Now it’s time for me to talk about Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, the creators of Tom and Jerry, the founders of cartoon studio Hanna-Barbera and trailblazers of TV animation who paved the way for shows like The Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants.
We all know the shows: The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Smurfs, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Scooby–Doo, and a million others. When I was a kid I watched many of these, and even back then I could tell they were not as good as Disney and Looney Tunes, but the people behind these cartoons deserve respect from all animation fans for their success in keeping the medium alive during its lowest point: the period between the fifties and the nineties.
William Hanna was born in Melrose, New Mexico in 1910. His talent for drawing became evident after his sister’s boyfriend told him to apply for a job at Pacific Title and Art making title cards for motion pictures.
This led to his employment at Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising’s animation studio, which had created Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies for Warner Bros. Hanna became head of the ink and paint department and even wrote songs for the cartoons, but when Harman and Ising left Leon Schlesinger to start their own studio, Harman-Ising, whose cartoons would be distributed by MGM, Hanna went with them.
Joseph Barbera was born in New York City in 1911. He was a magazine cartoonist for such publications as Redbook, Saturday Evening Post and Collier‘s, and he took art classes at the Art Students League of New York and Pratt Institute.
He was hired to work in the ink and paint department at Fleischer Studios and was also an animator and storyboard artist for the Van Beuren and Terrytoons animation studios before being hired by MGM.
Hanna and Barbera’s desks at MGM were opposite each other, and after talking, they realized they would make a good team. Harman and Ising were out, but MGM kept Hanna and Barbera as directors.
They ended up contributing dozens of hilarious cartoons about a cat and mouse duo named Tom and Jerry, and the characters were highly popular, even at the Academy Awards where they won multiple Oscars, the most for a single cartoon series in history.
However, 1957 was the year MGM decided to close their animation studio due to competition from the new big thing: television. The phone call came as a blow to the two animators, but they loved working in animation, and they wanted to keep going, so in order to keep their jobs, they migrated to where the competition was.
Hanna and Barbera founded Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1957 alongside George Sidney, film director of Anchors Aweigh (the movie where the live-action Gene Kelly danced with the animated Jerry Mouse), and partnered with Screen Gems, the TV unit of Columbia Pictures, to make cartoons for television.
The first series was The Ruff and Reddy Show on NBC, but their first hit was The Huckleberry Hound Show, which was so popular that the character Yogi Bear got his own spin-off (Huckleberry was huge but Yogi was bigger).
Like Rocky and Bulwinkle, Huckleberry Hound was popular with adults as well as kids, and when it was revealed that half the audience of Huckleberry Hound was made of adults, the studio was prompted to create another show aimed more towards adults, which ended up being The Flintstones, a stone-age parody of The Honeymooners that was the first animated hit in prime time.
By the late sixties, Hanna-Barbera was the most popular TV animation studio. Many of its popular series included Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Magilla Gorilla, Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, Wacky Races, Jonny Quest and Scooby–Doo, and they continued well into the seventies with even more shows, of which there are too many to list.
The studio hired talented Looney Tunes veterans like Michael Maltese and Warren Foster as writers, but the limited budget meant the animation could not match the quality of theatrical animation. In fact, many artists look down on the studio for this reason, but they simply didn’t have a choice.
In addition to their series, the studio also ventured occasionally into feature film animation. Many of these movies starred their TV characters, like Hey There, It‘s Yogi Bear! (1964) and The Man Called Flintstone (1966), but sometimes they went outside the norm with films like Charlotte‘s Web (1973) and Once Upon a Forest (1993).
In the nineties, things really began to change. After Turner (TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network) bought the Hanna-Barbera library, as well as the television rights to the cartoons of Warner Bros. and MGM, Fred Seibert became the president of Hanna-Barbera, and one of the first things he did was create the animated anthology series What a Cartoon!, which was a showcase for the animated shorts of many young art students.
The show introduced many talented filmmakers like Genndy Tartakovsky, Craig McCracken, Butch Hartman and Seth MacFarlane, and some of the cartoons ended up becoming the pilots for Hanna-Barbera’s biggest TV hits since The Smurfs in 1981, including Dexter‘s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Cow and Chicken, and The Powerpuff Girls.
Ever since Turner merged with Time Warner in 1996, Hanna-Barbera became an in-name-only subsidiary of Warner Bros. Animation, and now Warner Bros. owns many of the characters, who have appeared most recently in straight-to-video movies, especially Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry.
Warner Bros. is planning to bring these characters to contemporary audiences with mature reboots within the pages of DC Comics (another Warner Bros. subsidiary) and a shared film universe in the same vein as Marvel. These characters remain popular and will likely never disappear completely.
Hanna and Barbera are no longer with us, but they continued to work in the animation industry for the rest of their lives. Their enthusiasm for their work was clear and they proved that you didn’t need fancy animation to entertain people, likely giving many future artists the confidence to enter the animation industry.