Monday, 27 May 2013

MGM’s Other Tom Cat

We all know about Tom and Jerry, the cat and mouse who won a bundle of Oscars for Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera at MGM. Their first cartoon was “Puss Gets the Boot,” released in 1940, although the cat wasn’t named Tom until the duo’s second cartoon, “The Midnight Snack,” released July 19, 1941.

However, there was another Tom Cat in development at the studio. Here’s a model sheet, dated October 3, 1940.

This was for Production 99, supposedly “Baby Puss,” a 1943 Tom and Jerry cartoon. But that’s decidedly not the T and J Tom, and the female cat on the sheet doesn’t appear in that cartoon. No, the sheet looks like it’s for “The Alley Cat,” a cartoon from the Hugh Harman unit with a release date two weeks before “The Midnight Snack.”

I can’t find any of the great poses in the model sheet in that cartoon, but here’s a frame of Tom Alley Cat.

It’s far from the cutsey woodland creature cartoons you think of when you hear Harman’s name. For one thing, it’s full of speed effects and comes to a violently loud ending. There’s perspective animation and interesting layouts that Harman loved. Here are two shots from opposing points of view, not only high and low, but poor side of town vs gleaming, modern art deco apartment tower.

The name “Moreno” on the model sheet, I’m presuming, belongs to Manuel Moreno. He was one of Walter Lantz’s top animators from about 1930 to 1937 and I had no idea he ended up at MGM.

Manuel M. Moreno was born in Mexico on August 30, 1908, the oldest of three children. The family moved to California in 1920. By 1940, Manuel was pulling down $4800 a year at MGM, had a nice home in North Hollywood, two daughters, a son and a housekeeper (not named Two-Shoes). His grandson wrote in the Los Angeles Times on May 16, 1998:
Manuel Moreno worked at Universal with Walter Lantz during the "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" years. He animated and directed at other studios, earned a solid reputation, and could have easily moved into a position at the studio of his choice. Instead, he fulfilled his dream to return to his native Mexico and launch a studio to make animated films in Spanish. Between 1943 and 1946, Caricolor Films made a few shorts--one in Technicolor with stereo sound, called "Me Voy de Caceria"--featuring his character Pelon. Stanford University now holds most of Moreno's notes, papers, photos and home movies, but the films made in Mexico have never resurfaced, since they were lost while searching for a distributor in Hollywood.
Moreno died in the Los Angeles area on January 8, 1992.

The design of Tom Alley Cat in this cartoon was borrowed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera for Butch who, as mentioned, appeared in “Baby Puss” and a number of other Tom and Jerrys. The girl cat was also borrowed by Hanna and Barbera and redesigned a bit for “Springtime For Thomas” (1946). Could it be they borrowed the name “Tom” from the Harman unit as well?

My thanks to Mark Sonntag for passing on word about the model sheet.


  1. And don't forget the other T&J character that came from that cartoon, Spike the bulldog!

  2. I think it was Leonard Maltin who noted that many of the Hanna-Barbera secondary characters were simply designs borrowed from earlier cartoons -- the goldfish used in 1951's Jerry and the Goldfish was from 1939's "The Little Goldfish", which was the first cartoon Rudy Ising did following his return to MGM. It's probably a credit to the design work at Metro in the late 1930s that any secondary character design could just be grabbed and used with little or no modification a dozen years later.

    As for "The Alley Cat", it's one of several Harman shorts at the time that you watch and see a great set-up for gags, but then Hugh somehow manages to blow the payoff by obsessing over showing the audience the animation instead of building up for a big finish -- there's speed and violence at the end, but like "The Lone Stranger" or "Abdul the Bubul-Amir", its an evenly-paced build-up that offers no sudden surprise gags like you'd seen in a Warners cartoon of the same period. Giving the cat a knock off of Donald Duck's voice also was not the smartest move in the world, but Hugh could mis-direct Mel Blanc, so MGM's voice work in their pre-Avery comedy efforts often left something to be desired.

    (And as a callback to one of last week's posts, Harman wouldn't figure out how to build up a cartoon to a big finish that was actually funny until he worked with Don Patterson on 1955's "Convict Concerto", which was Hugh's last theatrical animation credit, and, sadly, Patterson's final director's credit at Lantz).

  3. I guess, J.L., it's because this isn't the kind of cartoon that Harman would do if he had his way.
    The cat in "Ventriloquist Cat" has the same voice, so it wasn't just Harman. I suspect it's Harry Lang.

    1. Yep, Hugh's annoyance in having to follow Fred Quimby's demand to stop doing over-budget Disney style cartoons and start doing Warner-style shorts seeps through in just about every one of Harman's comedy efforts (having bolted from Leon Schlesinger over his stinginess and then being told to copy the cartoon style of Leon's studio also couldn't of been good for Hugh's substantial ego).

      Avery did use the pseudo-Donald voice, but (at least to me) it comes across as less of a lazy steal because the cat's throwing his voice there, and we've already heard his real voice at the start of the cartoon.

  4. Moreno's grandson Mario Prietto also left this post over at Mark Kausler's blog:
    "My grandfather is Manuel Moreno, and growing up with him as my abuelo was awesome! I’m not sure if you know a lot about what happened after his days at the Junior Times club, but he was very successful with Winkler, Lantz, Nolan, and later in Mexico. But Mexico did not go very well for him. He brought all his money, his family, equipment, and talent (Clyde Geronomini, Burness, others) but it was a very difficult time (1943-6) with the war rations, and Disney’s hegemony/megalomania, etc…. the stockholders to Caricolor Producciones could not wait for MM to hook up his Hollywood connex for distribution of PELON: ME VOY DE CACERIA, the first animated sound color animated film to be produced in Mexico (all under Moreno’s guidance)…. so, that’s the briefest version. He got very bitter, depressed, crushed, never worked in the industry again. Went to work as a color film lab on Beverly. Kept making 16mm films with animated segments in it, editing at home. Then the 1980’s home video revolution came and he got all nuts about that. A fun grandfather to have, a forgotten legend for whom I can hopefully help to get more recognition. We sold his papers to Stanford University and are part of the Latin American Archive, which I pasted here."
    He seems to have paraphrased his LA Times article a bit, but he expands on Moreno's career in Mexico and brings a fair share of interesting anecdotes about an unsung animation great.