Opinion: The excellence of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera
Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08
Threatened with eviction by his owner, the clumsy cat cannot break any more dishes. Gleeful, the mouse begins to mercilessly throw dishes from a high shelf, forcing the cat to catch them. When the cat is holding up a huge stack of dishes, sweating profusely, and unable to catch anything else, the mouse throws one last dish. The dish breaks. The mouse then kicks the cat, causing all of the other dishes to fall to the ground. The cat is thrown out of the house.
The release of this cartoon – “Puss Gets the Boot” – in 1940 marked the beginning of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s twenty-year career at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM) as directors of the “Tom and Jerry” series of theatrical cartoons. Hanna’s keen sense of comedic timing and Barbera’s artistic skills won the cat-and-mouse duo seven Academy Awards. By early 1957, however, the rise of television had eroded the film industry’s profits, prompting MGM to shutter its animation division. Hanna and Barbera were devastated. The era of animated cartoons was over, it seemed. Fortunately for those of us who see wondrous magic in these moving drawings, Hanna and Barbera refused to give up. Their perseverance in the face of daunting odds is just one reason why I strive to follow their example.
In late 1957, Hanna and Barbera decided to establish Hanna-Barbera Productions, a studio that would produce cartoons for television – an innovative idea at the time. This was not as easy as it sounds. Each seven-minute “Tom and Jerry” cartoon had taken six months to produce and had cost over $45,000. Clearly, this production system would not work for television. Accordingly, Hanna and Barbera devised a way to produce at least thirty minutes of cartoons per week: limited animation. Key characteristics of limited animation included minimalist backgrounds and characters with neckties or collars (so the body could remain motionless while the character spoke, enabling animators to only redraw the character’s face in each frame).
Limited animation made television animation profitable, saving the animation industry from extinction. As Barbera once wrote, “We went into limited animation because there was no money, absolutely no money. And because of what we were doing, the entire business came back to work again.” In addition, limited animation enabled Hanna-Barbera to create a cavalcade of timeless characters, including Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone and Scooby-Doo. By the 1980’s, Hanna-Barbera was the largest animation company in the world. The moral of the Hanna-Barbera success story is that one should never let a bad situation foster a negative attitude. As dispiriting as a situation may be, the sun will always rise again.
Another admirable quality of Hanna and Barbera was their concern for their employees’ happiness. One day, they installed time clocks at the studio. Jean Ann Wright, a former assistant animator at Hanna-Barbera, recalls that many animators were deeply offended. The next day, Hanna restored their goodwill with this humorous memo: “Joe and I do not know how it happened, but over the weekend some sneaky guy climbed over the fence and installed a bunch of time clocks in our studio. We want you to know that we have ordered them taken out, which will be pretty darn quick because we were pretty emphatic about it.”
Finally, Hanna and Barbera were hard workers. In the preface to his autobiography “A Cast of Friends,” Hanna contrasts his daily routine with that of Fred Flintstone. (In the opening to “The Flintstones,” a whistle blows signaling the end of the workday at the quarry, prompting Fred to happily exclaim, “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!”) Hanna writes, “For the greater part of my own life, work here at our ‘cartoon quarry’ has been my natural habitat. Chances are, if a whistle ever blew at the studio, I would never have heard it.”
On one occasion, Hanna-Barbera publicity director Sarah Baisley noticed Barbera looking very tired. Someone had just asked him for a favor, and he had promised to follow through. Baisley asked Barbera if he ever got tired of people asking him to do things for them. Barbera replied, “It’s okay. They’re only asking me because I can.” This semester, this quote has been a steady source of inspiration as I have struggled to balance my multiple commitments, including writing a senior thesis, doing additional academic work, being the president of a student organization, and trying to figure out my plans for the future.
By emulating Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, I seek to “have a Yabba-Dabba-Doo time” every moment of my life.