Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Joe Barbera - 1911-2006

Here’s another one of those obituaries that I hate doing, but if you are going to do an obit for Aaron Spelling as one of the great figures in television history – which I did – then you’ve got to do one for Joe Barbera who died Monday at age 95. Barbera was one of the great figures of television and one of the great figures of animation. And if his name is regarded with scorn by some fans of animation, it probably should be remembered that it Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera who most successfully made the transition from creating short subjects for movies to creating animated series for television. In a very real way they were the godfathers of The Simpsons in that they were among the creators of the prime time animated series with The Flintsones, The Jetsons and Top Cat.

Joe Barbera started in animation at the old Van Beuren Studio in New York. When Van Beuren’s studio closed in 1936 he briefly went to Paul Terry’s Terrytoon studio before eventually being lured to California to work at MGM for substantially more money that Terry was willing to pay anyone except himself. It was at MGM that he met a writer named Bill Hanna beginning a partnership that would last until Hanna’s death in 2001. Their first cartoon as a team featured a cat named Jasper and an unnamed mouse. The film was called “Puss Gets The Boot” and earned them an Oscar nomination. The cat was renamed Tom, the mouse became Jerry and the team of Hanna & Barbera was launched. They would continue to create the adventures of the house cat and his nemesis, the plucky little mouse for 17 years, until MGM shut down their animation studio in 1957. In the process they won the studio seven Oscars for animated short subject.

With the major studios all closing down their animation shops, Hanna & Barbera launched themselves into a new area – television. There had been cartoons created for TV before – Crusader Rabbit comes to mind – but product from the studios dominated. Television was a good secondary market for them and in the days of Black & White TV they could show all of their shorts. The first show they did for TV, Ruff & Reddy, featured a dog and a cat and ran from 1957 to 1960. This was followed by a veritable host of shows in the 1950s: Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, and Quick Draw McGraw. These three shows adapted the format of the old theatrical shorts. The cartoons ran about six minutes and there were usually three cartoons in a show with two of the cartoons featuring supporting characters.

Then came The Flintstones. The show was sold to ABC (which at the time was quite desperate for content) as a cartoon for adult audiences to run in prime time (the adult nature of the show would have been clear to contemporary viewers – the main sponsor was Winston Cigarettes). In form the series was variation on Jackie Gleason’s classic Honeymooners shows, half hour shows that were essentially sitcoms done in animation rather than shorts for TV. Fred and Barney were always trying to sneak away from their wives to go to lodge meetings or poker games, or becoming involved in “get rich quick schemes” which inevitably backfired on them. The series lasted from 1960 to 1966 in prime time and encouraged ABC to try several more prime time cartoons: Top Cat, The Jetsons, and Johnny Quest. None of these lasted more than a single season but all four shows were constantly repeated.

Hanna-Barbera dominated Saturday morning animation in the 1960s and ‘70s with shows that included
Josie & The Pussycats, Wacky Racers, SuperFriends, and of course Scooby Doo. Production quality wasn’t always that great. The only way the Hanna-Barbera studio could churn out the massive amount of material they did was by cutting corners. They would animate fewer frames than a theatrical short would have – sixteen frames and sometimes less. They would repeat walks and actions. They would rely on talking heads, and stage events off screen with the sound track carrying the action rather than the visuals. As a result a half-hour episode of something like Josie & The Pussycats cost the same amount – $48,000 – as an eight minute Tom & Jerry theatrical cartoon from the 1940s. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were actually rather pleased with this. When they explained to their former bosses at MGM how they were able to produce this much product for such an affordable price, the executives asked why they hadn’t proposed doing that when they were at the studio. It turns out that they had, but the plan had been rejected in favour of closing the studio.

Over the years the quality of the material that the Hanna-Barbera studio was producing declined. The company was no longer independent, having been sold to Taft Broadcasting in 1967 but the parent company had considerable financial difficulty. Quality of the material produced decline markedly. They would churn out licensed material like cartoons based on The Dukes of Hazard or Laverne & Shirley, or rehashing older material like Scooby Doo. Moreover according to Mark Evanier, who worked at the Hanna-Barbera Studio during this period, Barbera was well aware of the decline in what they were doing, and not particularly happy about it although he was also constantly hopeful that the next show would be the one to turn things around. I come at the work of Joe Barbera and his partner as a fan.

One of the first shows that I have any memory of was
Ruff & Reddy, and my old high chair had decals of Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy and Huckleberry Hound on it. Those old shows were the ones I remember most and with the greatest fondness. And of course there was The Flintstones possibly the best thing that the Hanna-Barbera Studio ever did. I know them all and for a very good reason. One of the stations here in Saskatoon ran The Flintstones every weekday at Noon (except for most summer) for over 25 years – requests from adults that the station get a different series were greeted with the explanation that there were always kids who hadn’t seen the shows before.

Mark Evanier’s blog has an
extensive appreciation of Joe Barbera from the point of view of someone who knew him very well. It is a heart-felt appreciation of someone Mark clearly admired. Amid Amidi on the Cartoon Brew blog has some other remembrances of Joe Barbera from people who knew him.

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