Chapter 27: A Tangled Web
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.