80 Years Ago: The Debut of Tom and Jerry

I’m not the hugest Tom and Jerry fan but thought the date February 10, 1940 worth marking — it’s the release date of Puss Gets the Boot, the first animated short starring the characters who would become Tom and Jerry (though Tom’s name initially was Jasper.) The characters were created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera prior to the formation of their own studio (in fact the success of Tom and Jerry was what made their own studio possible). The original series, which ran through 1958 was produced at MGM. They are easily that studio’s most famous cartoon characters, their answer to Bugs Bunny & Co. at Warner Bros, and Mickey-Donald-Pluto at Disney (R.K.O.), and Popeye and Betty Boop at Fleischer (Paramount).

Tom and Jerry are hugely influential, I think: so basic, simplified, and ritualized. Most of them are completely without dialogue apart from a couple of lines uttered here and there by the maid (voiced by Lillian Randolph) whom we only see from floor level. Basically it’s just straight up ritualized violence. The mouse tortures and teases the cat; the cat tries to kill and eat the mouse. (Interestingly their previous series, The Captain and the Kids had a similar sadistic formula, only with bratty children and a raged-filled stepfather. I guess that was Louis B. Mayer’s idea of hilarity). I’m quite sure Tom and Jerry influenced such later things as Warner Brothers Sylvester and Tweety and Road Runner series. The “Itchy and Scratchy” segments on The Simpsons are clearly parodies of Tom and Jerry: basically the equivalent of Jolt Cola vs. Coke. After the initial series ended in 1958, Tom and Jerry was revived countless times by various studios over the decades. But the older ones from back in the day are more rewarding for period charm, if nothing else (though as in all vintage cartoons, racist stereotypes occasionally pop up.)

For more on theatrical film shorts read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.