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A Farewell to Harms

by on January 9, 2007

It’s easy enough to call the passing of Joseph Barbera the end of an era. You might even say it marks the end of two eras, for the careers of Barbera and his late partner William Hanna straddled both the golden age of American studio animation and the altogether more dire era of TV animation. They even lived long enough to see the networks, which had done so much to destroy the tradition of the well-made cartoon, try to recultivate those traditions in the 1990s. But the life of Joseph Barbera is notable for more than just its length and the depth of its influence. No other has better illustrated the glories and limitations of the American cartoon.

In his first career, Barbera helped create some of the greatest cartoons of all time, and did so while working within an astonishingly constrained formula. Let Disney have his fairy tales and mock realism; let Warner Bros. accumulate the greatest stable of cartoon stars in Toontown. Hanna and Barbera contented themselves with the simplest of conflicts—a cat battles a mouse—and worked out more baroque variations on the theme of bully-and-victim than is credibly conceivable. Perhaps the individual cartoons blur together—but so do the shorts of Chaplin and Keaton. That’s not a trivial comparison; Tom and Jerry were the last of the great silent clowns, using little but motion and expression to rip laughter from the audience’s guts. And like the Little Tramp and Great Stoneface, neither character changed or evolved. The cat and mouse were eternally resilient and eternally cheerful; the harder you hit them, the faster they came back. And so these amazingly violent cartoons had the serenity that comes with fate foreseen: the wheel turns and Tom gets what he deserves, but the wheel turns again, and he springs back to his original rubbery shape, ready for new disasters. It’s no wonder that The Simpsons, when it parodied cartoon conventions in the “Itchy and Scratchy” shorts, took “Tom and Jerry” as its model, for the model is almost as abstract and repetitive as the imitation.

But leave the professors with the weirdly Buddhist echoes in the franchise. The Tom and Jerry shorts were, at bottom, great because they were smashingly funny, and, backed by MGM, Hanna and Barbera packed them with more energy and ingenuity than almost anyone else in the business. Again, it’s not trivial to note the source of their funds—good cartoons cost a bucketload to produce, and as contract talent at MGM they could dip into the deepest coffers in Hollywood. True, under this arrangement they had to suffer the attentions of their producer, Fred Quimby, but it was an association that paid off handsomely for all. In the 1950s, though, the spires of Mr. Mayer’s gilded empire began to sag like wet cardboard, and the cartoon division was closed as a cost-saving measure. Faced with unemployment, Hanna and Barbera decided they could best survive the new, producer-less environment by becoming producers themselves.

he invented a market strategy that has imprisoned Hollywood itselfSo they formed Hanna-Barbera Productions, and promptly learned that freedom can be a more terrible master than any tyrant. Formerly, they had only to answer to one executive; in the 1960s they had to answer to a plethora of network representatives and (behind these) to a commercial marketplace mostly indifferent to artistry. There’s no use cataloging the crimes of that era; suffice it to note that for every Flintstones, Jetsons and Scooby-Doo there were dozens of Inch High, Private Eyes. Hanna-Barbera was a workshop for underemployed animators, and for many years it probably functioned more like a welfare agency than a factory. Attach no blame to the men whose names were on the corporate masthead, and little more to those who directly fathered the abortions. Rather, blame the networks that preferred to measure the product by the foot—as filler between the commercial spots—and declined to worry over its finer points. By putting themselves at the unmediated mercy of executives who could sell hot dogs as easily as cartoons, Hanna and Barbera were themselves driven to become sausage-makers.

That’s why you can’t blame them for what happened to the American cartoon in the 1970s, even though their company inescapably represented it. In fact, to see how far market pressures can derange even the most idealistic of cartoonists, you need look no further than the career of their greatest rival. Walt Disney is the only animator to ever outmaneuver the moneymen. More than that, , and his company has become one of the great media behemoths. But this success has come at an appalling cost. Though he carved out a haven for his own imagination, Disney did so only by cornering the market for animated features with a run of fairy-tale juvenilia that has ghettoized the art form as “kiddie” fare. Worse, it has actually stunted the audience’s imagination, so that even the films of Hayao Miyazaki, which are immeasurably more subtle, challenging, and beautiful than Disney’s, are ignored in the United States simply because they don’t conform to the baby-animal cuteness that is the “Disney” watermark. Disney met and conquered the marketplace, but in doing so he left it even more monotonous and impoverished.

The economics that drove Hanna-Barbera Productions to produce ever more sterile cartoons go a long way toward demonstrating why, in America at least, animation is produced rather than created. That’s a significant irony, for the auteur theory of film—that movies are authored by their directors—is truer of cartoons than of live-action cinema. A strong-minded director like Chuck Jones dominates every aspect of his cartoons and can alter them almost on a whim; as Alfred Hitchcock (a similarly strong-minded director) once enviously remarked, a cartoon director can literally tear his actors up into little pieces. But animation is, as I’ve said, expensive to produce, and when the old studios folded they left the auteurs adrift. Some, like Jones, retreated from the new dispensation with Olympian disdain; others, like Tex Avery, struggled to continue the old ways. But Hanna and Barbera tried to master the new environment, and most contemporary animators have had to follow their example. Though some still strive for a producer’s credit, the most successful have had to realize their visions while working in a corporate environment and accepting a producer’s credit more often than a director’s. It might not be a return to the days of Termite Terrace—the real world is never so resilient as the ‘toon world—but it has worked out well enough, often enough.

And so Barbera lived long enough to see the wheel turn again: his death seems less an end to an era than a mile marker on a closed loop of track. Perhaps, surveying the contemporary state of American animation, the co-creator of Tom and Jerry was amused to think of the industry cat, having reassembled itself in the 1990s, setting itself up for another catastrophic crack up. Or, to put it another way, the industry does seem to run through a permanent cycle of birth, decline, rebirth, and renewed decline, like a character in The Flintstones running over a repetitive background. But it’s probably best not to worry about such things. Instead, I think we should honor the late Joseph Barbera by taking a lesson from the mouse Jerry, and just take the good moments as we get them and not worry overly much about their inevitable sequel. Jerry got his sequels from the capable pen of Joseph Barbera. May Barbera’s heirs be equally adept.

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