The Scoop: 1966 NR, directed by Gene Deitch and starring Herb Lass
Summary Capsule: A back-from-the-dead short loosely based on The Hobbit resurfaces after almost half a century. I’m buying the world’s thickest earmuffs in anticipation of when this causes every Tolkien fan on the planet to simultaneously explode.
Heather’ s Rating: The “bizarre” factor is off the charts.
Heather’s Review: A few days ago an oddity was released upon the world that, as I write this review, is exploding across the internet. Gene Deitch, director of the Tom and Jerry shorts produced between 1961 and ’62, wrote a blog about a short he directed for producer William Snyder back in 1966. The short, thought to have been destroyed, was returned to Deitch by Snyder’s son and then uploaded to Deitch’s blog.
The big deal, for those of you who somehow managed to start reading this review without noticing the title, is that it’s about J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The even bigger deal about that is, having been made in 1966, it’s the world’s first adaptation of Tolkien’s stories to the big or small screen, as it predates Rankin-Bass’s version by eleven years.
It’s not exactly the story you remember, though. It’s only twelve minutes long, so there is quite a lot missing; and while that is understandable, there were quite a few additions and changes that had me scratching my head. Here they are, in glorious list form:
- He changed a lot of the character’s names. Smaug=Slag; Trolls=Gromes(?); Gollum=Galoom? Gallome? Honestly this one might be the narrator’s mispronunciation of the name. Regardless, it does not sound like Gollum.
- There are only nine characters in this version if you count the GromeTrolls, SlagSmaug and Galoooooooooom
- Smaug is killed by the Arkenstone. I’ll expand on that later.
- Deitch added a princess. And Bilbo marries her. Oh if you could only see your face right now! It’s hilarious, I assure you. Just go look in the mirror. I’ll wait.
Now that your facial muscles have stopped contorting, let me give you a rundown of how and why all this happened:
Snyder (the film producer Deitch worked with) acquired the rights to Tolkien’s story for practically nothing back in 1964 and approached Deitch about doing a screenplay for an animated feature-length film. The right would expire on June 31st, 1966 should they not produce a film, so Deitch got right to work. January 1966 rolls around and Snyder blows the deal with 20th Century Fox by demanding too much money. Other studios didn’t recognize Tolkien’s name and weren’t interested, so the project was dropped. Four months later Deitch gets a call from Snyder saying Tolkien’s popularity had gone through the roof, and so had the worth of the film rights. The only way Snyder could retain and sell those rights was if he made a film by the deadline, which would extend his rights and allow him to sell them back for a tidy profit. If you’ve been doing the math, you’ve already realized that left Deitch thirty days to condense his screenplay, get the artwork done, record voice and music, shoot it, edit it, and get it to a New York projection room (from his home in Czechoslovakia)!
This would have been a complete impossibility for many people, but Deitch had a couple of things on his side: A group of talented individuals and a giant loophole in Snyder’s contract. The Tolkien estate lawyers’ ignorance of film terminology lead to the simple stipulation that Snyder produce “a full-color motion picture version” of Tolkien’s book. Notice it doesn’t say that it has to be animated, or how long it has to be.
Deitch grabbed his friend Herb Lass, a radio broadcaster, for the narration and all the voices; renowned Czech illustrator Adolf Born for the artwork; and some music from his composer friend Vaclav Lidl. The man accomplished the insane, and the results are hard to describe. Herb’s voice is pleasant to listen to, though at times doesn’t seem to have the right emphasis at all and drops in clarity and volume in places. Adolf’s artwork is lovely, and Deitch’s camera tricks help add the illusion of animation. It’s pointless to try to describe all of the plot issues. It’s a twelve-minute condensed version of The Hobbit with a princess, where Bilbo MacGuyvers a giant crossbow, then affixes the Arkenstone as an arrowhead and fires it into SlagSmaug’s heart. Oh and Bilbo marries the princess of Dale and rules with her for a short while before they return to the Shire.
Eat that, literary respect! In all seriousness, this was a tremendously impressive feat and is entertaining to watch for multiple reasons. Watch it and read the full bizarre story of Deitch’s, on his website.
- Deitch, in order to fulfill the part of the contract where he needed to show this in a theater, asked six people if they would pay ten cents for admission. Every one that did, he gave a dime to and then took it back as pay. He did this with six people and, after it was shown, had each of them sign a waiver stating that they’d seen it.
- So did the ground just open up and swallow Bilbo? That part makes so little sense.
- MacGuyvering: Not just for Man anymore.
- The Watchman character and Thorin Oakenshield look like pirates.
- Deitch and his team saw none of the money Snyder made off of this film, which was $100,000 ($700,000 in 2012 money).
- Jiří Trnka (famed Czech artist) was to be the designer of the full length project, and had already made some fantastic sketches when the project was canned. Supposedly Deitch will be sharing those soon. If you haven’t seen his work, look it up and think about how amazing that would have been.
- The princess’s name is Mika Milovana. “Mika” is the name of Pete Seeger’s eldest daughter and a name he had always loved, while “Milovana” means “a beloved woman” in the Czech language.
Narrator: This was Dale, the City of Golden Bells, in the time of Middle Earth before men came to power and ruined magic forever
Princess: Mr Baggins! That dragon has killed my father and all of my people. He has burned to ashes my golden land of Dale. Now he sits on our treasures and waits his time to strike other lands. Maybe even here. If you are all afraid, I shall go alone.
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