Joseph Barbera, the man who helped create some of the world’s best-loved cartoon characters including Tom and Jerry, Fred Flinstone and Yogi Bear, died on December 18, aged 95. Barbera, who, with William Hanna, formed the legendary Hanna-Barbera animation company that became synonymous with cartoons throughout the 20th century, passed away at his home in Los Angeles.
That terse news item appeared a month ago but, in stark black and white, brought on a flood of colourful memories for me: memories of an eight year-old boy in a darkened cinema hall, his eyes wide with anticipation. Back then, in the 1950s, movie going was a total experience. Even if the movie itself was terrible, you came away only half disappointed. There were pre-intermission delights in store; before the main feature came on. There was the mandatory newsreel (boring), the one-reel Laurel and Hardy short (hilarious) and, best of all, the cartoon (escapist heaven). If it was a MGM movie – which most were, especially those glorious musicals – the cartoon was Tom and Jerry; the crème de la crème.
The plots were hardly innovative: they always involved Tom chasing Jerry; through the house, the back yard, across the street. Tom usually ended up getting clobbered – and we’re talking about major clobbering here. Often, he would get literally smashed into pieces; and miraculously become whole again a minute later. It was violence of a sort, sure, but so wildly over the top that no kid would take it seriously or try to imitate it. Then there was Jerry, almost getting caught every time, but never quite – and making the big tomcat look like a complete ass. He was undoubtedly the smart one; and held out hope for little guys everywhere.
The cartoon, in those days, was truly an art form. First the setting; picture perfect and a riot of colours: the house with the red-tiled roof and chimney; and the impossibly green lawn, bordered by the Tide-white picket fence. And the main characters; beautifully drawn, softly rounded and moving with a fluid grace: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester; names many of us old timers will take to our graves. And they were universal. It did not matter which country you lived in, or even if you understood English. That kind of mindless mayhem made vocabulary redundant.
Compare that with the sharp, sometimes cruel figures and jerky movements of this generation’s action heroes; and you’ll see what I mean. In a way, Tom and the gang were a reflection of the times in which they were produced; pre-X box and pre-I pod; a laid back, more elegant era, where people had to make their own entertainment and were the richer for it.