Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Joseph Barbera R.I.P.

The past two weeks have been one of those times when I have worried that this blog might turn into "the Death Blog." Both actor Peter Boyle and Green Lantern creator Martin Nodell have passed on. Now Joseph Barbera has died as well. He passed on of natural causes at the age of 95 on December 18. For those of you don't know, Joe Barbera was one half of a team with William Hanna (who died in 2001), the animators who brought life to Tom and Jerry and whose studio produced such cartoons as The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, and Space Ghost.

Joseph Barbera was born on March 24, 1911 in Manhattan. Born to parents of Sicilian descent, he started work early as a delivery boy for a tailor. He tried to become a cartoonist for the magazine New York Hits. In 1932, however, he found his calling as a cartoonist with the Van Beuren Studios. In 1937, after Van Beuren shut down, he joined MGM. He was hired within two days of his future partner, William Hanna. They first worked together on what would also be the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, "Puss Gets the Boot," in 1940. The animated short was nominated for the Oscar for Best Short Subject, Cartoons. Curiously, in that first cartoon, Tom was called by the name "Jasper!" Hanna and Barbera would work on the Tom and Jerry series until 1957. During that time the Tom and Jerry series won an impressive seven Academy Awards for Best Short Subject, Cartoons, more than any other animated short series. While at MGM they also worked on other series as well, most notably cartoons featuring Droopy. Among the most notable achievements that the duo had during this period was animating the sequence from the movie Achors Aweigh in which Jerry danced with Gene Kelly. Even Walt Disney was impressed.

In 1957 MGM closed their animated unit, leaving Hanna and Barbera out of work. It as then that the two founded their own studio. Initially called H-B Enterprises and quickly renamed Hanna-Barbera Productions, the studio entered the new field of creating animated cartoons for television. Their first series, The Ruff and Ready Show, was the second animated series created specifically for television (the first was Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit). Hanna-Barbera kept their costs down by using limited animation. For that reason, while the Tom and Jerry cartoons often emphasised action, the cartoons produced by the Hanna-Barbera studio would emphasise dialogue.

The Ruff and Ready Show is largely forgotten today, but Hanna-Barbera Productions would go onto create some of the most successful animated TV series of all time. Debuting in syndication in 1958, The Huckleberry Hound Show was the first of the studio's many hits. The series not only featured the title character, but also segments featuring Yogi Bear (who would go onto to get his own series, not to mention a feature film) and two mice named Pixie and Dixie. The Huckleberry Hound Show was the first of many hits for the studio.

Indeed, Hanna-Barbera would even break new ground with regards to animated TV series. In 1960, Hanna-Barbera produced The Flintstones, one of the first animated TV shows created specifically for primetime. The series would run a total of six seasons on ABC and, until The Simpsons, would be the most successful animated show to ever air in primetime. Indeed, it started a short cycle towards cartoons in primetime, a cycle which produced two other memorable Hanna-Barbera shows--The Jetsons and Top Cat.

Most of Hanna-Barbera's early output was comedic in nature, although in the Sixties they started turning out more serious cartoons as well. Among the cartoons that debuted on primetime in the wake of The Flintstones was Jonny Quest. The series centred on the adventures the title character had while travelling the world with his scientist father. It was the first action-adventure series produced by the studio, and would be followed by other Hanna-Barbera action-adventure cartoons such as Space Ghost and Birdman. Hanna-Barbera would go onto produce some of the most recognisable cartoons in American pop culture, among them The Atom Ant Show, Where Are You, Scooby-Doo, and many others.

Like many who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, I have fond memories of watching many of the cartoons produced by William Hanna and Joe Barbera. As an adult I have to admit I am not particularly fond of the Tom and Jerry cartoons (it seems to me as if they all have the same plot--it is hard for me to believe they racked up all those Oscars) and I did not like Where Are You, Scooby Doo even as a child. And as an adult I don't find The Flintstones terribly entertaining. But then I have to admit that Hanna-Barbera produced some of the best cartoons of all time. To this day I will gladly watch Jonny Quest, The Jetsons, Space Ghost, and Hong Kong Phooey. If Hanna-Barbera was the most successful studio specialising in animated series for television, it may have been because they had a special gift for creating memorable characters. Indeed, many of their characters and their catchphrases are immediately recongisable by a majority of Americans. Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, Scooby, and Shaggy became an established part of American pop culture long ago. At their best, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were matched only by a very, very few in creating memorable characters. It is sad to think they are both gone now.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was upset to hear that Barbera had passed on. To this day, some of my favourite cartoons are the Hanna/Barbera cartoons from when I was growing up.