Centennial Tributes: Joseph Barbera
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
I’ve never been ashamed to admit that I spent most of my formative years plopped down in front of a TV set staring at cartoons — but then again, I don’t think anyone can plead not guilty to such a practice…and even then, I’d want to see some proof in the form of affidavits and sworn testimony. I must, however, confess that I watched more than my allotted share of animated kidvid as a youth…a conservative estimate would be that I viewed the equivalent of at least ten kids’ worth. (“No brag…just fact,” as Walter Brennan used to say on The Guns of Will Sonnett.)
As a child, I was completely unaware that the antics of Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, etc. were first witnessed by weekly moviegoers via the silver screen — I just assumed that the kind-hearted folks at the networks moved heaven and earth to do whatever was in their power to provide me with animated entertainment. But I was cognizant that some of my cartoon favorites sort of came off like poor relations when compared to the lush animation originally cranked out by the likes of studios such as Walt Disney and Warner Bros.; their movements were a bit encumbered and the only thing that really seemed animated was their mouths and facial expressions. Oh, and if there was ever a need for a character to engage in a spirited chase it could only mean that their arms were either stretched out or at their sides while they ran…and you saw the same scenery whiz past them, as if it were on a continuous loop.
It became known as limited animation — necessitated by economics, those individuals still dedicated to the cartoon business found that they had to get by with fewer drawings than in theatrical animation because they had to pinch pennies in order to make a profit from television’s admittedly restricted budgets. It also became standard practice in the industry, and no one benefited from the system more than two men who embraced limited animation after years of working for MGM animating endless chases between a cat and mouse. We know them as William (Bill) Hanna and Joseph Barbera…and the latter celebrates what would have been his centennial birthday today.
Joe Barbera was born to immigrant parents in the section of Manhattan known as Little Italy (the Lower East Side) in 1911, and from an early age displayed an affinity for cartooning that he hoped would blossom into a full-time career. His initial efforts to make a living proved unsuccessful, but undaunted he kept at it while supporting himself with a bank job. In his spare time, he took art classes at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of New York and his studies soon paid off: his illustrations began turning up in various magazines of the day such as Collier’s, Redbook and The Saturday Evening Post. Flush with this success, Barbera soon found work in the ink and paint department at the Max Fleischer cartoon studios, and in 1932 he obtained employment at the Van Buren Studios as an animator and storyboard artist. It was while at Van Buren that he first encountered a cartoon team known as “Tom and Jerry”…though it should be pointed out that this animated incarnation was not the cat and mouse he would later work on with future partner Hanna, but a pair of bland (if cheerful) hobos.
The nearly 60-year partnership with Bill Hanna would begin when Barbera took a job with the new animation department at MGM in 1937; he had been working in New York for Paul Terry (and his Terrytoons) previously when Van Buren closed his studio doors in 1936. Bill and Joe were seated across from one another at the studio and not only became fast friends but realized they made a pretty good team. They produced a cartoon in 1940 entitled Puss Gets the Boot, which featured a cat named Jasper and a mouse named Jerry; their inaugural teaming netted the short a best (cartoon) short subject Oscar nomination. Hanna and Barbera’s supervisor at MGM, Fred Quimby, wasn’t too keen on cranking out any more cartoons in the same vein but when Bill and Joe finally wore down his resistance they got the go-ahead to continue. It would be the smartest move of Quimby’s pencil-pushing career; the team of Hanna-Barbera would go on to direct and produce more than 100 cartoons with the team of (newly renamed) Tom and Jerry — seven of which would win Academy Awards in the short subject division (they were nominated a total of 14 times).
Whenever MGM would triumph in the Oscar sweepstakes with Hanna and Barbera’s feline and rodent combination, producer Quimby stood up and took all the bows at the ceremony…never acknowledging that Bill and Joe did all the work. (Which was sort of ironic: the story goes that Quimby was quite upset when he learned that legendary animator Rudolf Ising hogged the producers credit on Puss Gets the Boot despite not having done a lick of work during the process of the short’s production.) So when Quimby retired in 1955, Hanna and Barbera weren’t too sorry to see him leave the company, particularly since they were promoted and put in charge in the studio’s cartoon division. The problem was that MGM’s revenues had taken a beaten from the competition offered up by television, and when the studio learned that there was just as money to be made (if not more) re-releasing old cartoons instead of producing new product, Bill and Joe found themselves in need of a paycheck. (MGM demonstrated real class by notifying the two men of their unemployment status in June 1957 with a single phone call.)
During their MGM years Hanna and Barbera reveled in the gift that was full animation; the studio’s large profits allowed them the luxury to lavishly illustrate the adventures of their cat and mouse since movie theaters obtained their seven-minute adventures as a bonus when booking MGM’s features. Television changed all of that: the fledgling industry simply didn’t have “movie money” and so Bill and Joe were forced to cutback on the number of drawings used in animation (a typical theatrical short would require 14,000, TV necessitated a reduction to 2,000) in order to continue in the cartoon business. The two men quickly formed a company and on the flip of a coin, it was decided that Bill would get top billing (the concern was originally known as H-B Productions before being renamed Hanna-Barbera). Each man was a perfect compliment to the other; while Bill’s strengths including story construction and timing Joe’s assets were that he was a good sketch artist and knew his way around a gag. Barbera found himself having to adapt to another occupation: pitchman for the new company. “I had never sold a show before because I didn't have to. If we got an idea, we just made it, for more than 20 years. All of a sudden, I'm a salesman, and I'm in a room with 45 people staring at me…”
Their first venture chronicled the animated adventures of a dog and cat team named Ruff & Reddy, and with that success they followed with another cartoon canine, Huckleberry Hound, whose The Huckleberry Hound Show became the first animated program to be honored with an Emmy Award. It also was responsible for another television cartoon first: the first animated spin-off series, when a supporting character on the show named Yogi Bear (a cartoon bruin whose pastime was filching picnic baskets inside a national park) soon eclipsed the popularity of its star and started headlining his own program in 1961. Hanna-Barbera, in tandem with Kellogg’s cereals, brought a third show to the airwaves in 1959 with a parody of television Westerns entitled The Quick Draw McGraw Show.
Because Bill and Joe tried to overcome their animation handicaps with humorous characters and witty scripting (among the people working at their new company were veteran Warner’s cartoon studio scribes Warren Foster and Michael Maltese) shows such as Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw proved to be just as popular with adults as kids. With that in mind, the team set out to produce their most ambitious project to date: television’s first half-hour prime time animated situation comedy. Very few people could have predicted that on a Friday evening in the fall of 1960 (Sept. 30, to be exact) The Flintstones would become the success that it did — television’s longest-running prime time animated series until The Simpsons made its boob tube debut some 30 years later. The success of Flintstones spawned a number of animated follow-ups from the stables of Bill and Joe — Top Cat, The Jetsons, The Adventures of Jonny Quest — as the two men also solidified their youthful viewing audiences with the introduction of iconic characters still fondly remembered today: Magilla Gorilla, Peter Potamus, Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, Scooby-Doo, etc. They even attempted a theatrical cartoon comeback with the assistance of a French wolf prone to malapropisms named Loopy de Loop…but the failure of that series convinced them to stick with what they knew best. They would only occasionally returned to silver screen work with films such as Charlotte’s Web (1973) and Heidi’s Song (1982). In the mid-1960s, the Hanna-Barbera produced an onslaught of superhero-theme cartoons (Space Ghost and Dino Boy, Frankenstein, Jr. and the Impossibles, etc.) that were criticized by parental groups and associations for their “violent” content…even though most of their product from that era is amazingly tame when compared to shows today.
What I’ve always found interesting about Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna is that while they remain heroes from my childhood they were certainly not immune to criticism from parties with vested interests in the shows they were producing — for example, they drew heavy fire from industry veterans for sacrificing artistic quality and replacing animation with what they called “repetitive motion.” But the economic realities of that era dictated that limited animation was the only way open for the team to continue doing what they love; the animation departments at the major studios were not unaware that the times were a-changing and began closing their doors…and when that happened, Bill and Joe were able to offer their old colleagues work. Though their critics can certainly make strong arguments that the duo “sold out,” it’s to the credit of Hanna and Barbera that not only were they able to adapt to a new reality but that they managed to stay in the business for as long as they did. They were on great terms with the networks and rarely had trouble selling them (and sponsors) ideas for series…compared to individuals such as Jay Ward (of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) who, as great as he was, managed to piss off ABC, CBS and NBC at one time or another and sadly was relegated to doing Cap’n Crunch commercials for the rest of his days.
Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna continued making television cartoon magic until 1991 when their company was bought by Turner Broadcasting, who used Hanna-Barbera’s enormous backlog of product as the cornerstone for its Cartoon Network cable channel (a channel which also featured new H-B productions like Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls). When Turner was bought by Time Warner five years later, Hanna-Barbera was folded into what became Warner Bros. Animation…but Joe and Bill continued to advise their former company well into the 2000s, supervising new series, feature films based on their old properties and occasionally a new theatrical short featuring the duo that put groceries on the table in their halcyon days, Tom and Jerry. Bill Hanna passed on in 2001, but Joe Barbera remained active with their former company until his death in 2006.
There was no greater thrill for me as a kid than the periodic trips my family and I took to Cincinnati’s Kings Island to visit “The Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera,” which featured amusement park rides based on the shows and characters I watched religiously for hours on end. When I read in 2005 that the park gave “Happy Land” (which had been renamed “Hanna-Barbera Land”) its walking papers a part of my childhood died, but I still remain a devotee and fan of the two men who changed the face of animation by necessity as well as design. Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna were the boob tube equivalent of Walt Disney; it was film historian Leonard Maltin who observed that the two men “held a record for producing consistently superior cartoons using the same characters year after year — without a break or change in routine their characters are not only animated superstars, but also a very beloved part of American pop culture.” So I’ll be there for a big slice of birthday cake on this centennial anniversary of Joseph Barbera — with a pic-a-nic basket, a Brontosaurus rib and a Scooby snack on top, if you please.