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, and in the next chapter you can read the never-before published letters that reveal the true story.
"0 what a tangled web we weave,when first we practise to deceive!"
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
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 andCharlotte'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 adaptCharlotte'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 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.
The following letter to his lawyer show's White's innocence in the matter of film rights contracts. He was feeling his way, trying to protect his work:
To ALEXANDER LINDEY North Brooklin, Me.] May 22, 1967
Your proposed terms of contract sound all right to me, all twelve of them.
I'm not sure I understand 3b. In addition to a fee of $20,000 the Hubleys will share in the alleged profits, won't they? (You'll have to excuse my ignorance in these matters.)
In 4, I don't know what "merchandising rights" means. Does this refer to my right, subsequently, to make other deals, or does it refer to objects of merchandise - dolls, pigs, sweatshirts? Again excuse ignorance.
There should probably be a clause somewhere prohibiting the publication in book form of the screenplay or of any other adaptation of my book. When Disney made "Mary Poppins" he got out a book, "The Walt Disney Mary Poppins." I'm against anything of that sort.
I'm catching the mail with this letter. Tomorrow I'll try to get off another note to you, clarifying my desires about my "right of approval." This seems likely to be the touchiest and haziest of all the elements of the agreement.
To ALEXANDER LINDEY [North Brooklin, Me.] May 24,1967
The purpose of the "right of approval" clause is two-fold: it should protect me from a motion picture version of "Charlotte's Web" that violates the spirit and meaning of the story, and it should protect the Hubleys from obstructive behavior of an author. The movie will be their creation, not mine, and they will naturally want to get on with it in the way they feel it should go. I believe they are sympathetic with and agreeable to my desire to have a look at the screenplay, see sketches of the principal characters, and hear the principal voices. This shouldn't be either difficult or expensive.
I want the chance to edit the script wherever anything turns up that is a gross departure or a gross violation. I also would like to be protected against the insertion of wholly new material - songs, jokes, capers, episodes. I don't anticipate trouble of this sort; the Hubleys have already expressed to me in a letter (as well as verbally) their desire to produce a faithful adaptation, and I believe them to be sincere in this.
This approval business is sensitive, though. Artistic temperaments and pride can easily get on a collision course. In the elaborate papers sent me by Jap Gude, for instance, it says
"Owner shall have the right of approval, not to be unreasonably withheld. "(Italics mine.) I don't know at what point a man's opinion, or stricture, becomes "unreasonable." What may seem reasonable to me may well seem unreasonable to the Hubleys. This is the joker. We will just have to work it out between us as best we can.
I will give you an example of what I call a "gross" violation. In my book, Charlotte dies. If, in the screenplay, she should turn up alive at the end of the story in the interests of a happier ending, I would consider this a gross violation, and I would regard my disapproval as reasonable.
Good luck! Andy
(From "Letters of E.B.White - Harper - pages 549-550)
It is amazing that here White writes precisely of the rights of approval he should have in any film adaptation of his work, yet three years later, when he signed with Sagittarius, he settled only for the right to approve the model of Charlotte. Nothing else! The letter to Milton Greenspan, may explain the difference. The Hubleys were signing for film rights without yet having financial backing. In 1970 Sagittarius was paying him "a lot of money," and so he acquiesced to whatever they demanded.
To MILTON GREENSTEIN [North Brooklin, Me.] November 17, 1970
It was good to talk to you. I have signed the four copies of the "Charlotte's Web" agreement with Sagittarius, and they are enclosed. Thanks for all your work and for straightening me out last night on the phone, and may good luck go with both of us. And send me a bill. This involves a lot of money, so make the bill in proportion - or, as we writers would say, big.
The director, Gene Deitch, who was here Sunday and whom I got on with fine, listened to a fragment of my recording of the book, and it is possible that he may decide to use my voice in narration. Deitch is American-born, but lives in Prague with a Czech wife... He has had 25 years in cartoon film production, worked with UPA, and has scooped up many honors in his field... I feel fairly happy about Deitch - happy as I can ever be in never-never land, which still gives me the shakes.
(From "The Letters of EB White," Harper Page 608).
Note the line, "this involves a lot of money." That line possibly sealed my fate.) So how did this brilliant writer and good guy get suckered into sacrificing what is perhaps his greatest creation?
30 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 it's 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-Barberra... 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-Barberra 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.
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.
Andy's wife Kay wrote me 'in 1977: "We have never ceased to regret that your version of "Charlotte's Web " never got made. The Hanna-Barberra version has never pleased either of us... a travesty... "
But how could such a creative disaster come about? Here's how:
Michael Campus pitched a renewed Charlotte project to Andy White, and brought it to Sagittarius for financing. Mike was a budding live- action director, hoping he could get a movie to direct from Sagittarius, but in the meantime producing Charlotte, Mike chose me to write the script and direct, immediately making Henry White nervous. I was not a Hollywood name, and I lived and worked behind the iron curtain. But Sagittarius had to accept Mike's choice, as he had brought in the property. In return for this chance, he had to take the fatal step of signing over the movie rights to Sagittarius. No one shared these ominous portents with me. I was pulsing with excitement. My first step, in November 1970, was to fly with Mike to North Brooklin, Maine, to meet E.B.White.
The flight was to Bangor, and from there by car - rugged country. We passed a house with a deceased bear hanging from a tree in the front yard. Life, survival, and death are part of the landscape.
White's house was just as you might imagine, a large, sturdy white clapboard home, far from the turgid milieu of the New Yorker magazine, for which he was still writing. He greeted Mike and me at the door, and introduced us to his infirm wife, Kay. We were made to feel at home, were fed good country food, and quickly fell into talk of spiders, pigs, rats, and barns - the stuff of Charlotte's Web. Thus began my intensive relationship with Andy White, which lasted nearly until his death. But this great writer and word-person knew nothing at all of the essentials of cinematic transformation of a book.
He had recently recorded his own voice reading Charlotte's Web in its entirety. The recording ran for three hours and twenty minutes. What Andy White basically wanted, was for us to simply put his recording on the soundtrack and illustrate it. I had been given a production limit of a 90-minute film. My first task was to gently convince him that I would be true to the essence of his book, while having the necessity of adapting it to the scenes and shots of film continuity. Andy wanted exposition by narration of his words from the book. I knew I must tell the story with action, so we were in gentle conflict, and great discretion was needed from me.
Andy loaded me with farmyard lore, and with his personally annotated copy of the book. I returned to Prague full of enthusiasm, despite the odds, and began my basic research. Henry White's Sagittarius Productions secretary, Leila Khouri, was a great help in getting me the books I needed.
If a story set in an American farm was to be produced in Prague we had to learn all the details of spiders, pigs, and barn life. These details were important; even the shape of an American handaxe differs from a European one!
Mike Campus was a bright, perceptive and sympathetic young man. I was happy to be working with him. We got along wonderfully, and had closely matched views on the project. I suppose I especially liked him because he so enthusiastically approved everything I was writing on the screenplay! He was my official approver, and of course I needed to be able to bounce everything off him as I went along. I also wanted to be able to bring Andy White into the process, so that he could be sure of our respect for his book. But almost from the beginning, this became more and more difficult.
Soon after the fanfare of the project's launch with Henry White and Edgar Bronfman, they began to ignore me. And no sooner had they assigned Mike Campus to work with me, than they whisked him away to direct a film in Denmark. This was Mike's big chance. He was torn between two attractive projects, but couldn't refuse a chance to direct his own film. (It was Zero Population Growth, with Geraldine Chaplin and Oliver Reed - The poor title sounded like a documentary, and the film sunk without a trace.)
The worst and most difficult condition I had to accept was that I was forbidden to show any of my script to the author! My correspondence with Andy had to be general, without revealing anything directly from my developing script. The handwriting on the wall was neon red, but still I soldiered on.