cartoon that was written and begun by Ernest Pintoff but completed by Gene Deitch, who was also the supervising director.

Or characters from books, like little Munro, who was drafted into the army at the age of four and had a Yossarian-esque odyssey trying to convince the higher-ups that their paperwork was in error.

There’s a wonderful simplicity to these stories – a walking box who just wants to be friends, a little boy who runs head-on into bureaucracy – but they’re both set apart by the uncharacteristically world-weary narration and the unusual animation style. Everyone raves, and rightly so, about the voice work that Mel Blanc did on Looney Tunes, but this is an almost wholly opposite strain of voice acting here that provides a wonderful counterpoint to what was going on over at Warners. It’s a bit more cynical, a bit harder-edged, and a bit more grounded in some ways. (Flebus is voiced by Allen Swift, Munro by Howard Morris.)

After moving to Prague (motivated in part by the promise of financing for Munro, which he obviously got – and the film won an Academy Award soon after), Deitch oversaw a bunch of Czech animators, who were working on animating children’s books. If you’ve seen Czech stop-motion animation, you’ll know how creative and off-beat their style is, and Czech hand-drawn animation is no different. Here’s a very strange short called Giants that was released in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – although Deitch originally meant it to be about Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was immediately interpreted as a political statement on US/Russia relations, which fit rather well with events in Prague in 1968. I find it a little off-putting, personally, but it is….interesting. Yeah, let’s go with that. YouTube only has the Czech language version, unfortunately.

Here’s The Three Robbers, an example of the children’s book adaptations Deitch oversaw; in this case, he also provided the voiceover and all the sound effects, which makes for a unique experience. I love the abstractness of the animation here, how the robbers’ coats become darkness, and so on.

They ended the show with this short, The Juggler of Our Lady, even though it comes from earlier in Deitch’s career, back when he was with Terrytunes in the early 1960s, and fittingly so – it’s simply breathtaking.

Terrytunes has a reputation for being a little less willing to think outside the box than some of the other studios, for playing it safe, and sticking with formula. That’s surely not the case here, as Deitch and Co. take an existing picture book and stay true to the original minimalist, parchment-looking drawing style. He said he was fascinated by the idea of having this huge wide screen (CinemaScope had just been introduced) and having just little scribbles on it. The amount of negative space here is astounding, and used astoundingly well. It doesn’t show up as well in this version, which is not the CinemaScope version, but shown in the theatre in 35mm CinemaScope? Amazing. Not to mention the gorgeous score, which is also highly unusual for the time period.

He also had some interesting things to say about CinemaScope and how restrictive it actually was, especially on animation. With a nearly square screen, you could use it all and do interesting effects like spins that you couldn’t easily do with a physical camera. With CinemaScope, you couldn’t do those anymore, because the width being so much greater than the height, you couldn’t change orientation without losing a lot of the image – it restricted animation to be more like what you could in live-action. Also interesting was that for cartoons especially, you still had to make them so they looked good in non-CinemaScope theatres and on TV, so you basically had to compose everything for three different ratios (that’s presumably why the non-CinemaScope version of The Juggler of Our Lady is the one that’s prevalent on YouTube).

In addition to the cartoons above, we saw an entry in the Nudnik series, a character original to Deitch. The one we saw, which I think was Here’s Nudnik, I was unable to find on YouTube, but here is a sampling of the ones that are. We also saw an early Howdy Doody cartoon he did that never aired because he and his crew (who were young and rebellious at the time) refused to follow the house style of the show, and also a bit of “Tom Terrific,” a cartoon that aired as part of the Captain Kangaroo show. I quite liked Tom Terrific, which puts simple line drawings to really imaginative use, but again couldn’t find the one we watched. Here’s a little snippet of the opening, but most of the videos on YouTube have embedding disabled, so you’ll have to go there to see more.

All in all, it was a fascinating program with Deitch, and I’m very grateful to have been introduced to his work. I can’t believe I hadn’t seen any of it before, but be sure I’ll look for more of it now. Some of these things are difficult to find outside of YouTube bootlegs; it would be great if some of this stuff, especially the more obscure things like Tom Terrific, could find its way into DVD collections at some point. I’d eat it up.