Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Hanna and Barbera

There's a discussion going on about Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, probably prompted by the release of Jerry Beck's book, The Hanna Barbera Treasury. (Mike Barrier talks about them here and here; Thad K talks about them here.) For baby boomers, there's a strong nostalgia for Hanna-Barbera's early work such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Top Cat. Hanna and Barbera are undeniably important to TV animation from a historical standpoint as they were the first to crack prime time with an animated series and their studio was able to work with TV budgets and schedules while creating successful shows.

Furthermore, many boomers in the animation industry had direct contact with Hanna and Barbera and have pleasant memories of them as individuals. By all accounts, Joe Barbera was an expert salesman, so his ability to charm people should come as no surprise.

As theatrical animation collapsed in the 1950s and '60s, Hanna-Barbera was there to offer employment to animation artists who suddenly found themselves jobless. While no one claimed that TV work was the same quality as theatrical shorts, it did allow many animation veterans to close out their careers doing work that they were familiar with. They were spared the upset of re-inventing themselves in middle age or later.

Those are the good things that can be said for Hanna-Barbera. There are, however, many bad things that can be said about them. In some ways, it's amazing that animation managed to survive them.

There is no question that TV budgets and schedules were and are brutal for the creation of animation. Hanna-Barbera did nothing to fight this. That is their single biggest failing. Rather than attempt to reform or beat a system that was clearly stacked against the production of good work, Hanna-Barbera embraced that system and milked it for their own personal gain. They expanded the number of shows they produced and with each expansion, the quality of the product suffered. They opened studios overseas in order to take advantage of cheaper labour. The savings went into their pockets, not onto the screen. After their initial decade, when they had the opportunity to work in prime time or in features where budgets were better, the projects were only marginally better than the low-budget work they turned out for Saturday mornings. The thinking and procedures behind their Saturday morning shows infected the entire company. In their hands, the art of animation (and here I'm talking about the entire process from writing to post-production), was degraded and debased without apology.

Some might argue that Hanna-Barbera did not have the leverage to change the way the TV business dealt with animation. I disagree and my evidence is Walt Disney and the movie business. In the early 1930s, Disney was a small company that was not affiliated with a major studio. Theatrical shorts were not all that lucrative, which is why live action comedians in the 1920s like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, worked hard to graduate to feature films. Walt Disney re-invested his profits, including those from merchandising, into improving the quality of his cartoons. By raising his standards, he forced other animation studios to raise theirs in order to compete.

Hanna and Barbera were no worse off than Disney at the time they entered TV. If anything, they were in a better position having won multiple Oscars for the Tom and Jerry series. They entered TV with a greater reputation and more experience than Walt Disney had in the early 1930s. As Disney expanded his company in that decade, the quality of the studio's work went up. As Hanna-Barbera expanded in the 1960s and beyond, their quality went down. Like Disney, they had merchandising revenue coming in from early on, but that money was never redirected to the cartoons. Where Disney increased his budgets with the hope that quality would lead to increased revenues, Hanna-Barbera never increased theirs. Walt Disney exceeded the expectations of his distributors and his audience. Hanna and Barbera were satisfied with meeting their minimum requirements, and often failed to do that.

Regardless of what you think of Disney's films, there is no question that Walt Disney enriched the animation industry by raising standards for the entire field. Hanna and Barbera impoverished animation by strip mining it, taking all the wealth for themselves and leaving behind an industrial disaster. There is no question that the animation industry suffered a major blow with the death of theatrical shorts and the rise of television. It took the industry more than 25 years to recover from that blow. Hanna and Barbera had no part in that recovery and if anything, they probably delayed it.


Stephen Worth said...

Could it be that Filmation had something to do with H-B's rapid slide into drek? 1963 was the year Filmation was founded, and it marks the end of anything at all worthwhile coming out of H-B too.

See ya

Pete Emslie said...

I'll readily admit to being one of the nostalgic Boomers who love early Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I really think that you just have to view them in the proper context to appreciate them. No, they were nowhere near as fully animated or lushly produced as the theatrical short cartoons that preceded them, but they do seem to hold their own when measured against everything else on TV at that time. I guess 1960's TV in general is like comfort food for me. I'm perfectly happy to watch an old episode of "Bewitched" or "Get Smart" in the same way I derive pleasure from watching "The Flintstones". They are all bright, sunny looking sitcoms, with the latter one just happening to be animated. Quite honestly, 60's TV just makes me feel good - regardless of its artistic aspirations or lack thereof.

I happen to share John Kricfalusi's enjoyment of the older H-B cartoons for similar reasons he has mentioned on his blog: The appealingly simple character designs by Ed Benedict, the likewise appealingly simple backgrounds painted in a warm, harmonious palette, and the fun voicework by the likes of Daws Butler, Don Messick, Mel Blanc and Paul Frees. I'd also add to that the great jazzy title tunes composed by Hoyt Curtin. All of these factors added up to a product that was fun to look at and listen to, even if the animation was not on the same level as its theatrical counterparts. But going back to my examples of live sitcoms, would you expect "Get Smart" to in any way measure up to the theatrical James Bond films, on which the show is so obviously based as satire? Nah, "Get Smart" was, like any of H-B's product, created on a much smaller budget and did the best with what money and time was available to churn out an episode each week.

In regards to Disney, their forays into TV animation in the 60's was limited to the occasional Ludwig Von Drake show or likeminded episode, where new animation was created merely to link together several old shorts with a similar theme. These types of shows only were produced sparingly during a typical season of "The Wonderful World of Disney" (or its earlier incarnations) and thus could be created with nearly as much production value as their feature film output, considering that the amount of new footage generated for any one of these hour-long shows wouldn't have exceeded more than about 20 minutes worth.

Ironically, however, I had the same concerns as you have on Hanna-Barbera when Disney (under Eisner) decided it was going to enter the Saturday morning cartoon field. For me, that seemed like sacrilege, as I knew that their TV output could never hope to come close to the quality in their theatrical work. I always felt that Disney should have stayed out of that venue and left it to Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, and whoever else was prominent in TV cartoons at the time. So, in that respect, Mark, I can certainly appreciate your criticisms of Hanna-Barbera on TV as compared to their prior success with "Tom and Jerry" at MGM. But it doesn't make me like "The Flintstones" any less!

Thad said...

Your assessment is 100% correct. Hanna and Barbera were businessmen first and filmmakers second.

I have NEVER had any fondness for those early H&B TV cartoons. As a kid, I thought they were alright, but I'd rather Turner devote its airwaves to more Warner, MGM, and Popeye cartoons.

Disney had no need to produce new cartoons for television. He had a mammoth library of extremely popular films and characters, so it was unnecessary to make entirely new cartoons. But he could have been cheap like H&B and not even do that lively wrap-around animation of Ludwig by Kahl. (Some people forget that H&B didn't even fill up the full half-hour of Ruff and Reddy... The remaining six minutes was a Columbia cartoon, usually starring the Fox and Crow... Outrageously stingy!!!)

Great writing as always Mark!

Thad said...

Addendum: I should have said "He had a mammoth library of extremely popular films and characters, that audiences could only see when they were running in theaters previously". Walt knew what the public wanted his cartoons which is why his second Christmas special (the one that tied in with the making of Peter Pan) was almost entirely old cartoons, with very little live-action footage!

J Lee said...

The first handful of cartoons from the Huckleberry Hound Show (mainly the ones written by Dan Gordon and Charles Shows) have their merits, particularly the Yogi ones where his personality was not yet set in stone, and he could be either curmudgeonly or something of a bumbler, as opposed to the 24/7/365 happy-go-lucky rhyme machine. But that was the personality Bill and Joe settled on, perhaps at the insistence of the sponsor, who didn't want some annoyed bruin try to sell Kellogg's OKs to the nation's youth.

The 'brightening up' of the original characters into friendly product hawkers for the kiddies can also be seen from Season 1 to Season 2 of "The Flintstones". The opening episodes gave Fred and Wilma some of the darker shadings from the original Honeymooners source -- fine if Fred's hawking Winston cigarettes, not as good if his main goal is to sell Welch's grape jelly and Skippy peanut butter. By Season 3 Fred's personality was closer to the one Danny Thomas was using on his show than what Gleason perfected, of a grouchy, but non-threatening head of the house.

Michael Sporn said...

I have some nostalgic fondness for the early H&B work. But it's just that, nostalgia. The films aren't good.
Mark, you're, once again, on the money. Hanna and Barbera were out for enriching themselves. They had no thought of making good films. And the damage they do has been irreparable. The mediocre to poor animation done for TV is their progeny. They had no hand even in making a good animated theatrical film. Charlotte's Web is sad. The animation isn't much better than TV work.

Robert said...

Maybe HB did look at the Disney example and saw that all those increases in quality just kept him teetering on being broke. "pinocchio", "fantasia", "Sleeping Beauty" were all big advances but the non-budget-busters like "Dumbo" and "Cinderella" seemed to bring back more on the investment.

But obviously HB were more interested in making money than art.

I remember reading a late interview with either H or B and he pretty much admitted "yeah, we've been doing awful crap."

But I don't think they had any leverage either to get better budgets. There just wasn't a shortage of potential television programming.

Steve Schnier said...

Mark, I agree with your assessment of H&B. But let me ask this - wasn't there anyone else who could have started a studio to produce better animation?

Just because one company was producing dreck doesn't mean that every company had to do it too. But they did. They settled.

Sure, you can put the blame on H&B and Filmation, but it seems like the entire industry was complicit. All it might have taken to change things, is one person with a vision.

Thad said...

DePatie-Freleng, for it's first 8 years or so, was keeping alive relatively full animation in the Warner style of cartoon-making. They look badly animated by comparison to the best stuff we love, but they really were the only ones making "real" cartoons. And come on, their most popular series, The Pink Panther, was pantomime! And some of the gags and ideas in those films were really inspired.

Emmett said...

I have been watching the old Hanna Barbera characters for the last month. By old, I mean late 1950's to mid 1960's. I like those, because the characters were as charming and likable as characters from Warner Bros. and such.

I often ask myself if it is alright to like Hanna Barbera, because of the damage they brought to the animation industry. I grew up watching the HB influence, so I am accustomed to their practices, although I now do not appreciate them all. The worst practice, in my opinion, is using overseas labor to finish the animation. In case you didn't notice, there are more errors in those cartoons than ever before.

Larry Levine said...

Fondness for the early H-B TV cartoons really depends when the person was born.

I was in the single digits during the 1960s and H-B cartoons were a VERY big deal to the kids of that era. There was no way a young toonaholic could avoid The Flintstones, Yogi, Auggie Doggie & the rest of the crew on TV by 1965 so I'm very nostalgic for what they meant to me in my youth. That said, like watching old live-action favorites on Nick/TV Land, some things are best remembered & not revisted.

Pete Emslie said...

Just taking a page from Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life", let's imagine for argument's sake what it would have been like had Hanna-Barbera not arrived on the scene of TV animation back when it did. Those of my generation were lucky enough to grow up with a fair amount of theatrical shorts being shown regularly on TV in the 60's. We had "The Bugs Bunny Show", "The Woody Woodpecker Show", "Popeye" cartoons playing on various locally hosted kiddie shows, and the very occasional showing of Disney shorts on an episode of Disney's Sunday night show. Later on we had "The Pink Panther Show" too. Sure, all these theatrical offerings were wonderful, but there was a limited amount of them available and how long could TV continue to just recycle those without generating new product specifically for the medium?

To take my argument into the field of live-action content, should TV have limited itself only to showing theatrical movies? TV had to generate its own content in order to remain viable - it could not merely serve up leftovers from the big screen. TV sitcoms and dramas were churned out weekly with far smaller budgets than would be given to feature films, most of them utilizing two or three main interior sets plus exteriors shot on studio backlots, but it was quite evident that television had to survive by doing things on the cheap relative to the movie industry.

My argument is why would anyone expect TV cartoons to be given any better treatment than live-action shows? TV cartoons had to be churned out quickly and cheaply to meet the weekly schedule needs. Personally, I believe that Hanna-Barbera was successful in creating a product that met those needs by taking the more graphic, shape based modern animation styles of UPA and combining it with the "Funny animal" staple of Hollywood theatrical shorts to result in something that was feasible for the voracious appetite of weekly TV.

In that context, I also believe that Hanna-Barbera managed to keep the whole genre of "Funny animal" cartoons alive for kids of the TV generation, who otherwise might have grown tired of the same diet of theatrical cartoons shown over and over again, ad infinitum. No question that the theatrical cartoons were richer in animation and all around production values, but I think my own childhood would have been poorer if not for those early Hanna-Barbera series to help feed my appetite for fun and friendly cartoon characters. In my own case, I don't think it is merely childhood nostalgia that makes me appreciate HB cartoons. To this day, I can still watch an episode of "The Flintstones" or "The Jetsons" and enjoy it for the fun designs and the fact that it was still being done by REAL cartoonists. I'd have a hard time defending much of what is being created today in the way of TV animation, however, as I think that cartoonists are a dying breed here in the North American animation industry. They continue to exist in the print medium, but having real cartooning talent with the ability to show personality in the drawing of animated cartoons is pretty much a thing of the past, due to deteriorating tastes of those who call the shots.

Anonymous said...

Re the remark about did allow many animation veterans to close out their careers doing work that they were familiar with. They were spared the upset of re-inventing themselves in middle age or later."

My father, Irv Spector, was one of these veteran animators at H&B (and other studios) and while the above may be true, what I vividly remember for himself as well as many of his veterean cartoonist friends -- and I'd wager not so veteran -- was the year-in-year-out seasonal layoffs. There was always constant griping about that and it caused enough of them a certain amount of hardship.

Griping about the animation quality is another thing, especially as the decade wore on. And this complaint was not only from the older animators but by the up-and-comers who felt they weren't learning anything.


Anonymous said...

While I mostly agree with Mr. Mayerson, may I play Devil's Advocate here? What about Jonny Quest or Charlotte's Web?

Anonymous said...

You make good point about how HB set the bar low for the industry, which makes sense given that you're in it. But if you think like someone who isn't involved in animation (like me!) the big losers here aren't the animators, writers, designers, etc. The big losers are the children.

The reason HB was able to get away with low quality is that kids have no expectations. Sit them down in front of the TV and they'll watch Meet The Press if there's nothing else offered. Likewise, kids will not know the difference between Mozart and P. Diddy if they aren't given that option.

Since children don't have any say in the matter, and they aren't expecting Disney (or Shakespeare) they'll swallow low-budget animation hook, line and sinker.

Before we blame Hanna and Barbera let's consider the shameful willingness of the TV networks to put any old thing on Saturday morning as long as it sold cereal. It really wasn't until CTW that the idea of quality for children's sake was even considered.