Playing cat and mouse: The wacky world of Hanna-Barbera

He was one half of an animation partnership that entranced the world for 70 years. As tributes pour in for Joseph Barbera, who has died aged 95, Andrew Gumbel examines his enduring legacy
Click to follow

A cat. A mouse. A never-ending chase, in which the predator never quite manages to capture his prey. As a premise for a cartoon, it could not be more basic. Indeed, when Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera first pitched the germ of the idea that was to become Tom and Jerry, they were told it was a cliché that had been done to death.

Sometimes, though, the best ideas are the simplest. Hanna came up with the basic storylines and paid close attention to timing and structure. Barbera, meanwhile, was the artist who gave the characters shape and thought up the crazy scrapes they got themselves into - tearing through kitchen appliances, ripping up the hammers in the innards of a piano, coming to grief with garden rakes and playing with fire, literally, by lighting sticks of dynamite.

Whole generations of children have come of age watching Tom and Jerry on Saturday mornings. As they have enjoying Hanna-Barbera's other creations: The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Scooby Doo and many others. The formulas have never got old because they tap into some of the most fundamental wellsprings of story-telling: Tom will never catch Jerry, just like Sisyphus will never get his rock to the top of the hill.

Some kind of era has nevertheless come to a close now that Barbera has died at the grand old age of 95. He is the second of the pair to go - Hanna died in 2001 - but managed to stay active right until the end. Just last year, he wrote, co-storyboarded, co-directed and co-produced a new Tom and Jerry short called The Karateguard. Colleagues at Warner Brothers, announcing his passing, said that he was reporting to the office as recently as a few weeks ago.

The celebrated Warner Brothers partnership - providers of a seemingly insatiable appetite for animated entertainment since the mid-1960s - actually started out as an MGM cartoon outfit, producing shorts designed not for television but as previews for the main attraction at cinemas and drive-ins.

Barbera, who came from modest roots in New York's Little Italy, met Hanna on the MGM lot in the late 1930s and quickly developed a temperamental bond with him. Their first cat-and-mouse film, released in 1940, was called Puss Gets The Boot and featured many of Tom and Jerry's signature elements. The cat is instructed by the housemaid to catch a mouse, but is warned that under no circumstances must he break anything or he will be tossed outside. The mouse, naturally, relishes in this admonition and proceeds to rip the place to pieces as he evades capture.

The film earned the pair an Oscar nomination, although a few of the fine details still had to be worked out. The cat at that stage was called Jasper and the mouse had no name. It was Hanna-Barbera's next short, The Midnight Snack, which gave their heroes the names the world now knows them by.

At their height, the pair turned out a Tom and Jerry short every six weeks. Hanna once explained: "Joe would draw the storyboard and plot the actions. I would do the timing and go over the scenes with the animators." Hanna, in other words, was the more practical of the two. Barbera was the artist, who could, as Hanna once put it, "capture mood and expression in a quick sketch better than anyone I've ever known".

Curiously, the pair had little to do with each other outside the office. "We never mix socially," Barbera once said. "It isn't deliberate; it just happened that way. Bill likes the great outdoors - he goes fishing, boating and on camping trips with sleeping bags. I hate boating, I hate fishing, I hate camping. While Bill is up north at his ranch, I go to Palm Springs."

Tom and Jerry First Aired 1940

Synopsis: Tom, a persevering predator, is routinely thwarted in his attempts to catch his wily neighbour Jerry. The duo earned their creators seven Academy Awards.

Trivia: It developed from a short animation made in 1937 called Puss Gets the Boot.

Catchphrase: Tom and Jerry rarely talked, but Tom was known to warble love songs.

Huckleberry Hound First Aired 1958

Synopsis: Probably the series that made Hanna-Barbera household names. The show draws on the adventures of Huck, a sweet blue jack-of-all trades dawg with a southern drawl and a penchant for bad karaoke. In a supporting segment of the show, Yogi Bear and his sidekick BooBoo compete against Pixie and Dixie the mice to outwit Mr Jinks the cat.

Trivia: An episode of The Simpsons parodies Huckleberry Hound. Huck admits: "I was gay... but I couldn't tell anyone."

Catchphrase:"I hate mieces to pieces!"

The Flintstones First Aired 1960

Synopsis: Meet the Flintstones. Betty, Barney, Fred, Wilma et al dodge dinosaurs, pig out on T-rex steak, use woolly mammoths as Hoovers, watch Carey Granite and Alvin Brickrock movies and generally have a good old time in the Stone Age town of Bedrock.

Trivia: The popular series was responsible for a number of American firsts. It was the first cartoon shown on prime-time TV, plus the first show of any sort to show two people of the opposite sex sleeping together in one bed.

Catchphrase: "Yabba dabba doo!"

Yogi Bear First Aired 1961

Synopsis: Goofy kleptomaniac Yogi goes looking to steal "pic-a-nic baskets" from unsuspecting visitors to Jellystone National Park with his partner Boo Boo. The park warden Ranger Smith tries to stop them but is thwarted by an incompetence rivalled only by Yogi's.

Trivia: Yogi began life in 1958 as a lowly extra on Huckleberry Hound before getting his own show.

Catchphrase: "I'm smarter than the average bear!"

Top Cat First Aired 1961

Synopsis: Top Cat (or TC to friends who have earned his respect) is the hippest cat in town and lives in a waste bin in a run-down part of town with his gangland buddies. Officer Dibble spends most of his day trying to evict them.

Trivia: When the show first aired in the UK, its name was changed to Boss Cat because Top Cat was the name of a popular cat food.

Catchphrase: "Top Cat. The most effec-tu-al Top Cat. Whose intellectual close friends get to call him TC."

The Jetsons First Aired 1962

Synopsis: While the Flintstones inhabit a world of machines powered by birds and dinosaurs, George and Jane Jetson and their family live in the year 2062, in a future of elaborate robotic contraptions, aliens and useless contraptions. The series also contained explicit puns and futuristic twists.

Trivia: The 1987 telefilm, The Jetsons meet the Flintstones, was the first meeting of Hanna-Barbera characters. Others followed.

Catchphrase: "Jane, stop this crazy thing!"

Wacky Races First Aired 1968

Synopsis: A motley collection of eccentric petrol heads compete for the title of "World's Wackiest Racer" by driving a ludicrous assortment of mechanically improbable cars. The show's two villains, Dick Dastardly and his canine sidekick Muttley, spend the entire race hatching plans to foil the other contenders only for them to backfire on them spectacularly.

Trivia: Hanna and Barbera were inspired by Blake Edwards' 1965 film, The Great Race, a slapstick comedy starring Tony Curtis.

Catchphrase: "Drat, drat and double drat!"

Scooby-Doo First Aired 1969

Synopsis: An easily frightened great dane with a bad case of the munchies goes ghost-hunting with four pals in their psychedelic camper van, the Mystery Machine. After numerous close shaves with the ghost and a smattering of investigation, the spectre is uncovered as nothing more than an evil-minded man in a mask. Trivia: Airing for 17 years every Saturday morning, Scooby became America's longest-running animated series on television. Catchphrase: "I would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for you pesky kids!"

Hong Kong Phooey First Aired 1974

Synopsis: Bumbling police janitor Penrod Pooch spends his day cleaning until he hears of a crime in progress and changes into his alter ego, the kung fu master, Hong Kong Phooey.

Trivia: Although released in the martial arts-obsessed era of the 1970s, Hong Kong Phooey only ran for 16 episodes.

Catchphrase: "Hong Kong Phooey, number one super guy. Hong Kong Phooey, quicker than the human eye."

The Smurfs First Aired 1981

Synopsis: Far away, in a land of tall trees and mushroom-shaped houses live the Smurfs, creation of the Belgian cartoonist Peyo. Hanna-Barbera brought the creatures to NBC in 1981.

Trivia: With their identical outfits and wholesome values, some communist theorists say Smurf might stand for Socialist Men Under Red Father.

Catchphrase: Any word can be replaced with "smurf". So, "I went out and bought a newspaper" becomes "I went out and smurfed a smurf".

Jerome Taylor and Kate Thomas