Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thanks, Joe.

Animation Giant Barbera Dead at 95
by Joal Ryan

Tom was a cat. Jerry was a mouse. Joseph Barbera was the man who helped bring them together.

Barbera, the animation giant who, with partner William Hanna, set Tom chasing after Jerry, Scooby-Doo scurrying after ghosts, and Fred Flintstone peddling after brontosaurus burgers, died Monday at his California home. He was 95.

Barbera, who dreamed up new cartoon ideas into his 90s, had been the surviving half of the legendary Hanna-Barbera tandem, a team so synonymous with Saturday morning TV of the 1960s-80s. Hanna died in 2001.Tom and Jerry, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Smurfs and Josie and the Pussycats were among the pair's best known series. There were dozens upon dozens more, many of them variations, spinoffs and/or outer-space riffs on their signature shows. By one popular estimate, Hanna-Barbera produced more than 3,000 half-hours of animated entertainment to eat your Sugar Smacks by.

Barbera, credited with often working out the stories for his and Hanna's creations, never stopped thinking about the next project. "Joe Barbera was here at the studio until about three weeks ago," Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. Animation said in an interview Monday. "He usually came in after lunch. Most days, I greeted him. He pitched me a couple of shows."And Schwartz bought some ideas, too, including one that became the 2005 direct-to-video movie Tom and Jerry: The Fast and the Furry. (Barbera might have been unusually hip for a nonagenarian, but the Fast and the Furious reference was courtesy Warners, the current studio home of what once was Hanna-Barbera Productions.)

Schwartz admired Barbera's energy, attitude—and legacy. "Joe really set the standard for television animation," Schwartz said, "and pretty much single-handedly with...Hanna invented television animation."Through it all, according to Michael Mallory, author of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, there was one unmistakable trait in the partners' work: "Everything they did had heart." "That's kind of an old-fashioned, but it's true," Mallory said Monday. "The characters generally had relationships with each other."This was the case, Mallory said, even of the most famously at-odds Hanna-Barbera duo: Tom and Jerry. Tom may have wanted to eat Jerry, as Mallory put it, but Tom always felt bad if he believed he'd actually killed his outsized opponent. "These characters really had a tie to each other," Mallory said.

And Tom and Jerry really had a tie to Hanna and Barbera. The characters were the duo's first notable creations, debuting in 1940's "Puss Gets the Boot." The Oscar-nominated short wasn't billed as a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and the characters weren't referred to as Tom and Jerry, but the sparring was vintage Tom and Jerry.

Born March 24, 1911, Barbera was a bank teller with an artistic bent until, as biographies have it, he ditched the desk job for an easel job. Barbera, the fledging fulltime animator, bounced around various studios until he landed at MGM in 1937. It was at MGM that Barbera met Hanna, and, eventually, Tom met Jerry. Barbera and Hanna's cat-and-mouse games went on to net seven Oscars, from 1943 to 1952, all awarded to producer Fred Quimby. As the Academy statuettes suggested, Barbera and Hanna hadn't just created cartoons; they'd created movie stars. Accordingly, Jerry danced with Gene Kelly in 1945's Anchors Aweigh and 1956's Invitation to Dance. Tom and Jerry both costarred opposite swimming thespian Esther Williams in the 1953 splashy live-action musical Dangerous When Wet. According to Mallory, Barbera viewed Tom and Jerry as a natural duo whose adventures almost wrote themselves. "He'd say you have a cat, you have a mouse--half of your story is already done for you," Mallory said.

Hanna and Barbera, as they were professionally known, alphabetical order aside, left MGM to set up their own shop in 1957. The Huckleberry Hound Show, starring a folksy blue dog and featuring a stable of characters including a picnic-basket-loving bear known as Yogi, followed in 1958. Hanna-Barbera Productions was on its way. Besides the characters it produced, the duo's company is best remembered for figuring out how to make animation doable, budget-wise and production-wise, for TV. And while so-called "limited animation," a break from the fluid, classic Disney style, eventually gave way to Josie and the Pussycats robotically rocking out in front of a moving background, without it, the band and others might never had had Saturday morning gigs. Other early Hanna-Barbera shows included: Quick Draw McGraw, The Magilla Gorilla Show, Top Cat and the adventure-minded Johnny Quest.

The Flintstones paved the way for The Simpsons, et al., becoming prime-time's first animated series. The show about a modern stone-age family ran for six seasons on ABC (1960-66), before spawning several spinoffs and TV-movies, and inspiring two live-action comedies. The Jetsons followed The Flintstones briefly to ABC in 1962, before becoming a Saturday-morning staple. The space-age flip side to The Flintstone's prehistoric setting, the show could be viewed as a precursor of Partridge Family 2200 AD, Yogi's Space Race and Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space—in the Hanna-Barbera universe, it seemed, all characters eventually ended up in another galaxy. Hanna-Barbera championed more traditional science fiction and superheroes with Space Ghost, the 1960s version of The Fantastic Four, the Godzooky-introducing Godzilla Power Hour, and the Justice League of America-aspiring Super Friends.

In 1969, the Mystery Machine gang rolled onto CBS' Saturday morning schedule in the form of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, and another hit franchise—and character—was born.The series' namesake dog went onto get a sidekick (in Scooby and Scrappy-Doo, among other spinoffs), host an athletic event (in Scooby's All-Star Laff-A-Lympics), and inspire the big-screen, live-action franchise. "Right now, Scooby-Doo is probably the No. 1 [animated] character—over Mickey Mouse, over Bugsy Bunny," Mallory said. Hanna-Barbera continued to dominate Saturday mornings of the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of: Hong Kong Phooey, another show about a crime-fighting dog, albeit one who sounded like Scatman Crothers; The Smurfs, the Americanized version of the blue, European-born woodland creatures; and, every possible Yogi/Scooby-Doo/Flintstones/Jetsons mutation imaginable. The Hanna-Barbera factory made cartoons out of live-action comedies, à la Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days. It made cartoons out of presold toy lines and games, à la Pac-Man and the GoBots. All this, and the Banana Splits, too. "They really were a full-service team," Mallory said. "They could do everything."

Generally, Mallory said, Barbera handled the first half of the animation process, laying out the stories, characters and overall design. Hanna took over as a show moved to production. Of the two, Barbera was more interested into moving beyond animation, hence his credits on projects that ranged from the Emmy-winning 1977 TV movie The Gathering to the unacclaimed 1978 TV movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.

To the end, Mallory said, Barbera--the animator, producer, director, writer and mogul--was an entertainer. "You'd go into his office...and he'd go, 'Did you see Seinfeld last night? And he'd go and he'd act out the entire episode for me," Mallory said. "You haven't lived until you've seen Joe Barbera at 89 sliding through the door like Kramer—and doing it brilliantly."

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