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The Story of Hanna-Barbera
If laughter is truly the best medicine, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera have done more for the national health than the Mayo brothers.
Over the course of their sixty-year partnership--one of the longest and most successful in the history of show business--Hanna and Barbera have not just created thousands of cartoons starring dozens of classic characters, they have literally transformed the business. Together they have received practically every entertainment award and honor it is possible to receive, including induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and a star on the prestigious Hollywood Walk of Fame. Their very names have come to mean animation. It is an impressive record for a self- described Easterner and a confirmed Westerner with little in common except a genius for entertaining audiences through the medium of animation.
William Denby Hanna was born in 1910 in Melrose, New Mexico. During his youth he frequently accompanied his father, a construction engineer for sewer systems, water systems, and dams, to the various wilderness work camps that the elder Hanna supervised. For the workers at these rugged camps, it was a job. For young Bill Hanna, blessed with a love of the outdoors, it was heaven.
The Hanna household settled in Los Angeles in 1919, a time when Hollywood was a rustic trolley stop and the film industry was still in diapers. In this environment, young Bill would soon discover the Boy Scouts, an organization in which he would remain active for the next eight decades. He also discovered an interest and a talent for music and poetry, and a fascination with rhyme and meter that would serve him well in the future when making stacks of drawings move upon command.
One of Hanna's early jobs was working with his father on the construction of the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in 1929. There he learned about a brand-new company headed by two young men from Kansas City named Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, who had been hired to create cartoons for Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. through producer Leon Schlesinger. With no formal art training, Hanna applied for a job and was hired.
He quickly rose through the studio ranks, eventually becoming head of the ink-and-paint department. Before long he was contributing songs to the shorts and pitching gags to Rudy Ising, who used some of them in the studio's Bosko cartoons. Eventually, the young artist persuaded Hugh Harman to let him try his hand at timing some scenes.
The Harman-Ising cartoon unit (which capitalized on the musical sound of the directors' names by dubbing the cartoons "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies") operated smoothly, turning out cartoons that were professionally packaged. The studio's stars were Bosko and Honey, an energetic duo, and Foxy, a character that Ising developed for a short-lived series. The early success of the studio can be gauged by the fact that its 1932 short, It's Got Me Again!, was nominated for the first Academy Award to be given for animation (though Walt Disney took home the award for Flowers and Trees, the first Technicolor cartoon).
The melody became considerably less "merrie" in 1933 when a business disagreement erupted between Harman and Ising and producer Schlesinger. As a result, the parties agreed to go their separate ways and Schlesinger set about assembling a cartoon staff of his own. The animators and story men within the studio were free to choose their allegiance: they could stay and continue to turn out cartoons for Schlesinger, or they could work elsewhere with Harman and Ising. Hanna's loyalty to Harman and Ising, the men he considered his teachers and benefactors, prompted him to decide to stay on with them.
Even as the splintered Harman-Ising cartoon unit was frantically considering its options in Hollywood, on the other side of the continent a young man named Joseph Barbera was seriously contemplating abandoning his secure, but stifling, position with a Wall Street bank to launch himself as a professional cartoonist.
Joseph Roland Barbera was born in 1911 in the Little Italy section of New York's Lower East Side, but raised in the Flatbush, Brooklyn. In this youth, Barbera had been a skilled amateur boxer--so skilled that a professional manager actually encouraged him to pursue a career in the ring, an offer the young man turned down. He also discovered a taste for theater, spending whatever money he could scrape together on tickets to Broadway shows. The young Barbera began to dream of someday writing plays of his own, and even had passing thoughts about appearing on stage as a performer (that dream came close to realization in the early 1950s when Barbera's comedy The Maid and the Martian played a ten-week run at The Players Ring in Santa Monica, California, and was optioned for Broadway).
Before long the dreams of a life in the theater gradually began to subside as another very real talent took center stage: the ability to draw. After school, Barbera landed a job with the Irving Trust Company and signed up for art classes at night. He began sending cartoons to the leading magazines that were headquartered in Manhattan, and at first reaped only rejection slips. But when Collier's purchased one of his cartoons, and then another, and then two more, the young artist began to see the possibility of a life and livelihood in cartooning.
His introduction to animation was as a moviegoer, one of thousands who had been entranced by Disney's The Skeleton Dance. The experience prompted Barbera to write to Walt Disney in California, and the future mogul wrote back, promising to look him up on an upcoming trip to New York. Disney never followed through on the promise, though, an act of indifference that Barbera now considers a blessing. "Had I gone out there, I would have disappeared," Barbera says. "There would have been no Tom and Jerry, no Flintstones, nothing."
Barbera subsequently took a job with the New York cartoon studios of Max Fleischer, but quit after only four days, realizing there was not much room for advancement. He quickly landed a better position with Van Beuren Studios, a small cartoon operation then releasing through RKO. The Van Beuren staff at the time included three young men who would become key players in the future Hanna-Barbera studio: Dan Gordon, Alex Lovy, and Carlo Vinci.
Barbera impressed his bosses at Van Beuren with his ability to create cartoon gags. Within six months, he was working as a full-fledged animator and story man. Within another few months, though, the Van Beuren Studios lost its distribution deal with RKO to Disney and closed its doors, leaving the young artist unemployed in the midst of the Depression.
Barbera decided to pack up and move to California to give Disney another try, but once more fate intervened. At the last minute he was persuaded to remain on the East Coast by Paul Terry, owner of the Terrytoons studio in New Rochelle. "Terry was mad at Disney, because Disney kept taking all his people," Barbera relates. "He heard I was going there so he offered me a job as an animator."
Meanwhile on the West Coast, Harman-Ising's fortunes were improving. Some three months after having parted company with Schlesinger, the directors and their remaining staff were signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Culver City-based "Tiffany of Studios," to produce cartoons for release under Leo the Lion's banner. Harman and Ising set to work making new cartoons and non-series shorts, all under the blanket title "Happy Harmonies." One such short, To Spring, released in June of 1936, was the first directorial effort of Bill Hanna.
But in 1937, to their shock, Harman and Ising once more found themselves without a studio contract. MGM had decided to establish its own in-house cartoon division and, taking note of the mastery he had displayed in his short To Spring, offered Bill Hanna a top creative position as a director of animation. To augment the roster of talent that had come to MGM through Harman and Ising, the studio scouted artists in New York. Among those who leapt at the chance to migrate west were Jack Zander, Paul Sommer, brothers Dan and George Gordon, and Joe Barbera.
Under the corporate leadership of Fred C. Quimby, the unit was directed to begin developing shorts based on the popular comic strip, "The Katzenjammer Kids," which relied heavily on Germanic comedy. To Quimby it seemed like a good idea. To the artists responsible for making the series, including directors Friz Freleng (in a brief sojourn away from Warner Bros.), Bob Allen, and Bill Hanna, it smelled of disaster.
Although well-crafted, the resultant "Captain and the Kids" cartoons provoked about as much public laughter as the sinking of the Lusitania, and Quimby was finally forced to agree with his staff. By then, though, Freleng had abandoned MGM to return to Schlesinger and in a turnaround, the studio rehired Harman and Ising, who now found themselves in an environment frequently punctuated by rivalries between the West Coast artists and those from the East Coast. It was in this atmosphere that Bill Hanna, who had been relegated to story work from a directorial position, and Joe Barbera, who had initially come on board as story man in the Freleng unit, began to recognize an opportunity.
Barbera recalls: "In desperation one time, we were sitting in a room waiting for the place to fold, and I said to Bill: 'Why don't we try a cartoon of our own?'"
Their backgrounds, interests, and skills were quite different, but the two quickly realized that this could be the key to their success. "Joe's talents are a little different than what talents I have," says Bill Hanna, "and between the two of us, we covered all the bases in production: creation, development, execution, animation, music, the whole thing. We thought it was a good idea to put them together."
A good idea indeed.
© 1998 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
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