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Joseph Barbera: An Appreciation

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The late animator brought a bold approach to cartooning. He proved it is possible to influence kids for the better without being anodyne or politically correct.

In the 1960s, 1970s,  and 1980s, Hanna-Barbera was a mark of quality for children’s animation. They consistently produced enjoyable and inspired cartoons that continue to entertain us even as adults. Hanna-Barbera made no attempt to provide an obvious and heavy-handed “educational” message. Their characters and scenarios were eye-catching, colorful and memorable. And their shows were scored with catchy songs that, once heard, could never be forgotten. Their theme songs for The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby Doo…Where are You! were nifty television classics. Their rock songs for Josie and the Pussycats were better than most TV-generated pop songs. 

Joseph Barbera, the cartoonist and storyboard artist responsible for those classics, died this week at age 95. It brought to an end a remarkable career spanning nearly seven decades. He was born in 1911 to Sicilian parents in New York City. He started his career during the depression as a magazine cartoonist, and later as a screenwriter and animator for a New York-based animation company. By 1937, he was hired by MGM’s animation studio, where he teamed up with William Hanna to create short cartoons that screened before the main feature film.

Together, with Barbera doing the storyboard and layout work and Hanna overseeing the timing, the two of them created the characters of Tom and Jerry. Their countless Tom and Jerry shorts would bring them 14 Academy Award nominations and 7 actual wins. With its themes of cunning decisiveness and competitive behavior, Tom and Jerry belied the political correctness of modern cartoons, which now espouse generic messages of good will and peaceful behavior. It probably reflected the survival instincts learned by its scrappy creators during the Depression, and influenced generations of kids to defend and prepare themselves from any and all adversity.

After 17 years with MGM, Hanna-Barbera struck out on their own and started producing animated shows for television. Their years of working at MGM prepared them to produce high-quality shows on fiscally responsible budgets. The result was the most successful and trend-setting television animation studio of the twentieth century. The Flintstones is notable as the first television animated program airing in prime time, years before The Simpsons, The Family Guy, and American Dad! became part of the nighttime TV landscape. Fred and Wilma Flinstone were, in fact, the very first couple to be shown in bed together on television.

His cartoons gave young girls non-submissive role models they could emulate, without heavy-handed feminist proselytizing.

One reason why Hanna-Barbera succeeded in the field is due to the diversity of subject matter covered by their shows. The Flintstones and The Jetsons were, at heart, witty domestic comedies given an unusual spin due to the time periods they were set in. Jonny Quest and Scooby Doo…Where are You! appealed to the curiosity for mystery and adventure that exists in the hearts of all kids. And even Josie and the Pussycats and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop were ahead of their time in giving young girls non-submissive role models they could emulate without succumbing to any heavy-handed feminist proselytizing. Josie and her friends were a rock trio, and Penelope was a race car driver. I have heard grown men admit to having had “crushes” on the animated characters of Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble from The Flintstones, the fiery red-haired Daphne from Scooby Doo!, and Josie, Melody and Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats. Hanna-Barbera’s target audience may have been kids, but their appeal reached adults.

Long after most artists have retired and rested on their laurels, Joseph Barbera worked to the very end. He and Hanna continued as advisors on new shows after they sold their company to Turner Broadcasting in the early 1990s. After Hanna died in 2001, Barbera continued working at Warner Brothers animation. His final work—which he wrote, storyboarded, co-produced and co-directed—was an 8-minute Tom and Jerry short called The Karateguard (2005). Tom and Jerry, thankfully, had lost none of their edge or bite. They were as combative and adversarial as ever.

The present era of bland, gender-neutralized, feel-good cartoons compares poorly to Barbera’s remarkable legacy.

Shaun Chang is a law student in his 3rd year at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law. He has an interest in all things related to cinema, television, the arts, and 1960s starlets.

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