By Larry Teren
Enjoying cartoons is one of those things a person never outgrows, right? It must be- Matt Groenig’s The Simpsons has been around for more than twenty seasons of new-run episodes and still going strong. The 1930’s and 40’s have Walt Disney, Max Fleischer and Leon Schlesinger. The 1950s and 60s have Hanna Barbera. I and most baby boomers will take that ex-MGM animation team, Hanna Barbera, thank you.
Cartoon television came into its own in the late 1950’s and early 60’s with classic half hour comedy shows from Hanna Barbera such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Flintstones, Mr. Magoo and Rocky and Bullwinkle show. We boomers looked forward to a daily barrage of funny adult sitcom stories wrapped in animated characters.
Drive-in theaters were popular in the 1950’s. Dad and Ma took my older sister and me to see Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty at the Sunset Drive-in Theater in Skokie off of McCormick Boulevard. This was a special effort considering we lived more than ten miles away on the West Side of Chicago. It was quite weird for a seven or eight year old to sit outside of a building in a car watching a film on a gigantic screen. Even more wondrous was that it was a movie geared for me and sis and not our parents. We were indeed in awe of Disney Studio artists. But at the same time there was a dark side to the fabled story with an evil witch who wants to keep Sleeping Beauty comatose forever. This underlying theme had me fearful of full-length cartoon movies for a while.
The notion that cartoons told dark tales was reinforced with what seemed the annual showing on television the day after Thanksgiving of Fleischer’s 1939 re-telling of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As the story went, Gulliver met up with little people determined to go to war and kill each other. Even though the characters were drawn as cute little figures I felt as if I was watching an adult drama.
Fleischer’s Popeye shorts were heroic but the story lines were thin. It usually involved Bluto the bully beating up the sailor to a pulp and then Popeye venting his revenge with the aid of spinach. It was morality tales that did not hit the mark, at least for me- to this day I do not eat that green stuff.
Schlesinger’s Looney Tunes characters such as Bugs Bunny, Sylvester and Tweetie Pie, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and others were a step in the right direction for my affection. It was pure hijinks combined with parody- making fun of social convention. But, the plot lines belonged to an earlier generation of lifestyle.
With a full day’s schedule of television fare in place by the late 1950’s, broadcast company directors recognized the power of appealing to children. Baby Boomers were the offspring of couples getting married mostly after World War Two. Just as television commercials hooked our parents on buying cars, home appliances as well as Tony Home Permanents for the wife, shows were needed that would sell toy products, candy and fun food to kids.
Children didn’t understand the real world that well so cartoons suspended reality. The stories had little dramatic content but mostly humorous instead to avoid scaring us from watching a second time. Hanna Barbera came to the rescue in 1957 with The Reddy Show. Its popularity led to breakout success with Huckleberry Hound a year later, a half hour of cartoons in the very early evening. The ‘star’, Huckleberry Hound, shared episodic segments with Yogi Bear. Yogi Bear became so popular that he had his own show not too long after.
Who can forget Huckleberry Hound and his forlorn singing of “Oh My Darlin’ Oh My Darlin’, Oh My Darlin Clementine!” where the last word was so off-key that household pet dogs watching the show would bark in dismay. Soon, some of the lead characters on various other Hanna Barbera shows took on the persona of famous real-life actors. On The Flinstones, Fred sounded much like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, his wife Wilma like Audrey Meadow’s voicing of Alice Kramden and neighbor Barney Rubble very much with the mannerisms of Art Carney’s Ed Norton. Then there was Hokey Wolf a copy of Phil Silver’s Bilko, Top Cat being voiced by Arnold Stang and Tennesse Tuxedo by Don Adams (“Oh, Chumley”).
In other words, cartoons in the Baby Boomer era were meant for fun while emulating the type of shows our parents watched. Today, all the creativity seems to come out of Asia and the plots are about ninja warriors fighting for the safety of the world.
There was one popular cartoon character from the 1960’s that did not hail from Hanna Barbera. Mr. Magoo, a near-sighted (if that) elderly gentleman, was at peace with himself if not the world. Each week he would bump into new situations that held him clueless and were at odds with his destination of intent. The plots were quaint and cute.
Jim Backus voiced Magoo before he became famous as Mr. Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. Later his fame was renewed doing commercials for a soft drink in which the popular tag line was, “Canfields For Everyone!”. It had that distinct Magoo sound and at the time I wondered if Backus was doing himself shilling pop or as Magoo doing so. I guess at that point it no longer mattered in his career.
Despite Backus’ brush with fame, he lived the last few years afraid to be seen in public due to suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. He was not the only actor to be trapped in a cartoon voice.
The truest melding of character and voice for a cartoon had to be Wally Cox’s portrayal of Underdog. Wally always seemed to play the 90lb weakling in his television and movie roles, an apt description for his cartoon persona. Underdog, however, always eventually succeeded in doing the heroic thing by becoming for a short period Superman-like.
Cox was unhappy with typecasting despite the income he earned from those opportunities. In real life, he was quite the strong handyman who rode a motorcycle. It did not help him, though, from dying young at 49.
As for Fred Flinstone, most people are aware that he was voiced by Alan Reed. What they do not know is that Reed also played Pancho Villa in the 1952 movie Viva Zapata! starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn while directed by the legendary and troublesome Elia Kazan. Talk about a range of acting skills!
Daws Butler voiced Huckleberry hound for 30 years until 1988. He had to be very careful not to make his voice too familiar to the audience as he did several other notable cartoon characters such as
Augie Doggie, Cap’n Crunch, the early Barney Rubble (replaced by the legendary Mel Blanc) and Baba Looey, Quick Draw McGraw’s faithful sidekick. Oh, did I mention that he was also Yogi Bear?
When I flip the remote control through television channels nowadays and notice the 21st century version of cartoons, I think back to Rocky the Flying Squirrel’s famous line, “sorry, wrong hat. Let me try again.”