Joe Vogel was the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1961, when our Prague-produced Munro won us the Oscar. MGM had belatedly realized that they had made a big booboo when they fired Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera and closed down their animation unit. Vogel began casting about to find a possible way to continue their prime cartoon property, Tom & Jerry. Bill Snyder, my producer, stepped quickly into the breach, brandishing our Oscar statuette, and assured Vogel that we were the very ones to do it -- not having the faintest idea whether or not we could. Willy-nilly, we became the very first to attempt continuing these characters!
Biting a Bullet
Personally, as a UPA man, I had always cited Tom & Jerry cartoons as the primary bad example of senseless violence -- humor based on pain -- attack and revenge -- to say nothing of the tasteless use of a headless black woman stereotype house servant. Then there was the Prague animation studio itself, with its diametrically opposed school of storybook animation, always tastefully designed and restrained.
Even if the spirit was willing to give it an honest try, the fact remained that these communist-era, isolated animators had never in their lives seen even one Tom & Jerry cartoon! I had seen more than a few, and in spite of my ideological distance, I did appreciate the perfect craftsmanship, the expressive animation, with its exquisite timing, the endless gag inventiveness and the characters' incredible damage survival.
I felt that I understood the idiom enough to adapt to its basics, but how in the world was I going to get it across to the capable but totally Tom & Jerry-innocent group of Prague animators?
Adding to these obvious hurdles was the time and budget restrictions we were presented. Whereas Bill and Joe, and mostly the same four or five animators, had been doing Tom & Jerry for about twenty years at that time -- surely knowing the characters better than their own children -- and whereas they had been producing the cartoons for over $40,000 each (I think making about six of them per year), we were contracted to produce 12 in a year, from a standing start, with a peanuts studio budget of only $10,000 a piece!
Bringing Hollywood to Prague
It was clear to me that the undertaking was basically impossible, and I knew that my colleagues in the animation industry would be unforgiving in their appraisal of our results. Yet there were overriding personal and financial considerations that made it imperative that I take on this guillotine project. Readers of my book, For The Love Of Prague, will know that in 1961, receiving an Oscar and having production offers such as this as a result, was the key to my being able to stay in Prague long enough to sort out my personal life and be able to marry Zdenka. So Tom & Jerry were actually battling each other to save me! So I had to suppress my preconceptions, rise to the challenge and do my very best to adapt to the idea that mayhem can be fun.
The first step was for my new colleagues to see some examples. MGM sent me exactly four 35mm Tom & Jerry prints, plus the most recent model sheets, and a few stacks of actual pencil animation, the original drawings on paper. We all studied the material over and over, running the films in projection and on the studio's editing tables. We watched for the little timing tricks, the "takes," the basic attitudes and facial expressions. We practiced drawing the characters in their typical poses.
I knew that story would be the vital ingredient, so I called on my old colleagues, Larz Bourne, Eli Bauer, Tod Dockstader, and even some Tom & Jerry veteran gagmen, for storyboards. I also did some and reworked those that came in. I was the only one present who could draw American style cartoon characters and their facial expressions, so I personally drew all the layouts and key poses. (So there, I am taking the blame for those vital elements! But it was a struggle to get the non-violent Czech animators to hold to them.)
But even though our Tom & Jerrys were never good enough for the animation history mavens, Joe Vogel and his MGM team were well-satisfied with our results. They were only nervous about the communist Czechoslovak connection. We were able to use the classic MGM roaring lion logo to head up our Tom & Jerrys, but the originals always had the line, "Made in Hollywood, USA" on the end titles. Obviously, we could not put, "Made in communist Czechoslovakia" on our titles! We were not even allowed to credit any Czechs with their true names. To belatedly set the record straight, here are some examples: "Victor Little" was actually: Václav Lídl, composer "S. Newman" was actually: Zdenka Najmanová, production manager "M. Clicker" was actually: Milan Klikar, my premier animator "Dennis Smith" was actually: Zdenek Smetana, animator
A Shortened Run
Before we had even finished our first 12 cartoons, Joe Vogel, who had seemed to me to be the very symbol of the powerful movie studio tycoon, was booted out of MGM. Thus we lost our Tom & Jerry patron. The new bosses wanted the production closer to home. So just as we felt we were beginning to get the hang of Tom & Jerry, we were not allowed to develop further, as had the original Hanna and Barbera crew. Just look at the first 12 Tom & Jerry films they did and tell me they were hilarious classics!
I am confident that whatever failings our 12 Tom & Jerry cartoons had, they were very close to the Hanna and Barbera originals in appearance. The great master, Chuck Jones, the next to try continuing Tom & Jerry, went his own merry-melody way with the character models, and I don't think they survive as examples of the series, nor were they necessarily funnier than some of ours. The later attempts by others went back toward the same models we followed, although dressing the cat and mouse in trendy duds and taming them way down to the point of palship.
Today, our Tom & Jerrys are mixed right in with the earlier Hanna-Barbera's on the Cartoon Network, and I am confident that few viewers find them that much out of synch with the originals, whereas Chuck's are easily spotted as odd. Chuck himself wrote me that he simply remade the characters as his own.
But hey, Tom & Jerry sure did work for me. Along with the following Popeye and Krazy Kat series for King Features TV, it kept me in Prague long enough to marry Zdenka and assured us of enough work to keep me busy here quite possibly forever!
You can read more about Gene's roller-coaster career in the world of animation in How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!). An AWN exclusive.
Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."