Chapter 23: Self-Help For Nudnik
Our fun-films, and my personal best character. The 60s were probably our peak-Prague years.
A hilarious book turned up, called Self Defense for Cowards, written by Alice McGrath, and hilariously illustrated by an old colleague from Hubley's 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 Baker's book, "How To Live With a Neurotic Dog," and Don Sauer's "The Girl Watcher's 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 agressively drunk. "You've 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 airforce 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 didn't have much to give. By this time the poor guy was completely shot, and he couldn't 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.