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(From fps magazine, 1997)

A Cast of Friends
By Bill Hanna with Tom Ito
Taylor Publishing, $22.95

Review by Harry McCracken

Like any right-thinking cartoon fan, I revere the Tom and Jerry cartoons that Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera made at MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. I'm also mildly fond of the Hanna-Barbera studio's earliest TV animation, from Ruff and Reddy through The Jetsons and Top Cat. My reaction to almost all the stuff H-B did from then on ranges from mild distaste to downright revulsion, and - come to think of it - I'm nearly completely oblivious to what the studio, recently folded into Warner Bros. Animation, is up to today.

Those feelings mirror those of many (though certainly not all) animation buffs, and they can't help but influence my response to A Cast of Friends, the autobiography of Bill Hanna. Just as with My Life in Toons, Joe Barbera's 1994 autobiography, I finished the book feeling a little depressed. The story of Hanna and Barbera's partnership is the story of the rise and fall of American animation.

Which is not to say that these two books are identical. Whereas Barbera's autobiography seemed to be the work of a prickly personality, Hanna comes off as a nice guy and a bit of a Boy Scout - literally so, since he's a lifelong Scouting enthusiast who still attends reunions of his boyhood Pack. While Barbera spent a lot of time outside of the office hobnobbing with celebrities, writing plays, and searching for the perfect Rob Roy, Hanna is a self-admitted homebody who spent happy weekends working on carpentry projects with his daughter.

When it comes down to discussing their professional lives, which have been intertwined since the late 1930s, the books cover the same ground, but from two distinctly different perspectives. Barbera's section on the MGM days is certainly livelier, with better anecdotes. Hanna mentions a few of the important MGM artists by name and briefly describes them, but there are none of the vivid character portraits that you find in Shamus Culhane's Talking Animals and Other People or Jack Kinney's Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters.

Hanna's most engaging anecdote: since producer Fred Quimby used to collect and keep the numerous Oscars that the Tom and Jerry unit won, Bill, Joe, and their crew had to sneak into Quimby's office to get a photograph of themselves with their awards. His most mystifying comment: "Hugh Harman passed away at an early age, and I felt a tremendous sadness upon hearing of his death." I don't doubt the sincerity of Hanna's morning, but his definition of an early death is unusual, considering that Harman was pushing eighty when he died in 1982.

Once the Hanna-Barbera studio gets rolling, the books grow more similar - and both focus more on business matters, such as the process of selling an animated series to a network, than artistic ones. That's understandable, I guess, since there's just not much you can say about the art of The Smurfs or Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch. A Cast of Friends doesn't provide much of a sense of how Hanna feels about moving from producing a few beautifully-crafted theatrical shorts a year to hundreds of hours of mass-produced, cookie-cutter TV cartoons every season. (Hanna does say that he's proud of his television work and that full, MGM-style cartooning wouldn't have worked on the small screen - that will come as news to the countless kids and grown-ups who have enjoyed Tom and Jerry reruns for forty years.)

There's also not that much to say about the Hanna-Barbera team despite its incredible longevity. Both men's books readily admit that the association has been congenial but not especially personal. Bill and Joe have never socialized with each other outside the studio, and each one's book describes the other in terms that suggest respect more than deep affection. Neither memoir has any juicy revelations about what is probably the most famous partnership in animation history; maybe there <aren't> any.

Is any Hanna-Barbera book doomed to be boring? Not at all. I can imagine an H-B book that I'd find utterly fascinating. It would begin by delving deeper into the duo's MGM days than either A Cast of Friends or My Life in Toons does; the Tom and Jerry unit remains less well-documented than Disney, Warner Bros., or even the unit of Bill and Joe's MGM stablemate Tex Avery. (Patrick Brion's book Tom and Jerry is an essential work of cartoon scholarship, but it deals more with the films themselves than behind-the-scenes matters.)

My dream book would also treat H-B's TV work with unflinching honesty. Surely even Bill and Joe realize that, say, Scooby-Doo, although profitable and popular, pales in the shadow of Tom and Jerry masterpieces like The Cat Concerto or Fraidy Cat. Or maybe they don't - A Cast of Friends provides no evidence that Hanna really does. And that's the saddest commentary I can imagine on the book and the career it remembers.