Friday, July 14, 2017

Pauvre, Pauvre Pussycat

It’s easy to forget that even though Walt Disney is the individual who won the most Best Animated Short Oscars with 12, the winningest animated characters in that category are Tom & Jerry, with 7 awards.  No other characters come close.  Mickey, Bugs, Daffy, Wallace & Gromit—combined, their totals don’t amount to as many.  Tom & Jerry were huge in the 40s & 50s with over 100 shorts produced by MGM during that time, but today, they don’t have the same iconic or nostalgic status as the stables of Warner Brothers or the Mouse House.  The National Film Registry at the Library of Congress has earmarked 700 American films (shorts, features, docs, cartoons) as national treasures of cultural and historical significance since its inception in 1989, but no Tom & Jerry short is included yet.  And needless to say, they don’t have a postage stamp either, while a host of Disney & Warners characters do.

It’s probably a combination of reasons.  Largely free of dialogue, the films don’t have the sophisticated humor and in-jokes of WB films by Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones.  Since the films always put the leads in violent opposition, they don’t have the warmth and sentimentality of Uncle Walt’s creations.  Certainly, it can be argued that the Tom & Jerry “brand” degraded into the 60s and beyond, as the quality of the humor and the animation went in decline and eventually migrated toward mediocre television.  And now, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, T&J's creators, are probably better known as pioneers of mass-produced TV cartoon sitcoms (The Flinstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo) than as multiple Academy Award-winners.

The Two Mouseketeers (1952) and its three prequels (Touché, Pussy Cat! ’54; Tom and Chérie ’55; Royal Cat Nap ’58) represent the film franchise at its peak popularity, but are also interesting departures from its typical formula.  The films follow the conflict set up in the Dumas books, with Jerry as part of the king’s guards and Tom, the Cardinal’s.  Even the use of the word “Mouseketeer” is interesting since Disney would appropriate the term for his Mickey Mouse Club just a few years after this first short was released.  And all films feature Nibbles, the smaller, grey mouse who appeared in only a handful of other T&J shorts.

There’s one thing that stays consistent with all Tom & Jerry cartoons, a thing which has always been a curious contradiction and that’s that while the anthropomorphized Mickey Mouse is living in an animal-only world, Jerry is a rodent trying to settle in a human domestic environment.  Unlike Sylvester’s preoccupation with Tweetie (a fellow pet) or Wile E. Coyote’s pursuit of the roadrunner (minding its own business in the desert), it’s Tom’s job as the house cat to get Jerry.  The closest cartoon analogue at the time might be Disney’s Chip ‘n’ Dale or WB’s Goofy Gophers (both introduced a few years after T&J’s 1940 debut), but even they are wild animals temporarily clashing with a disgruntled homeowner.  Jerry is an uninvited, comfortably-settled house mouse and in any real world scenario, we’d be rooting for the cat.  Or at least calling pest control.

So in Two Mouseketeers, Tom is tasked with defending a banquet table of food, while Jerry and Nibbles are only interested in crashing the feast.  Along the way, there are plenty of food gags and violent episodes, though their period roles here mean there’s plenty of fun swordplay, too.  Jerry is plucky and resourceful as usual, and Nibbles’s most prominent personality trait is a complete obliviousness to danger, much to Jerry’s chagrin.  And despite Tom often having the upper hand (he was always a formidable foe, rarely incompetent), the mice emerge triumphant in the end.

Touché, Pussycat! is essentially a prequel, focusing on Captain of the Guard Jerry first meeting Nibbles and training him to be a Mouseketeer.  Needless to say, the new recruit is not very good at it and despite him being initially rejected by Jerry, he proves his mettle in facing Tom when Jerry later gets into trouble.  The title comes from the first film, since unlike Jerry, Nibbles does speak in this series: mostly French with a smattering of English, all in an innocent French accent.

Tom and Chérie has Nibbles acting as courier of love notes between Jerry and a mouse mademoiselle, so he’s the one forced to spar with Tom every time a new correspondence is sent.  Royal Cat Nap is just a variation of their Oscar-winning Quiet Please! (1945), with the king trying to sleep but Jerry and Nibbles’s intrusion (again, in search for food) being the source of increasing anxiety for Tom.  Of course, if Jerry is part of the king’s musketeer guard (as the previous films establish), why is Tom the one guarding him against his own loyalists?
With this last entry, you can see the writing on the wall with the future of the franchise.  The animation quality isn't as good, there are lazy coloring mistakes, and the humor is really repetitive.  Personally, I'm a fan of the 40s T&J, where Tom is an actual cat, with terrific detailing in his fur and face and he actually moves around on all fours.  By the time of The Two Mouseketeers, Tom is a full-blown biped and while the gags are fine in the next two installments, you can see the set designs and lighting getting flatter and less interesting.

A few other random thoughts on the films: We’re used to seeing Bugs or Daffy in all sorts of historical time periods or geographic locations, but T&J have always battled in contemporary America, sometimes urbanscapes but mostly residential domiciles.  So 17th century France is a real departure.  Another thing unusual is that Nibbles gets drunk in the first two films—France, after all makes the presence of wine ubiquitous.  Both times are due to accidental immersion but the inebriation of a non-adult character is still unusual in a kid’s cartoon.  And take a look at the stills between Two and Touché and you see when Hollywood began adopting a wider aspect ratio from the standard 1.33.

One of the strangest things that happens in Two Mouseketeers is that Tom actually dies.  It’s made clear to him that failing to protect the food will result in his beheading and in the final scene, when Jerry & Nibbles are enjoying their spoils, we see the guillotine fall in the distance.  Hence, the title of this article (Nibbles’s closing tribute)--appropriately, since today is Bastille Day.  Of course, nine lives notwithstanding, Tom was subjected to countless lethal indignities over the decades, rarely succumbing to his injuries.  But we're led to believe he does here, and though I doubt Hanna/Barbera cared much about faithful continuity, making Touché a prequel (with the other two following suit) remains consistent in that sense.  Then again, in Touché, we see a falling axe slice Tom completely in half vertically, and he does recover from that, so maybe his date with The National Razor wasn’t 100% fatal after all.

One other thing worth mentioning is the music scoring, which is uniformly strong.  While Carl Stalling is deservedly venerated for his work with Warner Brothers cartoons, Scott Bradley does an excellent job with the T&J material, too.  And just like Stalling would use themes and motifs from WB musicals (mostly Busby Berkeley's), it’s great fun to see how Bradley takes advantage of the enormous MGM music library to seed the stories with little musical references.  Similarly, when Chuck Jones took over the Tom & Jerry shorts in the 60s, the design elements were reminiscent of some of his 50s work and the gags became more and more outlandish, but what kills those shorts for me is the terrible music that accompanies them.  They’re really hard to bear and the shorts from that era are best viewed on mute.

Of course, the most prominent legacy Tom & Jerry have left for contemporary viewers may perhaps be as inspiration for Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons.  While I’ve written previously on how Krazy Kat is a more suitable progenitor of I&S, there’s no denying that the vicious brutality heaped onto cat Scratchy from mouse Itchy owes a lot to the over-the-top physical gags and one-upmanship from T&J.

I mentioned that no other cartoon characters came close to Tom & Jerry’s Oscar tally, but I suppose it’s fitting that a distant second is Sylvester, who appeared in 3 winning shorts—two with Tweetie and one for Speedy Gonzales’s debut.  Of course, Sylvester did get a stamp and while the depiction of postage stamps are few and far between in T&J shorts (even when letters are sent, like in the Chérie still above), a mailbox gag is still a reliable standby, like this from The Flying Cat (1951).

Of course, if you want to count feature film appearances, too, then Mickey Mouse’s Oscar total comes close: Lend a Paw (1941, his sole winning short), Fantasia (2 awards), and his cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (4 awards).  That’s 7, but Tom and Jerry both appear in the Oscar-winning feature Anchors Aweigh (1945, Sidney)--most notably with Jerry performing a dance duet with Gene Kelly--so their total is 8 and still in the lead.  It’s actually interesting that while neither of them appear in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Droopy (another MGM property at the time) does.

And since this post is part of the larger Swashbuckler blogathon going on this weekend, it’s worth noting the one cinema icon best known as a swashbuckler who does have a USPS postage stamp: Douglas Fairbanks, who died in 1939, a year before T&J’s debut.  Be sure to check out the rest of this year’s participants!

The cat and mouse stamps from last year's pets issue are Scott #5122 & 5117.  Douglas Fairbanks is Scott #2088, Frank Sinatra #4265 and Sylvester & Tweetie #3204.  The Year of the Rat is #3895a and Marge & Lisa Simpson are #4400 & 4402 respectively.  The Halloween Jack-o-Lantern is #5137 and the U.S. Navy stamp dates back to 1945 and is Scott #935.