What do you do when you have to make a living diminishing true works of art? E.C. Segars Popeye and George Herrimans Krazy Kat have been mauled by others, so I dont need to apologize for my efforts at damage control. Heres what we did with them.
Elzie Segars Popeye and George Herrimans Krazy Kat were my two favorite comic strips from childhood on. Segar was a master storyteller, whose phrases and coined words are with us today: The Jeep, the Goon, The Wimp... The popularization of hamburgers and spinach the fantastic cast of characters of the Thimble Theater J. Wellington Wimpy, Alice the Goon, The Sea Hag, Eugene the Jeep, Castor Oyl, Nana Oyl, Olive Oyl, Sweepea, Poopdeck Pappy... and the most endearing fighter in all history, Popeye the sailor man. But today most people know little of the lore of all these characters. All they know is the drastically simplified sex triangle of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto as portrayed in the animated cartoon versions from Max Fleisher, and the derivatives thereof. (Bluto appeared only once in all the years of the Segar strip.)
Then there was Krazy Kat, a poetic fantasy set in Kokonino Kounty, with its bizarre backgrounds of unlikely stone and cactus formations. There was the indeterminate sexual status of its hero/heroine, who lived in Arizona, yet spoke a weird variation of a New York Yiddish accent. There was the struggle of The Law (Offisa Pupp), against the miscreant brick heaver, Ignatz Mouse. The more often Ignatz zinged a brick at Krazys noggin, the more he/she loved him. And it all played out in bizarre color and wildly varying brilliant layouts, (in the Sunday funnies version), with juicy inkline, and juicier dialog, for years and years on the comics pages of hundreds of Hearst newspapers, via his King Features Syndicate. Its fans were mainly the cognicenti. It was minimally followed by the general public, but kept on simply because William Randolph Hearst, who had few other redeeming features, loved it. This work of cartoon art too had been diminished by numerous failed attempts to capture it in animation.
So here were my two most beloved comic strip creations being offered to me to animate, nicely overlapping the loss of T&J.
But of course, once again it wasnt all that nice...
The offer came from King Features Television just as Joe Vogels departure from MGM left us without a continuation of our Tom & Jerry contract. Al Brodax, TV producer for King Features Television, brought Popeye and Krazy Kat to me. I made the biggest pitch I could to him to let me take Popeye and Krazy Kat back to their Segar and Herriman roots. But I had only superficial success. It was argued that by that time, the early 1960s, most people knew Popeye from the movie cartoons, and not from the E.C. Segar comic strip Popeye of the 1930s. And because of the number of episodes needed, we would have to divide the animation to between Prague, Zagreb and Rome. The stories were all organized by Brodax in New York. I could control only the layouts and the soundtracks, for all of the films. I had to ricochet from city to city in the effort to control visual unity.
The series was basically the same old love triangle, garnished with spinach: Popeye/Olive Oyl/Bluto renamed-Brutus, (apparently to avoid conflict with a well-known cartoon dog), But Brodax did follow my wish, and included some of the other Segar characters in some episodes.
With Krazy Kat, we did at least get to come up with an unambiguous gender. At that time, any hint of a homosexual relationship between Krazy, (who was always referred to as he in the original comic strip), and Ignatz mouse, an obvious male, was a loud no-no. Even in the old strip Krazy always wore a ribbon around his/her neck whatever that meant but it did give us the final reasoning. So we declared Krazy a girl cat, and that was that!
I was also allowed to model the characters as closely as practical to the Herriman strip, and also to closely emulate Herrimans bizarre desert backgrounds. The poetic, pseudo-Yiddish Krazy Kat dialog had to be replaced with a sort of lovesick baby talk, but the other characters, notably Offisa Pupp and Ignatz were believably voiced by Dayton Allen.
I actually had fun doing this series, but I constantly looked over my shoulder to see if the spirit of George Herriman would zap me.
So it goes in the world of commercial cartoonery. You do the best you can, but if eating is part of your daily routine, you have to deliver something your client will accept.
Another main element in unifying these two series, animated in three different countries, was the music. With the help of my old colleague from Terrytoons and Gene Deitch Associates Inc., Al Kouzel, we further developed the pre-mix soundtrack method I first used at Terrytoons. But this was truly a homemade routine. We recorded library music in a sound studio for both series. There were happy themes, sad themes, danger music, chase music, bridges, accents, endings, stabs.... every kind of musical mood we could think of. We cut them all together onto quarter-inch plastic tape reels, giving each musical segment a title, and appended a list of the cues on the tape boxes.
We recorded the dialog in New York and Hollywood. It happened that that at the time, Jack Mercer, the voice of Popeye, was in New York, and Mae Questel, Olive Oyl, was in Hollywood. It was beyond our budget to bring them together, so we had to record them separately, each doing half of the conversations between them. Pros like they didnt bat an eyelash at such an odd way of working. When we cut the tapes together, with their fast-moving, interacting dialog, viewers of our cartoons could never imagine that Popeye & Olive, were actually 3,000 miles apart as they spoke with each other and not by telephone either! (That sort of thing is routine today. Pop music tracks are often recorded individually by musicians who might be anywhere in the world.)
We also had prepared several reels of every kind of sound-effect stuff I had put together over the years. All of this we dubbed onto a series of tape recorders right in the living room of our Prague apartment. We first cut together all of the dialog lines, as an over-all timing guide. Most people realize by now that television is not so much a visual medium as it is an illustrated talking medium. Tom & Jerry cartoons were real work to time, because they were basically action-pantomime films. TV cartoons are much simpler, as the characters constantly talk-talk-talk. So it was relatively easy to cut the dialog together to the required film length, just leaving appropriate gaps for sound effects and musical punctuation.
In those days of hand splicing, that is exactly what we did, intercutting the dialog, music and effects on separate reels, with blank leader tape between each cue. We mixed the music and effects onto one track of my simple Ampex 601-2 7_ips 2-track-stereo tape recorder, and copied the dialog lines onto the other track. Of course, in those days I had to import everything the recorders, the recording tape, the leader tape, the extra reels, the splicing bars, the splicing tape, the FloMaster pens to mark the cuts, and even the single-edge razor blades. If Id forgotten any of the items when shopping for them in New York, I couldnt have done the job!
The edited tapes were sent out to each of the production units, and all they had to do was animate to the tracks. To accommodate different language versions, the dialog track was dialed out and new language mixed in. Al and I had a real soundtrack production line going in my living room!
These custom projects kept us going for a couple more years, but when they dried up, Snyder managed to snag Paramount Pictures, and offered to finance a couple of pilots for their approval. (I had no idea if he was actually paying Czechoslovak Filmexport, or just promising to pay, and I didnt ask.) Anyway, our most creative phase was about to start!
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.