When a major animation figure who was involved with a lot of wonderful cartoons dies, is it inappropriate to dwell on the dark side of his career? If anyone’s reading this, I may find out.
At MGM in the 1940s, Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna made some of the funniest, most expressive, most alive short films–of any sort–ever produced anywhere. If they’d left the business when the studio’s cartoon arm closed in 1957, I’m convinced, their reputation today would be pretty simple to summarize: Everyone would know that they were grand masters of the American animated short, period.
But Bill and Joe went on to found their own studio, one whose yearly output dwarfed their entire MGM career. And it produced…well, mostly cynical crud. (For years, my attitude towards the early Huck Hound and Yogi Bear shorts was almost entirely dispassionate, perhaps because we got them on Portland TV only when I was about nine and had already been soured on HB from watching too much of its later output; recently, I’ve come to appreciate them for their voicework, design, and, in some cases, writing. But I’d still rather watch almost any Jay Ward cartoon from the same era.)
From the start, the HB studio’s work was derivative–Ruff and Reddy being clones of Crusader Rabbit and Rags–and by the mid-1960s, most of it was derivative junk without the saving graces of the early stuff. HB has been called the studio that saved the animation business, but to borrow a phrase from a war of that era, it had to destroy the artform in order to save it. I still wonder if TV animation would have gotten so bad so quickly if Hanna-Barbera hadn’t defined schlockiness down a little more each season for so long.
And it was all doubly depressing because Hanna and Barbera had proved themselves capable of making wonderful cartoons. For all we know, Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott were capable only of swill; Bill and Joe didn’t have that excuse. I remain convinced that they could have done better. Even with the budgets they had. Even in an era in which the networks made it almost impossible to produce a good TV cartoon.
(Question: Is it pure coincidence that when HB utterly dominated the industry, nearly all television animation was abysmal–and when the company’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, in the late 1980s or so, the quality of the average TV cartoon improved sharply? Discuss…)
(Another question: If Daws Butler had never lived, would anyone remember the earliest HB cartoons with even a small fraction of the fondness they generate today?)
Pardon me–I think I’ll go off now and watch The Zoot Cat…