Terr'ble Thompson, by Gene Deitch
'Terr'ble Thompson' (29 October 1955).

Gene Deitch was a Czechia-based American animated film director. His name is unfairly mostly associated with low-budget and unintentional surreal versions of popular U.S. cartoon series like 'Tom & Jerry' and 'Popeye' in the early 1960s, which polarize audiences to this day. However, Deitch had a strong influence on the innovative animation studio UPA, where he worked as a director. He also breathed new life in Terrytoons for two years. Later in his career Deitch adapted many popular children's stories into animated shorts, of which 'Munro' (1962) won an Academy Award. He also created cartoons around his own creation: 'Nudnik' (1965-1967). Little is known that Deitch actually started his career as a comics artist. His one-panel cartoon 'The Cat' (1948) ran in the music magazine The Record Collector. He furthermore created a children's comic, 'Terr'ble Thompson' (1955-1956) for the papers. His satirical comic, 'Maly Svet' ('Small World', 1962), ran in the Czech magazine Kvety and ridiculed Communism until it was banned by the censors. Gene Deitch is furthermore important to comics history as the father of underground comix artist Kim Deitch.

Early life and career
Eugene Merril Deitch, nicknamed "Kim", was born in 1924 in Chicago, Illinois, as the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants. When he was five years old the family moved to California. After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1942, Deitch got a job at North American Aviation, where he designed aircraft blueprints. During World War II he served in the U.S. Airforce, but pneumonia led to an honorable discharge in May 1944. Deitch had an interest in drawing from an early age. He considered Jim Flora and Walt Disney among his main graphic influences.

Cat On A Hot Thin Groove
Between 1945 and 1951 he created several stylish covers for the jazz magazine The Record Changer. He could relate to the readers, because he was an avid jazz collector himself; his favorites being Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. One of his covers, published in January 1946, depicts an African-American janitor playing jazz on a pipe organ when nobody is around. Deitch had jazz legend Fats Waller in mind when he created the image and was delighted when he later came across a bootleg record by Waller using his drawing as the front cover. In 1948 Deitch created an one-panel gag cartoon for The Record Changer, titled 'The Cat' (1948). The title character was no literal cat, but a geeky and obsessive record collector. Many of 'The Cat' cartoons have proven to be remarkably timeless, given that most fanatic music lovers today still buy vinyl and show similar snobbish attitudes towards them. While The Record Changer folded in 1957, all cartoons and magazine covers have been compiled in the book 'The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove' (Fantagraphics, 2003). Deitch himself provided commentary to all the included works.

Animation career
Deitch's illustrations in The Record Changer caught the eye of some animation producers in Hollywood, because most were huge jazz fans. In the late 1940s Deitch joined United Productions of America (UPA), best known for the 'Gerald McBoingBoing' and 'Mr. Magoo' cartoons. UPA wanted to break with tradition and strove for a much simpler and less costly style, nicknamed "limited animation". Deitch's artwork matched what they wanted to achieve and therefore he became their creative consultant. Throughout the 1950s UPA had a strong impact on the animation industry. Their cartoons won several awards and many Hollywood studios started imitating their techniques, including Disney. Their innovation came at the right time. Many Hollywood cartoon studios closed down between 1958 and 1972 and were forced to move into TV production instead. UPA's production process proved to be the most realistic and financially profitable way to make cartoon series for weekly television broadcast. The only downside was that most cartoon studios mainly adapted their techniques because they were cheap, not out of aesthetic choice. It resulted in many low-quality cartoons, marking the end of the Golden Age of Animation (1930-1960) and the beginning of a long-lasting Dark Age (1960-1988).

At UPA Deitch started out as an animator, but quickly moved up the ladder as a director and producer. His directional debut was 'Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat', a pilot intended for an animated adaptation of the popular live-action children's show 'Howdy Doody'. Around the same time Milt Neil and Chad Grothkopf also created a 'Howdy Doody' newspaper comic (1950-1953). Yet Deitch's cartoon never aired because "Buffalo" Bob Smith, one of the hosts of 'Howdy Doody', felt it was unfaithful to the source material. He ordered all prints to be destroyed, though Deitch kept one 16mm print for himself. Unfortunately he lost it and for years it seemed that no copies had survived. However, in 2010 a 35mm print was found at the Library of Congress. Deitch was furthermore responsible for the 'Bert & Harry' Piels beer commercials.

Terr'ble Thompson, by Gene Deitch

Terr'ble Thompson
While still working at UPA Deitch created a newspaper comic, 'The Real-Great Adventures of Terr'ble Thompson!, Hero of History' (1955-1956), which was syndicated by United Features. The series stars a seven-and-a-half year old boy, Thaddeus Thompson. While seemingly a normal kid, he frequently goes back in time to help out historical characters like Cleopatra and Napoleon. His only obstacles are the villain Mean Morgan and the fact that Thaddeus' parents insist that he's back home in time for dinner. Most of the concept was inspired by an audio play recorded by Little Golden Records, 'Terr'ble Thompson' with music provided by famous bandleader Mitch Miller. The role of Thaddeus was voiced by actor Art Carney, best known as Ed Norton in the TV sitcom 'The Honeymooners'. The first comic strip episode of 'Terr'ble Thompson' was published on 16 October 1955. Deitch, however, found it difficult to combine his comic strip with his work at UPA. After only a few episodes he asked a colleague, Ruby Davidson, to assist him with the writing. The final episode appeared on 14 April 1956. By that point Deitch had already received a more lucrative job. He was asked to become the new head of animation at Terrytoons.

Terrytoons
Deitch arrived at Terrytoons when founder Paul Terry had just retired and sold everything off to CBS. In production since 1919, it was the longest-running animation studio at that point. They had some successes with series like 'Farmer Alfalfa', 'Mighty Mouse' and 'Heckle & Jeckle', but suffered from very formulaic plot lines. In full creative control, Deitch tried to break with their conventional style. He cancelled all their familiar series and came up with completely new characters, like the French painter Gaston Le Crayon (1957), the callous but sensitive on the inside Clint Clobber (1957) and the bumbling Sidney the Elephant (1958). One of his Sidney the Elephant cartoons, 'Sidney's Family Tree' (1958) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, but lost. Deitch was also the creative brain behind 'Tom Terrific' (1957-1958), based on his 'Terr'ble Thompson' comic strip. Just like the comics character, Tom had the ability to travel back in time and meet historical characters. His sidekick was Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, while Crabby Appleton was the recurring villain. All segments aired as intermezzos during the children's TV series 'Captain Kangaroo'. Interestingly enough, the concept appears to have been an inspiration to the 'Peabody & Sherman' cartoons in Jay Ward's 'Rocky & Bullwinkle' (1959-1964), which also featured a time-travelling boy and his dog. 'Tom Terrific' was popular enough to inspire a comic book series, published by Pines Comics in 1957. The writers and artists behind it are unknown, though some sources like Toonopedia claim that Terrytoons animator Ralph Bakshi might have drawn some of them. At least one story is believed to be written and drawn by Jack Mendelsohn. Although Tom Terrific is somewhat forgotten today, the 1970s rock band Crabby Appleton named themselves after the series' nemesis and used a drawing of him as the cover of their album 'Rotten to the Core' (1971). Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow based his pseudonym on Tom Terrific, but misremembered his last name as "Tomorrow". At Terrytoons Deitch also met Jules Feiffer, who worked there as a scriptwriter. They planned an animated series about a group of feisty children, 'Easy Winners', but didn't come further than a pilot.

While Deitch revitalized Terrytoons by actual challenging its crew to do something new and original, most of his initiatives didn't quite catch on with viewers. In August 1958 he was fired, bringing Bill Weiss in charge. Terrytoons brought their familiar characters back and never reused Deitch's characters ever again, except for Sidney the Elephant, who still appeared in Terrytoons cartoons until about 1964.


Gene Deitch drawing Tom Terrific.

Gene Deitch Associates
In 1959 Deitch established his own animation studio, Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. The company was funded by William L. Snyder's Rembrandt Films, who often imported foreign animated films for distribution. Snyder asked to establish the studio in Prague, which Deitch at first misunderstood as Prague, Oklahoma, and not the capital of Czechoslovakia (nowadays the Czech Republic). Originally Deitch was reluctant to travel to the city, especially since he didn't have a passport at the time. But Snyder assured him that it would "only be for 10 days". In the end Deitch actually stayed in Prague, permanently settling there in October 1965. He had not only fallen in love with the country of his roots, but also with a local woman, animator and production manager Zdeňka Neumannová, whom he would later marry as his second wife.

Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. was one of the first internationally succesful Eastern-European animation companies. Among the animators who once worked for him were Eli Bauer, Larz Bourne, Štěpán Koníček, Vaclav Lidl and Allen Swift. However, because most of Eastern Europe had lived under the Nazi regime during World War II and still suffered under the communist regime since 1944-1945, most animation studios had to learn the craft from scratch. Deitch recalled that his studio had obtained some black-and-white reels of Disney's 'Snow White' and 'Pinocchio' and developed a entirely different way of making animated films than Hollywood studios. It involved an elaborate system with numbers on the edge of each drawing, which wouldn't be photographed by the cameraman. The exposure sheets showed the frames line by line and corrections were made on basis of the numbers on the edge. While Deitch felt what they had achieved without help from an expert was "amazing" it was still a very complicated way of making cartoons. His own Hollywood experience came in handy to help these local animators on a technical level. One of the things he introduced was a much quicker pace.

Deitch had the rare luxury of being able to travel back and forth between the U.S. and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, while most people behind the Iron Curtain weren't allowed to travel to the West without government permission. He could even cross the border, buy Western products and bring them to his home and friends. Although the Czech government did spy on him, he brought in badly needed money, so they left him alone. Nevertheless Deitch was frowned upon by Czechs as well as Americans, who considered him a Communist sympathizer. As a result some names of his animators were romanized in the credits of his cartoons. Štěpán Koníček, Vaclav Lidl and his own wife Zdenka Neumannová, for instance, became "Steven Konichek", "Victor Little" and "Zdenka Newman". He also left the production's studio location from the credits. Deitch did feel bad for the animators who could really use some kind of recognition, but now were forced to remain anonymous.

Munro
Deitch and Jules Feiffer, who'd met each other at Terrytoons, collaborated in 1960 to adapt Jules Feiffer's children's novel 'Munro' into an animated short. Feiffer had written the story during his military service as an outlet for his frustrations being stuck in the draft. The book features a four-year old boy who is drafted, but none of the military officers and other recruits believe him when he says he's just a kid. Deitch's film adaptation of 'Munro' won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. This was the first time a non-American animated cartoon won an Oscar, which gave Deitch a lot of press and more credibility as an animation producer. Soon he was commissioned to develop more cartoon shows for U.S. television. Most of his crew really wanted to make artistic animation rather than dumbed-down slapstick. But it at least provided them with enough income to make different kind of animated shorts in the future.


Still from: 'Sea No Evil'.

Popeye
Between 1 September 1960 and 13 September 1962 the popular comic strip 'Popeye', originally created by E.C. Segar, was first adapted for television. 'Popeye' had been popular since 1933, when the Fleischer Brothers made theatrical cartoons until their studio went bankrupt in 1942. Famous Studios, the animation department of Paramount, continued making 'Popeye' cartoons for the big screen until they downsized in 1957 and changed their name to Paramount Cartoon Studios. Reruns of the Fleischer's and Famous' 'Popeye' cartoons on television remained popular, which benefited the original comics too. However, King Features Syndicate, who owned the print rights to 'Popeye', didn't receive any money from the syndication of the 'Popeye' cartoons by Famous. Realizing there were no new 'Popeye' cartoons specifically made for television, they decided to jump into that hole in the market.

'Popeye the Sailor' (1960-1962) was a co-production by King Features Syndicate TV, Gerald Ray Studios, Jack Kinney Productions, Halas & Batchelor, Larry Harmon Productions, Corona Cinematographica and Rembrandt Films. Deitch came on board as a director for the cartoons made by Rembrandt Films and Halas & Batchelor. The original voice actors Jack Mercer (Popeye, Wimpy) and Mae Questel (Olive Oyl) were brought back, as well as Sam Edwards, who voiced Bluto during the Famous Studios era. The characters were redesigned and Bluto was renamed Brutus in line with the comics, because King Features feared that Paramount owned the rights to the name Bluto, since the character didn't originate in Segar's comics but in the Fleischer's cartoons. It later turned out that they did own the rights and thus Bluto permanently received his old name back. The 'Popeye' cartoons were handicapped by low budgets, but actually closer to the classic comics than most of the previous animated adaptations. The makers not only used a lot of storylines, but various common cast members in the 'Popeye' comics now finally debuted as animated characters, among them Alice the Goon, Toar, the Sea Hag, Rough House and King Blozo. In the end the show was a huge ratings hit, even in repeats, and that was all that mattered to King Features.


Still from one of Gene Deitch's 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons.

Tom & Jerry
Between 7 September 1961 and 21 December 1962 Deitch was involved with another reboot of a classic franchise: 'Tom & Jerry'. Much like 'Popeye', Hanna-Barbera's cat-and-mouse duo remained popular on TV, even though MGM had discontinued production of the cartoons since 1957. MGM signed a contract with Rembrandt Films, under direction of Deitch, to produce new theatrical 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons. Deitch and his Czech crew had only seen a couple of the original 'Tom & Jerry' shorts and weren't particularly fond of them. Deitch felt the cartoons were very violent and disliked Mammy Two-Shoes (the African-American housemaid) because she was so racially offensive. Deitch therefore gave Tom a new owner, Clint Clobber, whom he originally created for Terrytoons. Clobber was an obese, white middle-aged man who, like his name implies, often clobbered Tom down when he did something not his liking. Ironically, this made him far more abusive than Mammy Two-Shoes, who rarely beat Tom.

Hanna-Barbera's 'Tom & Jerry' had ended at the height of their success, with no real inferior episodes. It was such a tough act to follow that Deitch would've polarized old school fans anyway. Especially in the early TV era, when all animated shows suffered from low-budget problems. Nevertheless, the fact that Deitch and his crew didn't really understand the appeal of the cat-and-mouse duo gave their version an unintentional surreal tone. At times it almost seems to be made on a different planet! The animation is simple and jerky. The backgrounds are so angular that they lack depth. Many gags are badly timed and just fall flat. All dialogue is replaced by gibberish, while the sound effects and stock music by Václav Lídl, Štěpán Koníček and the Prague Film Symphony Orchestra have a lot of "spacy" echo. While Hanna-Barbera's original was already very violent, Deitch's version made Jerry too much of a sadist inflicting pain on Tom without a clear motivation. Last but not least, the duo is often found in weird contexts, far removed from their original domestic setting. Viewers didn't react well to this drastic reimagining, though pure on marketing value alone the new 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons did achieve commercial success. Between 1963 and 1967 former Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones continued the 'Tom & Jerry' franchise, though with equal misunderstanding of the characters and polarizing reviews.

For years, Deitch's 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons were considered the worst version of the duo ever made. Even he considered them an old shame, especially because many people have only heard about his work on this franchise, despite the far superior cartoons he made throughout his career. It also gave Eastern-European animation in general an undeserved bad reputation. In 'The Simpsons' episode 'Krusty Gets Cancelled' (1993) by Matt Groening, Deitch's version of 'Tom & Jerry' is parodied when Krusty the Clown loses the broadcasting rights to the 'Itchy & Scratchy' cartoon series and instead has to rely on an Eastern-European cat-and-mouse duo, 'Worker & Parasite', whose production values are so low that the cartoon is utterly incomprehensible, bringing even Krusty to shout: "What the hell was that?" Bob Scott too had Deitch's 'Tom & Jerry' appear as a nightmare to a dream of his character Molly the Bear in a 2016 comic strip. Still, Deitch's 'Tom & Jerry' does have a cult base today, with some people enjoying the bizarreness. On 2 June 2015 a special DVD was released, 'Tom and Jerry: The Gene Deitch Collection', which collected all episodes.

Maly Svet ('Small World')
In 1962 Deitch made a brief return to the world of comics. One day he was asked by the chief editor of Kvety ("Blossoms"), the official weekly magazine of the Czech Communist Party, to draw an "American-style comic strip" for them, meaning a balloon comic rather than a text comic. As someone from the USA, living under a communist regime was a serious culture shock for Deitch. He therefore wanted to ventilate his frustrations in this comic strip and see with what he could get away with. The fact that he received a golden opportunity to do this in an official party magazine made him all the happier. His comic 'Maly Svet' ('Small World', 1962) was modelled after Charles M. Schulz's 'Peanuts' in the sense that it appeared to be an innocent children's comic but in fact had a deeper satirical undercurrent. Many episodes gently poked fun at the ills of communism, including food shortage, primitive or defect technology, propaganda television, queuing and coupons. To avoid getting others into trouble, Deitch drew everything without assistance, leaving his drawings in pencil, without inking. Yet because his knowledge of Czech was still rusty, he did ask his wife's assistant Lulka Kopečná to secretly provide the translations. All the money he earned from the comic was donated to her. It took a while before his chief editor realized the subversiveness of 'Maly Svet', but after 12 episodes it was instantly discontinued. Deitch wasn't punished, but he hadn't kept any prints and therefore assumed that his comic strip was lost for the ages. However, in the summer of 2014, publishers of a highly specialized Czech graphics magazine managed to trace copies, which Deitch then shared and translated in English on Jerry Beck's website cartoonresearch.com.

Krazy Kat
In 1962-1964 Deitch took on another famous cat-and-mouse duo: Krazy Kat and Ignatz. The famous comic strip by George Herriman had been adapted as a series of animated shorts before, namely by William Randolph Hearst's Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorial (1916), J.R. Bray (1920), Bill Nolan (1925) and Charles Mintz (1929-1940). Yet Deitch's version actually matched the minimalist graphic style of Herriman the best. Some of the scripts of the 'Krazy Kat' cartoon series were written by Jack Mendelsohn, while the distribution was in hands of King Features.


'Nudnik' storyboard gag, published in 'Nudnik Revealed!'.

Nudnik
Deitch's best known character is Nudnik, an odd and clumsy man who constantly creates mayhem wherever he goes. The artist based him partially on the Terrytoons character Foofle, but also himself. Just like 'Tom & Jerry', Chuck Jones' 'Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner' and Friz Freleng's 'The Pink Panther' all action was done in pantomime. Nudnik made his debut in 'Here's Nudnik' (1965), produced by Paramount. Twelve cartoons were made until Paramount closed down its animation studio two years later. In 1991 'Nudnik' was rebooted as a TV series, produced by Rembrandt Films and Paramount Pictures, even though it merely compiled all 12 earlier cartoons and added one new short, scripted by Jules Feiffer. In 2013 Deitch published the oblong-shaped book 'Nudnik Revealed! The history of America's lost loveable loser' (Fantagraphics, 2013), which compiles all artwork made for this cartoon series.

The 'Self-Help' series
In the early 1960s Deitch and his studio made a series of animated shorts which satirized instruction videos. 'Self-Defense for Cowards' (1962) was originally written by Alice McGrath and illustrated by former UPA animator Chris Jenkyns. Deitch scripted 'How to Win on the Thruway' (1962) himself while 'How to Live with a Neurotic Dog' (1963) was an adaptation of Stephen Baker's eponymous book. 'How To Avoid Friendship' (1964) was based on an idea by Deitch's colleague Eli Bauer. These funny cartoons were inspired by Walt Disney's 'Goofy' cartoons, which often had the dumb dingo try out a certain sport, while John McLeash provided deadly serious instructional narration as a comedic contrast. Deitch actually knew McLeash personally, because he had been a writer and narrator for UPA too. He tried to bring him in as a narrator, especially since McLeash was desperate for work, but unfortunately he suffered from alcoholism. Even after instructing him to sober up the voice actor still turned up drunk for the recording session and blew his lines. Deitch tried recording every word one by one, but even then the end result was unusable. The narration was eventually supplied by Arthur Treacher (best known with today's audiences as Constable Jones in 'Mary Poppins', 1964).


Smaug from 'The Hobbit' (1966).

Later notable animation work
In 1966 Deitch made the anthology film 'Alice on Wonderland in Paris' (1966), which used Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' as a framing device to link several short cartoons together. All are adaptations of well known short stories by authors like Eve Titus, Ludwig Bemelmans, Crockett Johnson and James Thurber. Around the same time Deitch also created a female spin-off of 'Terr'ble Thompson' titled 'Terr'ble Tessie' (1966), though as an animated short rather than a comic strip. He voiced Tessie himself. Together with animation legend Jiri Trnka and illustrator Adolf Born he adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' into an animated film, but never came further than one reel. Producer William L. Snyder merely wanted them to make a cartoon so he could keep the film rights to the Tolkien stories, as stipulated in his contract. This makes Deitch the first animator to adapt Tolkien long before Ralph Bakshi's 1978 feature 'Lord of the Rings'. Over the years Deitch would (co-)adapt other children's books and novels into animated cartoons, such as Crockett Johnson's 'A Picture for Harold's Room' (1971) and 'Harold's Fairy Tale' (1974), Isaac Bashevis Singer's 'Zlateh the Goat' (1973), Tomi Ungerer's 'Die Drei Räuber' ('The Three Robbers', 1972), 'Moon Man' (1981) and 'The Hat' (1982), Maurice Sendak's 'Where the Wild Things Are' (1975), Quentin Blake's 'Patrick' (1973), Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Swineherd' (1974), 'The Ugly Duckling' (1976) and 'The Emperor's New Clothes' (1990), and Dick Bruna's 'Nijntje' (the TV series 'Miffy', 1992).

In 1986 he came up with the concept behind 'The Bluffers' (1986-1987), a Dutch animated TV series developed by Frank Fehmers. The series revolved around a group of forest animals who try to stop a villainous businessman, Clandestino, from turning their forest into an industrial smog-infested complex. Never much of a success, 'The Bluffers' has since then faded away in obscurity. In the mid 1990s Deitch worked alongside Joop Wiggers on a TV adaptation of the popular Dutch family comic strip 'Jan, Jans en de Kinderen' ('Jack, Jacky and the Juniors') by Jan Kruis, but the project was cancelled. Deitch was furthermore production-supervisor on the animated TV series 'Anton' (2001) by Børge Ring for Palm Plus Productions, based on his own early childhood memories. It was a surprise success in Japan.

Illustration
Apart from animation Deitch was also active as children's book illustrator for Weston Woods/Scholastic between 1968 and 2006.

Recognition
In 2003 Gene Deitch received the Winsor McCay Award.

Final years
In 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought democracy back to Czechoslovakia. As the Cold War ended and the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, Deitch saw his country become a capitalist state. Having experienced both ideologies over the years, he was well aware of their plus and down sides. He wrote down his memoirs in his autobiography, 'For the Love of Prague: The True Love Story of the Only Free American in Prague during 30 years of Communism' (2002). Since 2011 he hosted his own blog. Gene Deitch passed away in 2020 at age 95.


Self-portrait for Gene Deitch's blog header.

genedeitchcredits.com

Series and books by Gene Deitch in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

X

If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.