In 1936, Jack Zander, Bill Littlejohn and Joe Barbera were working for New York’s not-very-respected Van Beuren cartoon studio. A few years later, there were at the top-of-the-line MGM studio, turning out first-rate animation that could hold its own with anyone.
The Night Before Christmas (1941) is a real charming cartoon, with beautiful settings, well-executed special effects and loads of expression in Tom and Jerry. Van Beuren only made cartoons like this in their dreams.
After a pan over a lovely room filled with a fireplace, bookshelves, a Christmas tree and presents (some of which are in silhouette on an overlay), we come to rest at a mouse hole. Narrator Frank Graham quietly purrs the opening lines of the famous poem and when he reaches “Not even a mouse,” Jerry pokes his head out of the hole, then smells some cheese.
The mouse has easily-recognised emotions in this scene. He won’t fall for the cheese trap laid out for him, then spots something delightful off screen. I don’t think I need to say much more. The pictures can tell the story.
Barbera’s well-constructed story comes back to the mouse trap at the end. It turns out to be a Christmas music box. Tom really did leave the cheese as a present.
Zander was the animator of this scene and (along with his assistant and in-betweeners) did a fantastic job in various scenes throughout the cartoon. Littlejohn, George Gordon, Cecil Surry and Irv Spence contributed some great animation, too. Unfortunately, I don’t know who painted the backgrounds in this cartoon. It may have been Bob Gentle, but Barbera and Bill Hanna had other background artists in their unit as well.
Variety reported the cartoon opened at Grauman’s Chinese and Loew’s State on December 11, 1941. Juxtapose the peaceful message of this cartoon with the bombing of Pearl Harbor only days earlier.
My thanks to Keith Scott, the ne plus ultra of voice experts, for identifying Frank Graham.