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The Hanna-Barbera Cartoons

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Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera

From Wayne Bryan, who wrote in response to my review of The Hanna-Barbera Treasury: I reluctantly agree with your comments regarding H-B cartoons. I grew up worshipping H-B cartoons. For me, H-B were the kings of animation, probably because I had little else to compare them with. I was tired of watching the same post-1948 Warner cartoons on network TV and the only time I saw Disney stuff was in the form of little clips shown on The Wonderful World of Disney. I didn't see a full-length Disney feature, a Clampett- or Tashlin-directed Warner cartoon, or a Fleischer cartoon until the early 1980s. I had no idea what I was missing. Twenty-five years ago, being the huge H-B fan that I was, I would have rushed out to buy The Hanna-Barbera Treasury—now I don't feel that way. For me, many of these shows are memorable but are excruciatingly painful to watch nowadays. It's interesting how context can change your feeling about things. A Google search of Hanna-Barbera or Filmation inevitably brings up comments by those who loathe these companies and blame them for the downward spiral of animation because they utilized cookie-cutter methods.

Everything you said is true (well, almost everything—I still love The Flintstones) but I do feel I have to come to the defense of H-B, Filmation and other producers of limited TV animation. It wasn't pretty, but H-B and Filmation kept animation on life support long enough for its rebirth in the early '90s. Another thing I credit them for is employing many creative old-school animators and artists who had nowhere to go when animation was dying in the late '50s and early '60s. Filmation in particular should get kudos for not outsourcing their work overseas, which had become the norm by the time the '80s rolled around. TV was really the only outlet for animated cartoons, so studios were at mercy of indifferent network programmers who were only concerned about making money. It was that or closing up shop altogether, which might have totally killed animation.

I always rejected the assumption these studios were either incapable or lacked the talent to produce quality product. I don't believe that for a minute. The much maligned Filmation studio I thought made great strides to "up" the quality of TV animation in the late 70's. The studio produced a fine animated Flash Gordon film originally intended as a made-for-TV prime-time movie to be shown on NBC in 1979. By the time the network got hold of it they had the studio re-edit it into a Saturday morning cartoon. Unfortunately for Filmation during the production of the movie, NBC had a changed programmers, and the new guy put the film on back burner. Instead of capitalizing on the sci-fi /fantasy craze of the time (the original Star Wars movie had just come out) it sat for almost three  years. It was eventually broadcast on NBC  in the summer of 1982 with little or no promotion. It's unfortunate because the film was done quite well and may very well have opened the door for more quality TV animation.

I'll be first to say H-B and Filmation cartoons will never be confused with classic Disney or Warner animation, but they'll always hold a nostalgic spot in my heart because they were my introduction into the medium I love.

MB replies: I shared Wayne's message with Milt Gray, who in a forty-year career in Hollywood animation worked at Hanna-Barbera and many other studios. He wrote as follows:

I hate to admit it, but there's a lot of truth in what Wayne Bryan says.  I have often wondered what the alternative might have been if  H&B and Filmation had just refused to play ball with the TV networks.  Would some clones of those studios have sprung up, or would the networks have just shrugged indifferently and used no cartoons at all?  It's hard to imagine that the networks would have accepted programming from sincere little boutique studios, or that  the Hollywood majors would have decided to do something decent to fill a big void. And you and I probably couldn't have even located most of the old animators that we did ultimately interview.  It's an interesting "what if?", and as much as I've hated practically every  job I've had in Hollywood over the past 40-some years, when I  consider the nature of the people who control this industry, I can't believe that things would have been any better.

It's undoubtedly true that in one sense Hanna-Barbera and, later, Filmation "saved" the Hollywood animation industry. I'm not sure that was necessarily a good thing. For decades, thanks to the success of the H-B cartoons and their imitators, the industry has been dominated by studios of an intensely commercial kind, and most of its product has been dismissed, rightly, as kiddie junk. If the industry had survived in a much-diminished form, but making better films—that is, if it bore a closer resemblance to New York's animation industry—would that have been so bad?

[Posted January 9, 2008]

From Ray Kosarin: As to whether H-B's assembly-line production "saved" or "degraded" animation, the answer would have to be both.  It's important to note too that, while there is no mistaking the H-B television product for the very much better shorts and features made up to that point, there is genuine artistry and craft in the earliest H-B television shows that has much to do with their success and indeed their watchability this half century later. 

H-B's early commercial success depended heavily on the collective brilliance and experience of their team. The genius and energy of the likes of Irv Spence, Preston Blair, and indeed Hanna and Barbera, made even their cheap, adreneline-fueled animation probably the smartest and best possible under previously unthinkable conditions. The team's awareness of which animation problems were most difficult and time-consuming and where economy could most profitably be put to use, the jaunty and inbetweener-friendly designs of Ed Benedict, and their brazen willingness to experiment (especially in the era of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear) with unorthodox choices like popping from pose to pose during dialogue, built cleverly on the discoveries of UPA and others, if more in the service of savings than art.

That said, the first H-B scripts, keenly aware of the practical realities of production, were very smart in the sense that they were perfectly tailored for mining entertainment from this virtually reinvented medium. I very much doubt a less skilled group of artisans could have pulled this off.

That their product famously and spectacularly declined from those early days (perhaps because while H-B was happy to exploit existing talent, they had little interest in investing to sustain it) is another matter!

On a side note, let's also not forget the many fine, younger feature animators—Brad Bird and Tom Sito among them—who would not had no place even to begin in this business if it were not for the lesser TV market that H-B had so large a hand in creating. However much bad TV H-B produced, in balance their existence helped the industry at least as much as not.

From Gene Schiller: Regarding your comments on Jerry Beck’s Hanna-Barbera Treasury ( first, how about a moratorium on such words as t*** in this hallowed space?)—let’s be fair. Huckleberry Hound and his gang provided a nice change of pace from what was being offered as family fare at the time (My Little Margie, anyone?). The bright color schemes and tastefully stylized backgrounds were pleasing to the eye—the pace relaxing, the verbal puns and characterizations calculated to appeal to “adult” sensibilities.  Remember, this was a time when your parents and mine viewed “golden age” cartoons as anarchic and immature. Granted, H-B TV offers little of interest to the serious animation buff, but as a professionally tooled product (and cultural artifact) it deserves a little respect.

MB replies: Well, I'm sorry if my characterization of the H-B cartoons as execrement gave offense, but I have a great deal of trouble thinking of them as anything else.

Certainly, as Gene says, the early H-B cartoons were a "professionally tooled product," which fully reflected an awareness of what Ray calls "the practical realities of production." I don't see why that entitles them to respect. Lots of other products over the years have been "professionally tooled," in the sense that they've been shrewdly tailored to the demands of a broad market, but the products involved (not just sitcoms like My Little Margie, but, for example, many American-made cars) were still shoddy by any reasonable standard. That's certainly true of the H-B "product." As I said in my review, I simply don't find even the earliest H-B shows watchable, and that's not solely because I'm conscious of the damage H&B did to the Hollywood animation industry over ensuing decades.

I do remember when the H-B cartoons seemed sophisticated and modern compared with, say, the pre-1948 Warner cartoons that began turning up on TV around the same time as the first H-B efforts. But there's nothing surprising about that—there's always a bias in the mass audience, particularly its younger members, toward what's new, in cartoons as in many other things, however meretricious the new might be.

[Posted January 13, 2008]

From Thad Komorowski: You were far too kind on the H-B Treasury book.  I noticed in the library at school they just got a copy in (for reference only though).  Even from the point of a being a fun book, it was far too cluttered and gaudy.  I don't think the layout is something Jerry Beck is responsible for, but I couldn't stand looking at it for more than three minutes.

The standard for all animation related "illustrated guides" should be David Gerstein's Mickey and the Gang.  I had a small hand in it, but believe me, that book was David's labor of love, and he did it in an amazingly short time, even if it was what he worked on full-time (I would have to double-check but I'm sure he put it together in about six months).

MB replies: I concur heartily in Thad's endorsement of David Gerstein's Mickey and the Gang. Like Jerry Beck and the other people involved with The Hanna-Barbera Treasury, David had to assemble his book while undergoing the scrutiny of the legal staff of a large corporation—a corporation more interested in historical accuracy and artistic merit than Time Warner, the owner of the H-B cartoons, but probably not a great deal more. Even so, David was able to produce a book that is not just exceptionally attractive but also consistently accurate and illuminating about the Disney cartoons and their licensed spinoffs.

[Posted February 12, 2008]

Mickey and the GangFrom David Gerstein, who wrote in response to the posts just above: Thad is right: Mickey and the Gang was absolutely a labor of love. But it's not a real "illustrated guide" to Disney cartoons in general: just to the specific cartoons and period covered by the Good Housekeeping pages. Realizing Disney was affording me an uncommonly wide berth due to its good relations with my publisher, I admittedly tried to draw in as many earlier and only peripherally related items/cartoon facts as possible (such as the history of Mickey's Revival Party and the Disney version of Private Snafu), but the predetermined subject matter ultimately limited me at the bottom line.

The project I would most like to create would probably stretch into multiple volumes. It would provide production history, available draft data, publicity art and related ephemera for all Disney cartoons produced and unproduced through World War II, not just the comparative smattering presented in Mickey. The result would be an undertaking probably four times the length. Look for it in... 2028? I might be able to get it done by Mickey's hundredth anniversary.

All joking aside, Mickey actually took more effort than Thad suggests (or perhaps than I've made clear; apologies, Thad). Working an average of 30 hours per week, balancing the book with other in-house projects, I began writing the text and compiling the materials in December 2004. This process, including two one-week research trips to various divisions of Disney, continued into July 2005. Meanwhile, the book's first designer had started work in April, coming up with the basic interior design and working on the first third of the book. In June, Gemstone Assistant Editor Sue Kolberg trained a group of freelance assistants and started them working full-time on what was left, using our first designer's work as a template. Sue put more than half of each work week into riding herd on this team and doing a fair amount of excellent design herself.
This doesn't even get into the coloring of comics and publicity drawings that were originally in black and white. Our Art Director, Travis Seitler, cleaned upwards of a hundred images from dirty, linty originals and coordinated quite a number of colorists on the material.

The entire development process stretched into September 2005. Far from being a lone eagle work, Mickey and the Gang represents awesome amounts of hard labor for many individuals. We're still amazed that it's actually over.

As for The Hanna-Barbera Treasury, I must confess that I love its "cluttered and gaudy" layout, personally. Were I creating a new book about Disney or any vintage cartoons/comics, I wouldn't mind one whit if its designer chose something akin to that look.

[Posted February 15, 2008]