Over the summer, I posted a rough draft of what I called a “Reading Guide” for Tom and Jerry. You know. The cat and mouse cartoon. I've since rewatched the series and revised my picks and criteria, so here's “Version 2”.
(Also, apparently something happened with the latest DTV Tom and Jerry movie? Apparently it went mememtic this summer without me noticing?)
I've been thinking a lot lately about the history of animation, particularly during the Golden Age, these past few months for a variety of reasons. I used to watch theatrical shorts all the time on Cartoon Network and I have a real affinity for that genre, but I think I've come to the conclusion now that Tom and Jerry is probably my favourite out of all the Golden Age series. Naturally, it's the most controversial one.
Some of the criticism I find perfectly understandable. Some of it I find utterly preposterous and born from media illiteracy. But to take the more valid complaints, while there are certainly some pretty appallingly racist shorts in the Tom and Jerry catalog I tend to find this disproportionately overemphasized in modern criticism, making it seem like racist jokes and stereotypes made up far more of a percentage of Tom and Jerry's humour than they actually did. I don't actually find Tom and Jerry to be on average worse on stuff like this than Disney or Warner Brothers' output, it just looks worse for Tom and Jerry because MGM never outright banned any of their most egregious outings like the competition did (I would count WB's “Censored 11” as far and away worse for the time than just about anything Tom and Jerry ever did, and that Disney's Peter Pan was allowed to skirt by unchallenged is a resounding source of ire for me).
On the whole, Tom and Jerry comes across to me as the most consistently creative, inventive and reliably excellent series in the entire Golden Age. I don't think Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera always get quite the credit they deserve for sticking around the industry as long as they did (especially when their rivals were starting to visibly flounder), or for being the gifted comedic talents this series demonstrably shows them to have been. Other studios had a much harder time grasping the cartoon morality (let alone comic timing) Tom and Jerry perfected. And I was very surprised to see that Chuck Jones' run on Tom and Jerry seems to be held in such low esteem by both Chuck Jones fans *and* Tom and Jerry fans: For someone who claimed to not understand the characters, I always thought he sure handled them well.
But more than that, Tom and Jerry is workmanlike, and I mean that in the best possible way. It constantly tries to adapt to a changing environment, and its humour is truly universal: Somewhat famously (and tellingly), Japan considers Tom and Jerry one of the greatest “anime” of all time, and it's the only Western series to consistently make people's Best Of lists. Sadly however, this might also be at the root of why Tom and Jerry seems to have a rockier reputation than other shorts of this era: It's not as friendly to an auteur, curated film criticism approach as, say, Looney Tunes. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), of all of the Golden Age output, Tom and Jerry seems to always deliver the shorts I would never think twice about putting on as straightforward entertainment. So I've been working on a list that I hope puts Tom and Jerry back in a slightly better light among progressive litcrit-types. A few ground rules and qualifications:
- This is the “Classic Series” list, which means it's limited to the years spanning 1940-1967. Tom & Jerry Kids and Tom and Jerry Tales would warrant lists of their own, and I haven't rewatched the former yet or ever seen the latter. Also, since the DTV movie line and the new Tom and Jerry Show are still ongoing, it wouldn't feel right to rank those. Don't ever expect to see the 1970s and early 80s TV show, not because it's especially bad for its time (it's not), but more because it's not even really the same sort of thing. You can see the prototype for this approach in the very last produced classic Hanna-Barbera shorts from the late 1950s, however. None of those are on this list though, mostly because I personally don't much care for them.
- No Racism. This is a feel-good list for me, and while those of you seriously interested in animation history may wish to study some of the more unfortunate shorts I've left out, I'm never going to watch those for entertainment and I'd never recommend them to another person for that purpose either. If I could guarantee you would be watching these shorts on DVD, where I know they've been edited, I could throw a few more entries onto this list, especially near the beginning of the first Hanna-Barbera era. Not to get into a big censorship debate, but I tend to feel that as long as the original versions exist somewhere it's OK for creators to go back and edit their work to present something they consider more definitive. Especially if it makes the work more enjoyable and more accessible to a more diverse audience. If George Lucas is allowed to do it with Star Wars, I see no reason Chuck Jones shouldn't have been allowed to do it with Tom and Jerry.
- No clip shows. For obvious reasons. “Cruise Cat” is a possible exception, but I don't really consider that a clip show in the traditional sense, more just a creative use of pre-existing footage.
- No Gene Deitch. No offense meant to the man, who is by all accounts a very talented animator, but his work on Tom and Jerry never came together into a real thematic statement. He even said he hated the series and budget constraints kept him from doing anything interesting with it even if he didn't. For those interested in his tenure, I feel “Landing Stripling”, “The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit” and “Carmen Get It” are the three shorts where Deitch's approach comes the closest to working, but even they are really best seen as historical curios more than anything else.
- I've also made some arbitrary choices and cuts based purely on personal preference.
- No shorts where Tom and Jerry have owners, for one: I've always felt this conceit had problems (apart from the obvious one), because I don't see how it actually adds anything to the format to have a human character for Tom and Jerry to interact with, and I tend to feel it complicates things unnecessarily.
- Additionally, I've left out most of the shorts where Jerry takes in another, cuter animal to protect them from Tom, largely because I feel once Hanna and Barbera started to do this it was a sign the series was getting long in the tooth and over-reliant on gimmicky additions (and some of them I frankly find cloying). I left a few in I felt were the best showcase of that formula, though. Similarly, I've downplayed Spike and Tyke who, by the end of the first Hanna-Barbera run, were openly being shopped around for a potential spinoff series.
- I also avoided any shorts where Jerry frames Tom or otherwise gets him in trouble, or the other way around (because I *hate* that kind of conflict), or when either Tom or Jerry were acting in such a way they seemed to cross the line into becoming outright mean-spirited and cruel. I only want good, clean cartoon mayhem.
You can find the entire original Hanna-Barbera run of Tom and Jerry on Amazon Video
, as well as on DVD
(which I actually recommend for the edited versions of certain shorts). There's also a premium Blu-ray box
set of some early HB Tom and Jerry shorts completely restored in HD and unedited, if you think you might prefer that instead. Don't hold out hopes for the rest of the series to get the same treatment, however, as it's currently tied up indefinitely by inter-studio politics at Warner Brothers, the current license holders.
The Chuck Jones era is far harder to track down. It is on DVD, but I don't recommend that version because it artificially zooms into the film to force it to fit the aspect ratios of modern TVs, which results in a great deal of material being lost and the general flow and framing of the shot being disrupted.
If you're interested, I wish you the best of luck in tracking down whichever versions of these cartoons make you happy.
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First Hanna-Barbera era (1940-1958)
- “The Night Before Christmas”
- “The Bowling Alley Cat”
- “Sufferin' Cats!”
- “The Yankee Doodle Mouse”
- “Puttin' on the Dog”
- “Mouse Trouble”
- “Tee for Two”
- “Quiet Please!”
- “Trap Happy”
- “Solid Serenade”
- “Cat Fishin'”
- “The Cat Concerto”
- “Salt Water Tabby”
- “Hatch Up Your Troubles”
- “The Cat and the Mermouse”
- “Tennis Chumps”
- “Texas Tom”
- “Tom and Jerry in The Hollywood Bowl”
- “Cue Ball Cat”
- “Jerry and the Goldfish”
- “Cat Napping”
- “The Flying Cat”
- “Cruise Cat”
- “The Dog House”
- “The Missing Mouse”
- “Little School Mouse”
- “Mice Follies”
- “Designs on Jerry”
- “Pecos Pest”
Chuck Jones Era (1963-7)
- “Pent-House Mouse”
- “The Cat Above and the Mouse Below”
- “Snowbody Loves Me”
- “Ah, Sweet Mouse-Story of Life”
- “Tom-ic Energy”
- “Bad Day at Cat Rock”
- “Haunted Mouse”
- “I'm Just Wild About Jerry”
- “Of Feline Bondage”
- “Duel Personality”
- “Puss 'n' Boats”
- “Filet Meow”
- “The A-Tom-Inable Snowman”
- “Cat and Dupli-cat”
- “Guided Mouse-ille (or Science on a Wet Afternoon)”
- “O-Solar Meow”
- “Rock 'n' Rodent”
- “Cannery Rodent”
- “The Mouse from H.U.N.G.E.R.”
- “Surf-Bored Cat”