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Tom & Jerry

Updated on July 5, 2015
John Lavernoich profile image

JOHN LAVERNOICH has written almost a dozen books, as well as various short stories and articles published both in print and on the Internet.

Since 1940, Tom & Jerry have not only been one of the greatest and most popular animated cartoon teams of all time -- but also the most honored, with seven of their MGM cartoon shorts winning Academy Awards, a feat long unequaled, even after the Golden Age of animation ended in the 1950s and 1960s, when television signaled a new era in entertainment history (and the same medium where Tom & Jerry's creators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, found even greater success).

Though the majority of the Tom & Jerry animated shorts produced during the characters' long history were violent (though there wasn't any bloodletting in them), they had much to offer in terms of not only superbly crafted story-lines, but also character personality that represented the best of the Golden Age of animation -- and a testament to the characters' enduring popularity.

Oddly enough, the first animated cartoon duo to call themselves Tom & Jerry wasn't the cat-and-mouse duo who would become international icons in the decades to come -- rather, it was a pair of animated cartoon humans who starred in a series of animated shorts produced by the Van Beuren animation studios between 1931-35 and released by RKO (which would later distribute Walt Disney's animated and live-action shorts/feature films from the late-1930s to the mid-1950s); one of the animators who worked on some of Van Beuren's Tom & Jerry shorts of the 1930s was Joseph Barbera. In the 1950s, when the Van Beuren animated shorts were first shown on TV, their Tom & Jerry characters were renamed Dick & Larry (to avoid confusion with MGM's Tom & Jerry).

The genesis of MGM's Tom & Jerry, however, really began when the studio itself started its own animation studio in 1934, by hiring the animation directing team of Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman, whose careers included working with Walt Disney's emerging animation studio in the 1920s and co-founding Warner Bros.' animation studio in 1930. By the time Ising and Harman formed MGM's animation studio in 1934, they had already left Warners and had briefly directed several animated shorts for the Van Beuren shorts. But though Ising and Herman's early MGM cartoon shorts were superior to their early Warners shorts in terms of animation, they left much to be desired, thus leading to MGM letting them go in 1937.

Two years later, in 1939, MGM re-hired Ising and Herman to direct animated cartoons, which would prove to be superior to their earliest efforts (including their MGM cartoons from a few years ago). In 1940, a year after Ising created Barney Bear, whose animated shorts would be a modest success for MGM throughout the 1940s and early-1950s, the animated short Puss Gets The Boot debuted in movie theaters, a cartoon credited to Ising -- but in reality, directed by the newly-formed animation directing team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The animated short introduced movie audiences to Tom & Jerry (initially named Jasper and Jinx for the short), in which the cartoon cat bedevils his rodent rival, with the latter triumphing over the former by the short's end -- thus setting up the formula that would fuel subsequent cartoons. Puss Gets The Boot also introduced Mammy Two-Shoes, the African-American housemaid seen from the waist down who was typical of the black stereotypes then seen in Hollywood feature films and short subjects (including animated shorts), which explains why some of Hanna and Barbera's Tom & Jerry shorts of the 1940's and 1950s which feature Mammy Two-Shoes are hardly ever seen on TV today. (When those cartoons who were first shown on TV in the 1960s, the character was re-drawn as an Irish-American woman to appease a new generation of audiences who supported the civil rights movement of that decade, in which African-Americans were finally treated as equals, not second-class citizens. In recent years, Mammy Two-Shoes' voice in those cartoons would be re-dubbed on TV in order not to offend modern audiences.)

Puss Gets The Boot became a hit with movie audiences in 1940, and went on to win an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short; it lost to The Milky Way -- another 1940 cartoon which, ironically enough, was also released by MGM. The success of Puss Gets The Boot also not only established Tom & Jerry as cartoon superstars, but also marked the beginning of the Hanna-Barbera partnership, which would eventually outlast other animation creative partnerships, including that of Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman, who left MGM in 1941, when Hanna and Barbera were already hitting their stride with their Tom & Jerry shorts, including The Midnight Snack (in which the cartoon duo officially received their proper names for the first time) and The Night Before Christmas, an Oscar-nominated short that was released on December 6, 1941 -- the day before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, which would bring the United States into World War II.

Two years later, Yankee Doodle Mouse (1943), inspired in part by the U.S. already taking part in World War II, would win an Oscar -- the first of seven Tom & Jerry shorts to win the coveted statuette, an impressive fate for any animated cartoon character that remains unsurpassed. (The six other Tom & Jerry shorts to win Oscars on and off over the next decade were Mouse Trouble [1944], Quiet Please [1945], The Cat Concerto [1946], The Little Orphan [1948], The Two Mouseketeers [1951], and Johann Mouse [1952].)

The fact that there wasn't any dialogue in many of the classic Tom & Jerry cartoons (except for the painful screaming by Tom when he suffered many a slapstick injury) worked to their advantage, and also complemented their action elements, given the fact that the characters themselves owed their success in part to classic silent film comics like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The visual style and humor of Hanna and Barbera's Tom & Jerry -- especially those from the late-1940s and 1950s -- also owed their success to the directing duo's MGM colleague Tex Avery -- who came to the studio in 1942 after helping to develop Porky Pig's personality and creating Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck at Warner Bros. -- whose innovations in animated cartoons during its Golden Age raised the bar of excellence for the industry itself.

The Tom & Jerry cartoons also developed a supporting cast of diverse characters who've remained as popular as the leads themselves. The Milky Waif (1946) introduced Nibbles, the hungry baby mouse -- though he's better known today as Jerry's nephew Tuffy (whose first appearance was actually in the first issue of Dell's Our Gang Comics in 1942 -- Our Gang being the popular movie comedy shorts originated by producer Hal Roach in 1922, and lasting until 1944). Dog Trouble (1942) introduced the cartoon bulldog who would eventually be called Spike by decade's end, when he gained a son in Tyke, the bulldog pup; not only would Spike and Tyke star in a pair of animated shorts without Tom & Jerry in the late-1950s, they would also inspire the creation of Hanna and Barbera's Augie Doggy & Doggy Daddy in 1959. And Little Quacker (1950) introduced the baby duckling who would inspire Yakky Doodle, another Hanna-Barbera TV creation who was introduced in 1961.

Some of Tom & Jerry's best moments on-screen would come, not in animated shorts, but in two MGM movie musicals during Hollywood's Golden Age. An animated Tom & Jerry would team up with a live-action Gene Kelly in a still-revered segment of Anchors Aweigh (1945) -- eight years after that, the cartoon duo appeared with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet (1953). The combination of live-action and animation in those musicals -- two of four that Hanna and Barbera did for MGM during the 1940s and 1950s -- remain impressive, decades before computer technology forever changed the face of motion pictures/

By the mid-1950s, Hollywood's Golden Age was coming to an end -- as well as that of the animated theatrical short. Some of the last Tom & Jerry animated shorts that Hanna and Barbera directed (and later produced) were released in CinemaScope, one of several emerging wide-screen film processes created during the 1950s to to help Hollywood compete with television's growing popularity. But by decade's end, rising costs and declining interest in motion picture short subjects would lead to MGM shutting down its animation studio. Hanna and Barbera's final Tom & Jerry cartoon for MGM, Tot Watchers, was released in 1958, roughly a year after the directing duo established their own animation studio.

In 1960, thanks in part to re-releases of many of the classic animated shorts of the 1940s and 1950s, Tom & Jerry made the first of several comebacks, with thirteen cartoons produced by William L. Snyder and directed by Gene Deitch, with the animation done in Czechoslovakia (when the Eastern European country was under Soviet domination). Though Snyder and Deitch's Tom & Jerry animated shorts left a bit to be desired in terms of animation (they were made on a tight budget), they still managed to turn out a profit for MGM, even as the studio's glory days were already fading during the 1960's.

Tom & Jerry's next comeback would occur when legendary animation director Chuck Jones moved to MGM in 1963, after spending almost thirty years at Warner Bros.' animation studio, and revived the cartoon duo, starting with Penthouse Mouse. Jones redesigned Tom & Jerry to suit his artistic temperament, taking several cues from his legendary Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons at Warners. Though the Tom & Jerry animated shorts of the mid-to-late-1960's were well-animated and well-designed (courtesy of layout artist Maurice Noble), Jones' efforts, like those of Gene Deitch a few years before, left much to be desired. The final Tom & Jerry animated short released during the 1960's was Purr-Chance To Dream (1967), directed by longtime Jones animator Ben Washam, when Jones was busy producing and directing animation projects for MGM, including the Oscar-winning The Dot & The Line (1965), and a pair of acclaimed TV specials based on Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel's How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hears A Who! Jones and his animation staff also created the framing sequences that were a part of the Tom & Jerry TV show that first aired on CBS in the fall of 1965, and which featured the classic Hanna and Barbera shorts of the 1940s and 1950s.

It wasn't until 1975 when Tom & Jerry were revived in a Saturday morning TV series that aired on ABC for two seasons (and which they shared with the Great Grape Ape and Mumbley) -- courtesy of their original creators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But the final result was unsuccessful for several reasons -- including the fact that the comic violence that was an essential part of the classic theatrical shorts were totally absent, since it wasn't allowed on network TV at this time (and that was in the twenty-plus years before the TV ratings system was first implemented). In 1980, Filmation revived Tom & Jerry for yet another Saturday morning TV series which aired on CBS for two seasons (and which also featured longtime MGM cartoon stars Droopy and Barney Bear), but fared no better than Hanna and Barbera's revival in the mid-1970s.

By 1986, as TV and the home video market helped introduce Tom & Jerry to a new generation of audiences, Ted Turner bought both MGM and United Artists, as they briefly became part of his growing media empire. In the end, however, Turner was forced to sell both MGM and UA -- leaving him with the majority of MGM's film library, including the Tom & Jerry cartoon shorts which were now airing on many of Turner's cable TV channels. (In 1996, Time Warner, the owner of Warner Bros., bought Turner's media empire, including the pre-1986 MGM film library.)

In 1990, Tom & Jerry returned to Saturday morning TV with Tom & Jerry Kids, which aired for four seasons on FOX. The TV series, in which the cartoon duo were now re-imagined as youngsters, was their first on-screen appearance since Ted Turner acquired most of MGM's film library. Tom & Jerry Kids was also one of the last animated TV shows produced by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera's animation studio, before the majority of its TV properties fell under first Ted Turner's, then Time Warner's ownership.

In 1992, Tom & Jerry returned to motion picture screens in the animated movie musical Tom & Jerry: The Movie, directed by Phil Roman, who animated some of the cartoon duo's final theatrical cartoons during the 1960's -- but the end result was less than successful, partly because the film's storyline didn't adhere to the parameters that Hanna and Barbera established when they created Tom & Jerry in 1940.

In the present century, Tom & Jerry have enjoyed a successful comeback, not only with several animated shorts (including The Karate Guard [2006]) and ten direct-to-video animated movies (some of them co-produced by William Hanna and/or Joseph Barbera prior to their deaths), but also the animated TV series Tom & Jerry Tales, which aired on the CW Network from 2006-08 -- and currently, The Tom & Jerry Show, which airs on Cartoon Network, with both shows inspired in part by the classic animated shorts from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Currently, Warner Bros. is planning to produce a Tom & Jerry theatrical feature film that'll explore how the cartoon duo first met -- how it'll fare if and when it does get released remains unknown. In the meantime, the classic Tom & Jerry animated shorts continue to entertain today's generation of audiences, as well as those who grew up watching them, while giving them renewed appreciation for the era in which they first appeared.

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