Features and Columns

Hanna-Barbera Was the Child of Two Desperate Animators

Joseph Barbera and William Hanna challenged Walt Disney and Warner Bros. with the help of a hateful cat and a terrified mouse.
Puss Gets The Boot Hanna Barbera
By  · Published on July 11th, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our new weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we spotlight Hanna-Barbera. 

A single cartoon can change the world. Just ask Joseph Barbera.

Born on March 24, 1911, Barbera spent his youth keeping company with the streets of Brooklyn. His father made a mini fortune as the owner of three barbershops, but by the time Barbera was fifteen years old, the money evaporated, and so did his pop. With two younger brothers and a mother to look after, Barbera did what he could, taking any odd job that would have him.

Barbera had a skill with a pencil and drew doodles and characters from the first grade on up. In high school, his passion was boxing, and for a moment, World Lightweight Boxing Champion Al Singer managed him. However, the passion soon became work, and Barbera dropped the dream of the ring.

In 1929, Barbera saw The Skeleton Dance, written and directed by Walt Disney. The Silly Symphony short sparked something electric in the back of his mind. There’s not much to the story — four human skeletons escape their graves and produce music from their jangling bones — but Barbera wanted in on the ghoulish joy. His mind contained numerous silly and twisted tales to equal or best what Disney produced.

Barbera seriously began to pursue the life of a cartoonist, collecting rejection slips one after the other. While working at a bank (a tricky proposition during the Great Depression), he started selling his single-panel cartoons to Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, and Colliers. Barbera wrote to Walt Disney, the man responsible for his newfound drive to create, and Disney wrote back, saying he’d call Barbera up on his next trip to New York. The phone never rang.

Taking what he made from his job at the bank and the cartoons he sold, Barbera enrolled in the Art Students League of New York and the Pratt Institute. He had talent, but he required a better understanding of the craft. What he learned regarding ink and paint worked for him, and Barbera found a job at Max Fleischer Studios. He was an animator for four days.

His next gig lasted a little longer. From 1932 to 1936, Barbera animated cels and wrote scenarios for Van Beuren Studios. When RKO ceased distributing their animated shorts in favor of Walt Disney’s more popular efforts, Van Beuren shuttered their doors. Barbera slid almost immediately into Terrytoon Studios, where he storyboarded a cartoon involving an aerial race between Kiko the Kangaroo and Dirty Dog. Terrytoons refused to produce the short.

Barbera was unphased. The job gave him an extra boost of confidence, and when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered him a job in California, including a significant pay raise, Barbera jumped at the chance. Goodbye, New York; hello, Hollywood.

Los Angeles was not the golden city Barbera imagined. They were suffering as much there under the Great Depression as they were in New York City, and the cartoonist seriously considered returning to Brooklyn upon arrival. He would have if his desk at MGM were not directly across from William Hanna.

Hanna was another guy who bounced around various jobs before finding his way to MGM. He was a college dropout who worked as an engineer in the construction crew that erected the Pantages Theater. While working at a car wash, his sister implored him to apply for a position at Pacific Title and Art.

There, Hanna discovered a knack for drawing and quickly wiggled his way into the Harman and Ising Studio, which produced Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies through Warner Bros. Harman and Ising eventually ditched Warner Bros. for MGM, and Hanna tagged along. After Hanna directed his first short (To Spring) in 1936, MGM severed ties with Harman and Ising but hired Hanna for their new cartoon studio.

Barbera and Hanna were fast friends, but even faster workers. Studio co-owner Louis B. Mayer was hungry for new characters, and he sent orders to every animator to bolster MGM’s stable of cartoons. In 1940, Barbera and Hanna answered the call with their first short film, Puss Gets the Boot.

Featuring a savage cat and mouse rivalry that would eventually evolve into Tom and Jerry, Puss Gets the Boot feels of the era that produced the early adventures of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny but contains an additional layer of diabolical venom. Barbera unleashes his childish barbarism upon the page, and the result is an uncomfortably humorous but mostly cringy assault on mouse from cat, and vice versa. The Itchy and Scratchy Show is not too far ahead of them.

Puss Gets the Boot was a box office success and scored an Academy Award nomination for the studio. Barbera and Hanna’s supervisor, Fred Quimby, scoffed at the film, and he had zero interest in producing further cat and mouse tales. He was ignored, and Barbera and Hanna went on to direct 114 Tom and Jerry shorts over seventeen years, securing their first Oscar in 1943 for The Yankee Doodle Mouse.

By 1957, MGM’s cartoon division was more interested in redistributing old cartoons than producing new ones. The time had come to move into television. With the toss of a coin, Barbera and Hanna determined whose name would land first on the masthead. Hanna won, and Hanna-Barbera Productions was born.

Their first boob tube endeavor was The Ruff & Reddy Show, another cartoon series depicting an absurd animal relationship, but instead of a cat gunning to devour a mouse, it featured a loving friendship between an intelligent cat and a dimwitted dog. The series was a modest hit (running three seasons), but they didn’t strike gold until they unveiled The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Yogi Bear Show.

Most surprisingly, Barbera and Hanna learned that half the audience for The Huckleberry Hound Show were adults. With more pockets to target, they lifted the premise of The Honeymooners sitcom and transplanted it into the Stone Age. Yabba dabba doo! The Flintstones became the first animated prime-time sensation, encouraging Hanna-Barbera to dropkick the idea into the future with The Jetsons.

Hanna-Barbera owned the airwaves in the 1960s: The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel ShowJonny Quest, The Magilla Gorilla Show, The Quick Draw McGraw Show, Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs, Super Friends, and Top Cat. If anything, they had grown too successful, forcing Barbera and Hanna to sell the company to Taft Broadcasting in 1966 for $12 million. The two animators remained as head of the company until 1991 when Taft sold Hanna-Barbera to the Turner Broadcasting System for $320 million.

Turner used the Hanna-Barbera catalog to pad their new cable station Cartoon Network. They also slapped the Hanna-Barbera logo onto productions of The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory. Eventually, Turner merged with Warner Bros. (the studio in which Hanna first recognized his talent for ‘toons), and Hanna-Berbera was enveloped within their animation army after Hanna died from throat cancer in 2001.

Joseph Barbera hung onto life for another five years. In that time, while he was in his nineties, Barbera continued to thrive within his field. He co-directed, co-produced, and co-storyboarded the Tom and Jerry short The Karate Guard, and he co-wrote Tom and Jerry: A Nutcracker Tale, which released posthumously direct-to-video in 2007.

All it took was one demented cartoon to send Barbera into legend.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)