Tom and Jerry – When it comes to drawing sympathy for its characters, pop culture sometimes goes contrary to real life. While most people wouldn’t actually think much of mice, and in fact, lots of them are even afraid of the little rodents, in cartoons and some popular stories, mice are treated favourably. By contrast, cats –who in real life are the preferred pets of many animal-lovers– in pop culture are portrayed as villains. Perhaps that’s because after all, in the cat-and-mouse game, mice are, well, the underdog.
One of pop culture most iconic representatives of this dichotomy is the duo of Tom and Jerry, whose 80th anniversary is celebrated this year. And the occasion will be appropriately marked with a movie in which cat and mouse will share the screen with young star Chloë Grace Moretz.
But let’s start by the beginning of this duo, which, by the way, was not among my childhood’s favourite cartoons. (Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse were the ones that I enjoyed as a matinée spectator or as a comic book reader). In the days when movie theatres used to show a few animation shorts before the main feature, studios were also busy producing those movies. Walt Disney and Warner Bros. were already the big players in the short animation category, and MGM wanted a piece of the action as well. In 1940, under the direction of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera MGM released “Puss Gets the Boot” the first appearance of the duo. However, they would get their definitive names later: in this initial short they were introduced as Jasper and Jinx. As in the case of other animated characters (Disney’s Mickey for instance), the earlier physical appearance of the cat would evolve. In Tom’s case from the rather mild looks of that first short to the more frightening and determined aspect with which we are now familiarized. Mind you, no matter what Tom’s looks are, he is still unable to chase the elusive Jerry.
Tom and Jerry soon became very popular with audiences not only in North America but around the world. In that golden period of the animation short, the duo won six Oscars: “Yankee Doodle Mouse” (1943), “Quiet, Please” (1945), “The Cat Concerto” (1947), “Mouse Cleaning” (1948), “Two Mouseketeers” (1952) and “Johann Mouse” (1953). They also received nominations for “The Night before Christmas” (1941) and “Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Mouse” (1947).
The live action-animation movie to be released before the end of this year will not be the first feature where the two characters share the screen with live actors. Jerry danced with Gene Kelly, and Tom made a cameo as a waiter in the musical “Anchors Aweigh” (1945). They made a new appearance in a live-action movie in “Dangerous When Wet,” starring Esther Williams (1953).
As in other cases, the relation between the creators of the successful series and the studio was problematic. At first, MGM didn’t even credit Hanna and Barbera for the films. Eventually, MGM closed its animation studio, and the two “fathers” of the famous cat and mouse started their own studio in 1957. There they launched great hits, now mostly for television: “Top Cat,” “Yogi Bear,” “Scooby-Doo,” and “The Flintstones,” among others. They even bought back Tom and Jerry, making new releases in the 1970s for television.
Tom and Jerry, like most pop culture characters have also been present in the other popular medium of those days: the comic book. The duo appeared in that medium from the end of 1940 until 1982.
Mice may not get much sympathy in real life. Still, Jerry has proven to be a charming character who usually gets the best of the irascible Tom. Although they were not the first famous cat and mouse duo in pop culture (Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse were two characters in an iconic comic strip created by George Herriman in 1910), Tom and Jerry exerted considerable influence and had imitators. They also inspired the gruesome “cartoon-within-a-cartoon” Itchy & Scratchy Show in “The Simpsons,” a caustic commentary on cartoon violence on TV.
Feature image: Tom and Jerry turned 80 this first week of February, the duo will share the screen with Chloë Grace Moretz in a movie to be released late this year