Saturday, 17 August 2019

Talking to Animals, Not Super Heroes

The concept of Saturday Morning Cartoons didn’t last comparatively long, and a case can be made that it was pushed into being by Hanna-Barbera.

When network television started expanding its weekend hours in the early 1950s, Saturday mornings were mostly kid time. Programmes originally were live action or puppet shows. CBS bought Terrytoons cartoons in late 1953 and began purchasing the cartoon studio outright in late 1955. Old Terrytoons were plunked into the network’s Saturday morning line-up. Soon, a few made-for-TV series, old theatricals and failed prime-time cartoons were added into the mix. In 1965, Hanna-Barbera sold Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel to NBC and decided to focus the bulk of its efforts on what had become a lucrative Saturday morning time period. At one point, the studio had shows at the same time on competing networks.

But that wasn’t the only change at Hanna-Barbera. Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera and their business partners at Columbia Pictures decided to cash in and sell the studio to Taft Broadcasting. As well, the type of cartoons began shifting from comedy to action/adventure, perhaps inspired by Jonny Quest. It was around this time the old guard of cartoon writers left; Warren Foster retired, Mike Maltese and Tony Benedict left rather than try to write for shows like Space Ghost (Maltese, in an interview with Joe Adamson, ridiculed the whole concept of Moby Dick, the crime-fighting whale, stating he refused to work on it).

This is the world of Hanna-Barbera in 1968, a world of which Barbera ruminated in a feature story in the San Francisco Examiner. The end of action/adventure (for the time being) was near, thanks to groups pressuring the networks. That apparently suited Joe Barbera just fine (and Mike Maltese, who returned to the studio until network interference finally got to him).

I have to chuckle a bit. The Hanna-Barbera studio was always borrowing ideas from somewhere as a starting point, including their own at MGM. In this story, Barbera suggests cartoon concepts under consideration seem very reminiscent of Bewitched and Dr. Doolittle. There’s no hint that one of the studio’s biggest successes was around the corner, a series that owed something to the radio show I Love a Mystery, a Frank Sinatra song lyric and the voice of Astro, the Jetsons’ dog.

This was published April 14, 1968.

The Purveyor of Saturday's Fare

By John Stanley
"SATURDAY morning is no longer the junkyard. When you talk about a half-hour cartoon show you're talking about as many as 100,000 clams laid end to end. Show me the kid's stuff in that."
Joe Barbera is 45, a sporty dresser and usually just about that subtle when he discusses the cartoon-producing business.
But maybe he has that right. With William Hanna, he runs a subtle animation factory in Hollywood. One of the biggest in the world. And for that reason, he talks to animals.
This year there are eleven half-hour cartoon series on the Saturday morning tube bearing the Hanna-Barbera imprint. They range from re-runs of "The Flintstones" to such new-fangled offerings as "Birdman Galaxy Trio," "Young Samson and Goliath," "Atom Ant-Secret Squirrel," "The Fantastic Four," "Space Ghost Dyno Boy," "Moby Dick Minthor," [sic] "Shazzan," "The Herculoids," "Johnny Quest" [sic] and "Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles."
Next fall many of these shows will be making the re-run circuit, not to mention four brand new cartoon series: "The New Adventures of Huck Finn" (in prime time on NBC), "The Hanna-Barbera Hour," consisting of half-animation, half-live action (these are costing $135,000 per episode), "Whacky Races" and "The New Adventures of Gulliver."
It might also be said of Joe Barbera that he looks haggard mid-way through one of his working days. It is already 6 p.m. in his Hollywood office a spacious affair that is not gaudily plush but chances are he won't get away from his desk until 10 p.m. With luck.
At this moment he is gazing at a large drawing of a riverboat. Behind him stands the artist young, nervous, lacking confidence. Barbera glances up from the watercolor drawing to explain this is for "The New Adventures of Huck Finn." Finn, he elaborates, is the most preferrred of all classics. Or so extensive ratings and testing have decided. Robinson Caruso is next, then Ivanhoe. Those might be considered for later series. He examines the scene again, giving his full attention to the apprehensive artist.
"Looks kind of grim," he muses. "Colors are grim. What I'd do is start with more white, give it more tone. More shadows here." He points. "This looks too much like steel. Riverboats are made of wood. Throw more shadow across here and it'll start to look like a riverboat. Who told you to do it this way?" The artist, fidgeting, mentions a name. Barbera laughs boisterously. "What do Puerto Ricans know about riverboats?" He gives the artist a light slap on his shoulder. The artist's mood brightens. He'll try again. This time with the shadow.
Barbera watches him leave, then swings around in his swivel chair. "I have a hundred meetings like this every day. And with four new shows ... I talk to animals."
It wasn't always this hectic for Barbera and partner. He can remember the day when they couldn't find a single market for their first free-lance collaboration. But that's getting ahead of the story.
It started at MGM one morning in 1956. Barbera and Hanna had spent 20 years with that factory, producing "Tom and Jerry." They had seven Academy Awards to show for their artistic labors, but the soaring cost of animation had placed their jobs in jeopardy. The phone rang and 30 seconds later they no longer had an employer.
The pair turned to television, but the cartoon field was just as vast a graveyard in that medium. Perhaps they could cut exorbitant costs with the use of limited animation. How about strong character, contemporary satire? Material that functioned on one level for kids, on another for adults. Hey. ... So they made "Huckleberry Hound." Would Kellogg's be interested? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed Kellogg's was also considering a package deal with MGM. For old "Tom and Jerry" cartoons.
The irony of that was almost enough to make them seek jobs as cereal box writers. But somehow "Huckleberry Hound" was purchased and Hanna-Barbera Productions Inc. was formed. And born was a whole new attitude toward cartoon animation.
Barbera recalls those days with a certain respect: They could have spelled total disaster. And from their experience they learned there was more to their trade than a paw-clutched wooden mallet descending toward a mouse's head. They saw now that TV was producing a much sharper level of youthful audience to which they could cater.
"What the adults want for the kids is education now. Good moral material. But you can't present it as education. It has to be translated into entertainment. And that's what we're here to do. What I personally prefer is what we've always tried to stress series that have characters the kids can identify with. Characters they can imitate.
"That's why I'm not a fan of the superhero they're all cut from the same cloth and you can't warm up to a superhero like you can to Yogi Bear or Fred Flintstone.
"But I don't worry about that. Super-heroes are a fad on the way out."
And the trend right now? "Toward — and I'm glad to see it — humor and personality. No, not Mickey Mouse. A return to humor that is far more sophisticated ... no, make that contemporary. It's not even a Flintstone humor, Honeymoon humor or Bilko humor. Now the humor is going to be a Mary Poppins kind of whimsy, fantasy, magic. People wiggle noses and drawers open and things fly across the room. This is the trend you'll be seeing.
"Oh, we're not abandoning adventure. Adventure is always a good staple. And we're going back to animals. Not the animals we've done in the past. Think of it in terms of Dr. Dolittle. Talking to animals. That incorporates the whimsy and still gives us what we want ... not what we want, what THEY want."
There has been much criticism of late about violence in cartoons. Does it apply to Hanna-Barbera? "Certainly. We make a majority of the cartoons so the majority of the complaints apply to us. I can't really defend it but to say it's part of a trend. This entire business consists of trends. Every couple of years we go through major changes. All I can promise is, violence is op the way out. It'll soon be a thing of the past in our cartoons."
(The official statement on violence from the Hanna-Barbera publicity office: "Today's fantastic communications system has painted a realistic picture that children and adults must live with. Hanna-Barbera merely reflects this trend toward realism.")
Another knock on Barbera's office door. The producer sighs under the pending burden of another session with an artist. This time it is an older man with a sample of a character called Dr. Jungle. He talks to animals.
"Now, if you'll excuse me ... I can't hold up production. One of these days"—and he pretends to pull his hair from his head—"I'm gonna get out of here before dark."
Joe Barbera. A man who talks to animals.


  1. Hanna-Barbera's move to Saturday's brought a certain visual polish to the kids shows there that the ones already airing (done either on the East Coast or with Total TV, contracted out to Mexico) lacked -- the designs were either crude or in the case of the efforts coming out of Paramount and its ex-employees, better designed but stiffly animated due to the TV budgets.

    The problem (as others have noted) is once the studio went in on Saturday morning efforts instead of syndicated ones, the network people were the ones calling the shots on what Hanna-Barbera was going to make -- Maltese and Avery told that story about how Moby Dick was thought up by a CSB network executive (and a time when Fred Silverman was in charge of Saturday morning programming for CBS), and that Melvin Millar ended up with an ulcer trying to write stories for such a vapid premise. H-B & staff already had lost lots of their holdover mojo from the theatrical years by 1966, and it all went away after that, other than the Astro rip-off and the hippie with the radio DJ's voice.

    1. And, of course, even that was questionable, as many of us would like to believe that the mojo had already disappeared forever from H-B..:)

    2. Total TV also was East Coast based,too! :-)

  2. I’ve always felt it WRONG that Mike Maltese (arguably the GREATEST cartoon writer who ever lived – and, if not, he shares that honor with Warren Foster) found himself in an industry that no longer needed him!

    But animation’s loss was comic-books’ gain as, during the early-mid 1970s, Maltese returned to writing some familiar characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker) for Gold Key Comics! He had done so, prior to being overtaxed (?) at Hanna-Barbera in the early sixties, on these same characters as well – when they were published under the “Dell” banner.

    During this later spurt, he also wrote some unfamiliar ones like The Pink Panther, whom he surrounded with familiar Maltesian tropes (I mean that in the most complementary way) and wrote him as if he were Snagglepuss! Ya seen one big, pink cat, ya seen ‘em all, I guess.

    He even wrote one issue of Walt Disney’s SUPER GOOF (Goofy as a super hero), and pulled every bit he could out of his “WB / H-B bag of tricks” to do so! I daresay this was the ONLY time in Disney comics history that “The Three Little Pigs” were not the Disney version, but more the wisecracking hams that might appear in a WB or HB cartoon! And, there was a GIANT that stole a bank building… just like in Snooper and Blabber (and later in Ricochet Rabbit?)

    Finally, since Super Goof was the first comic book character that I wrote professionally (not for Gold Key, but for the much-later Gemstone, and IDW), I get to say I have a “shared experience” with Mike Maltese! …Along with the great Disney Duck-man, Carl Barks, one of my two “writing heroes”!

    1. Nice to know that..(Maltese writing Goofy....I read in the J.Adamson TEX AVERY KING OF CARTOONS, which I got in 1978 (five years after its 1975 pub.) that Mike had wanted first to work for Disney ("but somehow that never happened..")

  3. JB was 55 yo on 4/14/1968, not 45.