After fending off McCarthyism, Gene Deitch resumes work with JHO.
An excerpt from Gene Deitchs book, How To Succeed In Animation (Dont Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).
Want to read from the beginning? Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.
McCarthyism had turned Gene Deitchs world upside down. The Pentagon accused him of being a member of the Communist Party, but Gene successfully fought the charges and resumed his career.
The affair could have nipped my animation career just as it was budding. The actual truth was that I had indeed been an intense left-winger in my teens and early twenties in Hollywood, though never an active communist, and I of course knew that some of our jazz session guests might have been actual communists. I had hoped that my early political orientation would not surface at JHO, which was all-out-right-wing conservative almost an annex to the mighty General Motors Corp.
So it was terrifying and obviously job-threatening. Having privately smirked at what I saw as a jingoistic outfit, I now had to be grateful that the Christian Science veneer did steer the leaders of the company toward tolerance. At least they were not willing to peremptorily dump me until a case against me was proven. I was grateful for their fairness, and dedicated myself to do the best job I could for them. I wasnt at all converted to the worship of Big Business, but I learned that if you have a wife and kids, and the need to make a living, you have to make a fundamental choice. If your beliefs are strong enough, you must take a stand and say to hell with the establishment. But I found that nothing was that clear.
Though I despised the McCarthy witch-hunters, I had been equally turned off by the communists I had known in Hollywood, with their rigid and mindless Stalinist acceptance. I learned right there, that finding any creed to believe in unquestioningly is a tough call. There is no substitute for independent thinking.
Resuming my full role as head of the JHO animation unit, I was plunged into the development of a film for the U.S. Air Force, to be aimed at recruitment. It would be shown at schools, with the idea of instilling the romance of flying into their little heads. Mass air travel had not yet taken hold, but was clearly on the horizon, and we were all dazzled by airplanes. In my first wartime job, I had been a parts-catalog illustrator at North American Aviation, in Inglewood, California. I learned to read blueprints, and to draw detailed aircraft parts assemblies in such a way that the thousands of unskilled employees could see how to put them together. Though it seemingly had nothing to do with animation, the understanding of technology I gained in this work was extremely valuable to my later career.
Besides peering at blueprints, I also was able to walk through the plant to see how the actual parts were attached to actual planes. Through the din of constant riveting and stamping of aluminum sheeting, I saw the great planes of World War II being assembled. The two main products of the plant were the magnificent B-24 Billy Mitchell bomber, and the elegant P-51 Mustang fighter. What a gorgeous plane that was! I definitely caught the airplane bug, and so I was very enthusiastic about the Air Force film I was about to make at JHO.
Still under the UPA influence, I thought about Gerald McBoing-Boing, the parable of a little boy with an extreme speech impediment. He couldnt speak words, he went boing-boing instead! Its a basic of movie cartoons that there has to be something extreme about a character. Donald Duck and Daffy Duck both rose to fame on the weird sounds of their twisted tongues. Some kind of impediment or physical extreme has to be there. So I just extended this idea, and created a little boy whose passion for airplanes caused him to actually grow little wings from his shoulder blades. I called him Roger Windsock, Roger from the airplane pilots standard response of understanding, and Windsock from the cloth tube that flutters from poles at airports. Rudy Zamora mainly animated the film, but I never saw it finished. This time, my tenure at JHO was interrupted by good news!
I got a phone call from Steve Bosustow that kicked my adrenaline. He was flying to Detroit to see me! (There it was! The age of air travel had actually come into my life!)
The fact that the prez of UPA would fly across the country to see me, the former apprentice, gave me a gratifying boost. Somehow, word of my accomplishments in the bosom of big business had made its way back to my true home studio. My old boss, Bill Murray, the leading live-action director at JHO, continued to be my booster, and felt that my light would eventually go out, if indefinitely hidden under the Jam Handy bushel. He had kept UPA informed of my progress. Again luck. Its great to have the right kind of friends!
When Steve arrived, he told me more of what he only had sketched out on the phone; that UPA had decided to open a New York branch in order to cash in on its reputation, and go for the now burgeoning TV commercial market.
He knew the lure of the Big Apple with UPA was something I could hardly refuse, even though his offer came with a catch. I was now a genuine animation director, having personally directed five longish films, and many TV commercials. But Steve had committed to Abe Liss as director, and he offered me only the second position as the New York studio production designer.
Then there was money. I couldnt consider even the lure of returning to the nest and glamorous Gotham without a substantially higher income. Manhattan living costs were something else than in the Detroit suburbs.
The classic Bosustow touch was next. He put his hand on my shoulder once again. Earlier, it had been to suggest that I was being groomed as the next UPA director. This time, it was a plea for the acceptance of poverty: Gene, youre a Marxist, arent you? There I was, in the city where I had been accused of being a Marxist a threat to my existence, and now I was expected to be a Marxist and accept a low salary as a comradely act for the UPA commune. It was hard to keep a straight face.
But hell, you know what I had to do, and so did I. I went along with it, because the promise was obviously there. Steve was willing to transport me, my wife and kids and my worldly goods to a lovely apartment in Westchester County, New York, and place me in the founding cadre of UPA-NY.
To read more about the production of these classics, visit Genes online book.
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 Hubleys 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 more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.
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