February 25, 2020

Film tells story of daring creators of ‘Curious George’

In June 1940, children’s book authors Hans and Margret Rey were alarmed by Nazi troops approaching Paris, blasting canon fire in the distance. Both German-born Jews, they knew they had to flee, but it was impossible to obtain a train ticket, and they did not own a car.

Instead, they bought a tandem bicycle, but Margret found the contraption tricky to ride. And so Hans obtained some spare parts and, in one night, patched together two separate bicycles.

At 5 a.m. the next day, they pedaled out of Paris, just 48 hours before the Nazis marched into the city. They carried little with them, save for unpublished manuscripts, including one that would eventually become their beloved 1941 book, “Curious George.” Along the way, they slept in stables and on the floors of restaurants. And when a checkpoint officer became suspicious of their German accents, their manuscript depicting a charming monkey convinced him to let them pass through.

The details of their escape and immigration to the United States in October 1940 is recounted in Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s new documentary, “Monkey Business: The Story of Curious George’s Creators,” now available online at platforms such as Amazon and iTunes.

In a telephone interview, Yamazaki, 28, pointed out that while the mischievous monkey has become an America icon, most people don’t realize that the character was created by Jewish refugees from the Nazis.

While the Reys weren’t fond of self-analysis, the documentary posits that they brought elements of their fraught past to George’s adventures. Margret once described the character as a monkey who finds himself in trouble — and gets out of it through his own ingenuity.

Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki. Courtesy of Mammoth Advertising

“She could have been describing the Reys themselves,” Yamazaki said.

The documentary also describes how Margret and Hans met in Germany when he was dating her older sister. Years later, Margret took action when she learned that her old friend Hans, a talented artist, had taken a bookkeeping job with his brother-in-law’s firm in Brazil.

A person interviewed in the film recalls how Margret declared at the time that Hans was a “damned fool” and that she was “going to Brazil to marry him.”

In 1935, she sent Hans a telegram, asking him to meet her ship at the docks in Rio de Janeiro. Upon her arrival, she promptly told him that he was leaving his job and that they would collaborate together on their own artistic projects. The couple soon married and, after moving to Paris, worked on a manuscript that ultimately would lead to “Curious George.” Margret wrote the text, and Hans, who went by the professional name of H.A. Rey, drew the illustrations.

Houghton Mifflin published the first “Curious George” book in 1941, about a year after the Reys arrived in New York City. They began living their American dream as the book and its six sequels went on to sell more than 75 million copies worldwide.

Yamazaki, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a British father, first read “Curious George” in Japanese as a girl in Japan. “I thought he was a Japanese monkey,” she said with a laugh. When Yamazaki moved to the United States to study filmmaking at New York University at 19, she happened to move into a Greenwich Village apartment a block away from where the Reys first settled in the United States.

But she knew nothing about their story until she chanced to meet Lay Lee Ong, a Malaysian-born immigrant who had become Margret’s dear friend after Hans died in 1977. By then Ong had become the literary executor of the couple’s estate. Margret died in 1996.

Just two years out of film school, Yamazaki was looking for a story for her first feature-length documentary. She was so fascinated by Ong’s tales that she immersed herself in research on the Reys.

Yamazaki was charmed by a 1966 radio interview featuring the couple, in which Hans declared, “We are in the monkey business, you might say.” The Reys’ immigrant saga also appealed to Yamazaki, who grew up mostly between Osaka and Manchester, England, before moving to New York to follow her own American dream.

For the documentary, which is narrated by actor Sam Waterston (“Law & Order”), Yamazaki tracked down and interviewed the Reys’ friends, cousins and neighbors in New York and in Waterville Valley, N.H., where the authors acquired a summer cottage in the 1950s. She also spoke with Louise Borden, author of “The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey” (2005).  And she pored over the Reys’ letters and journals at their archive at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Her documentary incorporates photographs and footage of the Reys as well as animation to describe their journey.

Margret and Hans Rey in 1968. Courtesy Mammoth Advertising

One surprising element revealed in the film is that Margret didn’t particularly like children. The couple never had children of their own, regarding “Curious George” as their child. In one television interview shown in the documentary, Margret tells a reporter that she never spoke to the neighborhood kids in Waterville Valley because they had nothing of value to say.

In the film, friends and neighbors describe Margret as blunt and sometimes rude.

Even back in 1940, when the Reys visited the consul who granted their visa to the United States, Margret refused to hold her tongue. She shouted that the man had taken too long to issue the documents — all the while ignoring Hans, who was stepping on her toes in a fruitless effort to silence her.

Waterston, in an email to the Journal, said he was drawn to the documentary, in part, because of how Yamazaki brought to life the authors’ “resilience, adventurousness and curiosity, in the face of WWII and their own peril … against the hard images of destruction as the Nazis invaded France.“

Yamazaki said the Reys’ immigrant story resonates today.

“There’s been so much discussion recently about refugees and immigrant bans,” she said. “But this beloved book was created by refugees who became immigrants turned Americans. I think their story is a good reminder about the people who want to come here and pursue their own American dreams.”