Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Happy 100th Bill

Bill Hanna was born 100 years ago today in a little town in New Mexico. His name will forever be coupled with Joe Barbera’s, as it was during his lifetime. It’s difficult finding any old interviews of Hanna solo. If anything, Barbera seems to have been the dominant talker of the pair when discussing their studio or cartoons with interviewers.

Hanna wrote an autobiography where he likes everything and everyone, coming across as a humble, small-town Boy Scout who had a pleasant life surrounded by pleasant, creative people and pleasant, creative cartoons. Whether that’s true, I don’t know—the cynic in me realises Hollywood invents tales about just about everyone, imbuing people with qualities they don’t possess—but I’d like to think it is.

There may be one or two of you not familiar with Hanna’s life, so one of the best capsules may be found in his obituary. The AP wire had several different versions by Gary Gentile for papers of March 23, 2001, the day after Hanna’s death. Below is a combination story. The first photo you see is from 1988. The second is from 2000 and taken at the Los Angeles Museum of Television and Radio when Bill and Joe received a lifetime achievement award. Both accompanied various AP obits.


LOS ANGELES (AP) — His animated characters danced with Gene Kelly, won Oscars and Emmys, and uttered some of television’s most memorable lines, including the jubilant chant of everybody’s favorite caveman: “Yabba dabba doo!”
William Hanna, who with partner Joseph Barbara created such beloved cartoon characters as Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and Tom and Jerry, died Thursday at age 90.
Most of the duo’s frisky and cagey characters still delight audiences today, including Quick Draw McGraw and his sidekick Baba Louie [sic]; Snagglepuss, a lisping, chickenhearted lion; Top Cat, Magilla Gorilla and Scooby Doo.
Hanna died at his North Hollywood home with Violet, his wife of 65 years, at his side, said Sarah Carragher, director of publicity at Warner Bros., which now owns the Hanna-Barbera Studios.
The cause of death was not known, but Hanna had been in declining health for the last few years, Carragher said.
Hanna and Barbera collaborated for more than a half-century, first teaming up when both were working at MGM in the late 1930s. They created the highly successful Tom and Jerry cartoons, the antics of cat and mouse that won seven Academy Awards, more than any other series with the same characters.
“There are literally thousands of people working in the television animation business today who had the honor of training under Mr. Hanna,” said Jean MacCurdy, president of Warner Bros. Animation. “I was privileged enough to have been one of them. We will miss him terribly.”
Their cartoon classics have been turned into live-action feature films, including 1994’s “The Flintstones,” starring John Goodman, and “Scooby-Doo,” due out next year from Warner Bros.
Many of their shows can still be seen on the Boomerang cable network, created by the Cartoon Network this year as a showcase for the Hanna-Barbera library.
“We are greatly saddened by the death of one of the most influential animators of our time,” said Betty Cohen, Cartoon Network president.
“Bill was a cartoon scientist and a genius at timing. The cartoons of Hanna-Barbera have influenced and entertained generations of kids and adults and will serve as a legacy to his talent.”
Hanna was born in Melrose, N.M., on July 14, 1910. He left college to work as a construction engineer, but lost his job in the Depression. He found work with Leon Schlesinger, head of Pacific Art and Title, a cartoon production company.
In 1930, Hanna signed with Harmon-Ising Studios, the company that created the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series, where he worked as a member of the story department, as a lyricist and a composer.
One month after being hired at MGM, he formed his partnership with Barbera.
The two first teamed cat and mouse in the short “Puss Gets the Boot.” When it was a hit with audiences and got an Academy Award nomination, MGM let the pair keep experimenting with the cat and mouse theme. The full-fledged Tom and Jerry characters — almost always telling the story entirely in action, not dialogue — were the eventual result; Jerry was borrowed for the mostly live-action musical “Anchors Aweigh,” dancing with Gene Kelly in a scene that became a screen classic.
Starting in the ‘50s, they created a witty series of television animated comedies, highlighted by “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons,” “Yogi Bear” and “Huckleberry Hound.”
The team’s move into television wasn’t planned; they were forced to go into business for themselves after MGM folded their animation department.
With television’s sharply lower budgets, their new animated stars put more stress on verbal wit rather than the highly detailed, and highly expensive, action of the theatrical cartoon.
Like “The Simpsons” three decades later, “The Flintstones” found success in prime-time TV by not limiting its reach to children. It ranked in the top 20 shows during the 1960-61 season and Fred Flintstone’s “yabba dabba doo” soon entered the language.
Hanna and Barbera freely admitted it was a parody of “The Honeymooners,” with Fred Flintstone as Jackie Gleason and Barney Rubble as Art Carney. Likewise, Yogi Bear was modeled on Phil Silvers’ character of Sgt. Bilko in “The Phil Silvers Show.” [sic]
“You can read a lot into it,” Hanna once said. “You can compare Fred and Barney Rubble with Gleason and Carney.”
The Jetsons, which debuted in 1962, were the futuristic mirror image of the Flintstones. “Somebody said, ‘What’s next?’ and we went from the rock era into the future,” Barbera said at a celebration when the show turned 25 in 1987. “It wasn’t that brilliant, really, but we used a lot of gimmicks and gadgets and it worked.”
Hanna-Barbera received eight Emmys, including the Governors Award of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presented in 1988.
Their strengths melded perfectly, critic Leonard Martin wrote in his book “Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.” In a medium where the best works combined unforgettable characters and funny situations, Hanna brought cuteness, warmth and a keen sense of timing to the cartoons.
“This writing-directing team may hold a record for producing consistently superior cartoons using the same characters year after year — without a break or change in routine,” Maltin wrote.
Barbera brought the comic gags and skilled drawing.
“I was never a good artist,” Hanna said, but Barbera “has the ability to capture mood and expression in a quick sketch better than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Hanna is survived by his wife, a son and daughter, and seven grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were pending.

As I mentioned, there are only few occasions I’ve seen Hanna’s name not mentioned with Barbera’s. If you’ve read their books, you’ll know the two had completely separate lives away from the studio. Here’s an odd one from the Owosso Argus-Press of November 7, 1961. The story is about Dr. and Mrs. G.W. Bennett of Elsie, Michigan. Dr. Bennett was in California to attend a meeting of the American Society of Anasthesiologists. The couple were invited to a party at a restaurant at Laguna Beach.

“... an art colony of painters, hand potters and workers in copper and brass.
It was here that the Bennetts met Bill Hanna, artist for TV’s Flintstones. He drew pictures of the four main characters, which he autographed. They are now prize possessions of the Bennett’s grandson, Bobby Hardaker, a Flintstones fan.

Now, I know Hanna was responsible for timing of cartoons and handing out scenes to animators in the MGM days, but I’ve never really known him to draw. Regardless, he left behind a legacy in the world of drawings. Someone known to many readers here put it in appropriate words in a feature story about Hanna in the New York Times of December 30, 2001:

“I’m sure when Bill and Joe came out with their TV shows, people were, like, ‘Oh, you've destroyed animation, and it’s never going to be the same again, and you’ve wrecked it, and the old shorts were classic and now they’re horrible,’” says Craig McCracken, creator of the punk but cute ''Powerpuff Girls'' for Hanna-Barbera. “Now that stuff is considered classic. I like it a lot better. The most important thing is the character. No matter how many drawings you stick into a scene, if that character is not appealing or interesting or funny, no one is going to laugh at it. The designs pop off the screen a lot more than old Tom and Jerry’s. There’s something really graphic and iconic about Hanna-Barbera’s television work. You just can’t take your eyes off it.”

And Steve Box of Wallace and Gromit succinctly and eloquently put it this way when asked by the BBC to comment on Hanna’s productions:

“They seemed to have been made just for me and I never felt patronised by them.”

Bill Hanna helped gather together creative people who provided enjoyment and happy memories for several generations. What better thing to leave behind?

11 comments:

  1. Bill was a very entertaining, personable and down to earth guy to hang out with.

    He was a tough boss in some respects but if he liked you would listen to you, and reward you for your efforts.

    He didn't draw but was a musician and that's why his timing was so good. ...Although I did see him sketch Yogi Bear in a board meeting in Taipei once.

    He was outwardly gruff but sentimental underneath. He sometimes sang songs and would get a tear in his eye!

    I really liked him, although I didn't know him well. He was like a real cartoon character himself.

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  2. I had the chance to interview Bill and Joe for a morning radio show I hosted. This was back when they were starting production on JETSONS: THE MOVIE, and they were coming to town for a gallery showing and sale. As it turned out, it became much more than just an interview. I spent the entire day with them, shuttling them back and forth between the hotel and the gallery, and then going out to dinner with them later that evening. I have to say that I was absolutely on cloud nine the entire day, in the company of two of my personal heroes. Over dinner, they were discussing the Jetsons movie, and asked ME if I had any suggestions as to what they should call the little creatures that inhabited the remote planet (I forget what I suggested, if anything, but whatever it was, I'm sure it was pretty lame). At the end of the evening, as we were saying our goodbyes and thank-yous, Bill Hanna leaned into me and asked "Who's your favorite character?" I thought for a moment, and then replied "Tom and Jerry." He then asked for my business card, and said he was going to send me a cel. About four weeks later, an oversized padded envelope came to me at the radio station, with the familiar 1980s HB Star logo on the postal label and WILLIAM HANNA typewritten just under the return address. It was a Tom and Jerry title card sericel, matted and autographed "To Rob - Best Wishes - Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera." It's hanging on the wall in my den, right next to my Huckleberry Hound Table lamp. He was a classy guy (they BOTH were), and treated me with as much respect as if I had worked beside him for years, and here I had only spent a day with him (with THEM I should say). Looking back, I wish I had asked him to scream like Tom!

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  3. Yogi like Phil Silvers? I don't know about that.

    Sounds like a nice guy! I wish I could have met him at some point.

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  4. My guess is Gentile made a pile of notes and in transcribing, he got Yogi and Top Cat confused. The same error is in both versions of his story.

    Thanks to Rob and John for their stories.

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  5. Happy Birthday, Bill [and also in the cartoon world, I'd read years ago that July 14 was also the year that radio funnyman Kenny Delmar passed away.] . RobEB, on Jetsons movie-too bad Tiffany had to be Judy Jetson [not so much then as celeb as younger casting as any younger voice actor - if anyone asked the late Paul Winchell regarding who replaced him as Tigger, and it ain't no celeb who did - in short, anti-older age discrimination, as the Rugrats cast would never be replaced suddenly], and Yowp, too bad about some errors [after all though, how many people knew that Hoyt Curtin and his followes DIDN'T do the scores for the earlier HB's?].

    Pokey

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  6. Wow 100 Years Old! The only thing I know about Bill Hanna's life was from his book, " A Cast Of Friends ". It was a great read, I enjoyed it. Bill and Joe did seem to be different as night and day, but a great team together. No matter the direction of their cartoons after 1965, the lives of millions of children would have been a diffrent without them. The weirdest coincidence of all, is the fact that Bill Hanna and Jean Vander Pyl share the same resting place; Acension Memorial Park in Orange County, California. Happy Birthday Bill, thanks for childhood memories...you are missed.

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  7. I had no idea it was Bill's 100th birthday today had he still been alive, but it must be a great honor for him. The cartoons that he made with Joe have been inspiring people and me for decades. Best wishes to Bill for bringing such happiness and laughter into my life.

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  8. The day after Ken Muse died was a funny one at H-B, so I was told. Everybody was in shock that old Kenny was dead (even though he was a horrible chainsmoker, alcoholic, and living in a trailer), and Bill came in asking what was going on. When he was told that an animator who had worked for him since at least 1941 was dead, Bill's response was: "Dammit, that sonuvabitch had a whole episode at his place! Somebody go get it!"

    That's all you need to know about Bill Hanna. Pardon me while I laugh. N'yuk, n'yuk!

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  9. No, actually that's all we need to know about YOU...

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  10. There's a great one about Bill selling a broken car to one of his employees and laughing to his face about it too.

    Bill was a bastard and Joe was a lech. Both were pivotal in destroying animation in this country. Why fight it?

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  11. All true stories too! It really happened that way! I know because I heard about it from someone!!! Really! Please believe me!!

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