Here is the complete documentation of possibly my greatest creative loss. But my loss was nothing compared to what befell E.B. "Andy" White. Letters from him and his wife indicate the depressing effect the debacle had on his health. I know one thing for sure. No one ever saw the storyboard we created. No one rejected it. It was irrelevant to the powers that ignored it.
Charlotte began spinning with all eight legs. Right off the bat, Andy White started sending me some wonderful material. I can never be sure that he would have accepted my screenplay of his book; he was obviously put off by what little he saw of my preliminary development. But I believe that if only I was allowed to work with him personally, on the basis of our positive personal relationship, that the small conflicts could have been worked out, compromise could have been arrived at, and a far truer version of his work would have reached the screen. Here are the letters that tell why this didn't happen. They are all authentic. I have the originals on file. They are not modified, but they are excerpted for space. Nothing is omitted that would change the meaning or intent, only personal small talk is left out. My short notes between the letters will provide background information. The letters are chronological, so you can get an idea of how the project developed.
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
December 20, 1970
This morning I unearthed a script I began, years back, when it seemed as though CHARLOTTE'S WEB was going to be filmed live. I remember when you were here your saying that perhaps a good way to start the film would be with the birth of Wilbur in the hoghouse. That's the way this thing starts, so I'll send it along with this letter, on the chance that there might be something in it that proves useful.
If you do start with the birth of Wilbur, I can give you a quick rundown of what actually happens at a farrowing– I've been there. The sow (enormous) lies on her side. She does not thrash about. The farmer sits nearby. As each tiny pig arrives, he picks it up and puts it in a box, for warmth. He ends up with a boxful of pigs. They are practically noiseless at this stage. After the sow has passed the afterbirth, she is still on her side. Sows have two rows of teats, usually ten in all---five and five. This means that when she is on her side there is an upper level and a lower level. She sometimes has to hitch herself over more onto her back in order to expose the lower level for the convenience of her children. When she is ready to feed the young ones, she utters short grunts in a low-pitched voice. The little pigs get the message, and the farmer ladles them out of the box. They instinctively stay together and line up like a squad of miniature soldiers. The corporal pays a visit to his mother's nose, where he delivers a short speech of encouragement, emphasizing the beauty of breasts and of milk. Then he returns to the squad, and pretty soon there is an assault on the mother, the young pigs rooting busily at her breasts as though they were digging for truffles. No milk as yet. Then the pigs start milling about, each seeking an advantageous position and the Teat Supreme. The forward teats on a sow are more productive than the hind ones---hence that old American phrase, "suck hind tit." After a while, with the sow still emitting her come-on grunts, the pigs settle into a formation, each, pig with his mouth around a faucet, the pigs of the upper level literally on top of the pigs of the lower level. A novice, viewing this happy scene, might suppose that the nursing has begun and that the pigs are getting nourished. Not so. But all of a sudden, as though a switch had been thrown, the milk starts to flow and the pigs sag back on their haunches and receive the gift of life.
Most farrowing pens have a low guard rail around the perimeter---about a foot above the floor and a foot out from the walls. This lessens the chance of the sow's crushing a pig when she takes it into her head to lie down.
I think you are right that the picture should have a nostalgic tone and a New England look. I also love your idea of showing a spider spinning her web as the introductory material. If you have any difficulty finding a good web-making film, Yale might put you onto one, because Yale is the bailiwick of that great arachnologist Alexander Petrunkevitch. (He may be dead, but alive or dead, he is top man in the spider world.)
I've had a gloomy time lately, with a lot of head trouble. I went to Waterville for a neurological exam and submitted to a "brain scan," which is a nuclear test and made me feel a whole lot worse. Twice a day I got out to the barn and put my head in traction, using a boat anchor, a length of clothesline, and a halter. I sometimes think a hangman's noose would be quicker and easier, but I don't know how to tie one.
We've had plenty of wintry weather and a good cover of snow. And I must leave you now and begin untangling last year's strings of Christmas tree lights. I still haven't rounded up any pictures of New England scenes for you but will try to get going on it.
Best regards and good hunting in 1971.
I was in full cry, shoveling my enthusiastic ideas to him:
Gene Deitch Mostecká 273/B Prague 1, Czechoslovakia
December 30, 1970
Thank you very much for the very helpful material you have already sent me. Your letter describing the farrowing of Digs is a treasure! All of this is helping me to round out my own first analysis and basic film treatment, point-of-view, structural ideas and so forth. I will greatly appreciate anything you care to send me, and, if you have the patience for it, I will send you my own progress reports. In your own first script (how I wish I had the whole thing!), you have a very beautiful line:
"This is a story of miracles, the miracle birth, the miracle of friendship, the miracle of death."
I would like to use that. You also state the entire story in one phrase:
"...a large spider saves the life of a pig by spinning words in her web."
I have already pounded out many pages trying to state this in terms of filmic exposition, My first problem, in trying to redevelop your story into a theatrical medium is to find the central action premise, I find it to be this:
"DEVOTION TO ANOTHER MAGNIFIES ONE'S SELF"
Within this six word line is what I now believe to be the driving force of the story in terms of its action. It gives us an underlying motivation, the reason why Charlotte the spider makes it her life's work to save Wilbur the pig. She actually needs him as much as he needs her. Wilbur becomes the instrument by which Charlotte gives meaning to her own life, and by which her memory is perpetuated as an individual, unique among the billions and billions of her ancestors, She thus becomes a spider among spiders. She even manages to convince that self-centered rat, Templeton, that there is something in it for him, in the saving of Wilbur! And Templeton, possibly the most complex of your characters in this book, does in fact do what is needed. Perhaps this is because Char1otte is able to help him satisfy his own "scruples" which do not allow him to be seen doing something for someone else out of nothing more than mere goodwill!
This is not potentially a comic-gag nor helter-skelter action cartoon. Perhaps we will create the first dramatic-humanist animation feature! Though all of the events take place within an area of the familiar, as you say, miracles occur, and thus these familiar locales and creatures must be given an aura of magic in the way they are portrayed, probably through the use of a graphic style and camera technique which will convey an atmosphere of warmth, comfort, security, humanity, and gentle humor - a rather new approach to the barnyard in a movie cartoon!
Structurally, the film divides into four seasonal sequences, each having its predominant color scheme. Each of these sequences would be introduced by a lyrical montage which would visually and aurally create the atmosphere described in the book with words.
For example, where you describe so well the smells of which conjure up the image, we would rely on sounds: the buzzing of flies, a panapoly of bird sounds, crickets, rain, distant sounds of screen door closings, farm animals, machines.
Also, I would use these seasonal sequence-opening, evocative passages to introduce various characters and plot points which might otherwise require explanations, and thus slow down the flow of the film. For example, in the opening sequence showing the coming of spring to the farm, we would incorporate shots showing the birth of baby pigs, and shots of a rat scurrying about gathering bits of strange junk, and of course, a spider meticulously constructing a web. Thus, when we come to Templeton's role in the story, we will already know the essential facts of his character and unpleasant habits.
Under the titles of course, would be seen the slow, diligent weaving of an entire spider web. In developing this idea, which I am happy that you like, I would like to see the spider rest from time to time, moving off to the side, pausing as if to survey the work in progress. And once, when a strand of the web is drawn askew, thus breaking the otherwise perfect symmetry, the spider actually undoes the line, and re-spins it to conform to the overall pattern! In this action, we are suddenly aware of a consciousness, a personality.
Then, when the titles are at last over, and the web is complete, a pure thin voice, speaking a disciplined New England dialect, would be heard to say:
"It's not bad, really. But I expect I will do better still before I am done."
Without our yet knowing it, this line would tell us in advance the whole story of our film, and the determination of its heroine.
Then we would pull away from the glistening new spider web, and begin a visual/musical poem on the annual renewal of life, which is Spring.
In addition to the dramatic/structural premise I have chosen, I would add what I feel to be the overlaying parallel themes of the story; the expression of theinterdependence of all individuals to one another, (friendship), and of all to the land, (Ecology). The story is in fact a paean to Life, and the film too must convey a feeling of joy of life, and an acceptance of its patterns. Further, the story impels tolerance for other ways of life,(and by inference, other cultures). After all, we are dealing with a PIG who sloppily slurps garbage, a RAT who scavenges anything he can get for himself, and a SPIDER who drinks blood.
Well, these are some excerpts from twelve pages of notes which I have typed up so far. Also, I have collected some very interesting samples from several artists here, and am waiting impatiently for Mike Campus's arrival to either confirm or condemn my basic filmic approach. He should be here any day, according to his last phone call. Then, I hope I will really be off on the great adventure.
As I said before, I will be in need of any and al photographic material, as detailed as possible, dealing with New England farm life.In the meantime, Zdenka and I wish you and Kay the very happiest of New Years. Now, I must run to the snow before the corner Post Office closes for the year. . . (it's Dec 31st by now!)Let's hope that during the next year, more people will get a little sip from those front teats! (Gene)
Answering this, Andy both agrees with and skillfully tempers my probings. I am learning the basics from him!
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
January 12, 1971
It was generous of you to send me such a detailed report of your scheme for the picture. This afternoon I sent you a few more photographs –they were taken in Canada, but they are close to New England in form and spirit.
You said in your letter (about my script) "how I wish I had the whole thing." You have everything I wrote; there wasn't any more.
I've studied your letter very carefully and find myself in sympathy, or agreement, with most of it. I do hope, though, that you are not planning to turn "Charlotte's Web" into a moral tale. It is not that at all. It is, I think, an appreciative story, and there is quite a difference. It celebrates life, the seasons, the goodness of the barn, the beauty of the world, the glory of everything. But it is essentially amoral, because animals are essentially amoral, and I respect them, and I think this respect is implicit in the tale. I discovered, quite by accident, that reality and fantasy make good bedfellows. I discovered that there was no need to tamper in any way with the habits and characteristics of spiders, pigs, geese, and rats. No "motivation" is needed if you remain true to life and true to the spirit of fantasy. I would hate to see Charlotte turned into a "dedicated" spider: she is, if anything, more the Mehitabel type–toujours gai. She is also a New Englander, precise and disciplined. She does what she does. Perhaps she is magnifying herself by her devotion to another, but essentially she is just a trapper....
As for Templeton, he's an old acquaintance and I know him well. He starts as a rat and he ends as a rat – the perfect opportunist and a great gourmand. I devoutly hope that you are not planning to elevate Templeton to sainthood....
An aura of magic is essential, because this is a magical happening. Much can be done by music of the right kind, as when the moment arrives when communication takes place between the little girl and the animals in the barn cellar. This is truly a magical moment and should be so marked by the music. (I hear it as a sort of thrumming, brooding sound, like the sound of crickets in the fall, or katydids, or cicadas. It should be a haunting, quiet, steady sound–subdued and repetitive. )
Even more can be done by words, if you are able to use them. (You'll have to forgive me for being a word man, but that's what I am.)
In writing of a spider, I did not make the spider adapt her ways to my scheme. I spent a year studying spiders before I ever started writing the book. In this, I think I found the key to the story. I hope you will, in your own medium, be true to Charlotte and to nature in general.
My feeling about animals is just the opposite of Disney's. He made them dance to his tune and came up with some great creations, like Donald Duck. I preferred to dance to their tune and came up with Charlotte and Wilbur. It would be futile and unfair to compare the two approaches, but you are stuck with my scheme and will probably come out better if you go along with it. Both techniques are all right, each in its own way, but I have a strong feeling that you can't mix them. It just comes natural to me to keep animals pure and not distort them or take advantage of them.
Interdependence? I agree that the film should be a paean to life, a hymn to the barn, an acceptance of dung. But I think it would be quite untrue to suggest that barnyard creatures are dependent on each other. The barn is a community of rugged individualists, everybody mildly suspicious of everybody else, including me. Friendships sometimes develop, as between a goat and a horse, but there is no sense of true community or cooperation. Heaven forfend! Joy of life, yes. Tolerance of other cultures, yes. Community, no.
I just want to add that there is no symbolism in "Charlotte's Web." And there is no political meaning in the story. It is a straight report from the barn cellar, which I dearly love, having spent so many fine hours there, winter and summer, spring and fall, good times and bad times, with the garrulous geese, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, and the sameness of sheep.
K sends her best to you and Zdenka.
If by chance you've forgotten what a great writer E.B.White was, just read his next letter to me, and feel my inspiration.
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
February 3, 1971
Thanks for your great letter. I agree with William James. If the film of CHARLOTTE'S WEB, or any other film you make, outlasts you, you are 1iving properly. It is true that my story celebrates the great themes, birth, death, renewal; and it is true that it explores the high virtues---friendship, love, loyalty, fidelity. But being a fabulist, I can assure you that this is a story of the aninma1 kingdom, which of course includes that strangest of the mammals, man. It is not a story of the human kingdom, or human condition, and any attempt to cut it down to that level would invite disaster. When I wrote the book, I was operating on the highest level (which incidentally is where you meet children face to face and where dumb creatures and humans mingle in perfect equality).
It is all very well to say that "Charlotte's Web was a web of love which extended beyond her own lifespan." But you should never lose sight of the fact that it was a web spun by a true arachnid, not by a de facto person. One has eight legs and has been around for an unbelievably long time on this earth; the other has two legs and has been around just long enough to raise a lot of hell, drain the swamps, and bring the planet to the verge of extinction.
I am not trying to disclaim the message in the book. I just want to make sure you've got the message. A fabulist takes animals and gives them an extra dimension, in this case speech. Certainly one of the commonest assumptions of the human animal is that the universe was constructed for his particular benefit, that he is the center of it, and that the, other creatures are of an inferior sort ~ spotted about to lend variety to the scene. A false and dangerous assumption. Remember Warty Bliggens? - the toad that believed that the earth existed for his particular enjoyment, the sun to give him light by day and the moon and wheeling constellations to make beautiful the night for the sake of Warty Bliggens." Warty was the creation of Don Marquis, another fabulist. It's one of his best pieces. As you say, spiders do not talk to pigs, except in the world of the fable. But when conversation does finally take place, in that fabulous and pure world, it is indeed a spider who talks, indeed a pig. It is not a woman in spider's clothing, or a boy in a pig's skin. Be true to animals, O Good Gene, and you will live forever. When you enter the barn cellar, remove your hat.
May good luck and a steady faith go with you!
Just when the good vibrations had me enthralled, who had to pee in the soup but none-other than good ol' Bill Snyder. The following letter, full of bombast and falsehoods, was enough to turn off Henry White totally. Now he not only had his fear of producing behind the iron curtain, but possible trouble from a blowhard like Snyder. I got a copy of this letter from Mike Campus, who was confronted with it by White. Mike refuted it point by point, but who listens to facts when fear rules his heart?
February 17, 1971
Mr. Henry White
375 Park Avenue
New York, New York
Dear Mr. White:
I am astonished by your letter of January 18th which did not reach my eyes until my return from California
These are the facts:
- that at a meeting with you arranged by Seymour Mayer, I urged you to abandon the ridiculous idea of making CHARLOTTE'S WEB in Copenhagen and suggested that you produce same in conjunction with me through facilities that I had available in Prague and under the direction of Gene Deitch.
- that upon your request, I sent you samples of several cartoons that I had produced in Prague, prints that you have yet to return.
- that you phoned me several days later and asked for another meeting to explore my suggestion further.
- that at this second meeting, in the presence of Mr. Edgar Bronfman. We arranged to meet in Prague on a specific day.
- that subsequently you advised me that a Mr. Mike Campus would meet with me instead of yourself.
- that Mr. Campus arrived in Prague several days in advance of our scheduled meeting and after a series of frantic phone calls, I arranged for him to meet with Gene Deitch and explore the facilities I had suggested and could arrange.
- that Mr. Campus met with Mr. Deitch, initiated a private deal with Deitch, and when Deitch asked what the position of Snyder was, told Deitch, "Don't worry about Snyder, we will take care of him," or words to that effect.
- that upon my arrival in Prague, after the departure of Campus, I initiated an arrangement with Czechoslovak State Film for their facilities for the production of CHARLOTTE'S WEB.
- that you subsequently pursued independently with Czechoslovak State Film your own arrangements that would exclude my participation.
- that all of the above actions are unethical, illegal, and prejudicial to my relationship with Czechoslovak State Film which has existed for more than twenty years.
I await a prompt response to the above.
Very truly yours,
William L. Snyder
cc: Mr. Seymour Mayer
Mr. Edgar Bronfman
Two obvious facts were that my contract with Bill Snyder had ended in 1967, and that Snyder owed so much money to Czechoslovak Filmexport that he was virtually run out of town, and could only continue to produce if he paid off his enormous debt, and paid cash in advance for any future production. When Henry White, wanting to check out the production conditions in Prague met with Snyder, Bill immediately saw gold, as he did in 1968 with Morton Schindel. He quickly began to weave his own web. Henry White immediately blamed Campus for getting him into what appeared to be a troubled scene, and started to undermine our project. I was apparently still in, but the Production in Prague looked less and less likely. Mike had to convey to me two pieces of bad news. 1. I was forbidden to show any more of my script or discuss my treatment with E.B. White, and 2. Mike was leaving me and going to Copenhagen to direct a film. I dispatched a registered letter to Henry White, pointing out that I would henceforth be working in the dark, with no feedback from the author, and no counseling or approvals from my producer! I pointed out to him that the studio was turning away work from the following year in order to make room for Charlotte. This was the curt reply:
SAGITTARIUS PRODUCTIONS INC.
375 PARK AVE. - NEW YORK, N.Y. 10022 - 758-4530
HENRY S. WHITE cable SAGITTAR, N.Y.
president May 3, 1971
Mr. Gene Deitch
Prague 1, Czechoslovakia
This is in response to your "registered" letter of 26th April.
It is suggested that you continue working with your sketch artists on the
storyboard with the laudable intention of completing these elements by the agreed upon date. We shall look forward to seeing it
We think you and the studio are making a mistake in rejecting or delaying all other projects through the end of 1972 because of the expectation that "Charlotte's Web" will be produced in Prague.
To date we have complied with all our contractual obligations and made all the payments which have come due. We cannot and will not be rushed into a final production commitment at this time. If this means that you and the studio wish to make other commitments, we can only urge you to do so.
We do not wish to commit ourselves any further to Czechoslovak Filmexport at this time. Our major objective is to keep all of our options open. It may well turn out that with this material in hand, we could develop a satisfactory arrangement on this side of the Iron Curtain.
We hope all of this is clear.
Cordially, (Henry White)
Crystal clear. And I loved that "cordially." Not only must I not show any more of my adaptation development to Andy, but I must not even tell him I must not! Andy was confused, and he developed a fear that I was going to turn his book into a musical. He did not know that I was ordered by Sagittarius to create songs. But my songs were to be background, voice-over songs, and not sung by the characters. My hands were effectively tied.
Gene Deitch Mostecká 273/B Prague 1, Czechoslovakia
Mike sort of panicked when I told him that I had sent you a few trial pages of script, and he asked me not to mail the answer I had written you,(in answer to yours of March 10th and llth.)
In the meantime, Mike himself is having some pretty hard times on his other (live-action) feature film, and I feel rather uncomfortable about being out of touch with you. The fact is that your comments and criticisms were extremely helpful to me, and as a result o£ them, I started over again.
Now I have finished the entire screenplay, and am working on the visual storyboard version. I honestly believe that I have been true to the meaning and spirit of your book. The fact is that I love CHAPLOTTE'S WEB. You may or may not be able to picture the problem of adapting a book, however perfect in its own terms, to the complex medium of film.
Only one fact will help you to understand the basic starting problem: Your own sure and true reading of the book onto phonograph records takes 3 hours and twenty minutes, give or take a groove or two. Our film must hold to a running time of just 90 minutes. This, plus the inherent nature of the motion picture medium, require adaptations which are difficult to explain to an author. The aim however, in my view, is not to mimic the book, nor to create a substitute for the book, but to illuminate the book, supplement the book, and at best to lead people (who haven't) to want to read the book, to hopefully get more out of reading. Or, having read the book, to help them appreciate the book all the more; to underline what is in the book, and not to add something unnecessarily which is not in the book. At least, those are my aims.
I hate to spoil your image of me, but the fact is that I am a word man too. I love words, and I know that part of this story of yours is to show the power and effectiveness of the written word. Your words are beautiful, and I have maintained as many of them as I possibly could.
I imagine that what you would really like is if somehow your whole book, word for word could be transferred to the screen, just as you transferred it to those record grooves. But Andy, I am sure you would be disappointed in such a film if you saw it. What I aim to do is to use a combination of your words, with images) movement, juxtapositions, music and sounds, to project the essence of the book, within our financial and technical means. No film can ever realize a 100% of our dreams in planning it, but what is important is our aim. If it is high enough, even if we fall somewhat short, we are still a good ways off the ground.
Let me assure you that I as intensely aware of my responsibility to all those readers who love and know your book line by line, I have tried, and will try to maintain all the love that is in it. There will be no disneyfylng, no betrayal of character (Incidentally Avery, is definitely not scratched!)
Dear Andy, have faith, keep well. The last thing I would wish to do is to add to your physical or mental distress. Be assured that I will always remove my hat when entering the barn!
Love conquers all, (well, sometimes.) Gene
Yes, it was crystal clear that my Charlotte project was doomed. Having pushed my storyboard delivery date one month forward to June 1st, Henry White seemed confident I wouldn't make it, and that they wouldn't have to pay the double-whammy penalty. So I worked night and day to have it ready. There was no such thing as FedEx, UPS,DHL,or any other reliable delivery service. Czechoslovak Filmexport relied on tightly controlled Air Cargo. Zdenka did everything possible to have it arranged. I had my storyboard recorded frame by frame on 35mm film, got it packed, along with my written script, and shot it off on May 28, along with a covering letter. It arrived on time. Then I received this telegram:
Gene Deitch Mostecká 273/B Prague 1, Czechoslovakia
June 3, 1971
In a baffling blow, Sagittarius has rejected my storyboard without even looking at it!
For six months I have been working night and day, seven days a week, and managed to produce and send to them on time 775 beautifully colored story sketches, captioned with my complete, revised screenplay.
As you see in the cable, they didn't even do me the courtesy of looking at it.
Obviously, something strange and unpleasant has happened. I can onlyguess what, but it doesn't appear to have anything to do with me.
At the beginning, when I first met with you and Mike in North Brooklin, it was clearly understood and promised to me that Mike would work closely with me all the way, but no sooner did Henry White sign me up than he whisked Mike away from me, and set him to directing another film in Copenhagen.
I was left completely on my own, and more or less ignored, though Mike, when I could reach him, did enthusiastically approve everything I had written.
Andy, I had you in mind and heart at every stage of my work, and I felt sure that if I could have shown you my finished storyboard, you would have liked it. But I was expressly forbidden to show you anything.
I did have to make some technical, structural changes, combine elements and eliminate others, to accommodate, and make full use of, the special nature or film, and to conform to my 90 minute time limit. However, I truly believe that I have retained and illuminated every ;essential of story, of love, and of meaning in your book.
Is CHARLOTTE really dead? Is all my time wasted? Is Mike free to try again? I have as yet not heard from him, and I have no idea what is his position now. I like Mike, and trust him. I do not believe that this cancellation was his wish or doing.
I believe in CHARLOTTE, I have now almost shared your own experience of birth pains and work, trying to make CHARLOTTE live again in this new form. According to the terms of my own contract with Sagittarius, if they thus elect not to proceed with my screenplay/storyboard, it becomes my property. This is meaningless, of course, without the film rights, but hopefully valuable to whomever will eventually have and want to use those rights.
I am terribly sorry about this, I hope you are in better health, and that you will one day see your great story on the screen.
All my love to K.
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
Dear Gene: June 6, 1971
I've delayed answering your letter because I haven't known exactly what was going on in the Sagittarius world. Day before yesterday Edgar Bronfman and Henry White showed up here bringing with them Joseph Barberra, and I learned that you were out of the picture and that the action had shifted to Hollywoodand to Hanna-Barberra Productions. I have no knowledge of this outfit and had nothing to do with the thing, but I gathered something was in the wind when I learned.... from Jap Gude, that White had made a hasty trip to Prague, followed by one to Hollywood.
Even no I don't know what to say except to tell you how deeply sorry I am about what must be for you a disappointing and frustrating experience....
Anyway, I am truly sorry, Gene, that our brief encounter ends on a sad note. I had not anticipated any such thing... I was rooting for you...
At age 71, there's one thing I understand fully: the creative life is hell more than half the time, riddled with trials and terrors, and paved with woe. I know what it is like to try to bring something into being, as you've been doing the last few months. I know what an unhatched egg does to the spirit.
Katharine and I, sand and sorry, send our best to you and Zdenka, along with our congratulations on your Golden Eagle award.
So it was all over, except the waiting - to see if H&B would actually outdo the alchemists of old, and turn gold into lead.
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
March 2, 1973
I'm terribly sorry to have waited this long before answering your letter. The month of February was about four lost weekends for me and I'm just beginning to revive after hospitalization and a bout with flu and vertigo.
The picture opened at the Music Hall last week, and you have probably seen the Times review, which panned it. I saw the film last December when I was in New York for a few days. It came out about the way I imagined it would---a big spectacular, interrupted every few minutes by a jolly song. The story is adhered to fairly faithfully, but without distinction, and the humans look like something out of Rex Morgan and Dick Tracy. There is a kind of arrogance about most Hollywood people that annoys me, and it was evident in this production. I was invited to read the screenplay and make suggestions, and I did. But not the slightest heed was paid to anything I said. For instance, Wilbur sings a song that goes, "I can TALK, I can TALK, I can TALK." I pointed out that this was completely out of the spirit of the book, since there was never any question in the minds of any of the animals that they were capable of speech. But the song was kept. The treatment of the country Fair is incredible ---none of the true feeling at all. Instead, a barber shop quartet is introduced, along with a great loud marching song called "Zuckerman's Famous Pig", reminiscent of seventy-six trombones and hardly suggestive of a small country fair. Blah!
You asked about my reading your script. I feel free to do it, although I'm not good at interpreting movie scripts. I'm not sure anything except pain would result from your sending it: if I simply loved it, it would probably cause us both pain, and if I hated it, it would surely cause us both pain. But if it means a lot to you to have me read it, Go ahead and send it. Pain is my middle name. (My first name is Trouble.)
K and I send our best to you and Zdenka, and thanks for your letter and the photos. I'm still trying to figure out what kind of tree the big one is that overhangs your house.
North Brooklin, Maine 04661 February 14, 1973
Andy has been very sick with vertigo caused by inner ear trouble ever since your good letter came. Finally he had to go to the hospital in Blue Hill, and he is just home after atwelve day stay. After being there for three days he came down with an absolutely fierce cold, which prevented any further treatment for ear trouble. What we are hoping is that the cold virus will prove to have been the cause of the vertigo.
A11 this is why I'm writing, at Andy's request, to Say he was glad to get your letter. He thanks you for it and for the lovely photos of your new country home. He will write you himself when he can but at present, writing (and even reading) are impossible for him. He did see a showing of "Charlotte's Web" in New York, when he went there for dentistry this fall. The city made him sick and he flew home after three days of it.
With our very best wishes, I am,
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
March 19, 1973
The sketches you sent are great. I don't know Whether they were done by you or by Mirko Hanak, but anyway tney are right for the story and a great improvement over the H-B pictures, most of which I found lacking in sensitivity, An understatement.
One thing that was never been clear to me is why CHARLOTTE'S WEB had to be a musical. If I were filming the story, I wouldn't begin with songs. Too many things are taken for granted in the great world of stage and screen. The only song in the book was the lullaby that I wrote, and Hollywood removed that quite effectively---probably because it contained the word dung.
K and I would welcome a visit from, you, provided we are both on our feet. I think it would be a good idea to phone us from Connecticut and see how things are. My goose laid her first egg on St. Patrick's Day, so winter is officially over even though snow is falling today.
Sadly, we were not able to visit Andy and Katharine, nor did I ever have a chance to explain that Sagittarius ordered songs for C.W. With Andy, it was one of our disagreements. I feel we had songs which expressed the meaning of the film and propelled the story, and I certainly did include Andy's song, "Deep in the Dung!" But an important point was that my songs were not intended to be sung by the characters, but strictly as off-screen punctuations in the film.
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE
October 4, 1978
The whole episode, the attempt to make a film of "Charlotte's Web", is one of my nightmares. The only good that came 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 here in his private jet and made off with some rhubarb pie to take back to his pilot--or maybe to eat himself, as he seemed to have a good appetite. The letters I wrote to you and to Jap expressed exactly what I felt about the project when it was still in your hands and in Mike Campus's. Of course, my opinions and feelings were based on the information that I was getting from various sources, including Sagittarius and Jap and you. I had no way of knowing that you were being used as a decoy.
I never wanted the characters in "Charlotte's Web" to break out in song---it is completely foreign to the spirit of the book. The only song I wanted was the one I wrote, deep in the dung and the dark, that Charlotte sang. And I never got that one. Hanna Barbera sent me their screenplay "to make suggestions", and I spent a week annotating it. They never paid the slightest attention to anything I said. I pointed out that the song they gave Wilbur, "I can talk, I can talk, I can talk," was completely contrary to the story, which simply accepts without question that the animals talk among themselves. To have the pig express surprise or glee in what was natural to him showed me how far the producer was from understanding the book.
It was good to hear from you.
The irony of lost creations but financial gain worked here. I had a double-payment clause. I delivered my storyboard on time, and if Sagittarius decided not to produce with me. But even though my total deal was more than twice that which John Hubley was going to get, I had to accept a 7% of the net profits deal on direction. With a big Hollywood outfit, I was in no position to demand a cut of the gross. I knew there would be no net profits, so the crazy thing was that I actually got more money for notdirecting the movie than I would have gotten if I actually did it! But poor Andy White. He not only got his story deballed, but his visions of "big money," he referred to in his letter to his lawyer Jap Gude, were no doubt vaporous, unless he really got a lot up front.
I would doubt very much that the ultimate Hanna-Barberra production made any "net profits." Well, I socked my payment in the bank, dried my eyes, and went back to my work with Weston Woods. I learned a lot. I knew I created something excellent. My greatest loss was not being able to share what I did with Andy. When I finally could, he was too ill for me to bother him with it.
The question remains whether the debacle of the Charlotte film depressed Andy to his grave, or whether it was the disappointment that it didn't even bring him the promised big money. There are varying opinions. Kay wrote me that the film greatly depressed him.
I did me, but hell, will you believe me if I told you that from then on I just went from one success to another, and never had another failure? Ha ha.
Now that I am 75 years old, I don't have to worry about anything.
I'm old enough to be giving out advice and pushing my opinions onto one and all, and I am not scavenging for work. You are young and full of beans and ambition. Your probable failures and occasional successes are still ahead of you. Wouldn't you like to trade places with me? Applications accepted.
What??? No takers!!!
In the following section, I will show you a sample of the storyboard, character models, and studies made by Mirko Hanak.
It was his last work. He died just after finishing the storyboard.
Just another sad irony in this sad story. Even if the production had gone ahead with us, Mirko would not have been able to realize the gorgeous artwork I knew we would have created for us...