MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons
Part Seven - 1953-54
One thing that must be remembered when watching theatrical cartoons is they weren't made to be watched one after the other, and the men who produced them probably never even thought they would still be being watched sixty years later. Collected cartoon series on DVD are a perfect way to study the growth of any series, but they also quickly reveal the limitations of any particular idea or character. Tom and Jerry rank with the greatest and most popular cartoon characters you could name, but, of all the major animated creations of their time, they may be the least flexible. Like Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges, they did what they did and they did it well, but if you are looking for the kind of growth or change you'd find with some of the Warners characters, you won't find it. Hanna and Barbera had a formula that worked and they stuck with it for years. It is only in the DVD age that it becomes apparent that after the first few years, most of the Tom and Jerry shorts are essentially remakes or variations of earlier ones.
Still, the lack of growth in the Tom and Jerry series is one of the reasons few single entries ever get singled out for high praise. Pick almost any one of the 1953 and 1954 shorts, and you might as well be looking at at 1943 or 1944 short. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers, who had created their own successful Tom and Jerry-like characters in Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird in the forties, upped the ante with Chuck Jones' Coyote and Road Runner shorts, which were one of the highlights of the Warner Brothers 1950's output. A single Road Runner film had more cultural satire and philosophical weight than the Tom and Jerry series could muster in a full 17 years. Jones built on the "one animal chases another" theme to create a classic existential chase series starring a perennially starving coyote and a forever elusive bird. Meanwhile, Hanna and Barbera seemed content to keep reusing the same old situations and gags. Tom was still chasing Jerry and getting beat up by Spike. The gags were the same, the situations were the same, the effect on audiences was the same, but even more than ever, the Tom and Jerry series felt like it was going nowhere creatively.
The Missing Mouse
The Missing Mouse, the first short of 1953, has Jerry accidentally covered in white shoe polish just at the moment a radio report informs Tom of an escape white mouse who has ingested a radically explosive material. There is the premise - you write the gags.
Even if later Tom and Jerry cartoons are highly reminiscent of earlier ones, many of them are just as funny. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera hadn't lost their touch when it came to executing a six or seven minute cartoon with precision timing. It's no wonder they were experts at making Tom and Jerry shorts - from 1941 through the end of the series, Hanna and Barbera worked on no other cartoons than Tom and Jerry (with the exception of a pair of Spike and Tyke shorts), while other directors, such as Tex Avery (one-offs, Droopy Dog) and Dick Lundy (Barney Bear) handled the studios other shorts.
Thus, Jerry and Jumbo may seem an awful lot like Jerry and the Lion and Little Runaway, but it's still as funny as heck. This time, a baby elephant falls off a train and rolls straight into Tom and Jerry's house (it could happen). After a series of gags in which Tom somehow never notices a baby elephant in the house, Jumbo comes to Jerry's rescue and, after being painted up like a mouse, drives Tom to insanity. It may not sound like much, but it's one of those Tom and Jerry shorts that has everything you can ask for, so who cares if its been done before?
Johann Mouse / That's My Pup / Two Little Indians / Life with Tom
With Jerry as a dancing mouse who lives with composer Johann Strauss, and Tom as a cat who learns how to play waltzes, Johann Mouse plays like Oscar-bait, and not terribly interesting Oscar-bait at that. Virtually gagless, with the only real amusement coming from the title of the book Mr. Strauss has written: "How to Play The Waltz in Six Easy Lessons". Otherwise, it is the kind of material that needs the more charming touch of a Chuck Jones to really pull it off. But sure enough, Johann Mouse won Hanna and Barbera their seventh and last Oscar for Best Animated Film. Not only did these guys know how to make Tom and Jerry pictures, they knew how to make boring Tom and Jerry pictures that would win Oscars.
Thank God for Spike, who seemed to come along every time the series went off the reservation. In That's My Pup, Spike is teaching his son how to be a dog, including how to bury bones ("Why? I don't know!") and how to chase cats. Tom runs by and is immediately recruited under pressure to be the "cat" in the lessons. You gotta feel sorry for Tom. He's just chasing Jerry when he is suddenly involuntarily involved in Spike's parental agenda. Then he's involved in Jerry's agenda of pretending to be Tyke, and every time he turns around, he's either getting grief from Spike, Tyke or Jerry.
You also gotta feel sorry for Tom in Two Little Indians. Here, he's not even chasing Jerry, but is simply sleeping, bothering nobody, mind you, when two little mice "scouts" dressed as Indians start trying to scalp him and shoot him in the nose with tiny arrows. You even have to feel for Jerry, on whom these two little orphans are mysteriously dumped for a day of scouting fun. The bad setup is is worth it for a few good gags.
The year ends with Life With Tom, a cheater based on the premise that Jerry has published a book of the same name.
1954 starts out on a cute and cheerful note with Puppy Tale, in which Jerry rescues a bag full of pups from drowning (what is with Hanna and Barbera and drowning animals?) and then sneaks one of them into the house under the nose of Tom. Not many gags, but an easygoing little short with a likable pup and a Tom whose conscience gets the better of him when a storm develops after he has forced Jerry and the pup out of the house.
Posse Cat has Tom out west but, unlike the earlier Texas Tom, this short does not really exploit the western setting in any way. The cook who denies Tom dinner until he catches the mouse might as well be Mammy or Spike and the setting might as well be anywhere else but the west. Unfortunately, there are no choruses of "If You're Ever Down in Texas, Look Me Up" in this one.
Hic-Cup Pup is yet another Tom and Jerry and Spike and Tyke short. Tyke gets the hiccups every time he gets startled awake, and with Tom and Jerry making their usual amount of noise, the poor little pup is a virtual hiccup factory. Less violent than the usual Spike shorts, and therefore less fun.
A rare short that makes Jerry the brunt of all the violence with Tom getting off scot-free, Little School Mouse works because of its situation. Jerry is teaching little Tuffy (who is distinguished from Nibbles somehow, I just haven't figured out how) how to do mouse-like things such as steal cheese, steal cat whiskers and tie a bell around a cat's neck. While Tom sleeps peacefully in the living room, Jerry shows Tuffy how to do all these things, and Tuffy manages to out-perform Jerry each and every time. For instance, Jerry performs an elaborate series of maneuvers to pilfer a tiny piece of cheese from the kitchen counter and still barely escapes with his life. Meanwhile, Tuffy merely awakens a tired Tom and points to the huge slab of cheese on the counter, which Tom, not quite fully conscious yet, simply hands to him.
Even if it may remind you of the very similar Professor Tom (Tom teaches a young cat how to catch mice), the unique turnaround in the fate of the two main characters make it one of the more interesting of the later shorts, and Hanna and Barbera's mastery at telling a story like this using only gestures and facial expressions but no dialog, is still impressive.
Baby Butch / Mice Follies / Neapolitan Mouse / Downhearted Duckling / Pet Peeve / Touché, Pussy Cat!
Baby Butch brings back the alley cat Butch, minus his usual personal theme song of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Happily "shopping" in back alley garbage cans for scraps of food, Butch decides to dress up like an orphaned baby cat in order to get a better meal at Tom and Jerry's house. It takes Tom most of the cartoon to notice something is up, and it is still unclear at the end if he has ever recognized Butch at all.
Mice Follies opens beautifully with Jerry and Tuffy using an overflowing sink and wiring of a refrigerator to freeze water with the instanteousness of Kurt Vonnegut's "Ice-9", thus creating their own winter wonderland. However, while the background painting are as gorgeously detailed as ever, the recent streamlining of Tom's design was now very apparent against such lush surroundings. At times, he almost looks like the Tom of the later Gene Deitch or Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry shorts.
Another year, another attempt at winning an Oscar with a boring short: Neapolitan Mouse is a misfire all the way, with Tom and Jerry visiting Naples, being recognized as movie stars by the irritating little mouse Topo and having perfunctory adventures while fighting off three annoying neighborhood dogs. The backgrounds are fantastic but the story, gags and characters are below par.
Downhearted Duckling has got to be the most depressing Tom and Jerry cartoon to date - perhaps the only depressing Tom and Jerry cartoon to date (wait til we get to Blue Cat Blues!). The unpromising situation of Quacker the Duck crying over looking like the ugly duckling in the storybook quickly degenerates into suicide gags.
Pet Peeve is a significant Tom and Jerry film for several reasons. It was the first Tom and Jerry film released in the widescreen Cinemascope format, though the version I saw was a pan and scan TV print. Pet Peeve was also the first Tom and Jerry cartoon to feature Joan and George, Tom's new owners. A boring couple who argue about bills, they make me long for Mammy Two-Shoes even more. In this film, Joan and George faces are not revealed in keeping with the usual Tom and Jerry style of rarely showing the heads of human (so far, only Johann Mouse violated this rule by showing Johann Strauss's staff of servants.) In later cartoon, George and Jane will be fully revealed. In any event, it's a fairly amusing cartoon in which the couple decides that their pets Tom and Spike are eating them out of house and home, and the one that catches the mouse can stay. Cinemascope did not add anything to the short except for longer walls in the house.
1954 ends with Touché, Pussy Cat!, a prequel to 1951's The Two Mousketeers, in an era long before prequels were the norm. Again shot in Cinemascope.