Welcome to the first entry in our very special series “The Modern Art of Gene Deitch.” Over the next few weeks, we’ll be presenting some of the rarest and most obscure modern shorts by animation legend Gene Deitch. To kick off the series, we’re starting with what is arguably his rarest film: Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat. It is a film that Deitch spent over half a century attempting to track down and it was discovered only last December following this post on Cartoon Brew. The film marks his first directorial effort at United Productions of America (UPA), the modernist animation studio that defined the look of mid-century cartoon animation.
We’re going to hand the floor over to Gene now and and let him tell everybody the story of how this film came to be. If you have any questions or comments for Gene, please share them in the comments.
In June 1949 I left my dream job as Bobe Cannon’s Production Designer at UPA Burbank, to take up an offer to become a director at the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit. It was a risky career move, but it worked out, as I managed to prove myself enough in two years as a director at JHO to induce Steve Bosustow to fly to Detroit and make me an offer I couldn’t refuse: if I would go to New York as a member of the founding group of the planned UPA/Manhattan studio, in the temporary function as studio Production Designer, I would be in line to become a director within one year. Steve tried to explain to me that the condition was necessary because he had somehow committed the position of director to Abe Liss, but he regarded it as “temporary.” As things developed in New York, there was a great tension between Abe and Steve. I never found out what it was, but in a matter of months, Abe left UPA and I was in fact named Creative Director of the studio. I was not happy about the circumstances, as being so set-up, but I was of course delighted that my early Hollywood dreams of become a UPA director had come true. All this is just to emphasize how eager I was to prove myself, and I put everything I had into that goal.
I very soon won twice the New York Art Directors Club Gold Medal for my Steinberg Jell-O commercials, and soon had a chance to make my first UPA entertainment short. It was a custom production order from the Kagran Corporation, the owner of the hot daily NBC-TV show Howdy Doody. In 1953 we were commissioned to make a low-budget pilot film for a proposed Howdy Doody animation series.
The catch to this opportunity was that all of us bright young hotshot UPA stars absolutely hated the Howdy Doody show, and felt that the puppet itself was gross–a ten on a kitsch scale of one to ten. We determined to “improve” the Howdy Doody character to the level of our hallowed UPA design standard. After all, we were already the toast of New York animation, raking in the prizes and publicity. We simply couldn’t lower ourselves to something so crude, even if the client was paying us to do just that. So we just blithely went ahead with transforming Howdy Doody in our own image.
Unfortunately, this God-like endeavor went down in flames. Kagran paid for the film, but “Buffalo Bob” Smith, Howdy Doody’s Daddy, hated what we had wrought, and ordered the negative destroyed. Our little pride and joy experiment was never shown publicly, and was never properly listed on the International Motion Picture Database. In plain language, it simply did not exist.
A 16mm print did exist. I had managed to liberate it when I left UPA. The heavens still punished me when this “one and only existing print” vanished without a trace in an international shipment. I spent the next fifty years–a full half-century–in a fervid but fruitless effort to track down another print. Not that this little film was any kind of a marvel, but simply because it was the very first film to bear the screen credit, “Directed by Gene Deitch,” and thus personally important in my own history. Further, it was a pretty good example of early 1950s animation thinking. The actual film was animated in a very low-budget paper cutout technique with a few camera effects.
Above all, at this late date, I would like to recognize my great departed collaborators on this long ago effort: the budding genius animator, Duane Crowther; the brilliant and not nearly enough appreciated graphic designer, Cliff Roberts, who I had discovered in Detroit; Bill Bernal, my closest friend and collaborator to the end of his life, who co-authored the folk-based story with me; and the brilliant avant composer, Serge Hovey, who I never saw again. All of those great people are gone but are strongly in my memory. The only other survivor of the creative team that made this little film, aside from myself, is Ken Drake, who rode shotgun on our studio Acme animation camera. Ken and I are still in daily email contact. He too will have his memory shaken when he sees the film today!
No one else has ever seen it before. Now, whoever is interested will be able to view it and make whatever judgement as to its place in the animation history scheme. Now, fifty-seven years after it was made, a miracle has happened, and you can have your chance to judge whether this long search made sense. After all this time, due to the relentless efforts of Jerry Beck, never to allow an animation discovery to elude him, and because he is such a loyal fan, a reasonably well-preserved 35mm print has been located in the deepest and darkest archives of the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington. D.C. So that’s it. Does this film show anything ahead of its time, or should it be allowed to rest in peace? Take a look.
(Our thanks to Dave Gibson for his detective work at the Library of Congress, and OndÅ™ej MuÅ¡ka for his restoration work on the print)