Saturday, July 13, 2013

When Tom & Jerry were movie stars

The Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon is an event in which the theme involves any notable cinematic pairing of movie stars, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

Everybody remembers Tom & Jerry from Saturday morning (or sometimes weekday afternoon) cartoons, right? All they ever really did was chase and beat the crap out of each other, but they still had distinctive personalities that occasionally extended beyond their basic roles. And of course, their relationship inspired many others in the animation canon, from Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd to the Road Runner & Wile. E Coyote to Itchy & Scratchy. The chase is the simplest of comedy tropes, and for animated characters, these two perfected it.

Tom & Jerry during the H-B years
Generations may have grown up seeing Tom & Jerry on the small screen, but the truth is that they were made for the big screen, back in the days when your movie ticket came with extras like a newsreel, a sing-along, and of course, a cartoon. These days, of course, the only time you see a cartoon in front of a movie is if it's before an animated feature, which is unfortunate, but what can you do?

I liked T&J, though I had no great affinity for them; they were one more in a vast stream of animated childhood entertainment. I never understood, though, the rules for when T&J could speak: sometimes they spoke, but most of the time, they didn't - but other characters could. It never seemed consistent, and I never understood that, though it didn't bother me that much.

Favorite moments would include the one where Tom sings "Is you is or is you ain't my baby" to that girl cat (not sure if that's the actual title); the one where Jerry tries to convince a duckling that he's not as ugly as he thinks he is (the poor duckling keeps trying to kill himself!); and the Three Musketeers-type setting with Jerry's little friend Nibbles ("Touche, pussycat!").

Tom & Jerry under Gene Deitch
There was one where Tom dreams that he's died and he has to get into heaven by getting Jerry to forgive him in writing. That one was kinda disturbing. Tom's under a deadline and the closer it gets the more frantic and desperate he becomes, and all the while Jerry suspects the whole thing is bullshit anyway. And the Devil, of course, is that recurring bulldog character, laughing his ass off the whole time.

T&J cartoons have been made by several different studios over the years, but they were created by another dynamic duo, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at MGM. The two were thrown together in 1939 to revive a flagging cartoon division at MGM. Their initial cat-and-mouse duo was named Jasper and Jinx, who appeared in a 1940 short called "Puss Gets the Boot." (The name Jinx isn't mentioned, but history records that as the mouse's name.) 

After a slow start, it caught on with theater owners, and eventually it received an Oscar nomination in the Best Short Subject: Cartoons category. A series featuring the cat and mouse was commissioned by MGM animation studio head Fred Quimby, and it was fellow MGM animator John Carr who re-named them Tom and Jerry. (Fun fact: "tom and jerry" is British slang for rambunctious kids' behavior.) T&J would go on to achieve twelve more Oscar nominations under MGM, winning seven times, still a record for character-based theatrical animated series. Hanna-Barbera made 114 T&J shorts in all.

Tom and Jerry, the Chuck Jones version
With the advent of television in the 50s, movie revenues went down, and as a result, the MGM animation studio shut down in 1957 after attempts to retool T&J failed. Hanna-Barbera moved to TV, where they achieved great success with shows like The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. Meanwhile, MGM revived T&J in 1960 with thirteen new shorts, directed by Gene Deitch and produced by Rembrandt Films' William Snyder. (Deitch, ironically, was not a fan of T&J and their non-stop violence.) They worked on a smaller budget, and as a result their shorts were considered not as good as the H-B material. Still, they made money, and by 1961, T&J overtook Looney Tunes to become the highest grossing film series of all time.

In 1963 Chuck Jones, with his Sib Tower 12 Productions studio, took over T&J with his partner Les Goldman, and they made 34 more shorts until 1967, when MGM ended production. Among the voice actors used during this run included the legendary Mel Blanc and June Foray. In 1965, the H-B shorts began making their way onto television... but that's another story.

Of course, no discussion of T&J in the movies is complete without a mention of their appearances in live-action MGM musicals. In the 1945 film Anchors Aweigh, T&J appear in a dream sequence and Jerry gets to dance with Gene Kelly. The synchronization of Kelly's moves with Jerry's is seamless and looks completely natural. Also, in 1953, T&J appear in Dangerous When Wet, featuring the late Esther Williams, in another dream sequence. They get to swim with her underwater. (They were supposed to be in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but Steven Spielberg couldn't get the rights.)

So now they wanna revive T&J again. I imagine it'll probably be hard to make them seem fresh since, like I said at the top, they inspired so many other similar cartoons, but who knows? Maybe they can catch lightning in a bottle again. Still, it's a bit disappointing that this revival will be for TV and not for the movies. Imagine how cool it would be to see a T&J short in front of, say, Man of Steel or Pacific Rim or the next Hobbit movie (Warner Brothers is producing these new T&J shorts) on through the rest of the year and then releasing them on Blu-Ray in time for Christmas. That's what I would've done, anyway.


  1. I didn`t realize `Tom and Jerry` meant rambunctious behaviour in kids. That description certainly suits these two!

    Thanks for including the dance sequence from Anchors Aweigh. That dance routine is marvelous and never gets old.

  2. Wonderful post! I enjoyed reading about the history of the T&J cartoons -- I never realized they had been through so many transitions!

  3. And yet the basic character designs remained consistent. As a kid, I was vaguely aware of the different styles, but it never made a difference to me.

  4. The Golden Era for Tom and Jerry was when Joe and Bill were at MGM. The quality of the shorts is outstanding and the Oscar wins well-deserved. There have been times in the past 20 years when my autistic/developmentally delayed son goes on a Tom and Jerry binge, so I have my favourites. (It's either that or bang my head against the wall!) Some of those faves are: The Night Before Christmas, The Million Dollar Cat, The Bodyguard (love Spike!) and Saturday Night Puss.

    I'm glad to see you chose the oddly appealing duo for the blogathon, and you did them proud.

  5. Thanks. As I learned more about them, at one point I thought about writing about H-B instead. Maybe I'll save that for another time.

  6. Oh no, are they really making a new Tom and Jerry series?? I hope they don't botch that up. The original duo were so great together. Although, it does look like they didn't change their looks any. Reading this post makes me want to rewatch all my favorite shorts again!

  7. This new series can't be worse than those dopey T&J movies they made twenty, thirty years ago.

  8. Thanks for the post! I completely agree: We need cartoon shorts on the big screen once again and not just for Pixar films!


  9. Couldn't hurt. Can only help, I think.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  10. When Tom and jerry full Movie stars is informative for me and everyone so thank you for sharing.


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