BARNEY BEAROriginal Medium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: MGM
First Appeared: 1939
Creator: Rudolf Ising
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MGM Studios was slower than most Hollywood movie companies to get on the animation bandwagon. And even after they did start releasing cartoons on a regular basis, they were slow to develop
a recurring character of their own. For half a decade, they did characters already owned by their directors (mainly Bosko, but also including Count Screwloose of Tooloose, from Milt Gross's newspaper strips), properties licensed from outside (The Captain & the Kids), and scores of "Happy Harmonies" (in imitation of Disney's Silly Symphonies, which only rarely featured continuing characters).
Eventually, they fielded a cartoon about abortive attempts at hibernation, titled The Bear that Couldn't Sleep. It was directed by Rudolf Ising, half of the Harman-Ising pair that had helped found both this cartoon operation and that of Warner Bros., and was released to theatres on June 10, 1939. It introduced Barney Bear, the first of the studio's stars.
Barney was intended for stardom from the beginning. In fact, his second cartoon, The Fishing Bear (also directed by Ising) came out only six months after the first, meaning it must already have been in the production pipeline long before audiences had a chance to respond to the character. When they did have a chance to respond, they must have been fairly lukewarm toward him, because Barney settled into a pattern of one or two cartoons a year, sometimes as many as three, and never really did take off. Maybe that was because he was too amiable a guy — he could show irritation when funny but exasperating things were happening to him, but wasn't capable of the manic temper tantrums of, say, Daffy Duck, another whose major schtick was responding to frustration.
Nonetheless, when Dell Comics licensed the MGM characters for comic books, Barney was among them. Our Gang Comics starred the live-action kid gang that constituted MGM's most bankable property for outside media, but Barney Bear was in its back pages right from the first issue (October, 1942). Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, was the first cartoonist to handle Barney in comics, but his tenure on the feature was brief. With the 11th issue (June, 1944), Barney's series was taken over by Carl Barks (creator of Gyro Gearloose, Uncle Scrooge and other major Donald Duck supporting characters), who wrote and drew the next two dozen stories. It was his largest body of comic book work apart from the Disney Ducks. After Barks left the character, a variety of writers and artists handled him.
In a 1941 cartoon titled The Prospecting Bear, Barney dealt with a small beast of burden who later, under the name Benny Burro, became a minor MGM star in his own right. Tho in cartoons, the two didn't meet again for a dozen years, they became inseparable pals in the comic books. Benny stopped being an every-issue regular some time in the late 1940s, but continued as an occasional supporting character long after that. Meanwhile, a couple of mischievous bear kids named Fuzzy and Wuzzy, who had made a few appearances on their own in other, non-MGM-related Dell comics, were grafted onto Barney's series as his nephews. In 1949, Our Gang Comics was re-titled in favor of Tom & Jerry, who had since become the studio's biggest stars, but Barney remained in the back pages until well into the 1950s.
Back in cartoons, Barney continued appearing regularly but not very frequently. In at least some of his appearances, his voice was done by Billy Bletcher (Paw Bear, The Big Bad Wolf). After Ising left MGM, the series was taken over by director George Gordon, who had earlier worked at Terrytoons. Gordon left the studio in 1945, after which the series was suspended until 1949. A few Barney Bear cartoons were made that year and the next, directed by Michael Lah (later Tex Avery's assistant) and Preston Blair (the animator best known for the female lead in Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood).
The series was resumed in 1952 under the supervision of Dick Lundy, who had lately been directing Andy Panda cartoons at Walter Lantz's studio. In this set of cartoons, Barney's voice was done by Paul Frees, whose other credits range from Dinky Duck to Ludwig von Drake. It was Lundy, by the way, who in 1953 directed Half-pint Palomino, the second and final meeting between Barney and Benny outside of the comic books. When Lundy left MGM, Barney's cartoons were dropped for good. The last one was Bird-Brain Bird Dog, released July 30, 1954. Altogether, 26 were made.
In the late 1970s, Spire Christian Comics published a series about a character named Barney Bear, but he wasn't related to this one. The last time the original Barney Bear was seen (other than endless TV reruns, of course) was in the early 1990s, when Harvey Comics briefly licensed the MGM characters and ran a few scattered reprints of his early stories. By then, the readers weren't much interested in Barney for his own sake — if they bought the comics at all, it was because the stories reprinted were by Carl Barks.