CAT AND MOUSE TALES:
MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons
Part One - 1940-42
STORY: Jasper, later to be known as Tom, chases an unnamed mouse, later to be known as Jerry. Mammy Two-Shoes gets annoyed.
Tom and Jerry arrived nearly fully formed in 1940, although Tom was originally christened "Jasper" (but we'll still call him Tom) and Jerry had no name (reportedly informally called "Jinx"). Tom is a little scruffier, with tufts of hair sticking out all over his body that the animators had to laboriously retrace 24 times a second, eventually leading to a more streamlined version of the character. He also walked on all fours, not yet the humanized bipedal feline we remember today. But from the opening shot, he is Tom, gleefully torturing Jerry out of instinct, boredom, hunger or a combination of all three. Jerry is also essentially the mouse we know and love today, although he would soon be redesigned into a rounder, cuter rodent. Still, in this first film, Jerry is Jerry, always finding ways to turn the tables on Tom, and when that fails, doing his best to inflict maximum pain on the cat, in this case, giving Tom his first punch to the eye.
Puss Gets the Boot lacks several elements that would come into the series later. It is more leisurely paced, though no doubt still light years faster than the usual Disney-influenced 'toons MGM was usually offering in 1940. There are no screams, only cat hisses, and nobody lets loose with an explosive popeyed reaction shots. Director Tex Avery, who had been doing fine work at Warners and was one of the many fathers of Bugs Bunny, would not arrive at MGM until 1942, and although he would never direct a Tom and Jerry, his energy and sense of timing would seep into the Tom and Jerry cartoons by osmosis.
Finally, the violence is restricted to that one punch in the eye - the usual assortment of axes, sticks of dynamite and other implements of mass destruction would come later. But the story is typical Tom and Jerry. In the course of chasing Jerry, Tom breaks a flowerpot, and his owner, Mammy Two-Shoes (a racial stereotype but an admirable character) tells him in no uncertain terms that if he breaks one more thing, out he goes. Therefore, Jerry spends the rest of the cartoon using this information to his advantage. In the end, puss gets the boot and Jerry happily retires to his mouse hole, sweet mouse hole. We can only imagine that about an hour later, Jerry finds himself so bored, he lets Tom back in the house to begin the chase anew.
After Puss Gets the Boot, neither Joe Hanna nor Bill Barbera had much thought of following up on it, as MGM did not see the cartoon as anything special. But eventually, requests started coming in to the studio for more of those "cat and mouse" cartoons, and when Puss Gets the Boot was nominated for an Academy Award, Hanna and Barbera got the green light to revisit their original creations, changed their names to Tom and Jerry and came up with The Midnight Snack.
The Midnight Snack/ The Night Before Christmas
The Midnight Snack is a really cute cartoon, and that's meant in a positive way. Set at midnight, it offers plenty of atmosphere, serves up a few memorable food gags, further explores the relationship between cat and mouse, and shows a few hints of the glorious violence soon to come in the series. Most importantly, it manages to allow us to share our sympathy between Tom and Jerry. Although we may initially sympathize with the mouse - one of the tiniest characters in all of animation - we can also feel for Tom when Jerry finally gets the upper hand. He's a cat. He's biologically engineered to want to catch and eat Jerry. But he's just so bad at it, it always leads to pain and suffering. How can you not feel for the guy?
Certainly not one of the great Tom and Jerry cartoons, The Night Before Christmas is one of the most nostalgic. Now that we are in a time where popular entertainment treats Christmas with about the same respect as they treat everything else (zero), watching a sweet, gentle cartoon like A Night Before Christmas may bring a tear to your eye. The music on the soundtrack, featuring not only "Jingle Bells" but also snippets of several Christian hymns, is gorgeous, and the short ends with a historical moment as Tom rescues Jerry from the cold and, at least for Christmas Eve, predator and prey become friends. A little treacly, you may say, but in these jaded times, I find treacle a lot more acceptable than I used to.
Fraidy Cat / Dog Trouble
An okay "haunted house" story clearly influenced by Abbott and Costello's hit Fraidy Cat is notable mostly for several historical moments. Tom almost speaks and lets out his first scream, a rather tame one compared with the blood-curdling screams to come. He also gets his first really nasty crack in the skull courtesy of a spittoon.of the previous year,
Dog Trouble, brimming with enough energy for three cartoons, introduces a bulldog character whose most common name in later cartoons would be Spike. Usually an enemy of Tom's exclusively, here he chases both Tom and Jerry and shows a distinct inclination to have them both as a snack. After Jerry helps rescue Tom, the pair call a truce and work together to get Spike in trouble with Mammy and thus kicked out of the house, Mammy's cure-all solution for any and all pet problems. Having achieved that... the chase goes on.
STORY: Tom's afternoon of keeping Jerry trapped in an empty fishbowl is interrupted by a visit from Toots, the pretty feline female Mammy agrees to watch.
The competition from Warner Brothers and the arrival of Tex Avery at MGM may have now been influencing Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Puss 'N' Toots contains not a hint of the sentimentality found in The Night Before Christmas or Dog Trouble. The pace is faster than anything that has come before, with little time for anything but gags, and Scott Bradley's score is bolder and brassier than usual and includes, for the first time, the recurring theme of "Darktown Strutters Ball". The situation of Tom having the hots for Toots, even turning into a wolf for a few moments, could have come from Avery while the record player that seems to come to life feels like something out of Warners.
Then again, the animators at Warners were just getting up to speed themselves on their own classic characters, with Bugs and Daffy still in the same early experimental stages like Tom and Jerry at MGM. So it could be that MGM shorts like Puss 'N' Toots were actually influencing Warners. I'm sure there was a little bit of both - both sets of animators were so good at what they did, they were most likely completely aware of, and admired, the equally excellent work of the competition. Both knew they could not compete with Disney any more and so were simultaneously developing their own wilder brands of cartoon comedy.
Warners was already cornering the market on characters with speech defects who loved to talk. With Tom and Jerry, Hanna and Barbera created almost purely silent characters, and specialized in pure, old-fashioned slapstick and creative visual gags. However, Jerry does say his first words in Puss 'N' Toots: "Help, help!" into a phone.
Bowling Alley Cat / Fine Feathered Friend
Hanna and Barbera quickly realized that a good way to keep the series fresh was to place Tom and Jerry in different locales other than Mammy's home. So in Bowling Alley Cat, they are at a bowling alley (duh!), where Tom throws bowling balls down the lane at Jerry and Jerry finds myriad ways to avoid them. Jerry's now coming into his own as a character. At one point, he bites Tom on the finger and then spends a few seconds spitting the taste of cat out of his mouth. In mid-chase, he motions to Tom to hold up, and everything comes to a momentary halt. At that point, Jerry bashes Tom on the foot, and the chase begins again - a classic gag that would be repeated endlessly throughout the series. Later, Tom is tying a rag around a bowling ball, hoping to seal Jerry in one of the holes. Jerry, who is not in the ball at all, helpfully offers his finger so that Tom can make a nice pretty bow. He's becoming quite the little miniature Bugs Bunny , this Jerry is.
Friend takes us from inner city bowling alley to
farm, but no matter where these
are, the story is the same - Tom chases Jerry. In the
both Gene Deitch and Chuck Jones, who
directed Tom and Jerry series of their own, would take this
idea to the
extreme, placing Tom and Jerry in outer space.
In order to get away from Tom, Jerry hides under a hen. Every time Tom tries to get at Jerry, he receives a fresh new world of hurt from the hen, who is very protective of her eggs, and completely unaware she is shielding Jerry throughout the entire cartoon. We finally hear Tom first full-throated cry of pain, which sounds like what you would hear if you hit Stan Laurel on the toe with a hammer while his was in mid-cry. The other notable element is Tom and Jerry threatening each other with large pruning shears. Soon it would be axes, and sometimes swords.