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"The Yankee Doodle Mouse," "Solid Serenade," "Tee for Two," "Mouse in Manhattan," "The Zoot Cat," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse," "The Cat Concerto," "The Little Orphan," "Salt Water Tabby," "Kitty Foiled," "Johann Mouse," "Jerry's Diary," "Jerry and the Lion," "Mice Follies"
by Bill Chambers As I waded through Tom and Jerry's Greatest Chases, a perfectly enjoyable DVD compilation of postwar "Tom and Jerry" cartoons, I began to wonder why the eternally backbiting cat and mouse have not endeared and endured over decades to the extent that almost any combination of bickering Looney Toons has.
There are myriad explanations for this, starting with how we remember Bugs, Daffy, et al. as personalities we can imitate and emulate--any attempt to quote Tom or Jerry would quickly turn into a game of charades, as their stories are often told in a form of pantomime. (Even the Road Runner goes "meep meep.") Modern audiences, prone to dissecting all pop entertainment logically, are also frustrated by the notion that Jerry, minuscule compared to his foe, defeats Tom every single time. Derek Germano of The Cinema Laser believes that creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera have it backwards: we hate rodents, leave cheese-covered traps for them, so why are we continually asked to root for Jerry?
The answer has everything to do with Jerry being the smaller animal, and therefore the underdog--the food chain is material to the concept only insomuch as it gives Tom a reason to pursue Jerry. And pursue him. And pursue him. (Besides, didn't some suspender-wearin' fella named Mickey set the precedent for lovable cartoon mice long before Jerry came into being?) Frankly, I find Tweety Bird's repeated triumphs over Sylvester the Cat more obnoxious and worthier of disdain.
Admittedly, the animators weren't always successful at enabling Jerry in a plausible manner. In 1947's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse, Tom concocts a poison that has quite the opposite of its intended effect, causing Jerry's muscles to inflate until he dwarfs Tom. Yet when Tom samples the same mixture, he shrinks to a quarter of Jerry's size, for no discernible reason beyond the established politics of the series. It's less dramatic irony than it is a stacked deck.
A few shorts do acknowledge the absurdity of Jerry's pint-size superiority by teaming him up with an equally agile or significantly more threatening partner. A lion helps Jerry's cause in the lazily christened Jerry and the Lion (1950), while 1948's Kitty Foiled adds a canary to the mix. The chase formula received its fair share of innovations, too, to the series' credit. 1945's Mouse in Manhattan is a showcase for Jerry as he contends with traffic and other archetypal big-city dangers, having abandoned country life (and Tom) for the bright lights of New York. The same year's Tee for Two sees the contentious duo more or less playing a game of golf together. At one point, Jerry intimidates Tom into changing his strokes for a single hole from "3" to the more accurate "33." (What these last two shorts are doing in a collection called "Greatest Chases" is another matter.)
I want to highlight a trio of gems from this collection, though all 14 are worthy of at least one sitting: 1947's The Cat Concerto, which won an Oscar, is brilliantly executed. The pair duke it out as Tom performs a concert, and the action manages to be vivid and graceful without ever leaving the piano. The similarly themed Johann Mouse is closer to a diamond in the rough, although its scene of Tom taking "six easy piano lessons" is comedy of the highest order--one could ape this routine in a stage play and still bring down the house. Finally, The Zoot Cat (1944) earns points for its Tex Avery-style sight gags, such as Tom twirling a yo-yo so that its string spells out "Hi babe" to the object of his affection.
"Tom and Jerry"'s violent reputation has inspired censorship groups to theorize that it negatively impacts children. A greater cause for alarm, if you ask me, is "Pokémon", a currently-popular kid's show (at least it was, 15 minutes ago) that centres on a group of monsters who are predestined to fight one another--occasionally to the death, if Pokémon: The First Movie is any indication. (I've only seen the film.) Not only does "Pokémon" celebrate war, it's also animated without any grace--at the very least, the craft of Hanna-Barbera's work here has a shot at developing a youngster's aesthetic palate.
"Tom and Jerry" is harmless fun even at its most sadistic; the pair's tendency to wind up in blackface is more potentially offensive than any of the head-pounding and dynamite-swallowing. (As I said before, it's pretty inimitable behaviour, unless one has caseloads of TNT at her disposal.) 1943's Yankee Doodle Mouse is less lovable for this reason, as is 1949's The Little Orphan (another Oscar winner), which rehashes the Hattie McDaniel maidservant stereotype that Toontown had been slower to abandon than the rest of Hollywood--for the simple reason, I think, that it provides an archetypal shorthand. Those always make the animators' lives a little easier.
The various prints used for this one-disc collection are in need of proper restoration: the clarity of the format spotlights the celluloid wear-and-tear present in each and every single cartoon. Black level is often outstanding, though the colours appear washed-out at times, another sign of old age. Certainly packing fourteen shorts onto a single-layer platter isn't helping things. I'm preparing you for the worst, of course--I think most people, T&J fans in particular, will be pleasantly surprised by the generally fresh appearance of these classics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the DD 1.0 soundtrack has a brittle and edgy quality. Warner offers up a special bonus: the justifiably famous sequence from Anchors Aweigh in which Gene Kelly and Jerry dance "The Worry Song" together.
101 minutes total; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 1.0; CC; DVD-5; Region One; Warner