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Hanna and Barbera - Before the Company

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Hanna and Barbera have created some of the most memorable cartoon characters in television history. But what were they like prior to hitting it big on the small screen? These two men led very different lives until their paths collided. This entry will follow their lives up until they started their own company - Hanna-Barbera Productions.

William Hanna's Childhood

William Danby Hanna was born on 14 July, 1910, in Melrose, New Mexico. After leaving Compton Junior College around 1929, Hanna found a job with engineers in the construction of the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. After finishing this job, Bill decided that the life of an engineer was not for him when his brother-in-law entered the scene. Bill's brother-in-law Jack Stevens, who worked for Pacific Title, a Hollywood company that made titles and artwork for films, informed Hanna about Harman-Ising studios. Harman-Ising Studios were most famous for creating the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series.

At Harman-Ising Hanna painted the plastic that cartoons are made on1, and punched animation paper. When the company expanded, Hanna's job also grew as he became head of the tracing and painting department at $37.50 a week. Rudy Ising, one half of the company's namesake, would arrive each day at about lunchtime and work until midnight every night. Ising encouraged Hanna to stay late with him, and soon he added story material and gags for early Looney Tunes episodes and after a short bit even began writing music and lyrics for the cartoons. During his stay with Harman and Ising, Hanna learned much: great drawing ability, pacing and a grand sense of dynamics.

Midway through 1933, for reasons never exposed, Harman and Ising cut off ties with owner and producer Leon Schlesinger. Schlesinger continued to create the Looney Tunes series without its creators at Warner Brothers. A number of animators went with Leon, such as animator Isador (Friz) Freleng, who later created Porky Pig and many other popular characters while Hanna opted to stay with Harman and Ising as they signed a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Hanna then partnered with Paul Ferrell, a fine artist, and produced the cartoon musical short To Spring winning high acclaim with MGM executives. In 1937 MGM decided to start their own animation company with Fred Quimby at the head. Fred Quimby was described as more of a business man then a creative person, not exactly the type of person for a cartoon company. Quimby's first job was to build an in-house animation staff; to do this he took many of Harman-Ising's workers. Quimby lured Bill Hanna from his employers and he went to work as a writer and director. Quimby also took as many New York animators and writers as possible, calling on Jack Zander for assistance. One such man brought to MGM was Joseph Barbera.

Joe Barbera's Childhood

Joseph Roland Barbera was born in New York City in 1911. At Public School 139 on Cortelyou Road, teachers discovered that Joe had a penchant for storytelling as well as drawing. For instance, for an assignment Joe once wrote a story involving Russian soldiers. 'The story was about Cossacks attacking a village, and it was seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier.' After graduating from college, Joe's first job was at the Irving Trust Company filing income-tax returns, an odd job choice since Joe was horrible at mathematics: 'To this day they must be looking for my mistakes.' Each night Joe would draw cartoons for magazines and during his lunch break go around on the subway to the doorsteps of Redbook, Collier's, The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post to drop off new cartoons and pick up last week's rejected ones. Joe then began taking night classes at the famous Art Students' League of Manhattan to sharpen his abilities. He finally sold a cartoon to Collier's for $25 but decided that it was not enough to support himself.

When Joe was about 19, he got a job at Fleischer Studios which was famous for the Popeye the Sailor Man and Betty Boop cartoons. Joe was paid $35 a week and was given an additional dollar for every joke of his that they used in a cartoon. After only four days Barbera realised that he was not going to move ahead in that position and went to ask for his job at the bank back. As a result of the Great Depression he was denied. After living in unemployment for a few years, Joe got a job at the Van Buren Studio, a very small cartooning company. At Van Buren, Joe learned a lot about each aspect of cartooning until the studio shut down in 1936. Visiting a friend at Paul Terry's cartoon studio in New Rochelle, New York to tell him he was leaving to apply for a job with Disney, Barbera met Terry and was offered a job right away. Terry was already famous for his TerryToons and would later create characters such as Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. It was from this cartoon studio that Joe was recruited to MGM and met William Hanna.

Meeting at MGM

Jack Zander brought himself from Terry Studios in New Rochelle and brought along Joe Barbera, making $87.50 a week. Fred Quimby also hired Freleng from Schlesinger and after a bit Barbera moved up from animator to one of Freleng's story men while continuing to draw. The recently hired east-coasters clashed with the veteran west-coasters and eventually everyone who had worked in New York except Joe had left. Quimby decided that the first animated series produced by MGM would be based on the German comic strip The Captain and the Kids. Friz Freleng recalls telling Quimby:

It won't work. In the first place, they're humans, and the only cartoons that seem to be successful have animal characters. A guy like Elmer Fudd is only an abstraction. Besides, they speak with a heavy German accent. And those kids aren't even lovable.

The series failed and in desperation MGM turned back to Harman and Ising. Harman and Ising went back to work with MGM and about that time Freleng returned to Warner Brothers, working there until they closed in 1963. It was then that Hanna and Barbera met each other and realised that they would be stronger as a team. Bill had a sharp sense of comedic timing and was a very organised gentleman, whereas Joe had a comic creativity and great drawing ability; with their differing skills the two managed to form a great team and become great friends as well. Hanna said of Barbera: 'He was the best cartoonist I'd ever seen,' and Barbera of Hanna: 'I had a lot of respect for his artistic ability, and I knew how much he contributed to the stories.' With a mutual respect such as this and such talent between the men, it only makes sense that when the two collaborated on their first series that they would forever change the animation industry.

Tom and Jerry

The very first cartoon series to be worked on by both Hanna and Barbera was Tom and Jerry, first released in 1939. The pair chose a cat and mouse as their main characters because, despite it being a stereotype, the characters were universally recognized as enemies. The very first Tom and Jerry cartoon entitled 'Puss Gets the Boot', has many familiar elements but is also very different in regards to later cartoons in the series. For example, the pair's names were not 'Tom' and 'Jerry' but 'Jasper' and 'unnamed,' respectively. Physically Jasper was different in that he had three eyebrows giving him many more cunning and often evil expressions while his character acted in a much more feral manner than his descendant. MGM's executives found 'Puss Gets the Boot' hilarious, but Fred Quimby and other MGM personnel found the plot tired and overused. The cartoon was not only popular in theatres; it was also nominated for an Academy Award. Despite the fact that Joe and Bill created all the content of the cartoon they received no screen credit; the sole producer credit went to Rudy Ising who would soon leave MGM. Even though it was popular with audiences Hanna and Barbera were instructed not to make any more cat and mouse cartoons, and for a short while did not.

After working on three other shorts an enthusiastic letter was received from a major distributor and they were once again given the go-ahead. If this show was going to become an on-going series it was decided that the characters needed names. The results came from a contest between MGM personnel by pulling names out of a hat. The pair worked on Tom and Jerry for 18 years and over the entire span the formula remained the same: cat chases mouse, mouse outsmarts cat, cat is punished. But despite all their fighting there was an unstated regard between the two that allowed viewers to see an understated camaraderie. For example, in 'The Night Before Christmas' (1941) Tom is worried about Jerry outside in the cold; in 'Nit Witty Kitty' (1951) Tom contracts amnesia, and Jerry works very hard to restore the cat to his normal state. Throughout the years Hanna and Barbera did 200 theatrically released cartoons and won seven Academy Awards.

Before the Company

In 1957 MGM's animation division closed and the pair decided to tap into a new medium: television. An animated series made directly for television had never before been produced and networks were slightly scared by the idea. But when Hanna-Barbera Productions were formed, they would forever shape the industry for the better.

1Called celluloid or 'cels'.

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