MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons
Part Five - 1949-50
STORY: Jerry paints dots on Tom's face to make him think he's got the measles.
Boy, the measles were considered really hysterically funny back in the day, eh? You don't really get that many measles gags these days in comedies.
One of the great things about these classic Tom and Jerry cartoons, of which Polka Dot Puss is an excellent example, is the look of sheer glee on the faces of both Tom and Jerry whenever they thought they were about to put one over on the other. With their eyes and mouths wide open, they just looked so utterly, insanely joyful sometimes at the thought of inflicting pain and suffering on the other.
Inflicting pain, of course, is the only reason why Jerry makes Tom believe that he's come down with the measles. I mean, what else would the payoff be? By fooling Tom, Jerry can then become Tom's doctor, and, reading from the book of no less than the famous Dr. Quack, test Tom's reflexes with a hammer applied a little too energetically - all right, a lot too energetically - to Tom's knee. There's also putting Tom in the refrigerator to bring down his non-existent fever and then baking him in the oven to bring down the chills brought on by being put in the refrigerator. Tom, being just about the dumbest cartoon cat ever, allows Jerry to do all this, his faith in his little friend never faltering until he passes a mirror and realizes the "measles" have washed off. By that time, as can only happen in cartoons and two-reel comedies, Jerry's karma runs over his dogma - he's come down with the real measles and immediately transfers them to Tom, who tries to prevent them by ingesting everything in the medicine cabinet.
Mammy makes an appearance in this film, but disappears quite quickly. We never even find out if she came down with the measles too.
STORY: Jerry and Nibbles look for something to eat on Thanksgiving.
Only in a cartoon would two mice scampering around a table on Thanksgiving, nibbling everything in sight, be funny. If it happened in real life, it would be remembered by your family and mine as "the worst Thanksgiving ever."
The Little Orphan, essentially a remake of 1946's The Milky Waif, won an Academy Award. I wonder sometimes what criteria was used for choosing the best cartoon of a given year. However, if they took into consideration energy and perfect timing (it's not just the pie in the face, but when exactly the pie hits the face), then The Little Orphan certainly deserved to win. Once the fight over the Thanksgiving feast gets going, you'll be hard-pressed to find a series of simple gags done with such immaculate timing.
If you are offended by racial gags, be warned: Tom dresses up like an Indian and does "whoo whoo whoo" war cries, and is later turned into a caricature of a "pickaninny", a scene which is often cut for television.
Mammy Two-Shoes makes another fleeting appearance. She comes in and sets the dinner table, which is for 27 people by the looks of it, and then exits stage left. She doesn't even speak. She just disappears. All that ruckus going on in the dining room, and she doesn't even check in to see what's going on. I'll bet when she finally did, she long remembered the day as "the worst Thanksgiving ever".
Oh, and the perfect time to be
hit in the face
with a pie is right after the fourth "whoo" of a war cry.
whoo whoo whoo BAMM!". It just works, don't ask me why.
STORY: Jerry hatches an egg, bringing forth a tiny baby woodpecker with enough beak power to bring down telephone poles --- a talent that comes in handy when Tom arrives.
A combination of cuteness, sweetness and violence. In the end, the sweetness wins out. Tom doesn't show up until half the cartoon is over, so the violence is relegated to the latter half. Until then, most of the gags are about how voracious the little woodpecker's appetite is. This follows a finely animated and well thought-out opening which manages to get the littler woodpecker egg from a tree outside the house to underneath Jerry as he sleeps in the house without straining logic or credibility too much.
Once Tom enters the film, it becomes a Tom and Jerry picture along the lines of the previous The Little Orphan, as Jerry and his newfound feathered friend find various ways of avoiding Tom's attempts at killing them.
The sweetness comes at the
end, when the little
bird is retrieved by his mother, who left her nest to go out
lunch at the beginning of the film, kindly leaving a "Be Back in 10"
note on her nest in case anybody came visiting. There's a sad little
moment when Jerry realizes how short-lived his friendship was with his
new little pal, but the cute little guy comes back and gives him a big
wet kiss right on the lips. Few cartoon characters could get
with something like this without it coming off as corny or sugary.
But because we rarely get any real glimpse of Tom or Jerry's
personalities - it's usually all about the chase - the moment works.
Heavenly Puss / The Cat and the Mermouse / Love That Pup / Jerry's Diary / Tennis Chumps
After a strong start to the year, the Tom and Jerry series takes a small stumble with two experimental but lackluster shorts. Heavenly Puss is strange and not terribly funny, with some beautiful imagery and a scary depiction of Hell, but I'm sorry - the film loses me when they make a gag out of a bag full of drowned kittens. I'm a cat lover. I even wince for Tom when Jerry chops his tail off. So a bag full of drowned kittens? 'tain't funny, McGee. The Cat and the Mermouse is just pointless. After a few seconds of enjoyable and typical slapstick, the rest of the film takes place underwater, for no reason at all except to depict Jerry as a mermouse. And you just know it's going to end up as a dream. Oops, sorry... SPOILER ALERT: Its ends up as a dream.
Thankfully, with Love That Pup, the series gets back to basics. In his effort to catch Jerry, Tom keeps disturbing the slumber of Spike and his pup. Spike doesn't appreciate this and threatens to beat the hell out of Tom. And so it goes. Tom chases Jerry, Tom annoys Spike, Spike beats the hell out of Tom, Jerry continues figuring out ways to get Tom to annoy Spike again. There's nothing new under the sun here, but like Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry trot out the same old gags and pull them off with such panache, they still manage to be funny. As usual, Spike the Dog is sometimes slow on the uptake, and at one point he is almost convinced that Tom is Tyke the Pup, even though Tyke the Pup is sitting right at Spike's feet, and Tom is not even in disguise.
Jerry's Diary is a cheater which reprises footage from such older shorts as Tee for Two and Yankee Doodle Mouse. in the form of flashbacks. It's fun to see how much the character designs have changed over the years. Jerry didn't evolve much - just a little rounder and a little cuter- but Tom from Yankee Doodle Mouse looks like a completely different cat. Still - it's a cheater. The best part of the new footage is an animated radio which takes on a nearly human face while playing "The Uncle Dudley Show".
1949 ends with the typically fast and violent Tennis Chumps, a short that contains impossible gags and bodily destruction from the Tex Avery School of How To Crack a Character into a Million Pieces and Have Him All Better in the Next Shot. There's also a plot device from Irving Thalberg's School of Smacking Harpo Around So That The Audience Will Side With Him. At the beginning of Tennis Chumps, Tom does enough gratuitous harm to Jerry that from that moment on, no matter what Jerry does to Tom, you root for Jerry. But, as with Harpo, weren't you going to root for Jerry anyway?
Little Quacker features a variation on an old theme: Jerry teams up with another small animal who's being terrorized by Tom, and together they make Tom wish he'd never been born. Tom's early choice of weapon in the short, an ax, makes for several cringe-worthy moments, but once you get past that, Little Quacker is a quite amusing series of violent gags with Tom, as always, getting the worst of it. The duckling, who would later evolve in TV's Yakkee Doodle, is one of the chattiest characters in T&J history: "...and he had an ax and he tried to kill me and he went Wham Wham Wham... that's what he did!". Or at least that's the best I could transcribe, since he sounds like Donald Duck, meaning he is a tad difficult to understand.
There's also a nice use of some sort of
a multiplane system, the kind more often seen in early Popeyes
Walt Disney cartoons, that gives the illusion of three-dimensional
STORY: While Mammy's away, the cats will play. Jazz, that is.
I am spotlighting this short, a fine one, not because of its inherent goodness but because it brings up the subject of Tom and Jerry being edited and, in some cases, re-animated, for television. I found several versions of this short, and not a single one of them was the original 1950 release. Years after the initial release of the Tom and Jerry films, overly sensitive executives deemed Mammy Two-Shoes far too much of a racial stereotype to be seen on television, so they came with several solutions. I discuss all this elsewhere in a short piece about Mammy herself (love dat woman!), but in case you have come to this page through a search engine, I'll go through it again. The first solution was to ask Chuck Jones to replace her with a newly animated white owner, a young blond in this film. Another later solution was to keep Mammy, but replace the original voice track with a new, more "correct" voice. As I say elsewhere - phooey! The first solution replaces a marvelously animated character with, my apologies to the great Chuck Jones, a dull one. The second solution shows a complete disregard for the hilarious energy and humor actress Lillian Randolph brought to the part of Mammy. And things got so mixed up in the process that you can even find versions of Tom and Jerry cartoons with the white woman speaking in Lillian Randolph's voice!
Above is a comparison between Mammy and the Young Girl. Notice how much more rich detail there is not only in Mammy herself but in her personal belongings. I don't really blame Chuck Jones for saving some time when redrawing the scene for television in the sixties. He was employed by MGM at the time, he was asked to do a job, he did it. I just wish he would have stood up for Mammy Two-Shoes.
I should relate some other things I noticed while watching several different versions of this film, including one dubbed into Japanese. There is a moment when Jerry comes out of his hole to complain to Tom about the raucous music the cats are playing. In what appears to be the closest to the original version, you can just barely make out Jerry's voice. In another version, there is no voice and Jerry is suddenly doing a masterful bit of pantomime. In the Japanese version, he yells in Japanese. And all three versions work!
This is one of the few Tom and Jerry cartoons where you can see Mammy's face, although you have to freeze-frame it just right to do so. Being a purist, I refuse to spoil things, so you'll just have to do a search for yourself.
As for the short itself, it's very musical. Tom and his friends play hot jazz, Jerry objects, everybody runs around like crazy people.... it's a Tom and Jerry short, whattaya want?
Texas Tom / Jerry and the Lion / Safety Second / Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl / The Framed Cat
Texas Tom starts off with some outstanding head-pounding violence, slows down long enough for Tom to croon "If You're Ever Down in Texas, Look Me Up" courtesy of a windup record player, and ends with Tom getting gored by an angry bull. A good cartoon helped greatly by the western soundtrack.
Jerry and The Lion is another variation on an old theme: Jerry teams up with a larger animal, one specifically capable of inflicting severe pain on Tom. The short begins with Tom listening to swing music on the radio before, in one of the great clichés of old movies and cartoons, the music is interrupted by a special bulletin. (Notice nobody in old movies is ever listening to The Jack Benny Show or Calling All Cars? It's always generic music, or, in some cases, just dead air.) After hearing the news of an escaped lion, Tom closes all the windows and doors and hides behind an overturned table with a pith helmet and shotgun. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize the lion is actually in his basement and has already made friends with Jerry. The rest of the short plays out unexpectedly, as Tom never does realize there is a lion in his house and thinks that the world of hurt he is receiving is coming from Jerry. Once again, there is a bittersweet ending, as Jerry tearfully buds goodbye to his pal, who is on his way home on the aptly named ship the S.S. Africa. Can't Jerry ever just have a friend who doesn't disappear by the end of the cartoon?
Safety Second is an average short which basically explores that most fascinating of questions: how many times can Tom get blown up? The best gag has Nibbles hiding dozens of firecrackers in his diapers. Otherwise, it's standard stuff.
A cartoon that feels like it was created purely to contend for the Oscar, Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl is a graceful, funny short that slowly ascends to the level of the Marx Brothers, had they ever made a movie called A NIGHT AT THE SYMPHONY. An exercise in pure musical pantomime, with violence held to a minimum for a T&J entry. Meaning of course there's still plenty of it, including a moment where Jerry gets smashed so thin between a pair of cymbals, he becomes transparent!
Sometimes a cartoon can be based on a single gag. In The Framed Cat, once Spike gives his warning to Tom about not stealing his bone, Jerry exploits the situation again and again. The gag is simple. Jerry gets possession of the dog bone and places it on Tom's person, enraging Spike, who then ladles out punishment on Tom and takes his bone back. Repeat as necessary. Since the cartoon is only seven minutes long, there is not enough time for the gag to wear out its welcome. Each variation of the gag is a little more complex, allowing the cartoon to build to a frenzied conclusion featuring, once again, one of those super magnets only found in cartoons.
The print I saw of The Framed Cat featured June Foray dubbing a clichéd Irish voice over Lillian Randolph's original vocal tracks of Mammy Two-Shoes. And this was supposed to be an improvement how?
One of the purest of all Tom and Jerry films, Cueball Cat is reminiscent of the early Bowling Alley Cat. This time, Hanna and Barbera keep you wondering how many gags they can create out of a cat, a mouse and a poolroom. You'd be surprised. The first half consists of Tom torturing Jerry with various pool instruments, the second half is Jerry's revenge.
The film opens with a beautifully atmospheric shot of the poolroom at night. I may not have said it yet, but it should be said: MGM had some wonderful artists working for them. Though Tom and Jerry shorts are remembered for their speed, violence and timing, the background artists deserve a hand for creating a completely believable world in which Tom and Jerry played out their fast-paced, often painful lives.