Today sees the 75th Anniversary of the release of Puss Gets the Boot, an animated short most notable for being the first appearance of the famous cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry. Chances are you have seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon at some point in your life, or at the very least, that you’ve heard about the characters’ existence. However, despite being remembered by the public, Tom and Jerry cartoons are not discussed on the same vein as some of their contemporaries. There are a few names that always pop up when you ask an animation buff like myself about classic theatrical shorts: Tex Avery, Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones, and, of course, Walt Disney. Tom and Jerry rarely, if ever, come up in such discussions.
The last time Tom and Jerry made the news wasn’t long ago, when their original shorts produced by MGM during the 1940s made their way onto Amazon, and the streaming service so it fit to stick a disclaimer before the cartoons, warning about the offensive racial depictions features in some of them. Most specifically, they were talking about Mamie Two-Shoes, a mammy-type character that appears in the early shorts as Tom’s caretaker and is very clearly an offensive black stereotype. However, such insensitive racial depictions are not exclusive to Tom and Jerry. Basically all major cartoon studios indulged in such offensiveness back in the forties, from some Looney Tunes shorts to Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Beyond that minor news item, I don’t I’ve seen any film critic or animation enthusiast ever write an analysis of Tom and Jerry. This was, of course, not always the case. In fact, the Tom and Jerry cartoons were not only the most popular animated series of the forties, but the characters responsible for launching the careers of two men whose names will ring the ears of those familiar with animation history: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
Hanna and Barbera were both animators at MGM when they were teamed up to come up with new cartoon ideas. Barbera pitched the story of a mouse called Jinx, who discovers a way to turn the tables on Jasper, the cat that is trying to catch him. That pitch became Puss Gets the Boot, which was released on February 10, 1940, and nobody really seemed to care. The MGM animators weren’t surprised, after all, the idea of a cat-and-mouse cartoon wasn’t very original. But while Hanna and Barbera were working on other projects, Puss Gets the Boot was becoming somewhat of a sleeper hit, culminating in it being nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short in early 1941. Once Oscar took notice, producer Fred Quimby didn’t bat an eye before ordering Hanna and Barbera to turn this cat-and-mouse thing into a series.
114 shorts were produced and released by MGM between 1940 and 1958. Thirteen of them were nominated for Best Animated Short, and seven of them won. This means that half of the Animated Short winners of the 1940s were Tom and Jerry cartoons. Why then, do we not talk about these cartoons the way we do about Daffy Duck, or even Mickey Mouse cartoons? The easy answer is that history doesn’t always favor the things that were once popular, but this most likely has to do with the legacy Hanna and Barbera built for themselves once they stopped working on Tom and Jerry.
In 1957, MGM, like most studios at the time, decided to close down their animation department. Suddenly, the animators behind Tom and Jerry were out of work, and there were no movie studios interested in producing short-form cartoons anymore. The next step was clear: Hanna and Barbera became pioneers in producing original animated material for television, which up until that point had been broadcasting old theatrical cartoons. Now, television budgets were considerably lower than what Hanna and Babera were used to work with at MGM, and so, they indulged in a technique known as “limited animation”.
The name “limited animation” is pretty self-explanatory. It’s not as much a technique as an economic necessity when you don’t have big budgets. In order for animated characters to move, you need animators to draw hundreds of drawings, which means hours of work, which means paying them for all those hours. What Hanna and Barbera did was have their cartoons move as little as possible, so that they could keep a low budget. The result were shows where characters spend more time talking than they do “doing” things. These are the shows in which you see characters running and the moving background behind them shows the same drawings over and over again. Some of the shows that Hanna-Barbera produced during this time include The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Flintstones.
The critique leveled against this type of animation is a very obvious one. The less movement and the more dialogue you have in your animation, the less cinematic it feels. Now, limited animation doesn’t necessarily mean a lesser product. The best example of this is the 1950 short Gerald McBoing Boing, which actually uses limited movement to its advantage, creating a modern pop-artsy look, and deriving comedy out of its static drawings.
Sadly, the same can’t be said about Hanna and Barbera’s usage of limited animation. You’ve probably seen some of their cartoons at the time. Most of them were produced for very cheap, and under a very rushed schedule, which made them repetitive and relatively uncreative. The producers’ motto at the time seems to have quantity over quality. Hanna-Barbera basically kept a monopoly on television animation for more than twenty years, and although some of their programs were pretty good, most of them weren’t very exciting or challenging.
It makes sense that animation fans hold the television career of Hanna-Barbera at relatively low esteem, but why ignore their theatrical career, too? Well, I think the answer to that is Tex Avery. You see, Avery was working at MGM at the same time Hanna and Barbera were producing the Tom and Jerry shorts, and every animation buff will agree that Avery was a much stronger creative voice. He is, after all, responsible for some of the most iconic moments in animation history. He is also responsible for adding an element of surreal violence to our mainstream cartoons. Tom and Jerry shorts were violent for the start, but as the series goes on, they become more and more influenced by Avery’s surreal style of violence. Avery is an auteur, and in comparison, Hanna and Barbera are a couple of hacks favored by the Academy while the real genius was ignored.
But are Hanna and Barbera really hacks? Some of the Tom and Jerry shorts are definitely better than others. My favorite is The Cat Concerto, in which Jerry tries to sabotage Tom’s performance of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”, but that is a rather unusual setting for a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Most of them feature Tom chasing Jerry around the house and trying to catch him. While there are some variations on the formula, watching many Tom and Jerry shorts in a row can become very repetitive, and I think the key is in the substance.
I will explain that last sentence with a comparison that you probably saw coming. I mean, there is no talking about repetitive cartoons without talking about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The setup in these shorts is clear: the Coyote wants to eat the Road Runner, and so, he chases after him. All Road Runner shorts are very similar to each other, but they have a philosophical undercurrent to them that is perfectly summed up in this Weird Al Yankovic quote: “It’s a sad, depressing story about a pathetic coyote who spends every waking moment of his life in the futile pursuit of a sadistic road runner who mocks him and laughs at him as he’s repeatedly crushed and maimed! Hope you enjoy it!”
It’s incredibly depressing to think of the Coyote that way, but his is a quest that speaks to our deepest human urges. Suddenly, the fact that the shorts are similar to each other, and that the same shit happens over and over again to this poor unfortunate soul becomes part of the comedy, and part of the appeal. Repetitiveness becomes genius. That is the essential thing lacking from Tom and Jerry. Some of their cartoons might be really good, but the reason why we’re not talking about them is because there really isn’t all that much to talk about.
And still, even if we don’t really talk explicitly about Tom and Jerry, the impact of these cartoons is immeasurable. More than any other animated short series, it has shaped how we look and understand animated comedy. When The Simpsons had to come up with a cartoon for Bart and Lisa to watch, they came up with a Tom and Jerry parody. When Robert Zemeckis wanted to open Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a typical cartoon of the time, he shaped it in the image of Tom and Jerry. These might not be the best cartoons ever made, but they’ve won their own kind of reward, and it’s that when we think of the quintessential classic cartoon… it looks like Tom and Jerry.