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Self-Help For Nudnik

Our fun-films, and my personal best character. The 60s were probably our peak-Prague years.

From Self-Defense for Cowards, adapted from the book written by Alice McGrath and illustrated by Chris Jenkyns.

From Self-Defense for Cowards, adapted from the book written by Alice McGrath and illustrated by Chris Jenkyns.

A hilarious book turned up, called Self Defense for Cowards, written by Alice McGrath, and hilariously illustrated by an old colleague from Hubleys studio, Chris Jenkyns. The book presented a set of mock, easy-to-learn actions any good natural-born coward could use to defend himself from any and all bullies. It seemed to me to be a natural for a tongue-in-cheek illustrated lecture a slide show. But, more than that, it looked like the basis for more such pseudo-teaching films.

Paramount went for the idea, thanks to the support of Shamus Culhane, who was heading their animation studio at that time. I found Stephen Bakers book, How to Live with a Neurotic Dog, and Don Sauers The Girl Watchers Guide. Then I wrote an original story along the same lines, How to Win on the Thruway, and adapted an idea by Eli Bauer, How to Avoid Friendship. So then I had what I called The Self-Help Series.

I thought I had an inspirational idea for the narrator: John McLeash, later known as John Ployardt, a former Disney artist who narrated the famous Goofy how-to films. He had been after me to give him work when I was at UPA New York, but he was constantly drunk, and aggressively drunk. Youve got to give me work, Gene! He pressed me bodily against the studio wall, breathing processed liquor on me.

I tried to help him several times, but it always ended in a bad scene. But this was a case of history coming around, a chance to have the original voice of the Disney Goofy series narrating my new Self-Help instructional films. Ployardt had a marvelous John Barrymore baritone voice that perfectly projected stentorian pompousness. John Hubley had successfully used him in his 1945 naval air force film, Flathatting, but that was 1945, and this was 1963. With great difficulty I located him and told him this was his chance to repeat a classic performance. Great care was taken to get him prepared for the recordings, and he professed that he was ready to give it all he had. Sadly, he didnt have much to give. By this time the poor guy was completely shot, and he couldnt get through a single sentence.

I was determined to pull this off, and I sat with him at the microphone and fed him every line, and got as many repeats on tape as he could manage. When I sat at my tape deck and tried to edit it, I was having to cut together individual words from various takes. On each of the five tracks there were literally hundreds of splices! I tried to convince myself that it would work, but finally had to admit defeat.

A rarity then occurred: a second inspiration: Arthur Treacher!, the acid-voice movie butler of so many movies in the 30s and 40s! Arthur was available, and turned out to be exactly right for the tone I had in mind. He pulled off each track with almost single takes. He was dryly hilarious.

To get the feel of a series, we unified the drawing style of all the films to more or less an extension of what Chris Jenkyns did in the Cowards book. Coward went over big in art-house distribution, and won an Oscar nomination in 1962. Friendship was nominated in 1964. We had a lot of fun with the idea, and I was accumulating ideas to go on with the series. But Paramount was wishing for a new single character, and Snyder was pushing me to come up with something pronto.

At Terrytoons I had created Foofle, an inept clown, as a burlesque of my own physical clumsiness, but I didnt have enough time at Terrytoons to fully develop the character, and had been frustrated ever since, thinking up ideas of what I could have done with him. But having a new opportunity thrust at me, I started cooking hard on it. Not being able to use a character copyrighted by Terrytoons, even though I had personally created it, I had to take it into another form. I wanted to make him more human, more sympathetic, even lovable a lovable loser.

Whereas Foofle was drawn with smooth lines, and too clean looking, I made the new character more raggedy, with lots of scratchy pen lines. We were ready to do a looser style of animation. I made what I thought was a funny drawing of my revised character, and needed a new name. It was the time when the Russian word Sputnik had entered the American language. Being in Czechoslovakia, another Slavic nation, I learned that many Czech words also had the nik ending, chodnik (sidewalk), pilnik (file), podnik (work place), etc. All these words seemed funny to me, and suddenly I remembered the Yiddish word, nudnik. A great name! But I am not only a clumsy person, I am also an inept Jew. In Yiddish, a nudnik is a bore, but I didnt know that at the time. I was thinking shlemiel. But nobody told me I was wrong. Everyone thought the name Nudnik was funny. It sounded funny. It stuck.

Paramount liked it, and Nudnik too went on to win an Oscar nomination 1964. That was a big year for us. I had two films nominated in 1964, How to Avoid Friendship, from my Self-Help Series, and Nudnik #, later renamed, Heres Nudnik. For many years I have been proud to believe that I am the only animation film director to have two cartoons nominated in the same year. (Nick Park managed it more recently.) Of course, our vote was split and neither of my films got the Oscar.

Nudnik © Gene Deitch.

Nudnik © Gene Deitch.

Nudnik is homeless in an unrelentingly hostile and ugly world. Every person, every animal, and even every object, inexplicably hates him on sight. Yet he is constantly cheerful, helpful and hopeful, trying yet failing spectacularly at even the most simple tasks, even in opening a can of beans or tying his shoelaces. A game loser, he is the opposite of my best known character, Tom Terrific, the cocksure winner. So it was perfectly in character for Nudnik to fail to win the Oscar.

Once again, a failure. Not failing to win another Oscar. That didnt crush me. What was crushing was timing. Nudnik hit the movie screens under Paramount distribution too late. It was the time that movie theater cartoons were being phased out. We managed to make 12 Nudnik cartoons, my most satisfying and most personal character creation, but that was the end of it. Paramount and every other studio was out of the movie cartoon business.

Nudnik, the hapless hobo, never had a chance to fully develop into a truly world class loser. This modest, dusty neer do well gathered ever more dust in the Rembrandt Films basement for 30 years. Bill Snyders son Adam, whom we knew as a little boy, was now grown up and a successful magazine writer. He decided to revive Rembrandt Films, and discovered many treasures in his basement. Amazingly, Nudnik arose from the ashes, and Sunbow Entertainment of New York packaged him with other classic Rembrandt items into a short series now in international distribution, with the amazing title, (their insistence!) Gene Deitch presents The Nudnik Show! Could the little tramp be just a bit of a winner after all?

To read more about Genes adventures in the animation world, visit Genes online book.

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 Hubleys 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 more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.