HANNA-BARBERA: THE ARCHITECTS OF SATURDAY MORNING
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
Through May 29, 2017.
Remember the playground cartoon wars: Disney or Warner Brothers? It was a false debate, as those weren't the only two choices. "Woody Woodpecker" came from Walter Lantz Studios, Terrytoons cranked out "Mighty Mouse" and Heckle and Jeckle," and the first important TV 'cartoon was "Crusader Rabbit" from Jay Ward (who morphed Crusader and Rags into "Rocky and Bullwinkle"). Back then, I swallowed the duality and fiercely supported the superiority of Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies) and I still insist that Bugs, Daffy, Road Runner, and Tweety kick the collective butts of Mickey, Donald, Goofy and other saccharine Disney offerings.
In truth, though, my childhood was shaped by Hanna-Barbera, as a new exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum reminded me. It's subtitled "The Architects of Saturday Morning" and that's fairly accurate. Classic Disney and Warner Brothers productions were made for movies, not television. "Crusader Rabbit first aired in 1948, but fewer than half of American homes had a television until 1954. In 1956, Hanna-Barbera began airing cartoons aimed at Baby Boomers and ended up fashioning the Saturday morning experience of an entire generation.
Take a close look at the artwork and you'll notice deep similarities between characters such as Yogi, Ranger Smith, George Jetson, Huckleberry Hound, and many others. (Look closely as their jaws, muzzles, noses, five o'clock shadows, and eye alignments.) If it looks as if it might have been akin to assembly line production, you're on the right track. Past animation was the opposite of today's razzle- dazzle visuals that render storylines secondary. The Hanna-Barbera formula was to develop iconic characters and storyboard a compelling narrative, which gave them a witty, clever vibe that's hard to top. They were also sharper and more vivid. Digital technology is more flexible and (perhaps) more realistic, but it's not necessarily better art.
Seeing this exhibit is the most fun you're likely to have in a museum all year. There is also poignancy and sadness on display as well. Warner Brothers absorbed Hanna-Barbera in 2001, and Saturday morning cartoons officially died in 2016, though they had been terminal since the 1990s. The 'toons fell prey to misguided attacks on children's television, unwise content shifts in the cartoon industry, and diminished imagination.
You might recall Peggy Charren and Action for Children's Television. From 1968 on, there were relentless attacks on cartoons that yielded regulations. (Remember how "Road Runner" was deemed too violent?) Some of the new rules were wise (like banning direct advertising aimed at kids), but by 1973, children's programming was pared to just 12 minutes per hour; by 1996, all the networks combined could have no more than 36 hours per week. Must have been all those kids running off of cliffs like Wile E. Coyote! Or was it serious people ruining our world? (I'm gong with the second option.)
Cartoonists also bear some blame for forgetting that animal characters are time-tested; they are fabliaux on a gel cell. Making characters more "realistic" wasn't the best idea. "The Jestons" was beloved, but it was just a family sit-com set in the future. (It was also spawned the derivative "Flintstones," which exchanged the imagine future for a mythical past.) I know loads of Gen Xers loved "Scooby-Doo," but it too flunked the imagination sniff test. And then there was dreck like "Powder Puff Girls," "The Banana Splits," "Teen Titans," and "The Space Kidettes." The more "real" cartoons became, the less interesting they became. Kids watched 'toons because they were unrealistic; not because they wanted to work out anxieties or improve self-esteem.
The final blow came when cartoons ceased trying to be original. Many became cartoon versions of live shows (e.g. "The Partridge Family," "Bewitched"), extended advertisements ("G.I. Joe," "The Transformers"), or baby versions of older cartoons and were so inane they bored toddlers out of their diapers. By the late 1990s, the homogenized Disney worldview was triumphant and the salad days of Saturday morning existed only on cable Cartoon Network and not so much there either. It was fun while it lasted. I'm glad to relive those days, though I'm sad it was in a museum.