Saturday, June 17, 2017

It's Not About the Cartoons

Here I was, a kid bounding out of bed early Saturday morning to park myself in front of the TV to watch cartoons, thinking it was all about funny characters doing and saying things I could laugh at.

How wrong I was.

It was all about money.

To the right you see an ad in Women’s Wear Daily telling you, Mr. and Mrs. American Clothing Manufacturer, that you can buy up the rights to make Winnie Witch pyjamas or Squiddly Diddley slippers and watch the profits roll in. Winnie who? Squiddly what? Yes, it’s true, the cartoons haven’t even debuted yet, but look at the Bill and Joe track record!

My innocence and naivety wants to believe that when Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were stupidly punted from MGM amidst financial and corporate turmoil in 1957, their sole reason to create cartoons was to create entertainment. But by 1965, Barbera himself admitted that wasn’t case. “We ask ourselves, would you want to take this character-to-be as a stuffed toy? If not, out it goes.” (It begs the question, who would want a stuffed ant? But let us move on).

1965 also marked a change at Hanna-Barbera. Previously, it had made cartoons for family viewing in the early evening hours, and then in prime time. Now, it was concentrating strictly on children’s programming by providing new product (dare I call it that?) for Saturday mornings. It was a natural and logic extension of the studio’s reason for existing. Originally, it provided new, made-for-TV cartoons in an era where stations showed old theatricals. Before 1965, almost all cartoons on Saturday mornings were old theatricals or reruns (Linus the Lionhearted from Ed Graham being a notable exception). Now Hanna-Barbera would make new, made-for-TV cartoons for that time period. Hanna-Barbera was wildly successful in the early evening hours. It became, arguably, even more wildly successful in Saturday mornings, bouncing old filmed shows like Fury and puppet programmes off the air.

When Magilla Gorilla was about to air, H-B had teased kids with an almost prime-time special which, in essence, was a half-hour ad for the show (as the show was syndicated, stations picking it up aired the special whenever convenient). In 1965, the studio did it again to push its coming Secret Squirrel and Atom Ant shows. The special was quickly sold to Kellogg and Mattel, then plunked into a Sunday 6:30 p.m. time slot on NBC. Alas, kids in the Eastern time zone missed the first 25 minutes because a golf match ran long. Nonetheless, they dutifully parked themselves in front of their TVs on Saturday, October 2nd at 9:30 a.m. (8:30, Central time) to watch the debut of Hanna-Barbera’s latest starring characters.

H-B was still fine in 1965 as far as critics were concerned, thanks to the fun Huck Hound, Quick Draw and Yogi Bear shows, and the popularity of the Flintstones. No less a critic than Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times heaped praise on the studio in this piece the paper’s syndicate disseminated on its wire. A version of it originally appeared in the Times on May 5th that year (the ad below appeared in the Times; similar drawings showed up in other papers).

A Factory of Geniuses
Flicker Cartoons Improve With Age

By Charles Champlin.

LOS ANGELES—Some scholar probably will drive up in a buggy and tell me that the animated cartoon was invented in Mesopotamia in the year 7 B.C. and that there are cave drawings of a cartoon character named Hippy Hamster with big ears and pie-slice eyes, from whom the whole genre descended. Nevertheless, the animated cartoon seems to me to be the equivalent in the visual arts of jazz in the music field as a distinctive and indigenous American contribution to the world scene.
Unlike many youthful enthusiasms which have had to be left behind in Nostagliaville, like Buck Jones serials, Ralston straight-shooter pins and penny candy you don’t have to pick up with tweezers, the animated cartoon continues to flourish.
In fact, the argument here is that, nostalgia be damned, the cartoon is one of those rare beasts that has improved with age. It has lost its saccharine, hearts-and-flowers quality and become so hip and switched-on that it has all the characteristics of an electric train set—ostensibly for the kiddies, but it’s the grown-ups who are rolling on the floor.
Television inaugurated the golden age, and for one TV season it looked as if the cartoons would drown in their own success. Operating on the familiar adage that “if it works, copy it,” the networks in 1961 went so cartoon-happy that there was talk of animating the Huntley-Brinkley report. there was, as you’ll remember, the Alvin Show, and there was Calvin and the Colonel, and there were Bullwinkle and Top Cat and the Flintstones and the whole Hanna-Barbera menagerie that really unleashed it all in 1957.
It was too good to last, or rather it was not quite good enough to last as a prime-time caper, and some of the cells went dead. Bullwinkle, which I think history will regard as the Krazy Kat of televised cartoons, survives in re-run but no new ones are being made although the Jay Ward-Bill Scott team has other shows in preparation.
The winners and still champs, survivors of the debacle that threatened to over-compensate and (a favorite showbiz habit) wipe out the good along with the bad, are Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna. And what winners.
Somebody has called them “baby sitters to the world,” and it’s got to be true. Something like 335 million people in 55 countries watch the HB product every week.
There’s a Yogi Bear feature film in the works and an hour-long “Alice in Wonderland” special for ABC-TV. There’ll shortly be a slew of Hanna-Barbera label records featuring the various characters. Plans are afoot to make Yogi Bear a disc jockey.
Next fall, by present plan, there’ll be not less than 18 Hanna-Barbera half-hours a week on television, and it is very possible that Hanna-Barbera will be competing with itself on all three networks on Saturday mornings.
Their moated and be-fountained fun factory in Hollywood keeps 250 geniuses off the streets, and there Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel are taking shape for NBC for the fall.
One sizable room at the factory is crammed floor to ceiling with samples of tie-in merchandise, and at that, this trove represents only 5 per cent of the available itemage. It ranges from the usual books and toys to sheets, window shades and a Japanese Yogi Bear lunch bucket which is about the size of a paperback edition of “The Good Earth” and is segmented for fish and rice.
When I stopped in at the factory, Joe Barbera was talking to one of the writers who works at home (Seattle, as it happens) but was in for the day . . . “Flies across the field and knocks down the trees, chonk, chonk, chonk!” the writer was saying. “Right, right, right,” said Joe.
“We figure our audience starts at 4,” he was saying later. “By then the kids have the strength to turn on the set and change channels. And they’re so smart then, so discriminating. You can’t fool around with them or give them the fairy tale stuff.
“Here you see two guys running like mad to keep abreast of their interests. You never get old in our business. You can’t. You’ve got to be on top of the times. And not just for kids, either. I’m on a screaming campaign to make the point that cartoons are not just for kids. They’re for everybody.”
Bill Hanna and Joe have their own research and development staff, dreaming up characters and premises for two and three seasons hence. The basic test is simple.
Says Barbera, “We ask ourselves, would you want to take this character-to-be as a stuffed toy? If not, out it goes. Even our villains have to be friendly.”
The boys have had some clangers. Tests showed that “the Jetsons” should’ve been bigger than the Flintstones, but it sank in the wrong time-slots. And their beautifully drawn, carefully researched cartoon venture “Johnny Quest” [sic] has lost them more than $500,000. On the other hand, every cartoon they’ve made is still showing somewhere, and they’ll likely go on forever.
At their best, the cartoons of this golden age have fled the never-never world and settled in at right now—a thinly disguises right now with paws instead of hands and with whisker, antlers or tails. They’ve substituted the wisecracker for the nutcracker and they make a running, jumping commentary on all us comic citizens of right now.
I liked Secret Squirrel. Some of the gadgets were contrived, but Paul Frees’ voice work was terrific. And six minutes, once a week was just the right amount of time to be able to stomach Precious Pupp. The rest of the cartoons? Yawn to blecch, even when viewed with the maudlin mask of nostalgia. Sorry, I’ll take Huck and Quick Draw. They’re still entertaining. And what’s that, Joe? You’re green-lighting Space Ghost because he’ll make a great action figure? That’s the cartoon biz, I guess.

13 comments:

  1. As much as I hungered then (and now) for new H-B characters in the old tradition, even today I find it hard to remember exactly who the supporting characters were on either SECRET SQUIRREL or ATOM ANT. I certainly liked the designs of both featured cartoons, but I was lukewarm about Hillbilly Bears (which seemed to be the vanguard of both the transparent ripping off of current TV shows AND the idea that a mass of regular characters could make up for them having no character at all) and Squiddly Diddly (a revamp of Wally Gator, only not as attractive), and hey, Joe and Bill, we want funny animals, not witches and grandmothers. (And we also want the cartoons to actually be funny too.) The sad part was that none of them featured Daws Butler in any regular role--and sadder still was that this would be the final pair of H-B series that would fit the original HUCK/QUICK DRAW/YOGI SHOW template done by the studio when most of the original staff was still intact. Ironically, this last hurrah would be one of the final shows to bear the look of the Benedict years, soon to be supplanted by the Takamoto-designed shows I've never been fond of. Attempts to recapture the magic (IT'S THE WOLF a few years later, and finally HAIR BEAR BUNCH, both sadly in need of Benedict designs) were only mildly successful and when THE KWICKY KOALA SHOW came around (marginally from Tex Avery, raising expectations a bit), I bravely watched every excruciating synthesizer-scored episode and finally, reluctantly, concluded that it had all died with ATOM ANT/SECRET SQUIRREL. Obviously outpointed in the ratings by the swarm of super-heroes in '67, and then replaced by half-hours with one main set of characters thereafter, despite dominating Saturday mornings all those seasons, another three-character funny-animal series wouldn't be attempted by H-B till (what?) C.B. BEARS in '77 (with six segments almost as painful as a DePatie-Freleng series). No wonder I lost interest.

    Today, of course, there are plenty of willing animators who are fans and could probably duplicate the Benedict look and create a slick and handsome new "H-B" series for WB, and now, as then, there are plenty of unused animal species and genre occupations to adapt to the H-B style--but I fear that the style of writing (un-self conscious, and not a satire or a coarsening of the genre) and--most importantly-- the absence of Daws Butler--would foredoom the experiment...even if the world has never been readier for licensed cartoon-animal toys, bedding, pajamas, T-ashirts, Lego sets, skateboards, activity kits, jigsaw puzzles, playballs, et al., et al., ad nauseum...

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    1. From childhood, I loved Squiddly Diddly's design (though it always irked me that he had six legs rather than eight) and voice (when Paul Frees left, nobody could seem to duplicate it). I feel it could have benefitted from a different setting rather than milking the same cow thrice: the ocean. He could have interacted with various denizens of the deep; this would've been a great opportunity for some inspired designs to come through. Chief Winchley could have appeared in a few episodes, attempting to capture animals for exhibition at Bubbleland, with Squiddly thwarting him. But what do I know?

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    2. In addition to the funny animals, what about the Flintstones/Jetsons? I had no probllem with those...I can't even watch the "Cartoon Network" "Hanna-Barbera" abominations for not having the standard design (i.e.I can only take a little of Powerpuff, Brave,etc.). I ESPECIALLY miss the stock Capitol and later Hoyt Curtin and very early Ted Nichols in house music. "Tiny Toon/Animaniac" type scroing seemed to dominate since. The loss of Daws Butler's era of performers and the HANNA-BARBERA sound effects, replaced by either WB (due to the profound impact swept by the WB Spielbergian shows) or live action like sound effects. In short, nothing could replace the original shows..SC

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    3. I don't work in the industry but I'd dearly love to work on an H-B revival show. I wrote a bunch of stories for it (some complete and others not) but I worry I might have coarsened the tone too much...I was accounting for my own influences, and how tastes have changed in the intervening years. At any rate, stuff like Harvey Birdman leaves a bad taste in my mouth and my aim was closer to the characters' roots.

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    4. Sounds interesting! Could you share them sometime? Have a website or anything?

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    5. If Yowp's okay with me posting it, sure.

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  2. I remember when my dad told me that H-B had been bought by Taft Broadcasting. I was sure that all of the fun would soon go out of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I think I was right.

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  3. YOWP, why did Paul Frees stop working for Hanna-Barbera after Taft bought the company. I'm not suggesting that the two are connected.

    ''Magilla Gorilla'' and ''Hillbilly Bears'' were good shows. Fine heirs to the throne of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear. ''Breezly and Sneezly'' could have been worse, but it should have been better. I din't think I've watched ''Yippy, Yappey and Yahooey''.

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    1. Paul may have wanted more money, as often was the case with his union scale requests (the possible reason that with the major exception of "The Incredibe Mr.Limpet",1964, Warner Bros.didn't go and use Frees...)

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    2. Agreed on the Gorilla and Bears.

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  4. Chuck Jones made the comment about ex-Warner Bros. writers Michael Maltese and Warren Foster that, while borrowing from some of their old stories for the new H-B efforts, "They used up the material pretty quickly." But what it seemed to be was that there was only a limited amount of work the studio could take on before the creativity took a hit -- when they were still doing original Huck, Quick Draw and Yogi episodes, and doing The Flintstones and doing Top Cat and preparing for The Jetsons in the fall of 1961, the next round of H-B characters (Wally, Touche and Lippy) were bland and forgettable.

    By the time we get to 1964, the only thing left on the air in new animation is The Flintstones and you can argue with less places to spread around the work, the studio bounced back a bit, with "Johhn Quest" and (at least) the first dozen or so episodes of Magilla Gorilla. But once we get to the fall of '65 and the studio's head-long dive into Saturday morning, the downhill path returned.

    (It would also be interesting to know how much 'creative control' NBC exerted over Hanna-Barbera's initial network shows, versus how much CBS did a year later, when the H-B cartoons hit their lineup full-force. Tex Avery and Michael Maltese told the story in Joe Adamson's book how a CBS network exec drove Melvin Millar crazy with his cartoon super-hero ideas, and that was one of the real killers in the mid-1960s for the studio. Once they were doing cartoon for the networks, they were much more tied to having the networks tell them what types of shows they wanted, which almost never produces anything good, either in animation or live action.)

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  5. Space Ghost DID make a great action figure! I have one! Unfortunately it didn't come out untill years after Bill and Joe were dead. They really missed that particular boat on merchandising their super hero characters , which is surprising, knowing how much H-B loved to sell stuff. But then again, the action figure boom had not yet taken place in 1966. Also, I have a stuffed Atom Ant. So,in response to that age old question that you've brought up, "Who would want a stuffed ant?" -I guess the answer is me. Funnily enough, the reason the stuffed animal sucks is not because he's an ant but because his helmet fell off!

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    1. It's a shame Joe and Bill didn't live long enough to see a Space Ghost action figure happen at all.

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