Chapter 27: A Tangled Web
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 and Charlotte'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 adapt Charlotte'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.