Friday, May 23, 2008

The Original Tom & Jerry

Movie pop culture is replete with live action and animated comedy teams which have met with varying degrees of success. While Laurel & Hardy are universally beloved by audiences, reaction to Abbott & Costello or The Three Stooges usually ranges from wildly enthusiastic to take ‘em or leave ‘em.

MGM’s Technicolor Tom & Jerry cat and mouse cartoons from the 1940s fall into the first camp, while the original Tom & Jerry cartoons from the early thirties fall into the second. In 1930 theatrical animation was scouting for fresh characters and concepts to assure success. With the economy in depression, a studio's survival depended on compelling screen content that would attract large audiences. Movie stars sold tickets -- and popular cartoon stars added greatly to the appeal of each show. Accordingly, Tom & Jerry became the first original cartoon stars to be developed by the Van Beuren studios for distribution by RKO.

The original T & J were created as human characters similar to Mutt & Jeff, with Tom drawn tall and lanky, and Jerry short and pudgy. Each had little personality, but loads of attitude and spunk. In some cartoons their personalities are blandly interchangeable with the humor derived from the action around them. In others Tom is distinctly nervous and passive, while Jerry is confident and mischievous or even mean-spirited.

With the coming of sound, animation pioneers who had honed their skills in silents had a powerful new voice to spice up their cartoon concoctions. Adding music and effects meant story lines could go in uncharted new directions. A popular song or melody could suddenly motivate characters in a single sequence or be the foundation for an entire cartoon. The studio hired bandleader Gene Rodemich to create original music scores and, with Jack Ward, coordinate and synchronize the music and effects with the output from the animators. From 1931 to 1933 under directors John Foster, George Stallings and others, the Van Beuren studio turned out 26 Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Before T & J became cartoon stars they had an earlier incarnation in four Van Beuren Aesop’s Fables cartoons produced prior to 1931 as Waffles the Cat and Don the Dog. Surprisingly, even after Tom & Jerry were established, the studio made one more attempt to bring back Waffles & Don in a 1932 cartoon called Magic Art.

The wild, bizarre humor and surreal characters that populate these cartoons bring to mind the animated content found in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, created by the popular 1960s British comedy team. The great joy of Monty Python, like the Tom & Jerry cartoons, is the comedy of the unexpected. If one particular outrageous sequence doesn't work for you, it’s over before you know it and the next one will have you rolling on the floor. The random plots in both series find humor in risqué gags and grotesque situations, like decapitations and dancing disembodied body parts.

In Swiss Trick (1931), a Swiss mountain man is walking a chunk of Swiss cheese on a leash. Tom & Jerry steal and eat the Swiss cheese only to break out with holes all over their bodies. When the mice get wind of this the chase is on for the mice to catch and eat Tom & Jerry. Very Pythonesque! In other T & J adventures artist Tom attempts to paint a dancing cow's portrait and plays a cash register like a piano. In a diner, eggs and sausages dance while being cooked in a skillet, meanwhile at the lunch counter an effeminate man with a macho voice asks the studly man sitting next to him to pass the salt, only to have the butch customer respond in a sissy falsetto.

Often the parts are better than the whole in these cartoons, and racial clichés do pop up from time to time associated with blacks, rabbis and Chinese stereotypes. But overall these cartoons hold up quite well with contemporary audiences and remain highly imaginative and entertaining diversions.

When the early Tom & Jerry cartoons were sold to television two decades after they were made, the cat and mouse Tom & Jerry had become an established hit with theatergoers, so the boys' names were changed to Dick & Larry for TV to avoid confusion.

Our friend and colleague Jerry Beck has much more info on the original Tom & Jerry on his Cartoon Research website, including a comprehensive filmography on all 26 cartoons written by David Gerstein and Pietro Shakarian.

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