Back When ‘Hipster’ Wasn’t a Dirty Word: Gene Deitch’s The Cat

« It was a fanatic’s world, and I was one of the fanatics » – Gene Deitch

Say, for a bit of a twist, let’s pay tribute to a living* legend. I’m referring to none other than Gene Deitch (born ninety-four years and change ago: August 8, 1924 in Chicago, Illinois).

A recent self-portrait of the master.

This fascinating man has led a life of such distinction, achievement and all-around coolness that I’m tripping all over myself trying to boil it down to a few highlights. Art director of legendary jazz mag The Record Changer, animator-director-scenarist for UPA, Terrytoons, MGM… Academy Award winner for his direction of his animated adaptation of Jules Feiffer‘s Munro (watch it right here), creator of Sidney the Elephant, John Doormat, Clint Clobber, Gaston Le Crayon… and co-creator of Simon, Seth and Kim Deitch. Some fine artistic genes, to be sure!

The stylish young Master Deitch.

If you don’t terribly object, I’ll sidestep the pitfall of ambition and restrict this post to a single facet of Mr. Deitch’s orbit, namely his jazzy cartoons of the 1940s and 50s. Incidentally, these succulent needles have been collected, in their usual, exemplary fashion, by the Fantagraphics team. If you dig these, and the odds are good, you’ll need to acquire, dentro de poco, their The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove (2013).

« I had just recently, for the first time, heard the magnificent pipe organ recordings of Fats Waller and imagined a portly black church janitor setting down his mop and bucket and rolling out some mighty blues in the midnight of an empty church on an elaborate organ most likely sanctified for an entirely different kind of music. This drawing was reproduced many times over  the years without anyone ever asking permission, and I was tickled to find it once on an actual Fats Waller album cover!** »
« The cover shows that having a loud, jazz-playing Cat as an apartment house neighbor is not all that rosy. »
« My cover show the devoted bass player protecting his beloved instrument from the pouring rain by covering it with his own coat and hat. If a musician’s livelihood depended on his instrument – often expensive or hard to come by – he did everything possible to keep it from harm. »
From The Record Changer (August, 1948). « The search for a recording by the legendary pioneer New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden has never subsided. In this issue, The Cat has actually managed to record him from the Great Beyond, but egad, he’s playing a harp instead of a horn! »
« The cover design suggests the unlikely coexistence of a quiet elderly couple and a jazz record maniac within the thin walls of a single boarding house. »
« The cover showed that even with the most careful cataloging it was still mainly guess work to find the record you were looking for. »
« Earlier that year I moved from Hollywood to Detroit, to take up an offer from a commercial film studio there that would give me a chance to become a director. My cover for July was inspired by the hazards of moving the most precious commodity of all. OK, I had two kids, but I let my wife arrange their things for the moving, and the moving men could do what they wanted with our furniture. But I didn’t let them touch my record collection! I schlepped every box full of discs myself, and carefully placed them in the safest positions. I was proud that my entire collection arrived in Detroit unscathed. »
From The Record Changer (August, 1949). « This may be the very best Cat-toon of all. It says everything I ever wanted to say about this character. What is a mere soul in comparison to a 100% complete jazz record collection? Spencer Crilly, wherever you are, I thank you for suggesting this gag! » Perhaps the proverbial catch in the Faustian deal is that, without his soul, a cat can’t appreciate jazz any longer. You can never win.
From The Record Changer (January, 1950). « The Cat, seen as a dodderer in the Buddy Bolden Home for Old Cats, basically predicts the CD and DVD records to come 50 years hence! »

For a fascinating overview of Mr. Deitch’s life in Prague and in animation, by all means check out Bryan Thomas’ « Gene Deitch: An American animation giant who lived and worked behind Prague’s iron curtain for over 40 years ». Phew!


*A sad but inevitable update: Gene Deitch passed away in Prague on April 16, 2020.

**I’m looking, I’m looking!

2 thoughts on “Back When ‘Hipster’ Wasn’t a Dirty Word: Gene Deitch’s The Cat

  1. Wayne Moises May 4, 2020 / 11:47

    He is the veteran animator illustrator film director producer & cartoonist who wrote & created animated cartoons like Tom & Jerry Popeye Tom Terrific & other classics & he is of Czech Slovak Austrian Hungarian & German ancestry his real name is E.Merrill Deitch under his signature as Eugene M. Deitch/Yevgeni Deitchova/E.M.D./G.D.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s