Joseph Barbera

Animation pioneer whose creations with William Hanna included the Flintstones and Tom and Jerry


Joseph Roland Barbera, animator and scriptwriter: born New York 24 March 1911; married first Dorothy Earl (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1964), second 1966 Sheila Holden; died Los Angeles 18 December 2006.

Joseph Barbera and William Hanna were pioneers of animation who created one of the most beloved cartoon teams, Tom and Jerry. After the cat-and-mouse couple proved a success with critics and public, Hanna and Barbera spent 15 years working for MGM on cartoons featuring the pair, winning seven Oscars and 14 nominations for their splendid output, which for over a decade was unsurpassed for technical skill, beauty of execution and quality of gags.

Later, Hanna and Barbera formed their own company to make television cartoons and occasional feature-length movies. They created The Flintstones, the first prime-time animated series, and their TV movies included Jack and the Beanstalk (1967), which starred Gene Kelly, with whom, while at MGM, they had collaborated on the classic sequence from Anchors Aweigh (1944), in which Kelly teaches Jerry how to dance in a delightful combination of live action and animation.

Joseph Roland Barbera, born in New York City in 1911, was the son of Italian immigrants from Palermo. He attended New York University and the American Institute of Banking with plans to be a banker, and after graduation he joined the Irving Trust Company as an accountant, but found that his hobby of contributing cartoons to magazines gave him much more satisfaction. In 1932 he quit his job to take a position as a draughtsman with the Van Beuren animation studios in the Bronx, having written to Walt Disney, who failed to reply to his request for an interview. "I'm glad he didn't," he said later. "I would probably have become a devoted member of his team and would still be at the Disney studios today."

His flair for producing comedy ideas soon had him promoted to scriptwriter, and in 1937 he joined MGM's story department, where his exceptional skill at sketching ideas was quickly noted. Hanna, who was already at the studio, said, "He has the ability to capture mood and expression in a quick sketch better than anyone I've ever known." Barbera's ability to conceive inventive gags, plus his animation skills, complemented Hanna's flair for timing and story construction, and the pair soon became a team.

They were working under Rudolf Ising, who ran one of MGM's two major cartoon units in the Thirties (the other was run by Hugh Harmon), when the producer Fred Quimby decided in 1939 that he wanted more cartoons than Harmon and Ising could produce, so he recommended that Ising allow the pair to "develop a cartoon". The result was Puss Gets the Boot (1940), which was credited to Ising, who generously admitted that he merely contributed a couple of ideas. "Joe did most of the story sketches, and Hanna most of the direction."

The story of a cat named Jasper who is threatened with eviction by a housekeeper should he break one more thing, a condition a mischievous mouse (not named) takes advantage of by provoking the cat, then threatening to break a glass, forcing the cat to retreat, the animated short was a huge success, winning an Oscar nomination.

Quimby had given the pair their own production unit while they were making the cartoon, approving of their ability to give their characters an aggressive streak in a vein more like the work of Tex Avery than the more genteel products of Harmon and Ising. By the time Puss Gets the Boot was released, Barbera and Hanna had made three more cartoons, Swing Social, Gallopin' Gals (both 1940) and The Goose Goes South (1941), after which they returned to the cat and the mouse for Midnight Snack (1941).

Although they retained the cat's name as Jasper in their first drafts for the cartoon, by the time it was finished they had named the pair Tom and Jerry. Gus Arriola, who worked as a gag man for the team, said:

Barbera came up with about 75 per cent of the gags. He would inspire the rest of us to come up with material, because he was so fast.

Barbera had the legs of his desk extended so that he could work standing up, and, Arriola recalled, I remember seeing long layout sheets hanging over the end of it, because he would be laying out the whole background.

The animator Jack Hannah said, Joe wrote all the stories, made all the sketches, made all the layouts, and Bill Hanna wrote the exposure sheets. Joe could sit with a pencil, and ideas would come off the end of his pencil as quickly as he could move it.

The animator Irven Spence told Leonard Maltin, author of Of Mice and Magic (1980),

Bill and Joe had it all planned out, with Joe's thumbnail sketches and Bill's timing, before the animators ever got it. When they would hand out the work to the animators, they would act out the entire picture, in a very hammy fashion, which seemed exaggerated when they would do it, but it was just right for animation.

Initially, Hanna retained some of the influence of Ising. The animator Michael Lah said, "Hanna loved cutesie stuff . . . Joe was the other way, wild as hell." After making Officer Pooch (1941), which featured a canine policeman, the team were told by Quimby to concentrate on Tom and Jerry and, in December that year, The Night Before Christmas was released, a cartoon in which the Ising influence worked to advantage - it was more sentimental than average (Tom softens when Jerry kisses him under the mistletoe) but proved very effective and won the team a second Oscar nomination.

The five Tom and Jerry cartoons released in 1942 included the stunning Bowling Alley Cat, which not only had great sight gags but some of the most beautiful drawing, with skittles and the images of Tom and Jerry reflected in the polished lanes of the bowling alleys in the type of painstaking animation which is not seen today.

The team's first Oscar came with Yankee Doodle Mouse (1943). The arrival of the legendary Tex Avery at the studio in 1941 had prompted Hanna and Barbera to increase both the pace of their films and the aggression of the gags - in Fine Feathered Friend (1942), Jerry twice nearly cuts Tom's head off with hedge clippers - and the team's output is considered to have been at its peak in the mid-Forties, when story ideas, gags and the animated personalities of the two stars combined to make miniature masterpieces.

Quiet Please (1945) won the team their second Oscar, and the same year they made the lilting Mouse in Manhattan, in which Jerry has an initially elegiac but finally overwhelming adventure amid the glamour of New York. Scott Bradley's musical scoring for the Tom and Jerry films (making felicitous use of the studio's song library) was often lauded, and Mouse in Manhattan made particularly entrancing use of Louis Alter's "Manhattan Serenade". Solid Serenade (1946) included a typical, brutally funny gag when Jerry hits Tom with a custard pie that happens to have an iron in it, flattening the cat's face momentarily.

A third Oscar was awarded for Cat Concerto (1947), one of the team's most fondly remembered works, in which Tom is a hilariously pompous concert pianist whose performance of one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies is sabotaged by Jerry, who had been sleeping inside the piano. Maltin wrote,

The stories were almost entirely the work of Barbera, one of the most creative minds ever to function in the animation field. That one person could develop so many variations on a basic theme is astounding.

Praising Barbera's ability to invest Tom and Jerry with full-bodied personalities, he notes, Tom chasing Jerry is the ritual of the series. But somehow the audience realises that when all is said and done, the cat doesn't want to eat the mouse; it's the thrill of the chase that counts. There is an underlying bond between Tom and Jerry that gives these cartoons tremendous strength and likeability.

Mouse Cleaning (1948), a reworking of Puss Gets the Boot with some new, hilarious gags, won another Oscar for the series, and two more came for Two Mouseketeers (1952) and Johann Mouse (1953). The team had also worked on feature films, starting with their famed collaboration with Gene Kelly for George Sidney's musical Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly performed a brilliantly joyous and innovative dance duet with cartoon Jerry - ironically, though Hanna and Barbera were "house" animators at MGM, Kelly had first requested the services of Disney, who declined.

George Sidney then asked the team to provide an animated opening for his musical, Holiday in Mexico (1945), and later Tom and Jerry swam alongside Esther Williams in Charles Walters's Dangerous When Wet (1953). The team worked with Kelly again when they created a whole segment of his portmanteau movie Invitation to the Dance (made in 1952 but released in 1957). Titled Sinbad the Sailor and danced to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, it was later released on its own as a short feature titled The Magic Lamp.

By the mid-Fifties, budget restrictions caused a distressing reduction in quality. In 1955 MGM put Hanna and Barbera in charge of their own cartoon division, but it closed in 1957 (the last Tom and Jerry cartoon, released that year, was Tot Watchers) and the pair cashed in their MGM pensions in order to start their own company and make cartoons for television.

Their successful creations for that medium were to include The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Huckleberry Hound Show, The Yogi Bear Show (its title character proclaiming that he was "smarter than the average bear") and The Smurfs. The Flintstones, inspired by the popular sitcom The Honeymooners and described as "a modern stone-age family", was a hit show of the 1960 season, with Fred Flintstone's "yabba dabba doo" catchphrase entering the language. Its run of six years was the longest for a primetime cartoon series until The Simpsons.

With Gene Kelly, Barbera and Hanna made a musical version of Jack and the Beanstalk mixing live action and animation, with a tuneful score by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn that included a show-stopper worthy of a Broadway show, "Stiffen Up Your Upper Lip", in which the child dancer Bobby Riha instils courage into a band of mice while joining them in song and dance. The team also made the charming cartoon feature, Charlotte's Web (1973), with songs by the Sherman brothers, plus Debbie Reynolds providing the voice for the spider-heroine, and the less successful Heidi's Song (1982).

Although they won a total of eight Emmy Awards, the team faced criticism for their use of "limited animation", which virtually eliminated visual personality and nuance, lowering standards to meet the constrictions of time and money imposed by television.

In 1991 their studio was sold to Turner Broadcasting and subsequently to Warners, though they remained as advisers. Hanna died in 2001, the year of the last Hanna-Barbera production, Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase. Barbera, who wrote his autobiography, My Life in Toons, in 1994, said, "We understood each other perfectly, and each of us had deep respect for the other's work."

Barbera was still working until a few months ago, and in 2005 contributed to The Karateguard, the first theatrical Tom and Jerry short in more than 45 years.

Tom Vallance

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