54. Tomi Ungerer

Zdenka and Tomi looking over some spicy drawings laid out on the floor.

“I was full of mischief!”

Tomi Ungerer could easily be considered one of the greatest of all author-illustrators of children’s picture books…. That is, if he wasn’t also one of the greatest author-illustrators of  hilarious porno picture-books!

In a filmed interview I did with Tomi many years ago, he said to me, “When I was a little boy, I was full of mischief!”

He said that one of mischiefs was to crawl under his family dinner table when there were guests, and with a bellows he’d taken from the fireplace, blow cold air up the skirts of the lady diners!

No doubt that put him on course to become one of the leading hypocracy bashers of our time. That’s what has constantly gotten him into trouble. Whatever you want to think of Tomi Ungerer, it can’t be said that he is timid. He  tells it as it is, and he does it in style. His children’s books are not thin kiddie soup but hot spicy meals! As an illustrator,  I consider him the greatest draftsman I know. His origins from a family of clockmakers led him to a love all things mechanical. When he draws any kind a machine, no matter how funny it is, you can be sure it would work.

He has assembled one of the greatest collections of mechanical toys in the world, now housed in his own museum in Strasbourg. His range of style is amazing. He is a wide-ranging genius artist and was a joy to work with. Morton Schindel was sharp enough to get the film rights to four of Tomi’s children’s books, and I was lucky enough to be the one Mort assigned to produce them. They were THE THREE ROBBERS*, THE BEAST OF MONSIEUR RACINE, MOON MAN, and THE HAT. Four of my film shorts that I’m most proud of.

I never had such fun on any other project.   These particular books are not pornographic or outwardly dangerous, but they’re also not the usual pap. In each one of them are ideas and inuendos of word and/or image that seem to throw us slightly off-balance; seeming to be simple tales, but which take unexpected turns.  Look at these books.  When I did, as per my assignment, I felt I was confronted with one of those magazine puzzles asking, “Can you find ten hidden objects in this picture?”

My job of adapting children’s picture books  as films for Weston Woods was always to be truly faithful to them. But of course that doesn’t mean just pasting the pages onto a movie screen.   To translate stories from the language of books to the language of film and retain/reinforce the meaning and integrity of the story, takes some doing. That is the joy and satisfaction of this work – to add without subtracting – to embellish without distorting., to bring to bear our supplemental forces, music, sounds, scenographic continuity – animation.. Those are the ingredients of any adaptation, but with Tomi’s devishly contrived stories there was ready inspiration to go beyond the ordinary, and insert my own innuendo, always in accordance to the premise of the book.  Amazingly, Tomi gave me a long leash. I began by asking his approval of certain ideas I was considering.  He said, “I made the book, you make the film!”  Well Tomi told me many times that he loved our films, all made 30 or 40 years ago. They all are still selling well, and also playing every day in the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg, France.  But there have been times when Tomi’s other books, the naughty ones, have scared off the librarians, teachers and parents who buy our films.  Recently, hoping for a comeback, he asked me to do ten new ones.  I was re-energized at the prospect, and Zdenka and I visited him at his Strasbourg home.  But Tomi has had serious health probems, even though his devilish still appears.

He had hoped to participate more on the new series, but the death of three of his close friends, all at once, knocked him into a depression, and he suddenly called off the project.   I was ready to go, lucky to be well, but I thought I too should ease off.   So I’m writing this book, long put off.  After being offered filet mignon, I’m not hot to do balony.  As has been said before, If somebody makes me an offer I can’t refuse….  Well, as I sidle up to 87, it’s not too likely….

* A German company later made a stretched out version of The Three Robbers, which Tomi rejected as a vulgarization of his story.

Tomi in Strasbourg, 2010
From the 1972 film shoot.
Tomi and I in our documentary film interview for Weston Woods -1972 – shot in his mother’s home in Strasbourg, France. Today, it’s Tomi’s atelier.
Here are just a couple of reasons why schools were reluctant to buy films adapted from Tomi Ungerer’s children’s books… He also did books with…
……illustrations like these!
When we visited the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg, we were pleased to see that our four Ungerer films are continuously projected. Here is Zdenka watching THE BEAST OF MONSIEURE RACINE.
Tomi has some strange things in his Srasbourg apartment…….
………Some very srange things!
Tomi Ungerer's lasciviopus Frogs for Gene
Hanging on our Prague bedroom wall, as if for inspiriation, are two slightly naughty Frog sketches, one for Zdenka and one for me, that Tomi made for us at the time we shot the documentary film with him in 1972.

Tomi Ungerer Lascivious Frog #2

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