This classic cartoon collection is like catnip to Judge Sandra Dozier.
Our reviews of Tom And Jerry: The Spotlight Collection, Volume 3 (published January 11th, 2008) and Tom And Jerry: The Spotlight Collection, Volume 2 (published November 7th, 2005) are also available.
"Producing Tom and Jerry cartoons…for 20 years was for me one
continuous labor of love."
By the time 1940 rolled around, the idea of a cartoon about a cat and a mouse was probably old hat to most animators and producers, and especially to the top brass at Metro Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), where the bottom line was everything. However, two enterprising animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, decided that they had a hit with a cat-and-mouse duo, then named Jasper and Jinx. They produced one cartoon and were about to see their pet project get scratched when the studio got a letter from a distributor asking when they were going to get more of that "wonderful cat and mouse" cartoon. Thank goodness, because otherwise we would not have the Tom and Jerry we know and love today.
Facts of the Case
Of the 114 shorts that Hanna and Barbera produced for MGM between 1940 and 1957, 40 make it onto this two-disc set. There are at least two shorts selected for each year from 1943 on, in their original Academy Standard (1.37:1, or basically fullscreen) aspect ratio, and the last three are Technicolor CinemaScope shorts from the fifties, preserved in their 2.35:1 aspect ratio and presented in this collection in anamorphic widescreen format.
• "Sufferin' Cats!" (1943)
• "Baby Puss" (1943)
• "The Zoot Cat" (1944)
• "Million Dollar Cat" (1944)
• "The Bodyguard" (1944)
• "Mouse Trouble" (1944; Academy Award winner)
• "Tee For Two" (1945)
• "Flirty Birdy" (1945)
• "Quiet Please!" (1945; Academy Award winner)
• "The Milky Waif" (1946; edited)
• "Solid Serenade" (1946)
• "Cat Fishin" (1946)
• "The Cat Concerto" (1946; Academy Award winner)
• "Kitty Foiled" (1947)
• "The Truce Hurts" (1947; edited)
• "Salt Water Tabby" (1947)
• "The Invisible Mouse" (1947)
• "The Little Orphan" (1947; edited; Academy Award
• "Heavenly Puss" (1947)
• "Jerry and the Lion" (1950)
• "Hollywood Bowl" (1950)
• "Jerry and the Goldfish" (1951)
• "Cueball Cat" (1950)
• "Slicked-up Pup" (1951)
• "Jerry's Cousin" (1951)
• "Cat Napping" (1951)
• "The Flying Cat" (1951)
• "The Two Mouseketeers" (1952; Academy Award
• "Smitten Kitten" (1952)
• "Johann Mouse" (1953; Academy Award winner)
• "Two Little Indians" (1953)
• "Baby Butch" (1954)
• "Mice Follies" (1954)
• "Designs on Jerry" (1955)
• "The Pecos Pest" (1955)
• "Touché, Pussy Cat!" (1954)
• "The Flying Sorceress" (1956; widescreen)
• "Blue Cat Blues" (1956)
Tom and Jerry was appealing because of a perfect combination of slapstick comedy and fantasy—cartoon cats could get chopped into tiny little bits and get up again, so the possibility for dangerous and violent slapstick was virtually limitless, and audiences (mostly adults) ate it up. It's funny as long as it's make-believe. Also, rather than being humans barely disguised as a cat and a mouse, as most cartoon characters seemed to be, both characters were very animalistic in nature and usually did not even speak. They didn't dress in human clothing (except in a few rare instances as part of a story), and their only conceit was that Jerry walked upright all of the time and Tom most of the time. Tom was an opportunist whose single goal was to make a meal of Jerry, and Jerry was clever and vindictive, using his smarts to turn the tables on Tom whenever he could. The funny irony is that neither actually wanted to see the other dead, they just wanted to torment each other until the end of time.
Anyone familiar with the Signature Collection series from Warner Bros. knows that these sets are usually scaled-down versions of their Golden Collection cousins, often with no extras and a somewhat questionable taste in cartoon selection. That is not the case with The Tom and Jerry Signature Collection. As the first Tom and Jerry classic collection to be released (there is no Tom and Jerry Golden Collection as of this writing), it has some excellent extras that fans are sure to enjoy, as well as a good selection of favorite cartoons that got heavy play on Saturday morning shows along with some golden oldies that weren't seen as often. The set includes 40 episodes selected from the 1940-1957 Hanna-Barbera years when the duo produced theatrical shorts for MGM's animation studio. When MGM abruptly shut down production in 1957, Hanna and Barbera moved on to create their own studio and didn't revisit the cat-and-mouse show until 1975.
My particular hook into the series is that I love to hear Tom scream. It makes me laugh every time. He sounds so surprised and outraged, like he didn't have it coming the whole time. It's gold. And the thing that surprised me the most? That's Bill Hanna. Yep, the co-creator of Tom and Jerry did all those wonderful screams. I wouldn't have known this if I hadn't watched "How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry," a 30-minute featurette about the animation duo that was produced for this boxed set. It features older interviews with Hanna and Barbera talking about their years at MGM, and recounts the history of their collaboration and eventual development of the Tom and Jerry series. This featurette is packed with information, looks marvelous, and is slickly produced.
The other major extra is the 17-minute "Behind the Tunes: The MGM Orchestra," which focuses on Scott Bradley's contributions to Tom and Jerry—he arranged and scored the music for all of the shorts, originally suggesting that they get the music done first, then time the animation accordingly, which was innovative thinking in the animation medium. This documentary can be a little dry for anyone who isn't musically inclined or interested in how Bradley did his thing, because there are readings from several of his own essays on the subject, but I was entertained by the cartoons shown to accompany the reading and found it fascinating to see his techniques and ideas demonstrated on screen. My favorite musical cue was the short blatting horn sound whenever a character was surprised or brutally clobbered.
In addition to these two featurettes are two excerpts from motion pictures in which Tom and Jerry appeared. First is the "Worry Song" from Anchors Aweigh! where Jerry dances with Gene Kelly, and the second is from Dangerous When Wet with Esther Williams, where Tom and Jerry swim with her. These are both a treat to have on the DVD, and are presented in their original Academy aspect ratios. Animation historian Jerry Beck also provides commentary for three shorts ("The Zoot Cat," "Kitty Foiled," and "Heavenly Puss"), in which he mainly discusses the various animators and what segments of each episode they worked on. These commentaries will appeal to fans who follow specific animators, but they don't offer much in the way of historical reference points or behind-the-scenes information for fans of the characters themselves. Finally, there are some sneak peeks at other cartoon collections by Warner Bros., namely the boxed sets for Wacky Races, Looney Tunes, Top Cat, The Flintstones, and Codename: Kids Next Door.
Image quality for the Tom and Jerry shorts differs according to age and preservation. The liner notes for the collection say that the episodes have all been remastered, and indeed most of them look much brighter and more colorful than I remember. However, most of the prints (with the exception of the nearly mint-condition widescreen Technicolor shorts) have spotting, grain, color bars, or other wear on the image. Nevertheless, the image in almost every short is very sharp and looks better than I have ever seen it, with no softness or darkness that might indicate an across-the-board color process. Overall, I was very impressed with the image quality, despite the dirt. The sound quality is also pretty good, allowing for the mono source, but some of the older episodes show their age with slightly muddy sound. It's also worth mentioning that the packaging for this set is also quite nice—the plastic outer sleeve has attractive screened art of Tom and Jerry that is duplicated on the cardboard inside, so it has the appearance of depth. The plastic sleeve also protects the set from obvious wear and tear, so there is no obstacle to multiple viewings or loans to friends. Inside, the fold-out case is compact and attractive, with an episode list printed onto the packaging, and clear plastic disc mounts that show the box design behind them. All in all, an attractive library volume.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let's talk about censoring, shall we? For this Spotlight Collection, the good news is that most of the scenes are intact. Case in point: In "Kitty Foiled," a scene where Jerry dresses himself as an Indian to fool Tom is usually cut, but it appears in this collection. Similarly, "Mouse Trouble" still has a disturbing scene where Tom mails himself to Jerry, who, suspicious, cuts the package in half, then looks in and holds up a sign that says, "Is there a doctor in the house?" However, in "The Little Orphan," a scene is cut in which a candle falls onto Tom's tail, burning him to a uniform dark shade and turning his feathered Indian headdress into cornrow braids that stick straight up from his head. The result is that the candle lands on Tom's tail, he looks at it, and then we cut to the next scene. Nearly all of the bits in which the characters end up in blackface are excised ("The Truce Hurts" and "The Milky Waif" are two more examples), with the lone exception being a scene in "Yankee Doodle Mouse" where Tom puts his head in a tea kettle with live dynamite and ends up looking like a flower when it explodes, with a dark face and red lips instead of white.
I'm not a purist who demands that the original scenes be left in and completely untouched; I actually approve of removing stereotyped images, especially if these cartoons are going to be shown to children (they were originally intended for adults as an opener to movies in theaters). However, what I do want to see is some effort to either clean up the animation, if possible, or at least avoid disturbing the continuity of scenes where material is cut. For instance, in the "Little Orphan" example, at some point in the past, Warner Bros. reworked the animation so that Tom keeps his headdress but it burns to a crisp, and they toned down the blackface aspect of the segment so the overall effect is that he just looks burned. This was a good compromise, so I'm not sure why they had to go ahead and cut the entire scene for DVD release. Also, in "The Milky Waif" they attempt to cut in some earlier footage of Jerry and Nibbles running away from Tom to explain why it suddenly goes from looking at Nibbles to being smashed in the face with a frying pan, but it still seems abrupt and obvious. They could have spent the money to rework the animation or perhaps insert a new transitional scene.
Because its audience is mostly kids, Cartoon Network has been the most ruthless about editing Tom and Jerry cartoons, but (with the exception of stereotyped blackface gags and dialogue from Mammy-two-shoes) most of the edits seen on Cartoon Network are not reflected in official Warner Bros. releases. This is probably because the studio assumes that the adult who purchases the DVD will be present for explanations, should any be required, and because they know that a good chunk of their audience will be adults wishing to see unedited cartoons as they remember them from their own childhood. That said, the instances of censoring are not too numerous, and although a couple of the edits are abrupt, for the most part they don't take away from enjoying these spots.
On a possibly related note, it's strange that the original Jasper and Jinx short, whose characters eventually turned into Tom and Jerry, isn't included. It would have provided a good historical context and made this set a little juicier for fans who only remember this short from Saturday morning reruns. Part of the problem might be that the part of Mammy-two-shoes (so named because we only ever saw her feet) is a badly dated stereotype, but in a move similar to the reworking of the burnt headdress in "Little Orphan," the short has since been redubbed with a less offensive voice performance and could have been included that way.
This is a Signature Collection worth getting, especially since no Golden Collection of Tom and Jerry is currently out, and this volume sports a set of very nice extras that make it stand alone as a worthwhile purchase for fans.
We won't play cat and mouse with you—The Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection is hereby given a full pardon.
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• "How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry" Featurette
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