Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hanna-Barbera Chugs Along, 1961

1961 may have been the high point in the life of the Hanna-Barbera studio. Its syndicated half-hours were tremendously popular; a third was added in late January. The Flintstones overcame initial grumbles by critics to find an audience and spark a demand by the networks for more animated prime time shows.

Hanna-Barbera now had competitors eager to get a lucrative toe-hold in prime time though, in reality, competition was needed. The studio never could have filled all the time slots that had opened up for animation even if it wanted to. It didn’t have the time and staff. But that didn’t stop it from expanding its production schedule. And the studio had the money to do it, thanks to merchandising.

Here’s a story from Weekly Variety of July 19, 1961 taking stock of the studio’s situation up to that point.

How Hanna-Barbera Copes With 50 Hours of Animated TV Film In a Hot Upcoming Cartoon Season
The cartoon series is primetime video's hot half-hour for the coming season. There will be seven animated shows this fall against two last season, but future expansion is iffy. Notwithstanding good old American knowhow (Hollywood and New York), the total resource may have been tapped.
Take the case of Hanna-Barbera, Screen Gem's [sic] subsidiary that's out front in production. Cartoonery will be called on for more than 50 hours of animated film through the season. There will be 30 "Flintstones;" 30 "Top Cats" (new primetime half-hour); and 153 seven-minute shorts for the syndicated "Huckleberry Hound," "Quick Draw McGraw" and "Yogi Bear" (who won his own series last January after a long run as second banana to Huck).
Animated production is measured in footage, and when Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were turning out theatrical "Tom & Jerry's" for MGM, they averaged about 4,000 feet a year with a staff of 90. With a staff of 165, Hanna-Barbera last week turned out 6,250 feet. It will average close to that through the season. So far, H-B has been able to meet the terrific creative and technical production problems with a lot of ingenuity. A void of talent was created by the sharp sluff of animation in 1957. Technical and writing talents have not come up in the business. H-B, however managed to scare up 40 inkers and painters (mostly women and mostly married) to work part time at home along with a permanent staff of 40.
Cartoon scripting was once a specialty of writers who sketched storyboards with the dialog. To solve the dearth, Hanna-Barbera has contracted with a flock of video's top comedy writers — "typewriter writers"—including Harvey Bullock, Art Phillips, Larry Markes, Syd Zelinka, Kin Piatt, Barry Blitzer, Jack Raymond — all with a string of credits on the top live comics. They continue to write with the rattler, then their stuff is converted to storyboard by the specialists. Voicing is still another problem. A year's search was made for "Top Cat's" mouthpiece. Among hundreds who auditioned were Andy Devine, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Lester, Larry Storch, Mike O'Shay, Max Rosenbloom. Arnold Stang was finally tapped.
Production detail makes the original-for-tv cartoon series the most expensive program. "Flintstones" cost $67,000 a stanza, and the high tab sustains for this season.
There are ways around the big tab. The four to six hours Disney will produce for NBC Sunday night schedule will reportedly be old theatrical film except for six minutes of fresh stuff per show. "Bugs Bunny" is theatrical except for bridges. Scott Ward's "Bullwinkle," slated for NBC Sunday, will be farmed out to Mexico City for production, as is the same shop's "Rocky & His Friends." Merchandising, however, can offset costs. Screen Gems did $40,000,000 gross on Hanna-Barbera character products in fiscal May-to-May, and that was sans "Flintstones." This year for the Christmas trade, there will be "Flintstone" merchandise as well as "Top Cat," "Yogi," "Huck" and "Quick Draw," and SG expects a retail sales total of $80,000,000. Foreign take also is enticing. Hanna-Barbera cartoons are now playing in 37 countries.
Hanna-Barbera seemed to have difficulties with voice casting for prime time. Bill Thompson had been hired as Fred Flintstone but his throat couldn’t handle the voice. Mike O’Shea was given the job as Top Cat before being dumped. And George and Jane Jetson were originally Morey Amsterdam and Pat Carroll, who sued after they were replaced. (One might add John Stephenson to the list, as he lasted only a few episodes as Dr. Benton Quest). T.C. would have been a very different character if Andy Devine or Slapsie Maxie had won the audition.

The reason I say 1961 may have been the studio’s high point is it had received nothing but plaudits up until then (initial grousing in some quarters of the press about The Flintstones notwithstanding). The studio could do no wrong. That changed. Top Cat was only lukewarmly received by critics and audiences. Co-sponsor Bristol-Myers wanted out five weeks into the season. It was Hanna-Barbera’s first prime-time failure. The following year, The Jetsons failed in prime-time. Two years later, Jonny Quest was suddenly shuffled out of its time slot as ABC sacrificed it to save The Flintstones from a butt-kicking opposite The Munsters (and Jonny’s new slot apparently didn’t allow high enough ad billings to make continuing production worthwhile).

Prime time failures claimed Snowball Productions (Beany and Cecil) and Creston Studios (Calvin and the Colonel) and knocked Format Films (The Alvin Show) back into commercial production. But not hardy Hanna-Barbera. It continued making series for syndication (two backed by Ideal Toys) and then pushed open the door on Saturday mornings, changing it from a dumping ground for old theatrical cartoons, reruns of filmed TV shows (eg. Fury) and puppet shows into a haven for first-run, made-for-TV animation that baby boomers still dote about, spurring the growth of Filmation and other studios in the process. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera moved on rather nicely after being booted from MGM in 1957, and the same from prime-time TV a few years later. At the risk of sounding trite, they weren’t just survivors. They were thrivers.

10 comments:

  1. In terms of story quality, 1961 seems to have been the year Hanna-Barbera finally stretched themselves too thin. The first of the Wally Gator-Touche Turtle-Lippy the Lion shorts were copyrighted at the end of '61 (as the last of the Huck-Quick Draw-Yogi efforts were rolling off the production line), while the studio had two prime time shows and were working up the third. And while they may have expanded their writing pool to sitcom writers, the new group just didn't have the visual gag skills that Michael Maltese or Warren Foster (or Tony Benedict) had.

    (Having pulled back a lot by the 1964-65 season, the first 10 or so episodes of Magilla Gorilla recapture a bit of the verbal punch of the Huck-Quick Draw-Yogi period, even if the visuals are much stiffer. But after that it was a inexorable path downward, as the studio stopped doing stories that might entertain themselves and started producing stuff that Fred Silverman and others thought would keep the kiddos happy).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I always found Joe B's oft-told anecdote of rejecting a (unnamed) prominent sitcom writer's Flintstones script that first season because it didn't contain any "visual business" to be amusing if not disingenuous. The programs for that show's second season are noticeably more dialogue-heavy than previously, no doubt due to the hiring of the sitcom writers. Episodes such as "The Hit Songwriters", "Alvin Brickrock Presents", "The Gambler", and "This is Your Lifesaver" come to mind as examples of less action, and more yak, yak, yak.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I might be remembering this wrong but I thought in Barbera's memoir he said Milo O'Shea (not Mike) was originally going to be TC's voice, and he dropped out to a more lucrative role (either on stage or screen)? And my recollection of the FLINTSTONES pilot had Daws Butler as Fred, was Bill Thompson in the running too?

    Not trying to nit-pick - actually curious if i had these wrong... And man I'd give anything to hear Morey and Pat as the JETSONS - maybe they could have made it funny!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nope, it definitely was Michael O'Shea. One of the quasi-religious cable channels was running IT'S A GREAT LIFE (O'Shea's 1954-56 sitcom) a few years ago, and I could hear the similarities between what his approach to TC would have been and what Stang's was. The only problem, TC was a fast-talker a la Phil Silvers, and O'Shea was closer to Marvin Kaplan's Choo Choo, and that slower, pausing pace is what reportedly cost him the job.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Will, Hal Smith said in an interview that he and Thompson had been hired to be Fred and Barney and they recorded some tracks. The problem was Thompson had trouble with the low growl (that presumably Joe Barbera wanted) for Fred and kept losing his voice. So the roles were recast.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I could easily hear Maxie Rosenbloom playing one of TC's gang, would probably fit right in, but not Top Cat.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for the confirmation information Don & Mike T!

    ReplyDelete
  8. It's interesting that in that magazine ad the way in which the characters are drawn seems to reflect their popularity. Fred, the most popular character, is the biggest. Huck, Yogi, and Quick Draw are all about the same size. Huck and Yogi (probably H-B's most popular 7-minute shorts characters) are happy. Meanwhile, Top Cat (H-B's first prime-time failure) is the smallest character, and he almost seems to be lamenting his lack of popularity, with Quick Draw seeming to feel sorry for him.

    ReplyDelete
  9. And, at this same season (1961), Joanna Lee was making part of the team of writers from Hanna-Barbera, writting scripts for series as The Flintstones, Top Cat, at the following year with The Jetsons, and later with Jonny Quest.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm sitting here completely floored to learn that Mike O'Shea was to've been TC. I'd watched "It's A Great Life" on our local GOOD TV channel in MA several years ago strictly b/c I had a mad crush on Bill Bishop who'd played Steve on the show. But I never woulda thunk there'd be a connection of any kind between the two shows that had kinda been staples in my life, TC having been my first childhood "crush."

    ReplyDelete