MGM's Tom and Jerry Cartoons
Part Eight - 1955-56
Southbound Duckling / Pup on a Picnic
A perky little cartoon, Southbound Duckling opens 1955 with Quacker attempting to fly south for the winter even though (1) he can't fly and (2) Jerry informs him domestic ducks don't migrate. Just about every attempt to launch himself into the sky leads the little duck straight to Tom's mouth or frying pan. One of the few cartoons in the series where Tom winds up catching his prey in the end, though we can assume that moments after the short fades out, Jerry and Quacker outwit him once again. (Shot in standard and Cinemascope formats.)
Pup on a Picnic (or "pick-a-nick", as Spike pronounces it) is a standard Tom, Jerry, Spike and Tyke short (meaning it's good) and a standard "picnic gag" short (has there ever been a picnic depicted in a cartoon that didn't feature a line of rhythmically marching ants?). But check out those backgrounds! Perhaps because of the widescreen format, the background artist, Robert Gentle, created an entire forest out of impressionistic dabs and slashes of paint, much like the style later made famous by TV icon Bob Ross, who taught people how to create lovely forest landscapes in one half hour. (I know that Bob Ross is sometimes considered to painting what Rachel Ray is to cooking, but hell, he made nice pictures and Rachel Ray makes good meals!), It is rare that backgrounds in Tom and Jerry cartoons cause me to miss some of the gags, but these are just stunning. Add in some multiplane camera shots in which characters pass behind trees in the foreground while the background moves in perspective, and you've got one of the most beautifully rendered Tom and Jerry cartoons ever made. (Shot in standard and Cinemascope formats.)
A great cartoon that perfectly balances our sympathies between Tom and Jerry. At first, Tom deserves everything he gets, but later, Jerry's taunting of the cat helps swing our sympathies even as we still admire Jerry for his ingenuity in foiling the poor cat. Tom reads a newspaper ad that promises cash for white mice, and so he paints Jerry white and collects his dough. His owner (unnamed, but voiced by June Foray) finds the hidden cash and goes out and buys... a cute little white mouse. (Where's the profit for the pet store salesman?). Tom certainly deserves to lose all his money for selling Jerry into "white slavery" but when he is kicked out of the house and Jerry taunts him through the window, there is a natural instinct to want Tom to at least break even in this affair.
Tex Avery had left MGM a year before, but his influence is still seen in several wild reaction shots, including one of Tom's eyes popping out of his head, rolling down his arm, stopping in mid air and let out a blood-curdling scream! In fact, this cartoon could serve as a clinic for young animators on how to time and vary a character's facial and bodily reactions. And for those whose sympathies lie with Tom, he once again triumphs over Jerry in the end.
Designs on Jerry / Tom and Cherié / Smarty Cat
Designs on Jerry should be admired for its cost-cutting technique of using line drawings for half the cartoon. When mousetrap designer Tom falls asleep, the mouse figure on his designs comes alive to warn Jerry, and the cat figure comes alive to chase them both across the drawing board. Fun stuff, and a bit more surreal than your average Tom and Jerry film. This film was the inspiration for the title sequence of the much-later Tom and Jerry Tales show on television. The whole short also may have been the inspiration for the classic board game Mouse Trap.
Tom and Cherié is the third in a sub-series that began with The Two Mousketeers and Touché, Pussy Cat! Tuffy must deliver Jerry's love letters while fighting off the sword-wielding Tom in the streets of Ye Olde France. It's almost a Tuffy solo short with Tom and Jerry as supporting cast. If your idea of a Tom and Jerry film features little violence and a lot of sweet gags from a cute little mouse, than this is the one for you. As such, it's not bad, especially when you consider it is the second short in a row that makes an attempt, however small, to move away from the fifteen-year-old standard formula. (Produced in Cinemascope).
Smarty Cat is a cheater, compiling scenes of Tom getting the best of Spike. Notable for the return of the trio of alley cats introduced in 1943's Baby Puss.
Although I find it a bit annoying, Pecos Pest is nevertheless interesting for a number of reasons. It was the third real short in a row (not counting the cheater Smarty Cat) in which attempted to break the usual formula. Jerry has little to do throughout the film, as cowboy singer Uncle Pecos gets the majority of footage. The cartoon is built entirely around the talents of the cowboy singer and actor Shug Fisher, who voices Uncle Pecos, albeit without screen credit. It's obvious the inspiration for this short was Fisher's mangled, stuttering comedy version of the folk classic "Froggy Went A-Courtin'", which is sung at various points throughout the film.
Pecos Pest is the final Tom and Jerry film shot in the standard aspect ratio before the series switched exclusively to the widescreen Cinemascope format exclusively. It is also the last Tom and Jerry cartoon produced by Fred Quimby, who had headed the MGM animation department since its inception is 1937. Quimby was often remembered by many who worked for him as a notoriously humorless man who didn't understand cartoons (Tex Avery: "He was impossible! Goodness! Boy! Damn!") and never liked the fast pace of the films that were winning him Oscars and knocking audiences dead with laughter. Still, when letters came pouring in attesting to the popularity of the one-off short Puss Gets the Boot in 1940, Quimby realized he had a potential hit series on his hand that could rival the work done at Warner Brothers and ordered Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera to commence working on a cat and mouse series. Quimby also deserves credit for having the foresight to hire Tex Avery and, for the most part, let him run wild with his insane gag ideas. When Quimby retired in 1955, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera assumed his duties as head of the MGM animation department.
That's My Mommy
Like several of the previous films featuring Quacker the Duck, That's My Mommy has a little darker edge than most Tom and Jerry cartoons. A just-hatched Quacker mistakes Tom for his mommy, and is oblivious to Tom's attempts to roast him alive on a spittoon or bake him into a pie. Every time Jerry tries to rescue the duck, Quacker breaks free and goes running back to Tom with cries of "Mommy! Mommy!". And lo and behold, it is yet another short that bucks the usual formula. Shot exclusively in Cinemascope, as would all the Tom and Jerry films to follow.
The Flying Sorceress / The Egg and Jerry / Busy Buddies / Muscle Beach Tom / Down Beat Bear / Blue Cat Blues / Barbecue Brawl
The Flying Sorceress is out of character for a Tom and Jerry cartoon, bringing in the extraneous character of a witch, something that worked much better in Bugs Bunny cartoons. The punning title of this Tom and Jerry cartoon was actually borrowed or unknowingly copied in the ending dialog of the 1956 Bugs Bunny film Broom-Stick Bunny.
The Egg and Jerry is an excellent Tom and Jerry cartoon. The problem is, it was even more excellent when it was called Hatch Up Your Troubles back in 1949. The same character animation cells were used to recreate the cartoon in Cinemascope, but the backgrounds were redesigned and simplified to read better on a wide screen. Look at the above graphic and see which one you prefer. I like the more realistic nest, branches and leaves from the standard format 1949 version as opposed to the quasi-UPI design of the Cinemascope remake. The story and gags, however, are still good enough to make it an entertaining cartoon, but if remaking old cartoons was now one strategy, how long before MGM would realize that simply rereleasing the actual old cartoons would save them a whole bunch of money? Answer: only another two years.
Busy Buddies was the 100th Tom and Jerry film ever made, and one of the least typical. In fact, running the risk of sounding like your average politician blasting the policies of a politician of the opposite party, Busy Buddies shows the series to be on a slippery slope. Not only is the cartoon dominated by two human characters - a baby and its sitter - but Tom and Jerry spend the entire cartoon as cooperative friends!
Muscle Beach Tom is something of a return to form, as Tom and Butch fight each other for the affections of a lovely young feline on the beach. The film even takes advantage of the wider screen for some of its gags, including a great opening panning shots of cats of all sizes and shapes working out on the beach. But I gotta say - whatever happened to Toodles? The female cat in this cartoon is just disturbing - she's got a Cinemascope head!
Down Beat Bear has Tom and Jerry's house invaded by a dancing bear modeled after Art Carney's Ed Norton character from The Honeymooners. Eh.
Blue Cat Blues is a satire of a typical movie melodrama in which a man is driven to drink, despair and finally suicide by rebuffed love. Unfortunately, this is not really a great premise for a series about a cat and mouse who chase each other. In fact, it's downright depressing as hell, especially the end, in which Tom and Jerry sit on the train tracks and await their fate. The most interesting aspect of this misfire is voice artist Paul Frees as narrator Jerry. Frees often sounded uncannily like Orson Welles, which makes Jerry unwittingly sound like a mouse of much later fame: The Brain from the WB cartoon series Pinky and The Brain.
Barbecue Brawl ends an off year of shorts with what is essentially a Spike and Tyke cartoon with Tom and Jerry as supporting players who arrive in the middle and leave before the end. Otherwise it's a series of barbecue gags. Rhythmically marching ants are go!