The Tom and Jerry Zone
The MGM animation unit had been founded in 1934 when the company contracted a pair of former Disney animators, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, to make shorts for them that would match the cartoon output of the other major studios. The company started out with a series of unremarkable shorts under the umbrella title Happy Harmonies, clearly mimicking Disney's popular Silly Symphonies strand.
The early films were simple one-offs and even the first of MGM's animated characters - the mouse Little Buck Cheezer, a pair of cute puppies - were undistinguished and they were costing more money than MGM had originally accounted for. Determined to make a mark on the popular cartoon market, MGM decided to set up their own in-house production unit and called in producer Fred Quimby, a man with no track record in cartoon production, who was famously said to have had no sense of humour and who has long believed to have got the job as a reward for many years sterling service with MGM.
Quimby worked hard to turn the MGM animation unit into something viable, even briefly tempting master cartoonist Friz Freleng away from Warner Brothers. But nothing Quimby did seemed to hit the mark - the films being made at MGM were still uninspired and forgettable, and in desperation he was forced to turn to the men he had replaced, Harman and Ising, for help. The breakthrough for the company came with the Christmas short Peace on Earth (1939), helmed by Harman and by far and away the best cartoon short that MGM had produced to that date.
But the something special that Quimby had been looking for came not from Hugh Harman but from a separate unit working under the direction of Rudolf Ising. Although it was credited on screen solely to Ising, Puss Gets the Boot (1940) was actually the work of two recent arrivals at the MGM studio, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The short film pitted a cat named Jasper against a mischievous and clever mouse named Jerry and MGM's much longed-for cartoon superstars were born - after a quick name change the warring duo became Tom and Jerry.
Puss Gets the Boot set the tone and pace for much of what was to come in later films. The mostly unseen black housewife (later dubbed Mammy Two Shoes and the subject of much politically correct uproar in the 60s and 70s) pits the dim-witted and fiery tempered "Tom" against the far smarter and much more likeable Jerry - and chaos ensues.
Whatever his other qualities might have been, far-sightedness seems not to have figured large in Quimby's make up as he failed to see anything special in what Hanna and Barbera had done. To be fair, Puss Gets the Boot is a far cry from the full throttle, all-out mayhem of later films but there's still something very different about it, putting it head and shoulders above the far safer, more saccharine product being churned out elsewhere in the unit.
But the public proved him wrong - Puss Gets the Boot was a smash hit with the cartoon-loving public, theatre owners holding the short over for weeks. Eventually, it was even nominated for an Academy Award. Quimby changed his mind - the cat-and-mouse shenanigans were, it seemed, just what MGM were looking for. The follow-up film, The Midnight Snack, saw the cat renamed Tom and bagged the studio another Oscar nomination.
The teaming of Hanna and Barbera was inspired - the two men clicked immediately and brought out the best in each other, Barbera proving himself an adept gag writer, with Hanna found that direction was his forte. The teaming went on to become one of the most important teams in animation history, not only steering Tom and Jerry through their finest years but also creating some of the best-loved Saturday morning TV animations ever.
Another important regular member of the Tom and Jerry family was composer Scott Bradley whose contributions to the virtually dialogue-free shorts cannot be under-stated. It has been suggested that Bradley's famous Tom and Jerry theme is one of the most widely heard and instantly recognised tunes ever composed - and that's probably no exaggeration. Bradley stayed with the MGM animation unit for the next twenty years and was responsible for the rich, expressive scores to the Tom and Jerry shorts throughout their glory years.
By the mid-40s, the classic Tom and Jerry production team was in place, with a core of four animators sharing the duties among them - Irven Spence, Ray Patterson, Kenneth Muse and Ed Barge are all as responsible as Hanna and Barbera for the look of the classic period Tom and Jerry cartoons, refining the look of the characters as they tightened the pace and refined the subtleties that Barbera was bringing to the characterizations. Tom and Jerry were rapidly becoming the most expressive of cartoon characters, much of the comedy stemming from Tom's bewildered reactions to the ignominious treatment he receives from Jerry.
In 1943, Tom and Jerry picked up their first Academy Award for Yankee Doodle Mouse, the first of seven Oscars that the series would eventually bag over the next decade, putting even Disney in the shade. In 1944, the characters guested opposite screen legend Gene Kelly in a remarkable sequence in Anchors Aweigh in which the song-and-dance man cavorted with the animated stars in a stunningly choreographed dance sequence. Director George Sidney was so impressed by the results that he called in the Hanna-Barbera team again to do a similar scene (without Tom and Jerry) for the opening of Holiday in Mexico (1946). The cartoon stars also turned up opposite Esther Williams in the extravaganza Dangerous When Wet (1953).
During the 1950s, Hanna and Barbera decided to start introducing supporting characters to the Tom and Jerry series to prevent the formula from growing stale. A cute little mouse, Nibbles, debuted in The Milky Waif (1946) and would later appear in a series of cartoons as Jerry's Mouseketeer sidekick. Next up came the duck that appeared in Southbound Duckling (1955) and who would become something of a regular in Hanna-Barbera's work, even cropping up in one of their TV shows under the name Yakky Doodle. But the best loved of the newcomers were Spike and Tyke, a tough bulldog and his aggressive son who first appeared in Barbecue Brawl (1956) and would continue to make trouble for Tom for years to come.
But by now, the golden age of Tom and Jerry had passed - like all the major cartoon studios, MGM were starting to count the pennies and Hanna and Barbera were forced to cut corners, even producing clip shows that made plentiful use of footage from earlier cartoons. Quimby also clamped down on the often excessive running times that the team had been allowed to get away with for so long - most cartoons rarely ventured much past the seven minutes mark, but the Tom and Jerry shorts had frequently made it to eight or even nine minutes in length. As part of the new cost-consciousness, Quimby now demanded that all future cartoons run a strict seven minutes and no more. That said, the studio was still willing to push the envelope when it felt it necessary to do so and started making its shorts in CinemaScope, an added expense but one that they felt was justified by the audiences' reactions.
With costs being cut and the need for cleaner lines demanded by the larger CinemaScope screen, Tom and Jerry cartoons started to lose some of the rich detail and texturing that had made the earlier films stand out. Simpler backgrounds came in and the lead characters underwent a series of subtle stylistic revisions.
By 1956, the end was in sight. After 18 years at the helm, Fred Quimby had retired in 1955 and although it's often been claimed that his departure had no effect on the Tom and Jerry films, Hanna and Barbera clearly felt his absence. Their final batch of films in the mid-50s represented some of the best of their career but also some of the worst, showing the first signs of what was to come. In some of these films they even did the unthinkable and cast Tom and Jerry not as mortal enemies willing to lay into each other with whichever improvised weapon came to hand, but as... friends?!
The Hanna-Barbera era with the feeble Tot Watchers on 1 August 1958 by which time the MGM animation unit had been shut down. In Spring 1957, the studio decided to end its cartoon production in the face of spiralling costs and increased competition from television. Hanna and Barbera jumped ship and signed on with the "enemy", creating their hugely successful and lucrative TV animation house, though their first efforts were rejected by their former production executive at MGM, Eddie Mannix, who felt that there was no future in small screen animation!
The MGM animation unit may have been dead but public demand for Tom and Jerry refused to go away. Right across the board, the major studios were starting to take a renewed interest in animation in the early 60s, thanks ironically the success of Hanna-Barbera's work on television which was turning a whole new generation on to animation. MGM decided that the time might be right to revive Tom and Jerry and put the contract out to tender.
The winners of the ensuing bidding war were producer William Snyder and director Gene Deitch who were based in Prague. Astonishingly, it later transpired that neither man had even seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon so it's hardly surprising that the thirteen new shorts they turned out between 1961 and 1962 proved to be so awful. After watching just six of the classic cartoons, the new animators set to work creating some of the oddest cartoons ever to bear the MGM logo - and this was a studio that had employed the wayward genius of Tex Avery!
These new films are notable for their terrible character design, limited animation and utter lack of comedy. None of the gags work, the characters are deeply unlikeable and the situations contrived and uninspired. Deitch himself seemed aware of his works' shortcomings, later claiming that MGM only made them to keep the Tom and Jerry name in the public consciousness. Another effort to keep the cat-and-mouse team current came in 1962 when 18 of the Hanna-Barbera shorts were compiled into a feature-length outing titled The Tom and Jerry Festival of Fun.
While all this was going on, master animator Charles M. "Chuck" Jones, late of the recently deceased Warner Brothers animation house, had set up shop with producer Les Goldman under the banner Tower 12 Productions. MGM approached the new company to see if they wanted to pick up the baton and create the next phase of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Jones was intrigued and accepted after MGM agreed to the budgets he demanded - ironically, after all the penny-pinching of a few years before, MGM were now willing to give Jones budgets that eclipsed the money he had for the Warner Brothers films.
Tower 12 had taken on board some of the key personnel from the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons, including writer Michael Maltese and his co-director Maurice Noble among others. It was this team that Jones assembled for the new Tom and Jerry cartoons which started in 1963 with Penthouse Mouse and continued for another four years.
As you'd expect from a team with this pedigree, the new batch of Tom and Jerry's looked good - certainly a lot better than Deitch's abominations - but again they simply weren't funny. They lacked the vital spark that had made the Hanna-Barbera incarnations so much fun and ended up looking like little more than poor copies of the Road Runner cartoons that Jones had been making at Warners. The violence that characterised the earlier films was largely missing as were the gags and perfectly timed reaction shots that we'd come to expect from Tom and Jerry.
As the series progressed, MGM absorbed Tower 12 and founded MGM Animation/Visual Arts, giving Jones the opportunity to make other projects as he stepped aside to allow other ex-Warner staffers, including Abe Levitow and Ben Washam, to take the helm.
During the 1960s, the original cartoons started turning up on television and first fell foul of censorship. Scenes of the stereotypical black woman Mammy Two Shoes that had appeared frequently in earlier titles was now deemed unacceptable for a society struggling with race iniquity and civil rights issues. New footage was shot, changing Mammy into an Irish woman voiced by June Foray. It wouldn't be the last time that Tom and Jerry would fall foul of the censorially minded - in the 1970s, British anti-just-about-everything campaigner Mary Whitehouse suddenly turned her attentions of the series, decrying the unremitting violence of the films and instigating an unsuccessful campaign to have the Tom and Jerry shorts banned from television.
But it was television that was to prove the saviour of Tom and Jerry. The theatrical releases ended in 1967 with Purr-Chance To Dream but the constant re-runs on the small screen brought yet another generation of fans into contact with the pair. So successful were they that in 1975 Hanna-Barbera were able to interest ABC in a new series of 48 shorts made for the small screen as part of a series variously titled The New Tom and Jerry / Grape Ape Show, The Tom and Jerry / Grape Ape / Mumbly Show and The Tom and Jerry / Mumbly Show.
Unfortunately, ABC only agreed to air the show if Hanna-Barbera toned down the violence and once again the pair were cast as friends. ABC had completely missed the point - it was the violence that the kids loved and those same kids simply weren't interested in this new, PC-friendly incarnation. In 1980, Tom and Jerry again popped up on the small screen when Filmation Studios teamed up with MGM Television to make a couple of one-off shorts though they were cheer and cheerless efforts.
As part of the ongoing "babyfication" of classic cartoon characters that was endemic throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Tom and Jerry became the stars of Tom and Jerry Kids Show, made by Hanna-Barbera Productions and Turner Entertainment, who had bought MGM and its entire library. It was the usual uninspired nonsense and the show barely registered with an audience before it vanished without trace.
The Turner buy-out of MGM gave Turner's various cable TV outlets the right to screen the classic cartoons and the post-millennial generation got a regular dose of cat-and-mouse mayhem on Cartoon Network, Boomerang and Turner Classic Movies.
The most recent incarnation of one of cinema and TV's most enduring comedy duos has been a series of movies and direct-to-video spin-offs from Film Roman, beginning with Tom and Jerry: The Movie in 1992 and continuing with Tom and Jerry and The Magic Ring (2001) and Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars (2005). If there's one thing you really don't want to see on a Tom and Jerry cartoon it's credits for a voice cast and these terrible ventures featuring a chatty pair who are as willing to team up and work together as the classic Tom and Jerry were to beat crap out of each other.
These recent incarnations of Tom and Jerry are really just footnotes
in a long history and no-one but the most devoted of Tom and Jerry completists,
the very easily pleased or the very, very young will find much to enjoy
in this poor crop of pale imitations. But thanks to the miracle of DVD
and the need for cable channels to endlessly recycle the same content,
the classic Tom and Jerrys are still available and will continue to
gather armies of fans. They remain among the finest cartoons that Hollywood
ever produced and it's a sobering fact that in these days of CGI and
fast-turnaround TV productions we probably won't be seeing their likes
Last Updated: 1 January, 2009
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