In the process of selling their cartoons to viewers, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera used to come up with statements that you had to wonder if they truly believed. Joe implied that Yogi Bear’s name had nothing to do with Yogi Berra. He also stated that Jonny Quest was an adult cartoon, like The Flintstones who, he also remarked, really weren’t patterned after The Honeymooners (“Did The Honeymooners have a Polarock camera?” Joe once asked rhetorically).
But one of the more seemingly-outlandish comments by the pair was their insistence that their first TV cartoons were better than their Tom and Jerry shorts at MGM. There’s always an irony at play; during the interviews when they make the comment, they always mention Tom and Jerry and their seven Oscars to boost their animation credentials.
Here’s an interview from January 8, 1959 by Charles Witbeck, a syndicated columnist who started writing about television in mid-1956. He did several pieces over the years about the Hanna-Barbera studio. In this one, Bill Hanna explains why Huck is better than his MGM cartoons, at least in his estimation.
ON THE AIR
Cartoonists Turn to TV for Work
By CHARLES WITBECK
A year and a half ago MGM’s creators of the Tom & Jerry cartoons, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, decided to do new cartoons for TV.
“MGM closed their cartoon shop, Disney stopped making animated shorts, and there we were—out of a job,” said Joe Barbera, recalling the black day. “So we thought about TV. Where else could we go? We figured it was possible kids might get tired of old guys in clown outfits being real friendly, and then turning on old, old cartoons.”
The reason for the movie animated cartoon demise was high costs and low rentals. Also, it takes a cartoon about two years to get back its initial costs. The giant octopus confronting the two unemployed geniuses was how to make cartoons quickly—Hanna and Barbera only did eight Tom & Jerrys a year for MGM—and cheaply for the TV mill.
Old hands in the industry, tiny as it is, scoffed at Hanna and Barbera for thinking of the idea. One pro offered to lay a thousand to one against its success. H & B are considered two of the sharpest men in the business, but the idea still seemed too drastic to most.
“The costs came from all the drawings — the hand work,” said Barbera generalizing somewhat. “We figured we could cut down on the animation by planning. We call our TV cartoons planned animation.”
“For instance, you want to show Huckleberry Hound about to go out on a chase, and you have him going into a closet, putting on an overcoat, walking out. You can get the same effect by cutting from Huckleberry outside the closet talking to another character to Huckleberry in the closet with his coat on. Time-consuming drawing is cut in two.”
The two men cut the animation down to the point where they felt it wouldn’t be missed and where a reasonable TV budget might be reached.
Then they talked MGM movie director George Sidney into helping out with backing, and hustled over to Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures TV subsidiary, with budget and drawings. After five minutes of talking Barbera had an offer.
It has been a year and three months, or 170 cartoon shows, since Hanna and Barbera’s first effort appeared on TV. They now have two series running, Ruff and Reddy and Huckleberry Hound, during the dinner hour in 180 cities. Their technicians are currently dubbing the shows in Spanish and French for foreign markets.
“I think we’ve proved our point,” says Barbera. “It’s possible to make cartoons for profit on TV. No one else is doing it yet, but they will.”
Of course the two men have only been working practically seven days a week to turn out the huge quantity using a staff of about 20, and farming out animation segments. Both still appear in good health. Barbera even sports a tan probably from his drawing-board lamp.
“I think our cartoons are better than our fancy Tom & Jerry movies,” says Hanna, who claims he isn’t punch-drunk or prejudiced. “We use close-ups, our shows are easier to watch, and we let the viewer use a little imagination.”
“We are coming up off the floor,” Barbera chimed in. “We are even getting calls from ad agencies and cartoonists. UPA (makers of “Mr. Magoo”) has looked at our work and thinks we’re on the right track.”
Following Hanna and Barbera may save UPA, which had a charming series on TV for a few months, but costs were so high as to make future programming impossible.
It’s an encouraging Hollywood story. Not only because of the kids who get to look at new material, but it’s the first note of hope for the dying cartoon industry. Others like UPA may take the hint and the animators, artists and story men who are now doing other things may have a chance to go back to the drawing board again.
Witbeck’s prediction about UPA was certainly bang-on but it took a sale to Henry Saperstein to get into the television business and flush the studio’s reputation down the toilet with the noisy, unfunny TV Magoos and the shortcut-laden Dick Tracys.
Bill Hanna is comparing Tom and Jerry with Huck (and Ruff and Reddy) on a purely technological standpoint, considering it was the era of black and white sets pulling in signals via antenna, sometimes 120 miles away. It’s true that picture quality could be poor if the station was far off. But it’s also true the one-time theatrical cartoons—Popeye and the Warners output, especially—played endlessly to laughs of millions of kids, some of whom grew up to begin the whole historical and critical look at animation that didn’t exist when they were young. So Hanna’s wrong. In 1959, the MGM cartoons were just as easy to watch as the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Using almost any other yardstick, it’s not really a fair comparison. The Tom and Jerrys were marvellously expressive; you always knew what the cat and mouse were thinking. Scott Bradley scored to the action, augmenting what you could see with song-puns, beloved familiar tunes and clever arrangements. Huckleberry Hound never had that luxury because of television budgets and time constraints. But, using the yardstick of humour, Huck’s cartoons could be just as funny as the old theatricals, despite the handicaps. If they weren’t, kids would have turned the channel and watched reruns of Our Miss Brooks or something. They might not have really been better than Tom and Jerry, but they were enjoyable to watch and have provided remarkably long-lasting memories. And that’s good enough for me.