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"Puss Gets the Boot," "The Midnight Snack," "The Night Before Christmas," "Fraidy Cat," "Dog Trouble," "Puss N' Toots," "The Bowling Alley-Cat," Fine Feathered Friend," "Sufferin' Cats," "The Lonesome Mouse," "The Yankee Doodle Mouse," "Baby Puss," "The Zoot Cat," "The Million Dollar Cat," "The Bodyguard," "Puttin' On The Dog," "Mouse Trouble," "The Mouse Comes To Dinner," "Flirty Birdy," "Quiet Please!," "Springtime For Thomas," "The Milky Waif," "Trap Happy," "Solid Serenade," "Cat Fishin'," "Part Time Pal," "The Cat Concerto," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse," "Salt Water Tabby," "A Mouse in the House," "The Invisible Mouse," "Kitty Foiled," "The Truce Hurts," "Old Rockin' Chair Tom," "Professor Tom"
by Jefferson Robbins They're phenomenally enjoyable, but the conflict in Warner's Roadrunner cartoons comes down to a lively protagonist pitting himself against something that's not a character, nor even a "force of nature." Nature, in fact, is suspended; Wile E. Coyote is struggling with a quantum impossibility. When he sets out after his prey, he finds laws of matter, energy, and motion suspended and reversed. (At times, the Roadrunner appears to move at lightspeed or beyond.) The Coyote applies Acme™ science to the chase, but discovers science doesn't apply. The Roadrunner has no obvious inner life or larger goals, and seems to exist just to frustrate his pursuer. The Universe simply does not want the Coyote to catch this blankly-smiling creature with a void howling behind its eyes, and so he never will.
We're not so sure about Tom the cat. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera's "Tom & Jerry" cycle--the slapstick shorts that fertilized the duo's cartooning empire--predates Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner's first appearance by nine years, and is probably one of their antecedents. Tom's whole being is bent on the capture (and, we assume, consumption) of Jerry the mouse, and he chases his natural prey under Nature's laws. Thus, while Chuck Jones's Roadrunner oeuvre ups the ante in terms of slapstick physics, the stakes are higher for Tom and Jerry. Wile E. Coyote has no chance, but Tom's success is always imminent. Jerry, for his part, just wants to live unmolested with all the cheese he can eat, and the cat is a deadly nemesis he sometimes underestimates, to his peril.
When we first meet the two adversaries, in 1940's Puss Gets the Boot, Jerry is already at the cat's mercy, toyed with and marked for death. (The cat, in this first incarnation, is named Jasper--the "Tom and Jerry" monikers (and franchise name) would come the following year with the second short, The Midnight Snack.) It's such a simple concept that launches this odyssey: Tom is threatened with eviction by his owner, the racial caricature Mammy Two Shoes (more on her later), if just one more household item gets broken. ("O-W-T, out!" she says for emphasis.) Jerry makes his power play, setting out to break that one more item. This established the dynamic for the long-running cartoon series, its earliest segments collected here in the first volume of Warner's "Golden Collection."
With some variations across the 37 shorts included on two Blu-rays, it goes like this: Tom seeks Jerry's blood, Jerry struggles to survive, Jerry discovers an edge and exploits it, the chase goes on. The "Itchy & Scratchy" segments of "The Simpsons" are an obvious homage and a brilliant acknowledgement that the '40s shorts are riotously violent, yet they overlook the cartoons' heart. Beginning with 1941's holiday cartoon The Night Before Christmas, we realize that Tom and Jerry need each other. Each is left with an empty space in his life once the other is exiled from the house or won't rise to the bait. Their adversarial chemistry is tainted when some third party intrudes--an alley cat, a seductive female, Mammy herself--and they'll act together to remove the offender. One doubts that Bugs Bunny, opportunities for mischief aside, would bemoan a decision by Elmer Fudd to not shoot at him.
To look at these "made in Hollywood, USA" shorts, you'd never believe their creators would go on to develop the cheapest-looking mainstream animation known to that point, offshore the production work to Australia, and make a killing. As a kid, when "Tom & Jerry" shorts aired on one of our local UHF stations (we were late to cable), I'd look for Fred Quimby's producer credit to see if I wanted to watch or not. From a young age, it was clear to me that the output of the Quimby tenure, up to 1955, was far superior to what followed--I even preferred it to Chuck Jones's iconoclastic stewardship in the mid-'60s. The gags are better- conceived and timed in the early years, the watercolour backgrounds gorgeous, the synchronization of action, music, and sound effects (especially Tom's viscerally hilarious screams, courtesy of Bill Hanna himself) immaculate. "Tom & Jerry" cartoons are also distinct from the Looney Tunes output for being relative dumbshows: Tom and Jerry never speak in their own voices, yet somehow--credit to the animators--we always know exactly what's going on in their heads. When they do speak, it's either through an interlocutor, in song, or in the guise of a character, as in Tom's hipster rap to a lady puss in The Zoot Cat (1944). The shorts echo Warner's Bugs Bunny output through occasional flourishes of cross-dressing and interspecies same-sex romance, arising first in Flirty Birdy (1945), but that's a standby of '40s comedy in general. Billy Wilder did as much.
Another standby? Those blackface caricatures, which are at first restricted to Mammy. Her face is never seen, but from the hips down and through Lillian Randolph's all-star voicework, she's a stereotype to the core, today enshrined in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist History. Let's give the creators credit for positioning her as the homeowner of Tom and Jerry's luxe abode rather than as a mere domestic--but her stereotype gets sternly reinforced in The Lonesome Mouse (1943), when Jerry chases her up a stool and shakes her until she drops her dice, straight razor, and innumerable hairpins. (This is also the absolute funniest of the early shorts.) Later, as the pair moved beyond Mammy's house, the cartoons would nonetheless widen their embrace of minstrelsy. In The Milky Waif (1946), Jerry and the toddler mouse Nibbles slip away from Tom by corking up to look like mammy dolls, and Jerry indulges in black patois. Tom and the bulldog Spike survive an explosion and emerge with blackface and hair ribbons in The Truce Hurts (1948). And so on. These elements condemned "Tom and Jerry" to a strange TV limbo from the 1980s on, either edited and redubbed to soften racial wrongs or removed from syndication altogether. Later iterations of the cartoon avoided racial factors, but they also suffered horribly by comparison with their forebears.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner, the custodians of these MGM shorts, is aware of the problem, and while their decision to present them as originally released is a praiseworthy act of curation, the studio slaps a fat warning about the offending material at the start of both platters in this package. "These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today," the text acknowledges, but to reissue the cartoons expurgated "would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed." Not exactly, though I get the argument. This foreword sits on the screen for 45 seconds exactly and is not skippable. Once you hurdle it, the cartoons have all the vibrancy, colour, and kineticism I recall from those UHF days. Something is different, however, in this 1.37:1, 1080p incarnation: As with the recent "Peanuts" collection, the action comes off slightly jagged in spots, perhaps an unavoidable by-product of bringing classic animation into the HiDef realm. The upshot is that the chases seem somehow slower than they should, yet remain in perfect rhythm with Scott Bradley's outstanding musical scores. Still, the colour handling is rich enough to detect how Tom's coat warbles between grey and blue-blue in the early cartoons, before the animators settled on a distinct model. Though there's been evident digital cleanup, the shorts retain a filmic feel, with unobtrusive grain lending a warmth and aliveness. Adding to that, the removal of small flaws and scratches is restrained, so when a hair or smudge appears, it feels like part of the theatrical experience of a pre-feature cartoon. The sound comes through bright and clear in DD 1.0, doing justice to the wallops, gunshots, and hollers that are "Tom & Jerry"'s stock in trade. Likewise, Bradley's scores are well-curated. Again, this lossy, single-channel presentation suits the way audiences first experienced the shorts (whether at the cinema or on syndicated television in the '70s)--like the video elements, it's probably best that no one messed with this aspect too much.
Warner stocks the two discs with twelve commentary tracks, doubling them up on a couple of the episodes so that nine cartoons, in all, receive the treatment. Sad to say, they could have cut the yakkers teaming historian Earl Kress with comedic actress Nicole Parker ("MADtv")--they're ridden with silences and far, far less informative or interesting than those from other contributors speaking solo. Maybe if Kress and Parker were recorded separately they'd be less self-conscious...ah, well. Animation professionals Mark Kausler and Eric Goldberg give much better audio, as do scholars Mike Mallory and Jerry Beck. They can trainspot the early differences in Tom's design (he had a beard), trace why '40s cartoons depended heavily on exploding firecrackers (World War II), and name the fastest animator in MGM's stable (Ken Muse, who met his weekly quota of 25 feet of footage, at 66 drawings per foot, every Tuesday). Goldberg narrates the 1947 short The Cat Concerto, wherein Jerry ruthlessly thwarts Tom's efforts to play a Hungarian Rhapsody, which eventually won an Oscar--and led to a lawsuit in which Warner accused the Hanna-Barbera shop of capitalizing on a film-lab mix-up to rip off Friz Freleng's Rhapsody Rabbit. I found it disconcerting that I couldn't toggle into or out of the commentaries while a short was in progress; they have to be launched from the main menu, and cancelled out the same way.
Disc One's sole non-commentary supplement, "The Midnight Snack Pencil Test" (9 mins., SD), is the rough animation behind the second-ever "Tom & Jerry" release. It's adorably set to Bradley's final music and the finished F/X track, but I was surprised to learn how much of Mammy's patois ("If dat cat is in dat kitchen...") was written directly into these outlines. The real riches are found on Disc Two, even if the lead featurette, "How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry" (27 mins., SD), is abominably-narrated, opening with an unctuous "Once upon a time in a magical place called Hollywood ..." Ack! Find here deep biographical detail on Hanna and Barbera, from their tutelage and eventual breakaway from MGM animation head Rudolf Ising to the triumph of their cat-and-mouse games. Both men speak at length in interview sessions taped before their deaths (Barbera in particular is unafraid to take chunks out of old foes), and the scholars heard on the yak-tracks pop up for historical assessments and context. My favourite part is Barbera's grousing about the challenges involved in filming Jerry dancing with Gene Kelly for the famous "Worry Song" sequence in Anchors Aweigh--for instance, the fact that Kelly's fast-moving feet blurred, requiring Jerry's feet to be blurred as well. (That eight-minute sequence itself, with a talking Jerry, is also onboard in SD.) "We never made these for children, by the way," Barbera avers.
Which reminds me... For all of Warner's up-front hand-wringing, not a single featurette addresses Mammy or the other racial and ethnic friction points in these shorts. "Vaudeville, Slapstick and Tom & Jerry" (22 mins., HD) traces the roots of the physical comedy displayed in the 'toons, which should be sort of obvious. We're seven minutes into it before anybody starts talking about the way slapstick is transformed into an animated cartoon, or about Tex Avery's influence. It wanders astray from there. "The Comedy Stylings of Tom and Jerry" (5 min., SD) is comedians discussing the cartoons. Go watch the cartoons instead. Previews for decline-of-the-empire schlock like Tom & Jerry and The Wizard of Oz and Tom & Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes spin up on insertion, as do ads for the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory "40th Anniversary Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Collector's Edition" and the new Peanuts entry Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown. Originally published: March 13, 2012.