William Hanna


Animator William Hanna, who died on March 22nd aged 90, and his lifelong partner Joe Barbera wrote, directed and produced more than 200 Tom and Jerry cartoon shorts, and won seven Oscars and even more Emmys from a battered building on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot.

They also created Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo and a myriad of other mouth-moving, headnodding characters. William Hanna's understanding of comic tempo, and his ability to marshal top artistic talents into an efficient working unit, were perfect complements for Barbera's draughtsmanship, strong story sense and comic inventiveness. The two men are also regarded as the masterminds who forever changed the world of cartoons for the small screen with the development of less costly animation techniques.

William Hanna was born in Melrose, New Mexico, the only boy in a family of seven children. In 1929, he went to Compaton Junior College to study journalism, after his father, William, a sewage construction superintendent, and the family moved to Oregon. After losing his job during the Depression, his father went to Hollywood to help build the Pantages Theatre. There William Hanna heard that Leon Schlesinger, an independent producer who ran Pacific Art and Title, was opening an animation studio making short cartoons with music tracks. William Hanna, whose hobby was music, rushed to see the producer. He promptly joined the staff as storyman and inbetweener - filling in the cel transparencies between the animators' poses - as well as advising and devising, a timing system for synchronising the music and sound effects.

His first director's credit appeared in 1934 on a silly symphony-style short called To Spring. Three years later, Warner sacked the two department heads, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, but, within a year, they were installed with William Hanna as the new cartoon production department of MGM. It was there that William Hanna met Barbera.

The first MGM cartoons were no great success, despite the fact that they were animated versions of such newspaper comicstrip heroes as the Captain and the Kids. Economy may have been a factor, as the studio released them in sepiatone instead of full Technicolor, the standard for virtually all cartoon films. What A Lion and Blue Monday were two of the series the pair worked on. Then came their first original epic, Puss Gets The Boot (1940), starring a cat and a mouse.

Although the heroes were unnamed, they were clearly the model for Tom and Jerry. The names came when the studio, egged on by letters pressing for more cat-and-mouse fun, held an internal competition. Another reason for making more was a totally unexpected nomination for that year's Academy award.

The new partnership was soon ranked second only to Walt Disney in its field. MGM, realising the international popularity of Tom and Jerry, began to insert them into starry musicals. First came Anchors Aweigh (1945), when Gene Kelly danced with Jerry. Then came the title sequence for Holiday In Mexico (1946), followed by a brilliant underwater escapade with Esther Williams for Dangerous When Wet (1953), and, again with Kelly, Invitation To The Dance (1954).

In 1943, Yankee Doodle Mouse, a war-time adventure for Tom and Jerry, won William Hanna and Barbera their first Academy award. Six more would follow, but in the wake of success came shock; in 1956, after executive producer Fred Quimby retired, MGM shut down its animation studio.

William Hanna and Barbera promptly made a bid for the burgeoning television market. There was one major snag: the cost. Their Tom and Jerry films came out at $35,000 apiece for each seven-minute film. For one five-minute film, the TV distributor, Screen Gems, offered $2,700 - so William Hanna devised a system of limited animation, with two new characters, a pair of dogs called Ruff and Reddy.

Unlike Tom and Jerry, the dogs talked, which meant easy animation involving moving mouths and nodding heads. Voiced by radio comedians Daws Butler and Don Messick, the first Ruff and Reddy cartoon, Planet Pirates, was premiered by NBC in 1957. Designed to make fun of popular science-fiction films, it was an immediate success, and NBC signed the new company, Hanna-Barbera Productions, for five years.

For both men, this was the start of an incredible new career, but it also heralded the downfall of animation as an art. One only has to contrast the clips from their MGM days to show the boring awfulness of their more recent productions.