Joseph Barbera, one half of the Hanna-Barbera animation team, passed away yesterday, and that pretty much puts the cap on the golden age of theatrical animation, the one that birthed Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Hanna and Barbera’s own Tom & Jerry. Of course, Barbera is also of the TV animation generation: after theatrical animation started collapsing, he and Bill Hanna retreated into TV and pioneered the idea of “limited animation,” in which animators made do with six frames a second instead of twenty-four, and hoped the kids wouldn’t notice, hopped up as they were on sugar-coated cereals at 7am in the morning.
I’m not a huge fan of the concept of limited animation, and even less a fan of most of Hanna-Barbera’s output from the late 60s until they were bought by Turner Broadcasting (who mined H/B for Cartoon Network and Boomerang), because most of it, to put it charitably, was crap that really did rely on the lack of discrimination that six-year-olds bring to their television viewing. But to be fair to H/B, at some of that had to do with the market and what broadcasters wanted. I can’t imagine they wanted to make crap, and if you look at their history with Tom & Jerry series of theatrical shorts (which won 7 Academy Awards between 1940 and 1957), and even the early Huckleberry Hounds and Yogi Bears (some of which were written by Michael Maltese and other refugees from the collapsing theatrical animation business), it’s clear they could make some great stuff when they were given their leave. It’s that stuff I’ll be remembering Barbera for.
I had the opportunity to interview Joe Barbera once, back when I worked for the Fresno Bee; he was doing some sort of exhibit in Carmel, and I drove out (a lovely drive, on which I was treated to the most amazing rainbow I ever saw) to see him, and got about an hour’s worth of time from him. It was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had, because, after all, here was a guy who were there for almost of all the history of animation — and wasn’t just there but was one of its icons — and was both candid and entertaining about all of it. Not only was he delightful to speak to, but he wouldn’t let me leave the table until he sketched a Jerry Mouse for me. Naturally, I was jazzed about that; I also think it was indicative of the enthusiasm he still had for his work and his characters, even after all that time. Would that we all feel the same way about our own work, in time. He’ll be missed.