Charlotte's Tangled Web

Gene Deitch shares his personal letters with E.B. "Andy" White regarding the production of Charlotte's Web, an experience White called, "one of my nightmares."

Mirko Hanák's model of Baby Wilbur. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

Mirko Hanák's model of Baby Wilbur. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

An excerpt from Gene Deitch's book, How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!      - Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

The great writer, E.B. White became my friend and regular correspondent until his death. That was my main reward from a spidery web of deceit that squashed a literary spider. Here you can read the never-before published letters that reveal the true story.

The story of our non-production of Charlotte's Web is about as good an example of producer chicanery as you're going to find. The fact that I was contracted by Sagittarius Pictures to produce this movie seemed to indicate the pinnacle of my career. Charlotte's Web was one of my favorite stories, and E.B. White one of my favorite writers, not least for his wonderful work on The New Yorker magazine. Out of the experience I gained something more valuable than the production itself: the personal friendship with E.B. "Andy" White. We carried on a steady personal correspondence for ten years, until just before his death.

E.B. White was one of the most-loved writers of his time. His work for The New Yorker magazine regaled us for years, and his books, especially Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, are "forever" classics. His English language textbook, The Elements Of Style, revised from a slim volume originally written by his old professor, William Strunk, is a writers' bible.

I suppose that there were many animators who dreamed of an assignment to adapt Charlotte's Web. The most important among them was John Hubley. Hubley had been my own personal inspiration. I was once his protégé at UPA. Doubtless, he would have created a poem of a film.

But when Henry White, president of Sagittarius Pictures, and his assigned producer Mike Campus showed up in Prague in the fall of 1970, offering me, out-of-the-blue, this dream project, I had no idea of what had gone before, or what would follow. Sagittarius was owned by the Seagrams whiskey magnate, Edgar Bronfman, so I had every reason to believe I was dealing with a solid outfit. What I didn't know was that the project was already second hand, having first been attempted by none other than my idol and original animation master, John Hubley!

In 1967 the team of John and Faith Hubley became interested in acquiring the motion picture rights to Charlotte's Web. E.B. White, who liked to be called "Andy," knew and liked the Hubleys and was inclined to favor their proposal. Alexander Lindey was the lawyer who represented Andy in the negotiations, along with Jap Gude, who had become Andy's agent for film rights during the '50s. From the correspondence it is evident that Andy wanted more control over the material than movie companies are disposed to grant. A contract was signed, but in the end the Hubleys were unable to get financial backing and the project fell through.

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Thirty years after the event I am ready to tell the untold story. I have saved all of the documentation and correspondence, the script and storyboard, so nothing that follows relies on foggy memory. I will mainly let the authentic letters between E.B. White and me tell the story, but first a few paragraphs of background information:

Andy White was 70 years old at the time and ailing. He had been in a car crash the year before and suffered head and neck injuries, and was in constant pain. Additionally, he was in need of money. To protect him from high annual taxation, he had a "maximum payment" clause built into his Charlotte's Web book contract with Harpers, limiting him to a maximum yearly royalty payment of $7,500. But Charlotte was a huge success and the royalties were far greater. A great deal of money had piled up, and was locked in Harper's safe, as it were. In order to free the money, Andy's lawyer, John "Jap" Gude, suggested that if Andy would write a new children's book, a contract could be made to join its royalties with that of Charlotte. Andy told me personally, on my first visit, that he was forced to write A Trumpet and the Swan, expressly for the purpose of freeing up his backlog of royalties for Charlotte's Web! But it was a complex legal maneuver, and Andy needed to gain quick cash. He was thus vulnerable to the deal offered by the Seagrams likker combine.

Edgar Bronfman, and his subsidiary film production company, Sagittarius, headed by a Henry White (absolutely no relation to Andy!), paid Andy enough to get him to agree to the following minimal creative rights:

Andy would have the right of approval of the model of Charlotte and her voice. PERIOD.

That was it; no adaptation approval, no characterization approval, no screenplay approval, and no approval of the assigned adapter/director. In other words, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte's Web, was left with no approval rights of anything that really mattered. The model of Charlotte and her voice were important, but only a gumdrop in the creative ocean.

Poor Andy White: from Hubley-to-Deitch-to-Hanna-Barbera... Downhill all the way, I suppose...

As I look back through these old letters, I now plainly see that I had zero chance to realize the project. Andy White was sick. So was his wife Katharine, who had suffered a series of heart attacks. There was gloom in the room. And brilliant as he was, Andy had no real conception of the problems and limitations of adapting a book to the technical and marketing conditions of feature filmmaking. I was in the stupid position of having to lecture this great man on the basics of film language.

Though a man of great integrity and humanity, he was at the time in great need of money. Sagittarius paid him a large fee for the film rights, much of it conditional on the completion of the film. So Andy was ultimately their pawn. As you will read, he was strongly against turning Charlotte's Web into a song and dance musical, but that is exactly what Hanna-Barbera did with it.

There was also the basic trepidation of the Money Men to invest in a production behind the Iron Curtain. Mike Campus, who recruited me to direct the film, was in hot water with Sagittarius! I was sucking a dry teat, and I knew it. Yet, once chosen for this golden project, I plunged recklessly ahead. As with my earlier attempt at an impossible situation at Terrytoons, I leapt at this offer to work on a dream project with an author I so much admired. The resulting experience was painful, but after all these years, I feel that my relationship with Andy White was well worth the foolhardy risk. I did reserve just enough reason to insist on a contract from Sagittarius that would pay me double if they decided NOT to use me or my storyboard in actual production.

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October 4,1978

Dear Gene:

The whole episode, the attempt to make a film of Charlotte's Web, is one of my nightmares. The only good thing to come out of it for me was that I learned never to try anything like that again...

I got in over my depth when I got involved with Sagittarius, and I'm still trying to surface. About all I know about Bronfman is that he flew in here in his private jet and made off with some rhubarb pie to take back to his pilot -- or maybe himself, as he seemed to have a good appetite..."

Bronfman had taken his biggest bite out of Andy White's most precious possession, his creative integrity. I will quote that entire letter at the end

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To read the remaining letters or to find out more on Gene's career in the world of animation, read his book How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!). An AWN exclusive.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."

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