USA / 1951
The MGM Cartoon Studio studio began in 1930 by releasing Ub Iwerks creation Flip the Frog after the Disney star animator had been tempted away, but neither this series or Iwerks later Willie Whopper was a huge success and in 1933 MGM turned to directors Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, who had recently split from producer Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros due budgetary disagreements. This was seemingly the catalyst to MGM becoming a major player in animation, and later in the 1940s when Disney lost interest in shorts to concentrate on features and Fleischer studios went bankrupt, MGM became Warners’ main rivals.
Harman and Ising poached artists like William Hanna and Robert and Tom McKimson from Warners and so began a merry go round of personnel (and sometimes cartoon stars) between the studios. In 1937 Harman/Ising walked out again after more budget disputes and MGM hired novice producer Fred Quimby to replace them. Quimby raided more studios for experienced artists but, still unable to establish hit characters, he re-hired Harman and Ising. Soon after this Harman, in a moment of what turned out to be pure genius, teamed storyboard artist and character designer Joseph Barbera with director William Hanna to make their first cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot.
The short concerned a cat called Jasper trying to catch a mouse, nothing radical there and no one thought it was anything special until it unexpectedly turned out to become a huge hit. After that not only did Puss gets the Boot go on to get nominated for an Academy Award but it gave birth to several of animation’s most successful and best loved partnerships; Hanna and Barbara, one of the most successful creative teams in animation history and Tom and Jerry, two of the most popular cartoon characters of all time.
The stories were almost entirely the work of Barbara, one of the most creative forces in animation history, of whom Hanna said, “He has the ability to capture mood and expression in a quick sketch better than anyone I’ve ever known.” The animator Michael Lah said, “Hanna loved cutesie stuff . . . Joe was the other way, wild as hell.” Barbara’s ability to conceive inventive gags, plus his animation skills, complemented Hanna’s flair for timing and story construction, and putting a team of artists together, and the pair struck up a working relationship that would last most of their careers.
In Puss Gets the Boot Jasper’s design is quite different from what would later become the look for Tom. Jasper’s body is more kitten-like, with a rounder face, fluffier fur, and bigger feet, although, somewhat contradictorily, Jasper’s face is also more aggressive and adult. The design of the unnamed mouse in the cartoon is virtually unchanged from the later look of Jerry however. One difference is that we hear the mouse saying a prayer in a squeaky little voice, whereas a familiar characteristic of the pair in future years was their speechlessness ( although occasionally voices are heard, such as Tom singing Spike the bulldog to sleep in Quiet Please (1945). The Puss Gets the Boot story follows the now-familiar path of the mouse managing to turn the tables on the bullying cat, this time by breaking, or threatening to break, the glass and crockery in the house after the cat is told (by Mammy Two-Shoes , the maid whose feet are all we ever see of her) that he will be evicted if there are any more breakages.
After the success of Puss Gets the Boot, Hanna and Barbara were set to work making more shorts about the cat and mouse. A competition was held among MGM staff to choose a new name for the duo, and Tom and Jerry was selected. They became MGM’s most popular characters and are among the most famous and popular of all cartoon personalities. Tom and Jerry cartoons are considered to have been at their peak in the mid-forties, when story ideas, gags and personality all came together in a string of miniature masterpieces. The theatre shorts were made right up until 1967 and after that were created for television, with the TV production ongoing, although sporadically for specials and commercials, to the present day.
The quality of Tom and Jerry cartoons makes it very difficult to choose just one for a list like this, so I’m going through a few stand outs before I choose my favourite.
In 1941, The Night Before Christmas was released, a cartoon in which the Rudolf Ising’s influence of sentimentality on William Hanna is more to the fore as Tom softens when Jerry kisses him under the mistletoe, but it still proved a hit and won the team a second Oscar nomination. 1942 produced the stunning Bowling Alley Cat, which not only had great sight gags but some of the most beautiful visuals, with the reflections of the characters seen racing round the gleaming bowling alleys. Tom and Jerry’s first Oscar came with Yankee Doodle Mouse (1943), using the winning idea of combining Tom and Jerry’s ultra violence with army weaponry. The arrival of Tex Avery at the studio in 1941 encouraged a further increase in pace and aggression and in Fine Feathered Friend (1942), Jerry twice nearly decapitates Tom’s with hedge clippers, the kind of antics that would cause censorship on TV in later decades due to parental concerns about subjecting their little ones to small screen mayhem.
Quiet Please (1945) won the team their second Oscar and the same year bought Mouse in Manhattan; Scott Bradley’s excellent musical scoring for Tom and Jerry is often overlooked but it reached new heights here as Jerry leaves the country to try his luck in New York, with predictably mixed results. A third Oscar and more musical excellence was awarded for Cat Concerto (1947), one of the team’s most fondly remembered works, in which Tom is a hilariously pompous concert pianist whose performance of one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies is sabotaged by Jerry, who had been sleeping inside the piano, the battle brilliantly timed to the music as they chase around the piano keys. Mouse Cleaning (1948), a reworking of Puss Gets the Boot with some excellent gags won another Oscar for the series, and two more came for Two Mouseketeers (1952) and Johann Mouse (1953).
The team had also worked on feature films, starting with their collaboration with Gene Kelly for George Sidney’s musical Anchors Aweigh, in which Kelly performed a brilliantly joyous and innovative dance duet with cartoon Jerry – ironically, though Hanna and Barbera were “house” animators at MGM, Kelly had first requested the services of Disney, who declined. George Sidney then asked the team to provide an animated opening for his musical, Holiday in Mexico (1945), and later Tom and Jerry swam alongside Esther Williams in Charles Walters’s Dangerous When Wet (1953). The team worked with Kelly again when they created a whole segment of his portmanteau movie Invitation to the Dance (made in 1952 but released in 1957), later released on its own as a short feature titled The Magic Lamp.
My personal favourite Jerry’s Cousin (1951) seems a slightly controversial choice as it was made outside what is considered the forties heyday and doesn’t feature in most of the best of Tom and Jerry lists you’ll find online. It also doesn’t feature the often seen third characters of Mammy Two-Shoes or Spike the dog, who are always welcome additions, but it is mainly set within the house, where I think the best Tom and Jerry battles are located and it does introduce a new funny character, Muscles.
Jerry’s Cousin is the 57th Tom and Jerry short and was again nominated for the Academy Award, which it lost to UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing, perhaps a factor in Hanna and Barbaras later adaptation of many of UPA’s methods. We first see a tough guy mouse (Muscles) in the big city, mercilessly dispatching a gang of alleycats. He receives a letter asking for help from his cousin Jerry and sets of for the country where Jerry is being terrorised by Tom. There follows an excellent series of gags where Tom is beaten up in a multitude of surreally violent ways, his body often ending up twisted into the shapes relating to his instruments of torture, a vase or a bowling ball and at one point having live bullets shoved in his eyes and then detonated, an act deemed too much for it’s Cartoon Network screenings of the 1990s where it was censored out. The short ends with Tom subdued into kissing Muscles feet and when Muscles sets off back to the city he leaves Jerry an identical costume so that the mouse worship continues. Ray Paterson, animator on many of the best Tom and Jerry’s, provided many of the key visual moments.
By the mid-fifties, budget restrictions caused a distressing reduction in quality. In 1955 MGM put Hanna and Barbera in charge of their own cartoon division, but it closed in 1957 (the last Tom and Jerry cartoon, released that year, was Tot Watchers) and the pair cashed in their MGM pensions in order to start their own company and make cartoons for television.
As for their working method from which magic was born, Gus Arriola, a gag man for their team, said: “Barbera came up with about 75 per cent of the gags. He would inspire the rest of us to come up with material, because he was so fast.” Animator Jack Hannah added “Bill Hanna wrote the exposure sheets…Joe could sit with a pencil and ideas would come off the end of his pencil as quickly as he could move it”. Another animator Irven Spence told Leonard Maltin, author of ‘Of Mice and Magic’ (1980),“Bill and Joe had it all planned out, with Joe’s thumbnail sketches and Bill’s timing, before the animators ever got it. When they would hand out the work to the animators, they would act out the entire picture, in a very hammy fashion, which seemed exaggerated when they would do it, but it was just right for animation.” As Maltin wrote “Tom chasing Jerry is the ritual of the series. But somehow the audience realises that when all is said and done, the cat doesn’t want to eat the mouse; it’s the thrill of the chase that counts. There is an underlying bond between Tom and Jerry that gives these cartoons tremendous strength and likeability.”
Hanna and Barbera spent 15 years working for MGM on Tom and Jerry cartoons, in thier time at the forefront for technical skill and quality of gags, winning seven Oscars and 14 nominations. After MGM’s animation unit closed down in 1957, Hanna and Barbara formed their own production company with the intention of creating animation for the new medium of television. With an eye on the modest success of the first television cartoon series, Crusader Rabbit, they first produced The Ruff & Reddy Show (1957), an idea they had developed at MGM but had been turned down. A year later they hit the jackpot with The Huckleberry Hound Show.
Taking the UPA stripped-down, limited animation model but dispensing with the high style, Hanna-Barbera productions became an animation factory that dominated television animation for the next few decades. Hanna-Barbera’s television budgets were a fraction of the average budgets for theatrical shorts that they’d had at MGM and the adaptation to this meant that they became known as the kings of ‘limited animation’, leading Warner Bros. legend Chuck Jones somewhat unkindly to describe their work as “illustrated radio.”
After Huckleberry Hound, Hanna-Barbera Productions produced many more hit shows, which will be, along with their catchy theme tunes, instantly familiar to anyone alive in that era. Yogi Bear was a support act from The Huckleberry Hound Show, but soon became stars in their own right, even spawning a feature film Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear (1964) (and the inevitable CGI ‘realistic’ abomination in 2010, which is best not dwelled on). The Flintstones (1960) and then The Jetsons (1963) were basically the first animated sitcoms, set in the prehistoric era and the space age.
In the late 1960s, the company produced more notable hits such as Scooby Doo, Wacky Races, and the live-action/animation psychedelic experience The Banana Splits And Friends Show. These are just a few of the many Hanna-Barbera hit shows that, while based on cheap and limited animation, managed to maintain a funny and memorable watchability due to the writing, characters, and the catchy tunes that created a bubblegum pop culture freshness with every new flavour that came off the production line.
As for Tom and Jerry, the series was revived by MGM in 1961 and briefly farmed out for a year to ex UPA director Gene Deitch, then based in in Czechoslovakia, with mixed results, and then later taken over by Chuck Jones from 1963-67 at his own Sib Tower 12 Productions company, with another not altogether welcome change of style. None of these later attempts managed to recapture the magic of the Hanna-Barbera shorts, although to be fair the budgets were much reduced.
William Hanna died in 2001 and Joseph Barbara in 2006 but their legacy in animation and popular culture is immense; in fact its hard to imagine anyone in modern society who isn’t familiar with the cartoon characters they created.
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!