Hanna and Barbera

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Hanna and Barbera

William Hanna (1910-2001) and Joseph Barbera (1911-2006) are the single most successful producing/directing team in animation history. For nearly two decades, their work on MGM's Tom & Jerry cartoons rocked movie houses with laughter. However, when the duo brought their knack for sight gags and sure sense of parody to television, they became giants in the field of limited animation.

Met at MGM

Hanna and Barbera started out at opposite ends of the country before they met at MGM in 1937. The son of William John and Avice Joyce Hanna, William Denby Hanna was born on July 14, 1910, in Melrose, New Mexico. The dictates of his job as a construction superintendent for the Santa Fe Railroad caused the elder Hanna to move his family to Logan, Utah, in 1915, and then to California in 1917. One of seven children, young Hanna was the only boy and an enthusiastic member of the Boy Scouts of America. While growing up, he was encouraged to express himself both musically and artistically by his mother, who wrote poems for the family, and by his sister Lucille, who passed her piano lessons on to her only brother.

Initially, Hanna studied journalism and engineering at Compton Junior College, and hoped to become an engineer. He worked briefly as a surveying assistant before the financial hardships of the Great Depression compelled him to take any paying work he could find. Fortunately for Hanna, his sister Marian was dating Jack Stevens, who worked for Warner Bros. animation producer Leon Schelesinger. Stevens advised the youngster to seek employment with the animation/production team of Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising.

Starting out at the bottom, Hanna earned $18 a week as a janitor at Harman and Ising's studio. Besides sweeping up and emptying the trash, he also washed the ink off the acetate sheets or production cels, so they could be reused. Hard working and a quick study, Hanna enjoyed the sociable animation shop and was quickly put in charge of the ink and paint department. Harman and Ising, who got their start with Walt Disney, proved valuable mentors. While working on the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series, Hanna learned every aspect of the business. By 1933 he was skilled enough to begin working as a story editor, lyricist, and occasional director. When Harman and Ising's company broke up in 1937, Hanna joined MGM as a cartoon writer and director. It was there he met Joseph Barbera.

The son of an Italian immigrant, Joseph Roland Barbera was born on March 24, 1911, in New York City. Growing up in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, the youngster discovered his love of theater and writing while attending Erasmus Hall High School. A high school graduate at the age of 16, Barbera studied accountancy at the American Institute of Banking, which resulted in a position filing income tax forms at the Irving Trust Bank on Wall Street. Later, Barbera jokingly told Ted Sennett, author of The Art of Hanna-Barbera, “To this day, they must be still looking for my mistakes.”

When not working at the bank, Barbera secretly longed to become a cartoonist and magazine illustrator. Drawing all night and refining his skills through instruction at the Pratt Institute, he eventually sold a few cartoons to Collier's for $25 apiece. Although not enough money to quit his job over, the sales encouraged the young artist, and he sought full-time employment in his chosen field. In 1934 he briefly worked as a cel painter and inker at the Fleischer Brothers's New York studios, where he was occasionally paid $1 per gag idea for Popeye cartoons. A far better opportunity came at the Van Buren Studios, best remembered for their animated version of the Toonerville Trolley comic strip, where animator Tom Goodson showed him the fine points of the craft before the studio abruptly closed its doors in 1936. Subsequently, Barbera applied for a job at the Disney studios in California, but Paul Terry, of Terrytoons fame, promptly hired Barbera as an animator and storyboard editor. A year later, Barbera and most of Terry's staff were asked to join MGM's new cartoon unit. Hanna and Barbera began to share story conferences. Few animators understood comedic timing as well as Hanna, who had refined his skills alongside such giants as Friz Freleng and Tex Avery. For his part, Barbera was clearly the superior artist. “He was the best cartoonist I'd ever seen,” Hanna told Ted Sennett. “I had a lot of respect for his artistic abilities and I knew how much he contributed to the stories.” By the end of 1938, they were officially a creative team.

Made Hit With Tom & Jerry

Most of Hanna and Barbera's early work at MGM was done under the aegis of producer Fred Quimby. After backing an unsuccessful series of cartoons based on the Captain and the Kids newspaper strip, Quimby was reluctant to allow Hanna and Barbera to produce a cartoon about a squabbling domestic cat and mouse they privately named Jasper and Jinx. However, when the 1940 release Puss Gets the Boot proved a rollicking laugh-getter, exhibitors clambered for more.

Hanna and Barbera refined their characters, making the cat sleeker and less sinister and the mouse cuter and chubbier. Finally they changed the name of the cartoon duo to Tom and Jerry. Consistently funny and action packed, the Tom and Jerry cartoons remain among the very few moviebased series that still hold up as entertainment. Hanna and Barbera adhered to a simple formula: The cat and mouse were “the best of enemies.” Jerry never provoked a fight, but always got the last laugh. When a common enemy menaced both cat and mouse, they displayed fierce loyalty and teamwork. Both characters were devoid of human speach, but all of Tom's screeches and yowls and purrs were provided by co-creator Hanna.

Working closely with animators Irven Spence, Eddie Barge, Ken Muse, Ray Patterson, and Bick Bickenbach, Hanna and Barbera created well over a hundred Tom and Jerry cartoons. Further, they added animated sequences to several live action feature films, most notably Anchors Aweigh (1945), in which actor Gene Kelly appeared to be masterfully dancing with Jerry the mouse. Both Tom and Jerry swam with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet (1956). However, the cartoon shorts were Hanna and Barbera's bread and butter, and their popularity with audiences and critics resulted in seven Academy Awards and eight other nominations. Producer Fred Quimby took home the Oscars, but it was Hanna and Barbera's work and vision that made the seven-minute cartoons so enduringly entertaining.

Both men would have happily spent the rest of their days making Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM, and the studio rewarded them by making them head of the studios cartoon unit in 1955. However, facing stiff competition from television, MGM closed the theatrical cartoon unit in late 1957. With other studios also cutting back or closing their cartoon units outright, it seemed that the outlet for their creative talents was television.

Created Early Television Cartoons

Early cartoons made for television faced significant budgetary hurdles that demanded cut-backs in the number of drawings used per frame in each film. The result was a technique called limited animation, which showed characters talking more than moving, and a lot of herky-jerky movement accompanied by sound effects and music to provide an illusion of action. Such kiddie fare as Crusader Rabbit, Clutch Cargo, and Captain Kangaroo's regular feature Tom Terrific had their respective charms, but were often poorly drafted and pitifully animated. Hanna and Barbera, with their superior sense of draftsmanship and storytelling, brought most of their MGM staff with them when they set a new, high standard for limited animation.

In late 1957, Hanna and Barbera debuted their new Saturday morning series, The Ruff and Reddy Show, on NBC. Made under the auspices of H-B Productions, a freelance animation company, the black-and-white show remained a staple of the network's programming for several years. Far more iconic was the floodgate of characters that came under the Hanna-Barbera Productions imprint, each with his own catch-phrase and high concept storyline. The good-natured fool, Huckleberry Hound, introduced Yogi Bear, who was “smarter than the average bear” and lusted after forbidden picnic baskets. Quick Draw McGraw, a dimwitted palomino who stood upright, parodied TV's abundance of westerns with the aid of long-suffering burro Baba Looey. One-upping their own Tom and Jerry movie cartoons, the duo also introduced Pixie & Dixie, cute cartoon mice who constantly outsmarted the Brooklyn-esque cat Mr. Jinx. Each creation became a major hit with kids and parents alike.

The Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons followed a certain formula. Voiced predominantly by Daws Butler and Dale Messick, each storyline had to play out in six minutes or less. In 1963 they altered the format to suit their 30-minute rendition of Phil Silvers and his You'll Never Get Rich sitcom for their cat cartoon Top Cat. However, the team's greatest success came with the creation of the perfect stoneage suburban family, The Flintstones.

Loosely based on Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, and starring the voice of Alan Reed, previously of radio's Duffy's Tavern and The Fred Allen Show, the show became the first successful animated prime-time sitcom. After its six-year run on ABC (1960-66), the show eventually spawned several televised spin-offs, two live action films, and a plethora of licensed merchandise.

The late 1950s through the mid-1960s were Hanna and Barbera's most creative era, and the merchandise licensing, advertising tie-ins and theme parks made them wealthy overnight. Even relative failures like The Jetsons, which lasted only one full season on CBS, proved popular enough in reruns to warrant a revival 17 years later. In his book A Cast of Friends, Hanna attributed his successful relationship with Barbera to the fact that the duo seldom socialized and intuitively worked out the allocation of their duties. Hanna concentrated on the logistics of production while Barbera developed the writing staff. Even a move into action-adventure with The Adventures of Jonny Quest paid off, but their creative hot streak would not last forever.

Returned to Full Animation

At the peak of their success in 1967, Hanna and Barbera sold their production company to Taft Broadcasting, who promptly installed the former owners as co-presidents and co-directors of operations. The move allowed them to expand and place Saturday morning shows on all three networks. Consequently, the look and quality of the product suffered, and only a few of their shows—most notably the many incarnations of Scooby Doo, Where Are You?—had the staying power of old. Yet some of their lesser efforts, such as Space Ghost, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, and Sealab 2020 were repurposed and freshly voiced for the ironic satire of the Cartoon Network's late night Adult Swim programming during the early 2000s.

Always active, Hanna and Barbera had been dabbling in feature-length cartoons since 1964, but their most enduring—and least typical—work in the field was their adaptation of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web in 1973. At the insistence of Barbera, the duo also began producing and directing live action films for television and theatrical release, the best of which was The Gathering, an Emmywinning drama.

The fortunes of Hanna and Barbera took another leap forward during the home video boom of the late 1980s, as they re-released old favorites and created new animated series, including Greatest Adventure Stories from the Bible. Hanna and Barbera worked together as animators for the last time on the 1990 feature-length cartoon Jetsons: The Movie. After creating 138 series in 30 years, their final major credit as a team came when they co-produced the live action Flintstones movies in 1994 and 2000, respectively. Suffering from heart problems, Hanna died on March 22, 2001, leaving behind his wife, Violet, and children Bonnie and David.

Barbera was credited as executive producer on the live action Scooby Doo movies of the early 2000s, but he enjoyed one final spurt of brilliance in 2005 when he created the first new Tom & Jerry cartoon short in 45 years. It proved to be his swan song. Joseph Barbera died on December 18, 2006. He was survived by second wife Sheila, and by his three children from his first marriage to Dorothy; Earl— Jayne, Neal, and Lynn. “Animation is relief from what's going on in the world,” Barbera was quoted as saying on IMDB.com. “You get up in the morning and turn on the radio and you hear a bridge goes out in Albany, a bomb has exploded here and there's a flood on the East Coast. Then, you turn on the TV and see it all visualized. In living color, no less. Where's the relief? That's what we do: Provide relief in a fantasy product. It's important to make people forget what's really happening.”


Fischer, Stuart, Kids' TV: The First 25 Years, Facts On File Publications, 1983.

Hanna, Bill, with Tom Ito, A Cast of Friends, De Capo, 1996.

Sennett, Ted, The Art of Hanna-Barbera—Fifty Years of Creativity, Viking Studio Books, 1989.


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“William Hanna and Joseph Barbera,” FilmReference.com, http://www.filmreference.com (December 20, 2007).

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