Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Evolution of Tom and Jerry

They won seven Oscars. But did anyone notice. Or care?

Tom and Jerry came along in 1940. In the 1930s, critics fell all over themselves praising the Walt Disney cartoon shorts. Other cartoon studios made imitation versions of them. Then came Snow White in 1937. Everyone stopped talking about cartoon shorts and heaped praise and attention on Walt Disney’s features through the 1940s. So, Tom and Jerry, despite all the Academy Awards and a rather impression body of work, were comparatively flying below the radar.

To be honest, Tom and Jerry got more publicity after the MGM cartoon studio was closed than when it was open. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera moved from theatrical to TV animation, and the unexpected hit of The Huckleberry Hound Show brought a wealth of publicity for the Hanna-Barbera studio. Bill and Joe never let an interview pass without a reminder that they weren’t running some kind of rinky-drink, cut-rate operation. After all, they were the guys responsible for seven Oscar-winning cartoons. And they reminded people of that in interview after interview after interview for years.

In-depth newspaper features on Tom and Jerry prior to 1957 seem few and far between. But we’ve come across this one from January 24, 1956 in the Christian Science Monitor. It mentions Hanna and Barbera but quotes from Hal Elias, who seems to have been the main lot’s eyes, ears and nose on the cartoon division after Fred Quimby retired. My educated guess is that it was Elias who was “the accountant” Joe Barbera once said was the one who got the initial word the cartoon studio was closing. And, for whatever reason, the last paragraph that refers to the short Good Will To Men omits the fact the cartoon was a rehash of a 1939 MGM cartoon made by Hugh Harman.

Cat and Mouse Win Oscars

The greatest stars in Hollywood today—by Oscar-reckoning—are two masters of make-believe mayhem known as Tom and Jerry.
Nobody knows how many times this durable cat and irrepressible mouse have flattened each other by means of some device that would dismember anybody else.
And hardly anybody, even in Hollywood, realizes that they have won seven Oscars. This makes them supreme, not only in the cartoon world, but in the whole wide world of Hollywood performers.
If stars are rated by the number of their Academy Awards, Tom and Jerry have a right to look down on Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. Two Oscars look pretty sparse compared to seven—or even three and a half.
As for all those statuettes in Walt Disney’s outer office, Hal Elias, manager of M-G-M’s short subjects department, gently but firmly explains that “no other cartoon character has won more than one award—not even Donald Duck.”
Meanwhile Tom and Jerry just go on forever—propelling each other from frying pans into fires, out of windows, through walls.
The terrible cat and the impudent mouse have changed somewhat since they won their first Oscar in 1943. (That was for “Yankee Doodle Mouse,” in which a Fourth of July them was carried out by having Jerry fly through the air in an egg crate labeled “hen grenades.”) For one they, they have slimmed down a little. That’s to be expected, considering what they go through.
They have also become more cultured, which you wouldn’t expect at all. Tom, besides graduating early to hind-leg locomotion, has played, with aplomb, the role of a concert pianist. Jerry, bright boy that he is, has taken to speaking French.
The inordinate and inexplicable enthusiasm which spread through theater audiences in response to this new wrinkle in Jerry’s vocabulary has meant that “Two Mousekeeters” was followed by “Touché Pussycat,” “Tom and Cherie” (cartoonists never could resist an irresistible title), and sooner or later, “Toujours Pussycat.” Public approval is not the only reason, by the way, for rushing out mousketeer sequels. The six-year-old mademoiselle from France who actually speaks Jerry’s lines is rapidly losing not only her youth but her accent.
* * *
Other global adventures have been given a boost by these Gallic successes. “Neapolitan Mouse” was made some time ago. “Mucho Mouse” will no doubt meet a bill in Madrid. It should be further noted—in some awe—that the basic pantomime of Tom and Jerry cartoons can be seen in the theaters of 58 countries of the free world.
I thought maybe if I brushed up on my “bon jours” I could weather an interview with their genial, bloodthirsty pair. But I was resolutely shielded from any direct encounter. Mr. Elias indicated that I would emerge with more information—and possibly with more breath—if I had a quiet talk with the men who do the drawing.
Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera both started out in life to do something else. Mr. Barbera was comfortably installed in the Irving Trust Company on Wall Street, taking care of income tax returns for 1,6000 trust accounts. He was doing freelance magazine cartoons, however, “on the side.” Somebody once suggested that he look into an animated film company in New York, and shortly afterward he was lost to the banking business.
Mr. Hanna graduated from the University of Southern California with a minor in journalism and a major in engineering. While he was acting as a structural engineer for the Pantages Theater building (now the scene of Academy ceremonies), he fell off the girders a couple of times, and got less and less excited about a construction career. Somebody suggested animated films, and he signed up for art school. He also got a job washing “cells” (individual cartoon frames) for Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, known as the “Harman-Ising” cartoonists.
After Mr. Barbera joined this melodious group and began working with Mr. Hanna, their division of labor worked out handily. The journalist-engineer now plans story outlines in detail and uses his slide-rule on the timing of sequences and music. The artist and tax expert takes major responsibility for roughing out the basic sketch-book, and incidentally keeps an eye on the expense of designing backgrounds.
This year they are expanding. Now that CinemaScope is firmly established, Metro has announced the addition of a second unit in the cartoon department [headed by Mike Lah, Hanna’s brother-in-law]. Last year there were only 12 new cartoons and 14 reissues. This year there will be 16 new ones, as in the past, and 24 are in preparation for the season to follow (8 of them remakes of old successes), all in CinemaScope.
* * *
Tom and Jerry, incidentally, are developing a new and friendly sense of buddy responsibility. In “Busy Buddies” they take care of a baby who has been left to the tender mercies of a telephone-happy teen-age baby sitter; they rescue the tiny explorer from many a perilous adventure. “Spike and Tyke” (bulldogs large and small) are moving out of the series to start one of their own.
There will be no riding to glory on an Oscar this year. Mr. Elias and his staff have surprised everybody by choosing for Academy exhibition an unusual “message cartoon.” Produced by the former head of the shorts department, Fred Quimby, it shows post-atomic mice singing Christmas songs in a ruined chapel. An elderly organist, leading the mouse choir rehearsal with his sensitive tail, stops long enough to try to describe to the little ones how “men” extinguished one another. Flashbacks of war contrast grimly with passages he points out in “their” Bible. “Too bad,” he sighs, “that they didn’t pay more attention.”


  1. MacCann made a few mistakes and omissions in this article. "Toujours, Pussycat" was not made, perhaps it became "Royal Cat Nap"? Francoise Brun-Cottan did not do Jerry's voice in the Mouseketeers series, but did the speaking for Nibbles or Tuffy. Janet Waldo was the voice of the "telephone-happy, teen-age baby sitting" (sitter).

  2. Hi, Mark. Janet Waldo insisted she never even thought about doing cartoons until the Jetsons when her agent approached her about it. Someone suggested it was Julie Bennett, and it sounds more like her than it does Waldo to me.
    I wouldn't be surprised if MGM changed the title of "Toujours Pussycat." The studio changed a number of working titles over the years.
    Thanks for catching the transcription error.