The Book as Toy
I'm a little too old to share the intense nostalgia for the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons that is required for maximum enjoyment of an elaborate new book called The Hanna-Barbera Treasury: Rare Art and Mementos from Your Favorite Cartoon Classics. I do remember watching early episodes of Huckleberry Hound at a girlfriend's house in 1958, and liking them, and I even ordered and used (as an adolescent joke) the Yogi Bear mug and Huckleberry Hound bowl offered for 50 cents as a Kellogg's cereal premium. I could never stand any of the later H-B cartoons—The Flintstones in particular was just another dumb sitcom, as far as I was concerned—but I clung to the notion that the very first H-B efforts had virtues that the later ones lacked.
Around 1990, I ran across Betamax videotapes of some of the early H-B cartoons at a New York store that was selling them at giveaway prices. I had (and have) a Betamax VCR, so I bought the Ruff and Reddy and Huckleberry Hound volumes, expecting to take some pleasure in the writing by such former Warner Bros. stalwarts as Mike Maltese and Warren Foster, if in nothing else.
What a letdown. I couldn't finish watching either tape, because everything about the cartoons was so awful: crude drawing and animation, forced voices, dumb dialogue, silly stories, you name it.
Such TV cartoons are superficially very different from Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera's Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons for MGM, but all their cartoons are much alike under the skin. The dirty little secret the cartoons share is this: in almost all of them, nothing really happens.
There is in the Tom and Jerry cartoons a continuous flow of furious activity, but gags that would pass muster in a Looney Tune are almost entirely absent. (When one does show up, like the astonishing bees-in-Tom's-mouth gag in Tee for Two, it really stands out.) In this respect the Tom and Jerry cartoons are much like the Terrytoons on which Joe Barbera apprenticed in the 1930s. The MGM cartoons are a lot slicker than the Terrytoons, as they had to be in the environment created by the Disney and Warner cartoons, but the guiding principle is the same: distract the audience, and save yourself from the hard work of writing real stories and inventive gags, by keeping the screen busy.
Hanna and Barbera couldn't operate in the same way when they began making TV cartoons. Their budgets wouldn't support the full animation that dressed up their MGM cartoons until late in their tenure at that studio, when the lack of gags in a cartoon like Neapolitan Mouse (1954) began to be uncomfortably obvious. Instead, to cover up the hole at the center, the H-B TV cartoons relied on:
—very simple but aggressively repetitive animation, the repetition providing the movement that instantly distinguished the H-B cartoons from more static TV-cartoon predecessors like Crusader Rabbit;
—lots of dialogue, by a handful of distinctive voice artists who were just versatile enough. That is, everything they did sounded a lot alike, giving the shows a vocal identity, but not so much alike that you couldn't tell which character was speaking;
—catchphrases, sound effects, and music cues that were, like the animation, repeated shamelessly, taking full advantage of children's much greater appetite for such repetition.
There was in this new pattern a shrewd recognition that TV, especially in the black-and-white 1950s, was as much about sound as about pictures; it was glorified radio rather than a predominantly visual medium.
And there was something else: almost invariably, in their voices and to some extent their appearance and their actions, the H-B characters evoked real and well-loved performers, usually from other television shows, so that they shared in the good will felt for those performers. The Jackie Gleason show was a particularly rich source, providing in Art Carney's Ed Norton character the model for Yogi Bear, and then, in the "Honeymooners" sketches, the template for The Flintstones.
One of the oddest things about The Hanna-Barbera Treasury is that this indebtedness to other TV shows goes unmentioned in Jerry Beck's text. I don't blame Beck for this, since he is certainly aware that Snagglepuss was modeled on Bert Lahr and Doggie Daddy on Jimmy Durante. I'm sure we see here the fine hand of the Time Warner lawyers, who, like corporate counsel everywhere, earn much of their pay by spotting and defusing nonexistent threats to the company. Probably in this case alarms were raised based on the odious "right of publicity" statutes, under which the heirs of actors dead for decades can demand payment for the use of an image of their late loved one. Perhaps some junior attorney threw everyone into a panic by suggesting that, if this book were to mention Bert Lahr's name, that wonderful comedian's family might suddenly demand that Snagglepuss be suppressed—almost fifty years after the character first appeared, and more than forty years after Lahr's death.
Such omissions aside, Beck's text bears many signs of haste ("Huckleberry Hound was notable for a number of notable 'firsts'"). It's a shame he wasn't allowed to do a better job. There are hints here and there of how good a book he could have written if The Hanna-Barbera Treasury had been conceived differently, as a serious illustrated history of a studio that was as important, in its day and in its way, as the Disney studio of the 1930s.
The Hanna-Barbera Treasury is instead a nostalgia bath, its pages filled mostly with photos of toys, comic books, and other merchandise (typically cropped and layered; it's frustrating how hard it is to find a clear view of any object). There's some reproduced production artwork, too, but it's clearly subordinate to all the licensed products. The book itself is a sort of toy, filled with pockets and paste-ons and reproductions of vintage cards and comic books. It seems clearly modeled on three generally similar Disney books (Walt Disney Treasures, Walt Disney Keepsakes, Mickey Mouse Treasures) that were assembled by Robert Tieman, a Disney archivist.
Those Disney books enjoy advantages over The Hanna-Barbera Treasury not just in their more straightforward design but also in their subject matter: the best Disney films make a much stronger claim on our attention than do any of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It's hard for me to imagine anyone's being drawn back to the H-B cartoons of the 1950s and '60s—the period covered by the Treasury—except by nostalgia. I can readily understand why someone who as a small child enjoyed, say, The Flintstones might regard that show fondly today. I have a lot more trouble understanding why anyone would try to defend anything about it on artistic grounds.
Hanna-Barbera Productions was always not just a business but, first and foremost, a cold and efficient industrial operation. It's revealing, I think, that Bill and Joe sold their company in 1967, only ten years after their first show, Ruff and Reddy, went on the air. (Can you imagine Walt and Roy Disney selling their studio in 1938, to cash in on the great success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?) The H-B shows were manufactured products of exactly the kind you would expect, with artistry sacrificed consistently to the crassest sort of formula. Many talented people worked on those shows, and sometimes it may be possible to identify the work of an individual artist, but the formula always dominates. To single out any aspect of an H-B cartoon for praise is a lot like saying, "Ah, but this turd is a prettier shade of brown." Yes, but it's still a turd.
So, if you have fond memories of the H-B TV cartoons of the 1950s and '60s, should you buy this book? Sure, why not. But think twice before you watch the cartoons again.
[Posted January 6, 2008]