Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Joe Barbera and Chris Hayward, RIP

Cartoon fans were saddened by yesterday's passing of animation legend Joe Barbera. With his long-time partner William Hanna, Mr. Barbera was (arguably) the best-known creator and producer of cartoons this side of Walt Disney. Describing Hanna-Barbera as cultural icons would be a gross understatement. They entertained millions--perhaps billions of people--around the globe, during a partnership that lasted for more than 60 years.

Mr. Hanna and Mr. Barbera joined MGM's animation division within a month of each other in 1938, and soon hit upon the idea of a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. Despite initial doubts from the studio ("Cat and mouse, that's old stuff"), their animated creations went on to win seven Academy Awards, more than any other series using the same characters. Jerry's on-screen dance with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh remains one of the finest film sequences blending live action and animation.

But baby boomers will best remember Hanna-Barbera as the team that supplied entertainment on thousands of Saturday mornings, stretching across three decades. When MGM shuttered its animation studio in the late 1950s, the two men turned their efforts to that relatively new medium--television--and began churning out cartoons that aired on the weekend and during prime-time. While TV imposed tighter budgets and production schedules, many of their shows (Yogi Bear, Deputy Dawg, Huckleberry Hound) became pop classics. The team also pioneered successful, prime-time animated shows with The Flintstones and The Jetsons in the early 1960s.

But Hanna-Barbera also contributed to the decline of American animation in the 1970s and 80s. By that time, most of their cartoons were variations on tired themes, and the actual, limited animation had been farmed out to foreign studios. If Huckleberry, Yogi, and Jonny Quest were examples of their best work, then Hanna-Barbera's later efforts, such as Shirt Tales, Snorks and Ed Grimley were second or third-rate embarrassments. Over the years, actual ownership of Hanna-Barbera had passed through several corporate hands, and while much of the creative work was in the hands of less skilled writers and artists, both men remained regular figures at their production house well into the 1990s. But the Hanna-Barbera of that era was only a tired shadow of its former self, and when Mr. Hanna passed away in 2001, their company was completely absored into Warner Bros' animation division. Today, the Hanna-Barbera name is essentially a tool for marketing their old shows and characters.


If Hanna-Barbera represented both the best--and worst--of television animation, then Jay Ward's creations fell on the former half of that divide. One of the last members of the Ward creative team, writer Chris Hayward, passed away last month at age 80, but his death wasn't reported until this week.

Mr. Hayward contributed scripts (and deliciously bad puns) for such classics as Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show and the various "features" that aired on those programs, including Fractured Fairy Tales, Dudley Do-Right, and my personal favorite, Peabody's Improbable History, starring the dog genius, Mr. Peabody, and his pet boy, Sherman. Through the adventures of their characters, Hayward, co-writer Allan Burns and producer Bill Scott relentlessly skewered the Cold War, history, popular culture, television and anything else that attracted their fertile imaginations.

Like all great animated shows, Rocky and Bullwinkle worked on a number of levels, attracting kids through zany situations and slapstick humor, while adults laughed at dialogue that was surprisingly sophisticated and literate. Hayward and Co. were probably the only writers in history to use "The Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayan" as a punch line in a cartoon. Bullwinkle has sometimes been described as a radio show with pictures because the animation (outsourced to Mexico's Gamma Productions) was, in a word, awful. Watch a few episodes on DVD and you'll see Bullwinkle's antlers change color and shape from scene to scene, while Boris's mustache disappears and reappears.

But fans didn't watch the show for its animation; they tuned in for a program that was often outrageously funny and original, thanks to the talented writers and a superb "voice" cast that included the great Paul Frees, June Foray (the voice of Rocky), William Conrad (listed as Bill Conrad in the credits), Edward Everett Horton, and producer Scott, who gave voice to the dim-witted moose.

After Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mr. Hayward graduated to prime time programs, including the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller. But his contributions to Jay Ward's productions were enough to secure Hayward a place in the pop culture pantheon, and help influence later generations of animators and writers. It's no accident that many of the male characters on The Simpsons have the same middle initial as Bullwinkle ("J"). On the freeway of classic animation, it's a straight shot from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota to the suburbs of Springfield.


baddog46 said...

Hey, you didn't mention Boris Badanov and Natasha, or the creepy German-looking guy and the whole cold war undercurrent. But still a good post.

Mike H. said...

I used to roll in uncontrollable laughter when they came on. I think that I gained decades of extended life from the laughter. I miss the show.