CAT AND MOUSE TALES:
MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons
MGM's Tom and Jerry shorts may be the purest of all the classic cartoons series from American animation's heyday. They didn't star quirky characters like Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck or Popeye and Olive Oyl. You had Tom, a non-descript grayish-blue cat and you had Jerry, a cute little brown mouse. Tom chased Jerry, Jerry defended himself. With little variation, every Tom and Jerry cartoon was about Tom chasing Jerry. Often, the cartoons would start in mid-chase, Jerry scrambling around some corner, Tom in hot pursuit. No explanation of what started it - this is just what they did.
The gags were as simple as the stories. Pies in the face, frying pans to the head, hammers to the tail. Tom would chuckle at a mini-firecracker handed to him by Jerry and - BOOM! - it would turn out to have the power of a stick of dynamite. Jerry would hit a bulldog in the butt with a plank of wood, Tom would arrive, Jerry would hand the plank to Tom, Tom would get pummeled by the dog. Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera weren't doing anything in their Tom and Jerry cartoons that the gang at "Termite Terrace" over at Warner Brothers wasn't doing in spades in their Bugs and Daffy cartoons. But, like Laurel and Hardy films, Tom and Jerry cartoons had a simple style that was irresistable.
Tom and Jerry rarely talked, and when they did, you never knew what voice would come out of their mouths, especially Tom. In some cartoons, his voice would differ depending on the situation, such as in The Zoot Cat (1944), where he uses three distinct voices, even one that sounds mysteriously like Frank Sinatra speaking, in the course of six minutes. There is nothing really distinctive about the character design of Tom and Jerry either. Yes, we recognize them instantly today because they are famous stars, but really, take away their names and our memories of their classic chases, and both characters could have fit perfectly into the menagerie of nameless dogs, cats, mice and birds that populated Tex Avery's cartoons from the same studio.
On paper, the Tom and Jerry premise sounds unpromising. A cat chases a mouse? Sounds good for maybe one cartoon, or possibly a handful before the gags run out, right? Ah, but the greatest comedy can come from the simplest of ideas. Hanna and Barbera took their simple, cliched premise and turned it into one of the all time great cartoon series. As Ella Fitzgerald might explain it, t'ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.