44. Jiří Brdečka

„In my previous life I was an American cowboy!

Jiří Brdečka was one of Czechoslovakia‘s hi-profile intellectuals when I first landed in this country in 1959.  He directed many animation films in Zdenka’s studio, and was already writing screenplays for major Czech live-action feature films, so he was one of the first cultural stars that I met here. It helped of course that he spoke very good English.  He was happy to meet me at first simply because I was an American.  He was definitely a covert Americophile, in a country where America was then officially defined as the enemy.  As a person directing films in the Bratři v triku studio, he was like no other. He was the only one who was always called  “Mister”  by all members of the staff.  He was after all, with Jiří Trinka, one of the core founders of the studio in 1945, immediately at the end of WW2

Animation studios are by nature extremely informal, with everyone on a first name basis. (In the Disney studio, the head man was always caled “Walt,” even by the janitor.)  That’s America, but this is Europe, where formalities still rule, and Brdečka lived as if he were a 19th century European! He did not even know how to drive a car . When he needed to be in the studio to screen his fim rushes or talk to his assistant director or animators, a car would be sent to pick him up, and later to drive him home. I believe he would have preferred to be chauffered in a a horse drawn landau.

He was a dandy, carrying a silver headed cane, wearing a paisely neckerchief, and dressed far better than most of his enslaved countrymen. I quickly became one of the very few he invited to call him “Jirka” (pronounced “Yeerka.,” ) the affectional version of Jiří  (The name is the Czech equivalent of “George.”)

From what I‘ve written above, you might think that Jirka was a kind of fop or snob. He wasn’t. He was a lot of things. He had layers.  As with his closest friend, Jří Trnka, he was able to leverage his creative clout to his own advantage.  He managed to float above communism without putting his soul totally in hock.

Jirka was a successful and influential journalist, a publicist, a best-selling author, a designer, cartoonist, illustrator, movie scenarist, and both an animation and live action movie director.  Amazing! And he was  a hit maker in all those crafts!

One of his books, “Lemonade Joe,” (perversely pronounced, “Limo-nahdovee Yó-eh,”) is still one of the all-time best-sellers here, a broad cowboy parody, that was made into an equally classic movie. Jirka was essentially a parodist, centering on period settings that often masked parodying the present. All of his animated films were one kind of a satire or anotherů not kiddie films!  Another side his character was morbidity, and many of his animated films featured funeral scenes, usually staged in 19th century or even medieval settings. Yet another and hidden Brdecka side was a twisted sexuality. Once a book he loaned us had a folded, hand written erotic story inadvertantly left between the pages.  There was no chance to get anything like that published in the communist days.  We discreetly returned it.  Zdenka said there were women in the studio, still calling him Mr. Brdečka, who hinted that he didn’t exactly  perform up to the level of his writing!

His great prize-winning output, plus the fact that he was fluent in both French and English, allowed him the privelege of travel to all of the major Western European Film Festivals. The Communist government craved and needed whatever prestige they could get.

I still have a 16mm film clip, made either on my first or second visit here, (1959-1960), shot by me and Zdenka, showing Jirka presenting me with an LP of classical Czech music, plus a book of his, wrapped in plain brown paper.  (Gift paper, when one could find it, didn’t really look any better.)

And here it is!!! a 9-second movie clip,  as far as I know quite likely the only motion picture ever made of the author who wrote so many movie scripts himself!

He also gave me his original satiric drawing of the Guardian Angel, beautifully autographed.  We were friends, and we stayed close friends until his death. With all his fantasy quirks, he was a good guy as well as a living legend in the Czech cultural scene.  None of his carefully crafted image bothered us.  What bothered us was that he was killing himself. He was perpetual motion smoking machine.

He came to our apartment every Wednesday afternoon for tea, to pick up the weekly editions of  TIME  magazine I regularly saved for him, and for a long current affairs chats.   When he left we had to open the windows to air out our apartment. Cigarette-smoke hates me.

In spite of the obvious differences, Jirka was the one person in my early Prague days who I could speak with on a serious level.  I couldn’t pretend to be his intellectual equal, or share his more arcane tastes, but I could hold up my end in conversation, and I did have the American connection he craved. We were able to travel together, I supplied him with the western magazines and movies, and we even put him up at our mountain cottage, when he wanted quiet privacy while he was writing his latest screenplay. That happened during glorious summer days soon after we had put a metal roof on the house. Because it needed a year to oxidize before we could paint it, the roof acted as a giant mirror to the night sky.  Up there in the summer time we have absolute clear skies with a double gazillion stars of the milky way, all clearly visible and all reflected in that shiny metal roof!  Jirka said that lying back on a lawn chair at night, watching the real and reflected stars, was an inspiration! The screenplay Jirka wrote at our cottage was for DINNER FOR ADELE, about a bizarre carnivorous plant. It became his greatest movie hit, and included grotesque animation effects by Jan Švankmeyer, (see chaper 58).

He had already opened avenues of thought for me. His animation work was inspiration enough. He was more advanced on certain levels, even than any of us at UPA.  And he lent his presence to our wedding, as my Best Man.  That’s why he’s in this book!

In 1982, in his prime at 65, seven years before he could have seen the end of communism, Jiří Brdečka succumbed to the inevitable lung cancer.  He had stopped smoking under strict doctor’s orders, after a massive heart attack, but it was too late. His name in the annals of Czech animation lives on, but we miss him as an inspiring friend.

Jiří Brdečka 1917-1982 (That cigarette was one of thousands that killed him)

Brdečka’s first gift to me, his original drawing of subtle, wicked humor.

Our wedding – November 24, 1964, with Jiří Brdečka, my Best Man.

My last photo of Jirka – 1982

2 thoughts on “44. Jiří Brdečka

    • You’re re right, Stephen. there was a definite “Jiří generation,” just as there was a “Zdenka generation.” Jiří Barta is now teaching animation. He recently did a long film, !IN THE ATTIC, for the same Japanese clients we did our most recent project for. Nowadays, Jiří (George) is not such a popular boy’s name, as it’s difficult to pronounce, internationally. But there were plenty of them in the animation studio here!

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