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?