CAT AND MOUSE TALES:
MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons
Part Two - 1943-44
Sufferin' Cats is a real gem of a cartoon that shows off the gag sense and exquisite timing of Hanna and Barbera. They knew exactly when somebody should be hit in the head with a lead pipe, how hard, how long the character should react, and when to cut away from the violent mayhem to show a little pantomimic character comedy. As stated in the intro to the 1940-42 section, the gags are usually nothing special, but the timing and animation make them memorable.
The level of violence in the T&J cartoons was increasing with each new release. In Sufferin' Cats, H&B offer their first really grisly gag - Tom and the Orange Cat planning to chop a captured Jerry Mouse in half with an ax. Of course, it never happens, but sometimes in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, just the thought of a gag can make you want to turn your head from the screen.
STORY: Jerry gets Tom kicked out of the house once again, but finds life without Tom so completely tedious, he schemes to get Tom a reprieve.
Hanna and Barbera were now so sure of themselves and the direction they were going with Tom and Jerry, they could begin to give us a little insight to the characters. In The Lonesome Mouse, we discover that Jerry without Tom is Hardy without Laurel, Bud without Lou. Tom may be a pain - often literally - but without him, life is dull. If Tom needs to chase Jerry, it is equally true, that Jerry needs to be chased. What else is a mouse to do for a little fun? So he lets Tom in on his plan - Jerry scares Mammy, Mammy lets Tom back in the house, Tom "kills" mouse, everything will be back to normal.
The chase in this cartoon is a parody played up melodramatically and comically. But midway through, Tom's ax swings in Jerry's direction become so accurate, the mouse has to stop things to ask "Hey, we're still kiddin' around, right?". Of course, once Tom vanquishes "the mouse" (actually a tomato under a rug) for Mammy, it takes all of ten seconds for the usual antagonistic relationship the pair has to reestablish itself. There are some things you just cannot change.
The Yankee Doodle Mouse / Baby Puss
The first Tom and Jerry cartoon to win an Academy Award, The Yankee Doodle Mouse is also the first to fully acknowledge World War II. (In the previous cartoon The Lonesome Mouse, Jerry defaces a picture of Tom, turning him into Hitler.) This acknowledgment is really just a pretense to create nonstop visual gags like Jerry using "hen grenades" (eggs) on Tom and Tom using a roman candle as an anti-aircraft gun to shoot down Jerry's makeshift plane. More fun than funny, and, it should go without saying by now, perfectly executed and timed. A blackface gag when a firecracker explodes in Tom's face was usually edited for television, though I am not sure if the same can be said about Jerry using a brassiere as a parachute.
Baby Puss proves that Hanna and Barbera could make a funny Tom and Jerry cartoon without relying on chases and violence. Although the short contains moments of both, the humor of Baby Puss is more based on personality, character and sheer nonsense than the usual elements. When the obnoxious little girl who owns Tom in this cartoon (where's Mammy Two-Shoes?) dresses Tom as a baby, shoves him in a crib and force feeds him a bottle of milk, Tom finds he likes the milk so much, he starts making mock baby noises like "da-da" and "a-goo!" to himself. The minute Jerry spots him, the little mouse can't resist making the same noises in Tom's direction, jump starting a mini chase in which Jerry takes refuge in a dollhouse. Later, when Tom is back in his crib with his bottle, Jerry gets the attention of Tom's alley cat buddies, and over they come to take the mickey out of him as well. There is some violence - one of Tom's pals hits him on the head with a polo mallet to keep him still while his pals change Tom's diaper - but the fun is mostly in watching Tom play baby, Jerry's and the cats' reactions and Tom's reactions to them. And seeing it all wind up, for no damn good reason, with a three-cat (and one mouse) version of the Carmen Miranda hit "Mama Yo Quiero".
The Zoot Cat / The Million Dollar Cat / The Bodyguard
The Zoot Cat is another cartoon that focuses more on personality than violence. When Tom shows up at Toots's house, he is called every single negative jive term one can think of. But once he fashions himself a Zoot Suit (out of Toots's horrid yellow and green striped hammock) he's no longer a "goon from Saskatoon" but rather a "mellow little fellow". But Jerry is there... well, we're not sure why Jerry is there, but he does his best to ruin Tom's date.
Jerry's use of a hotfoot (using at least a dozen matches) begins the inevitable chase that leads to the inevitable humiliation of Tom and the inevitable end credits. Along the way, there are not a lot of gags, but rather some unforgettable moments, such as seeing how the animators use just a handful of drawings repeated over and over to create the wild jitterbugging of Tom and Toots. There's also Tom's hilarious imitation of Charles Boyer, and some explosive, eye-popping takes from Toots and Jerry that inarguably show the influence of Tex Avery.
The Million Dollar Cat is obviously inspired by two other cartoons: Friz Freling's The Wabbit Who Came to Supper (1942) and Tex Avery's first Droopy Dog cartoon Dumb Hounded(1943). Freling provides the basic plot (main character will lose inheritance if he harms another living creature) while Avery provides the running gag of a character always popping up in the most unexpected places. Both of these cartoons are superior to The Million Dollar Cat for different reasons. The Wabbit Who Came to Supper is funnier because Bugs has much more personality than Jerry, so it is more amusing to see him exploit Elmer Fudd's situation than it is watching Jerry exploit Tom's. Dumb Hounded is wilder because Tex Avery directs it at such a fast clip one character almost runs out of the film frame entirely.
In The Million Dollar Cat, Hanna and Barbera borrowed a running gag from their fellow MGM director Tex Avery. In The Bodyguard, H&B devised a plot that Tex Avery would later borrow for his 1949 classic Bad Luck Blackie. Avery took the basic plot device - one character shows up to help anytime the other character whistles - and turned it into one of the most universally praised cartoons of all time.
The Bodyguard, on the other hand, is just another Tom and Jerry cartoon. That's not a bad thing at all. Hanna and Barbera excelled at creating consistently funny Tom and Jerry films. During their 18-year Tom and Jerry run at MGM, they rarely made a bad cartoon. Almost all Tom and Jerry cartoons are seven to eight minutes of wild action, perfectly-timed violence and high-speed chases choreographed to the brassy swing music of the MGM orchestra. Conversely, because they didn't experiment much with the T&J formula, Hanna and Barbera rarely reached the stratospheric artistic heights some of their competitors. As a result, Tom and Jerry cartoons are as funny as any of the best cartoons you can think of, but few really stand out. It is fairly easy to name the greatest Bugs Bunny, Popeye and Tex Avery cartoons. The best Tom and Jerry? Reach into a film vault and grab one at random.
(1944)With Tom, Jerry, Spike
STORY: When Jerry finds sanctuary in a dog pound, Tom disguises himself as a dog.
See the last two sentences of the review above and then take this film as an example. Somebody somewhere could probably pull this one out of a film vault at random and call it the greatest Tom and Jerry cartoon ever. I'm not saying it is, but it has everything you need for a great Tom and Jerry film - Tom, Jerry and a promising situation. And it is indeed a great Tom and Jerry film, yet there is nothing about it that stands out as classic or makes it all that different from the previous one or the one after it. That is both the strength and the weakness of the series. Like so many others in the series, Putting on the Dog is simply a nonstop display of the genius of Hanna Barbera at making funny cartoons. Not a frame is wasted, every single drawing it took to make the cartoon is there for a reason. The timing is exquisite, the character animation is perfect, the film is loaded with gags, coming at you one after the other. And, unlike the greatest Popeye or Bugs Bunny cartoons, not a single word is uttered throughout.
Yet when lists of the greatest individual cartoon are compiled, you'll find plenty of Bugs Bunnys, Mickey Mouses and Tex Averys, but precious few Tom and Jerrys. Yet if you compiled a list of the top five cartoon characters or series of all time, Tom and Jerry would be right there. ** That last sentence is purely subjective. The following organizations and websites actually did polls of the top cartoons, characters and series. Here are the results:
A beautiful series of blackouts, Mouse Trouble is notable not only for being funny, charming and painful, but for breaking one of the cardinal rules of animation. Usually, when something bad happens to a character (broken teeth, face blackened by an explosion, etc.), by the next scene, all evidence of injury is gone. Here, when Tom accidentally blows the hair off his head with a shotgun (it could happen), he wears an orange toupee throughout the rest of the film. By the latter stages of the cartoon, he is wearing multiple bandages, including one around his midriff from the time he accidentally got sawed in half (it could happen.) These bandage do disappear after one blackout, but the toupee remains. Even when Tom accidentally blows up the house (it could happen) and ascends to Heaven, he is still wearing the toupee. Now that's a quality hairpiece!
Marx Brothers fans may wish to know that this is the cartoon in which "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" from 1937'smade its first appearance as Tom and Jerry background music.