Chapter 24: The Giants Win And Lose
A whole new area of work opened up for me just as the Soviet forces were breathing smoke around the borders of Czechoslovakia, and I made a film called "The Giants" that the communists banned for 20 years. For me, it was a point of pride.
By the mid-60s some conditions were beginning to lighten up in communist Czechoslovakia. I have covered all of that in my book of memoirs of what life was like in this place in those days, "For The Love of Prague." To find out how I managed to have a life and how I worked under the local conditions, check out my website: http://www.fortheloveofprague.com/
In this book I will only go into the aspects of the communist environment that had a direct connection to my work in animation. Even though I always was and still am doing work exclusively for clients in the West, I had to actually do the work in Prague, and the spirit of the people around me certainly had its effect on the work.
The rising spirit was fed by the terrific movies of Milos Forman and Jiří Menzel, and the amazing plays by Václav Havel and others, which began to appear. It became the great Czech wave of the 60's! Suddenly the spirit caught the managing director of the Prague animation studio, and he asked me if I would do a film for them. I've made it clear that my film work has always been mainly commercial. I don't consider myself any great creator, though I have come up with a few popular characters. I have done virtually all of my films on order for clients. I am very good at what I call "creative problem solving." I enjoy the challenge of trying to adapt the creations of others into films. So I celebrate myself with the self-dubbed title of "Creative Problem Solver." Only rarely do I have the chance to create something original on my own. There were the brief Terrytoons days and Tom Terrific, and Nudnik in Prague - otherwise, I have been adapting the creations of others. Now Krátky Film, the parent organization of the animation studio, and itself a division of the State Film, run by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture, part of the Czechoslovak Socialist (Communist-run) Republic... was offering to finance an original animated film by me. "Anything I would like to do!" they promised. A dilemma.
The chance to do an original story, a "serious" animated film, was a strong lure, but [1.] I could not afford to do a film that in any way might be used as or thought to be communist propaganda. [2.] I could not afford to alter my status as an external representative of Western producers, and not in any way an employee of the Czechoslovak government nor its film studios. [3.] I could not financially afford to work for non-exchangeable Czech crowns, the local money. In the 60's I was still paying child support and alimony to my former wife. I had to earn dollars. For all those reasons, I had to reluctantly turn down the offer.
But the times they were a'changing. As the 60's neared their end, Snyder was weakening. His series of failures to capitalize on what we were doing had drained off his financing. We tried every sort of thing, but he wasn't able to market anything. We did an Alley Oop Pilot, even a try at Uncle Wiggily. We pasted some of Snyder's first films here together into a feature- length thing called Alice in Paris. I threw my former comic strip, "Terri'ble Thompson!" into the pot, changing it to "Terr'ble Tessie!" with the adventurer a girl - thirty years ahead of the current trend - but Snyder had foxed so many people that he had no credit in the business. Once being the "Baron of Bohemia," as one of the first Americans to do business here, he left Prague with his debt-ridden tail between his legs.
My contract with him came to an end. It appeared that my days in Prague were also numbered. And then, one of those strokes of luck appeared. Remember what I wrote earlier about luck? Don't knock it. You can, (if you're lucky) make luck happen. Here's how I stumbled onto it:
Back at Terrytoons, during the short period when I was creative chief of that huge studio, owned by CBS and producing CinemaScope cartoons for 20th Century-Fox - Big Time Stuff - a modest young man begged to see me. He had picked up a happily over-optimistic image of me as a maker of artistic and meaningful animation movies, and hoped I could absorb what he was doing into CBS-Terrytoons distribution. The man's name was Morton Schindel, and he entered my office clutching several small cans of 16mm films. I took him upstairs to our projection theater and ran them off. They were simply children's picture books that had been scanned and panned by a 16mm movie camera, no animation whatever, with modest storyteller narration, and light musical scores. Schindel put the best spin on these motionless movies by labeling his technique as "iconographic."