Tom & Jerry Classic Reading Guide (V.1)

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I spent all weekend writing, recording and editing the video I wanted to share this week, but seeing as how I left my laptop on for 12 hours straight to upload it to YouTube and it only ever got 29% of the way there (and then I lost the Internet, deleting all of my progress), I'm not especially in the best of moods right now.
 
In the meantime, here's a rough draft of something I've been playing around with lately.
 
My sister and I have been rewatching a lot of older cartoons recently and I've been thinking a lot about the history of animation. 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 & 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 & 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 & Jerry's humour than they actually did. I don't actually find Tom & Jerry to be on average worse on stuff like this than Disney or Warner Brothers' output, it just looks worse for Tom & 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 & 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 & 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 & Jerry perfected. And I was very surprised to see that Chuck Jones' run on Tom & Jerry seems to be held in such low esteem by both Chuck Jones *and* Tom & Jerry fans: For someone who claimed to not understand the characters, I always thought he sure handled them well.
 
Of all of the Golden Age output, Tom & 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 & 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 & 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 & 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.
  • 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 & Jerry.
  • No Gene Deitch. No offense meant to the man, who is by all accounts a very talented animator, but his work on Tom & Jerry was messed up and even he basically admitted he hated the series and that slashed budgets kept him from doing anything interesting with it even if he hadn't. I'd love to see a more straightforwardly surrealist take on Tom & Jerry, but Gene Deitch was never in a position to be the guy to deliver that.
  • 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 (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 & 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 & 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.
 

First Hanna-Barbera Era (1940-1958)

  1. “The Night Before Christmas”
  2. “The Bowling Alley Cat”
  3. “Sufferin' Cats!”
  4. “The Yankee Doodle Mouse”
  5. “Puttin' on the Dog”
  6. “Mouse Trouble”
  7. “Tee for Two”
  8. “Quiet Please!”
  9. “Trap Happy”
  10. “Solid Serenade”
  11. “Cat Fishin'”
  12. “The Cat Concerto”
  13. “Salt Water Tabby”
  14. “Hatch Up Your Troubles”
  15. “The Cat and the Mermouse”
  16. “Tennis Chumps”
  17. “Texas Tom”
  18. “Tom and Jerry in The Hollywood Bowl”
  19. “Cue Ball Cat”
  20. “Jerry and the Goldfish”
  21. “Cat Napping”
  22. “The Flying Cat”
  23. “Cruise Cat”
  24. “The Dog House”
  25. “The Missing Mouse”
  26. “Mice Follies”
  27. “Designs on Jerry”
  28. “Pecos Pest”

Chuck Jones Era (1963-7)

  1. “Pent-House Mouse”
  2. “The Cat Above and the Mouse Below”
  3. “Ah, Sweet Mouse-Story of Life”
  4. “Tom-ic Energy”
  5. “Bad Day at Cat Rock”
  6. “Haunted Mouse”
  7. “I'm Just Wild About Jerry”
  8. “Duel Personality”
  9. “Puss 'n' Boats”
  10. “Filet Meow”
  11. “The A-Tom-Inable Snowman”
  12. “Catty-Cornered”
  13. “Cat and Dupli-cat”
  14. “Guided Mouse-ille (or Science on a Wet Afternoon)”
  15. “O-Solar Meow”
  16. “Rock 'n' Rodent”
  17. “Cannery Rodent”
  18. “The Mouse from H.U.N.G.E.R.”
  19. “Surf-Bored Cat”

Comments

David Dukes 2 months, 2 weeks ago

I'm with you on not liking the more cruel end of these cartoons. While Bugs and Roadrunner were trying to survive and Donald Duck was dealing with Urban Living, I remember not liking Woody Woodpecker as a kid as he was just an asshole.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 months, 2 weeks ago

This is why I think the basic structure of Tom & Jerry is so good, actually: While both Tom and Jerry have defensible motivations for acting (one's a predator and one is prey), neither is always expressly innocent either. The general rule is that whoever initiates the conflict loses, and I think that's a really great message. It's that "cartoon morality" I mentioned in the intro.

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Camestros Felapton 2 months, 2 weeks ago

//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).//

Jerry and Jumbo though! When I was a kid I remember laughing my self-sore and being vaguely terrified by the whole messing-with-Tom's head element.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 months, 2 weeks ago

That one was borderline and almost made it :-(

I have to give it another watch because I do remember liking a lot of the gags there. I wasn't sure how I felt about the head games in that one. Like I said, this is "V.1" as it's kind of a WIP.

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Sean Dillon 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Despite not featuring my three favorite Tom and Jerry skits (I grew up with them on DVD compilations and whenever they were on at my Nonna's house), I can't disagree with the selection you do provide. (To be fair, two of them are taken out because they don't pass your criteria (one is a "Jerry protects a cute animal" story [I like it mainly for the ending of "Tom becomes the duckling's mother"] and the other is about Jerry trying to convince Tom he's suicidal [defensible if you buy into the Deadly Premonition take on Tom and Jerry]) and the third is just Chuck Jones blatantly ripping off Night Before Christmas [which was one I don't really recall that well].) Out of curiosity, what do you think of Tom and Jerry skits where Tom wins or they team up?

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Josh Marsfelder 2 months, 2 weeks ago

"That's My Mommy" didn't make the cut actually because I felt Tom was being needlessly cruel. I find it really, really hard to sympathize with him in the Quakers shorts: IMO Tom is set up to fail in them more often than not because of Quakers' singularity of cuteness, and I'm not in favour of vilifying one part of the duo over the other. A lot of the Quakers ones also fail the "cloying" clause for me personally, but I was afraid I was being a bit too harsh on some of the later HB shorts.

Which gets into your question: I'm certainly in favour of Tom winning, if and only if Jerry is being openly mean-spirited. Again, if Jerry starts the fight, he deserves to lose. "The Year of the Mouse" is a good example of that, but I think Jones actually goes way too far: Jerry is an utter bastard in that one, and the setup is so disturbing it upsets me. I don't like seeing that. On the other hand, "Southbound Duckling" seems like Hanna and Barbera telling Tom apologists to be careful what they wish for, and was also way too dark for my tastes.

If you want a great example of a short where Tom wins, I suggest "Little School Mouse" from the first HB run. Jerry's mistake is assuming Tom will programatically pursue and harass all mice, and tries to teach Nibbles to be afraid of him. But Tom basically doesn't care, happily letting Nibbles drink from his milk bowl, so long as he asks nicely, and even gratefully accepts a gift of a bell from him. Jerry is far more confrontational in his tactics, which annoys Tom and incurs his retribution. Jerry thinks Nibbles has missed the point entirely, but both he and Tom agree at the end "Cats and Mice Should Be Friends".

Which is something eagle-eyed viewers would have caught, as even Jerry himself doesn't have a problem with all cats. Indeed, he and Toodles seem to be portrayed as being in a relationship on more than one occasion. Which isn't, as some fans (and even Chuck Jones) seem to think, that unrealistic: Cats can get along with rodents just fine, so long as they grow up together. And in at least some of the shorts where Jerry and Toodles become an item, they do also seem to live together.

Which is also not to say Tom only goes after Jerry because the mouse did something to provoke him. Indeed, the sheer number of shorts in which Tom loses because he started shit (again, not unrealistic as cats *do* toy with their prey and are known to kill just for sport) is proof enough that this is a lesson he could stand to learn a bit more often himself. But he's not incapable of empathy.

Which I guess begs the question as to why I didn't include "Little School Mouse"...And I don't really have a good answer, except that for whatever reason I didn't feel like revisiting it as often as some of the others. Which is frankly what some of my criteria boils down to, and is mostly also why I didn't include "Snowbody Loves Me" (which is I assume the third one you're thinking of). I thought "The Night Before Christmas" was a more effective execution of that plot, and I thought it was mean for Jerry to shut Tom out in the cold. I do *love* the so-very-60s cheese condominium though.

Like I said, this will probably be revised. You all have great points!

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Daibhid C 2 months, 1 week ago

Also, "The Year of the Mouse" is basically Jones ripping off his own Hubie and Bertie cartoon "Mouse Wreckers", except in that one the mice win even though they started it.

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Homunculette 2 months, 2 weeks ago

I've always theorized an axis of Sylvester/Tweety, Tom/Jerry, and Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner that represent three roughly simultaneous iterations of the same general idea. My personal favorite (and Thomas Pynchon's, apparently) has always been the coyote.

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Josh Marsfelder 2 months, 2 weeks ago

One of the great ironies in animation history is that Chuck Jones created Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner as an explicit parody of Tom & Jerry and what he perceived to be its misguided morality and formulaic structure...And lo and behold, where does Jones and his staff end up after being ousted from Warner Brothers? At MGM, taking over the reigns of Tom & Jerry. And suddenly admitting that the series was a lot more complex and nuanced, and far harder to get right, than he had ever given it credit for being.

One of these days I do need to give the Coyote and Roadrunner shorts their proper due though, if only to better elucidate for myself Jones' evolution as an artist.

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Robert Dillon 2 months, 1 week ago

... So no hope of you covering Itchy and Scratchy then...?


Bob Dillon

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Comment deleted 2 months, 1 week ago

Jesse 2 months, 1 week ago

No Gene Deitch means no "Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit."

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Josh Marsfelder 2 months, 1 week ago

Probably my favourite of the Gene Deitch ones too, but in hindsight I was concerned that one could be read as Deitch's Writer Revolt, mocking the series' formula and supposed repetitiveness.

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