You could journey to the farthest reaches of outer space or go forwards or backwards in time; travel in race cars, spaceships, magic carpets or World War 1 biplanes; control giant robots or wear magic rings; go on tour with rock bands or solve mysteries, and all from the comfort of your home.
I’m speaking, of course, of children’s animation. Cartoons.
These days, entire channels are devoted to cartoons, whether from the glory days of Saturday morning or afterschool or newer, more modern material. One can call up one’s favorites on demand from video websites like YouTube and Vimeo, or buy box sets of them on DVD or Blu-ray. This is all well and good, but someone born in the last thirty years or so will never truly understand what Saturday morning meant to those of us who looked forward to it every week.
I’ve wanted to share my memories of Saturday morning in more detail for awhile, as well as show some respect to the people responsible for creating these characters or adapting them for animation. Now seems like a very good time. My focus will be on the creators, but I’ll also discuss their creations, naturally—and afterschool cartoons will be included in the mix where appropriate.
I will not discuss The Mouse and his friends. There is a mountain of information already out there about The Big D, its history, its role in shaping American pop culture (though these days, they buy it from other people and absorb it into their ravenous maw more than they add to it), and certainly plenty of fan tributes. I feel absolutely no need to pay any more homage. At least not now.
So let’s start instead with the company that, in many ways, is synonymous with Saturday morning for a generation of kids.
Louis B. Mayer started a new animation division with a mandate to create new cartoon characters.
Hanna joined forces with Barbera to create the characters who would become Tom & Jerry, the perpetually feuding cat and mouse team. I’ve blogged about them before.
T&J would go on to win seven Oscars, which went to division head and producer Fred Quimby. When he retired in 1955, Hanna and Barbera took over the division, but two years later, MGM shut it down, content to re-release its backlog of animated shorts due to the encroachment of television.
TV gave the team an opportunity to try out new ideas, so they teamed with director George Sidney and Columbia Pictures, under their TV subsidiary Screen Gems, and H-B Enterprises was born. Here’s a more detailed history of the duo.
Someone had to figure out how a car would work on that show. The design isn’t perfect (how does Fred make turns?), but within the context of the show, you buy it. All those domesticated animals that serve as a vacuum cleaner or a record player or a dishwasher are cute and the way they function as appliances and machines make a logical kind of sense. Don’t know how TVs or radios work without electricity, but again, in the context of the show, it’s not hard to accept a little suspension of disbelief in places because in the broader strokes, Bedrock feels convincing as a place.
I remember watching the show when Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm became teenagers. I think I preferred them that way at the time. They were in a band, because every animated teen was either in a band or solved mysteries back then—or both—and they just seemed cooler that way.
I could do without the Addams Family-like neighbors, the team-ups with the teenage Thing (who thought that was a good idea?), or the Flintstones cast as little kids. As for the Great Gazoo, well, in my defense, I was a kid and I had no problem accepting a little green Mr. Mxyzpltk clone as a supporting character because he was an alien and aliens were cool.
One HB show I really dug was Laff-a-Lympics. I liked seeing so many HB comedy characters on one show competing against each other. This was around the time Battle of the Network Stars was a thing too. Laff-a-Lympics was almost like the animated equivalent.
Magilla Gorilla and Hong Kong Phooey were fun. I watched Jabberjaw too; not sure why. Maybe because he was in a band too. I was willing to put up with Godzookee to watch Godzilla. I’m not sure what the appeal of the Shmoo was, but I watched him, both solo and with Fred and Barney.
The show gets mocked for its over-the-top kid-friendliness, its non-violence, its political correctness and its lame teen sidekicks, and justifiably so. (Here’s an excellent example.) I can’t defend any of it and won’t try; I’m pretty sure even back then, I thought it felt pandering and watered down, and there were much better options for animated superheroes on at the time. The original HB heroes, like Space Ghost and The Herculoids, even non-powered adventurers like Jonny Quest, preceded the reform period and they come across as more violent by comparison and thus, cooler.
Time, though, has had its way with the Superfriends and now it’s possible to watch it with an ironic eye and chuckle at how lame it is. I don’t, though. I have no nostalgia for it and would be unable to watch it sans irony. Thank Zod for Bruce Timm and Paul Dini...but we’ll talk about them in another post.
Hated Smurfette. Hated her voice, her attitude, her general uselessness as a character. I didn’t object to a female Smurf, just a bad one. (I grew out of the show by the time Sassette came along.)
What was it about them? To hazard a guess: their overload of cute; their individuality, like the Seven Dwarfs; their look. They just came along at the right time. If only I had known back then it was based on a comic book...
I had some weird tastes in the 80s: Kwicky Koala, Shirt Tales, The Dukes (the animated version of The Dukes of Hazard). I watched Pac-Man, of course, because I was all about video games back then. That might been it for HB toons. HB also made direct-to-video and theatrical films, such as Charlotte’s Web, and I’ve talked about that.
Ted Turner bought HB in 1991 and when he started up the Cartoon Network, HB characters were featured prominently. A decade later, HB became part of Warner Bros. and now they’re talking about making a cinematic shared universe, beginning with the Scooby-Doo relaunch Scoob!, because that’s the hot thing now. Recently DC Comics had a line of HB comic books, including team-ups with DC heroes because why not.
The HB characters, in general, are terrific, and they continue to have staying power.