Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Cry For Something New

Was Jonny Quest a success?

I’d say so, even though it didn’t become the prime-time juggernaut that Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera hoped it would. In fact, when it looked certain that the show wouldn’ t rack up huge numbers, let alone win its time-slot, it was switched on the schedule with The Flintstones to give the Modern Stone Age Family (and the huge amount of accompanying merchandise, vitamins and so on) a fighting chance at another season (The plan worked).

But Jonny Quest was a success not only because it lived on in Saturday morning cartoon rerun land, but it eventually spawned new sequel cartoons a few decades later and even recently was reborn with an unfortunate team-up with a decidedly unrealistic cat and mouse.

Joe Barbera was not only a top sketch artist and clever gag writer, he became someone who was tops at pitching and selling cartoon series to skittish and bandwagon-jumping network people. And he was pretty good at selling the sold series to columnists always looking for a way to fill space.

Here’s Joe chatting with the Gettysburg Times in a story published on October 24, 1964; Quest had debuted five weeks earlier. Joe shrewdly pushed Hanna-Barbera when he plugged the company’s cartoons to reporters; a constant positive image in the media could be helpful when he had to go back to the networks with more animated product for them to buy. And the writer is correct in her assessment at the end of the story. Whether people like limited animation or not, the studio kept a lot of people employed who would have been out of work when the Golden Age of cartoons petered out.


“Johnny Quest,” [sic] Which Bowed In Color In September Is Pronounced A Sure Success; Barbera Production
By RUTH E. THOMPSON

“In ‘Jonny Quest’ we have to design planes that are possible, but slightly ahead of what’s really because equipment evolves so fast. And you can’t tell children that last year’s yet is next year’s. They won’t believe it.” They also won’t buy it . . . and it was the licensing and franchising of “Jonny Quest” that had brought the soft-spoken, Brooklyn-born Joseph Barbera back East for a quickie New York visit
BOWED IN COLOR
And you don’t need more proof than that that “Jonny” which bowed in color in September on ABC (Fridays, 7:30 p.m.) is a sure success. But as Barbera spread a circle of prints from “Jonny Quest” around him you felt that mattered so much, he kept talking, thinking in terms of series’ values and audience acceptance. “We’re really using a whole new technique in ‘Quest.’ It’s illustration, and cartooning. We brought some of the best illustrators from around the country for this one.
“Of course the others are doing fine, too. Oh, you like ‘The Flintstones’? So do I.”
“But the story in ‘Quest’ did seem to cry for something new. We have a leading scientist much sought after for consultation and sought out, naturally, by enemies. That’s why the government assigns Race (isn’t he handsome) as a permanent bodyguard. There there’s the doctor’s son, 13-year-old Jonny and his adopted son, Haji [sic], who’s from India. We went one-third over our expected budget research enough to make sure our backgrounds are authentic. Now we can travel around the world as no live company could possibly afford to do . . . and with the good art work you should feel you’re there.”
20 NICE YEARS
Barbera is one-half of the seven-year corporate miracle that is Hanna-Barbera Productions.
In 1937 [sic] Bill Hanna chucked the engineering and journalism he’d studied for to do something more creative, like being idea man and director for animated cartoons. Joe Barbera chucked the banking and accounting for which he’d studied to draw magazine cartoons. MGM saw him as a animator-writer, team him with Hanna and together they created “Tom and Jerry,” turned off some 125 episodes and won seven Oscars by 1937 [sic] when, after two decades in the same shop and with growing families, they got their pink slips. MGM was getting out of the animated field.
THE BIG IDEA
On went the Bill and our thinking caps. What came out as a goal was television. Back to MGM they went with “the big idea.” Wouldn’t MGM like to consider the new medium? MGM would not.
“So we decided to go into business for ourselves.” The Screen Gems TV subsidiary of Columbia Pictures sensed a hot idea and went along with financing and distribution phase.
The work space was nil, the staff numbered three, but the enthusiasm was boundless, and in a short time out came a 15-minute [sic] show “Ruff and Reddy,” still seen in many parts of the world.
SOMETHING NEW
“Well, you see, there was really a need for something new, fresh animations, especially for television. Reruns of old — usually very old — theater cartoons was pretty much it when we got in,” Barbera explains.
“And the more we got into it, the more we found innovations to simply production and add interest.”
Barbera reached for another photo.
“This is the new building. Isn’t it a honey?
“We turn off as much production here in a week as we did at MGM in a year . . . and with no time clocks, no memos and a minimum of supervision. Our units work out the details themselves.
“Do I draw any more?” He smiled. Well, only to the extent that I’ll show an artist what I might have in mind, rather than try to tell him . . . but otherwise it’s up to a unit to do its own work.”
MODERN INVENTION
“Unit,” that seems to be the Hanna-Barbera modern invention to outstrip anything that’s being designed in “Quest.” “You see we feel it’s up to creative people to determine their own working hours. Each unit determines its own deadlines, by what time one phase of a job has to be finished so another can proceed. Everybody works hard, but at times of personal choosing, and it proves to be the times when they produce fastest and best.”
And the “fastest and best” dossier now totals — with this season’s “Jonny Quest” — 13 series in seven years! (“The Flintstones,” “Huckleberry Hound,” “Yogi Bear,” “Quick Draw McGraw,” “Touche Turtle,” among others).
WORSE ON TRIP
And as for Barbera, “Well I never sleep anyway, but it’s worse right now on a trip.” There’s one irony, though. Barbera who turned his back on looking for the creative life has to pay more and more attention to finance. By now some 500 manufacturers produce some 2,500 consumer products with likeness off H-B characters which have grossed something like 120 million dollars. And the Hanna-Barbera share of the take requires an informed eye!
Still he’s taking it all in stride. “Remember it’s the stores that count” . . . and if MGM hadn’t handed out those pink slips to two guys seven years ago, well who knows where 300 other guys might, or might not, be working today.

17 comments:

  1. The Quest family was reborn in comic books again with Future Quest, part of the Hanna-Barbera Beyond lineup (bringing them back to their serious adventures and teaming them up with Alex Toth's characters)..

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    1. Perhaps the best comic book adaptation of Jonny Quest was published by Comico in the mid-80s.

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  2. When you look at how many action/adventure cartoons showed up in the network's Saturday morning lineups starting in 1966, you can say a good deal of that was foreshadowed by Jonny Quest (along with the early B&W anime cartoons hitting syndication, the Superman play on Broadway in '65 and the initial success of the live-action Batman on ABC. The networks weren't against the idea; they just shied away from doing it in prime-time after the 1964-65 season.

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    1. And then the National Association of Better Broadcasting and other groups started lobbying and THEN the networks shied away from it, bragging in 1969 about how they didn't have those kinds of shows any more.
      Even "The Wonderful World of Color" was finger-wagged by the NABB for being "too vivid in its depiction of violence." (Parents magazine, Jan. 1969 issue). And it called the Banana Splits "raucous and violent." But it didn't have anything bad to say about Laugh-In. Go figure.

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    2. Peggy Charren's Action for Children's Television also came on the scene at that time and served to neuter much of the Saturday morning programing, insofar as intimidating the networks to the point they eventually banned or censored anything which could be seen as in any way objectionable.
      (Looking at her obit from Variety in 2015, there's a certain irony in that Charren worked at WPIX before marrying at moving to Boston, and WPIX in the late 1950s and 60s was the NYC station with with least amount of early censorship on its cartoons. But by the 1970s, they'd fall in line, along with all the others.)

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    3. I'm putting together a post for the other blog on this. Charren's group (and she wasn't even the original mouthpiece), didn't do anything except write letters to editors after it was formed in early 1968 until early 1970 when they tried to meet with the networks (only CBS agreed). They began to lobby the FCC soon after. This was several months after the Milton Eisenhower report claiming real life violence was linked to TV violence.
      In 1969, ACT was a non-player.

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    4. ACT did know how to work the media, though, back in the days when that art isn't as widespread as it is today. Their visibility may have been higher than than actual effectiveness, and Ms. Charren did get extended obituary notices not only in Variety, but in the Washington Post, New York Times and Boston Globe at the time of her death.

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  3. This's one of those rare occasions on which I admit to envy: You viewing "JQ" firstrun, with the SCREEN GEMS "dancing sticks" end logo, and all that. As I've said b4, I was born 7/25/1968. I dimly recall viewing "JQ" on NBC SatAM, in early 1979. But I became a "Jetsons" fan.

    I didn't become a "JQ" fan until 1986, when "The New Adventures of Jonny Quest" debuted. The 1964/65 series aired concurrently w/"TNAoJQ", and I became a fan of the original series for the very first time.

    I then also viewed the two USA Network-exclusive movies, then became a nut fan of "Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures".

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    1. My real quibble with the "Real Adventures" series was its inconsistency, including changes in character designs and voices. They also could have done without those "Questworld" sequences, cashing in on the "virtual reality" craze. Many of the episodes had decent scripts, though.

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  4. Sadly, the original JONNY QUEST was the first and only H-B cartoon to utilize black drop shadows in its layouts for characters and backgrounds. The transfer of Doug Wildey's illustrative/comics style thus was far closer than it ever was with the Alex Toth-designed series which followed, which is ironic considering that Toth's SPACE ANGEL was virtually comics onscreen (with superimposed human lips) and probably an influence on the decision by H-B to try QUEST in the first place. I'm guessing the decision to change to grey (or no) shadows was cost-related, but it made for far less memorable animation.

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    1. That makes sense to me, Mike. Saturday morning budgets couldn't possibly be close to prime-time budgets.

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  5. The dark drop shadows and solid black key lines around the characters was just one part of my attraction to “JQ”. It gave the show a “comic book” appearance. In 1961, Disney had perfected the Xerox process of photocopying pencil drawings to animation cells for his “101 Dalmatians” feature film, reducing production costs by eliminating hand inked cells. When H-B premiered their next adventure series, “Space Ghost”, in 1966, the Xerox method had replaced the solid black key lines with scratching pencil lines. Toth’s character designs were still fantastic, but the “comic book” look was gone.

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    1. For the most part, I think H-B took more care in their Sixties superhero / action-adventure programs as far as "clean-up" is concerned. It's the comedy cartoons that visibly suffered the most under Xeroxgraphy. (Wacky Races in particular would have benefited considerably from hand-inking).

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  6. Dr. Benton Quest's voice changed after the first fiew episodes, but only one voice actor (John Stephenson, 6 episodes) is listed in IMDB. First nasally, then rich and deep and more "doctor" like. Were there two actors, or did Stephenson change the voice?

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    1. John Stephenson was the voice for Dr. Quest in only five episodes (Mystery of the Lizard Men, Arctic Splashdown, The Curse of Anubis, Pursuit of the Po-Ho and Double Danger), but when it was decided his voice was too close to Race Bannon’s (provided by Mike Road), Stephenson was replaced by Don Messick. BTW, if you have more questions about Jonny Quest, please visit www.classicjq.com. My friends Lyle and Craig have put together the most complete data base on the original 1964 show that can be found anywhere.

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    2. Yes, that website (www.classicjq.com) is a treasure trove of information for Quest fans. I visit it often.

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    3. THis morning I visited it agsain and eenjoyed reading about the guest stars that included some (Nestor Paiva, Cathy Lewis who for all their experience otherwise never worked for H-B, at least at that time, and both woiuld die within several years..

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