Judge Russell Engebretson firmly supports the theory that Tom and Jerry really ripped off Itchy and Scratchy, thanks to a wormhole located nearby Burbank.
Trends come and go, but the chase is eternal…
Tom and Jerry were not the first animated cat-and-mouse duo, but these early cartoons from the 1940s and '50s are unmatched for their combination of highly detailed backgrounds and cartoon mayhem—all carried out in the context of a kooky, endearing love/hate relationship that owes a tip of the derby to the silent films of Laurel and Hardy.
Facts of the Case
The first two Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collections feature the MGM cartoons of Joseph Barbera and William Hanna from the 1940s and 1950s. The second volume starts with the first Tom and Jerry cartoon ("Puss Gets the Boot," February 1940) and finishes with "Tot Watchers" (August 1958). "Puss Gets the Boot"—in which the cat and mouse are named Jasper and Jinx—was produced by the Rudolph Isling team of which Hanna and Barbera were staff members. All the other cartoons in this collection were produced by Fred Quimby or Hanna-Barbera, with "Tot Watchers" being the last cartoon that was directed by Hanna and Barbera. Later cartoons—which may be issued in a third volume—were directed by Gene Deitch (1961-1962) and, later still, by Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame.
Tom and Jerry: The Spotlight Collection, Volume 2 contains 38 cartoons spread across two discs:
Several Tom and Jerry cartoons were withheld from the first Spotlight Collection because of their racial stereotyping or excessive violence. Some fans roundly criticized Warner Bros. for that decision, as well as Warner's inclusion of three edited cartoons (and less-than-stellar transfers). Warner Brothers Home Entertainment issued an apology and said they would not censor or edit the remainder of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons when they released the second volume. Did the studio hold to its promise? Well, yes, if you disregard some quality control issues—which I'll cover in a moment.
Warner Bros. proves it is serious about avoiding censorship in two ways. First, the cartoons in Volume Two are not rated, and the DVD slipcase warns that this volume "is intended for the adult collector and may not be suitable for children." Second, Whoopi Goldberg appears at the beginning of each disc with a short statement that she has been a fan of Tom and Jerry since she was a little kid, and continues, "The outrageous brand of humor shown to us here comes from a time when racial and ethnic differences were caricatured in the name of entertainment…Some of the cartoons here reflect prejudices that were common in American society, especially when it came to racial and ethnic groups. These prejudices were wrong then, and they're certainly wrong today. [Characters] and images are presented here to accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored." Sure enough, cartoon violence is displayed in all its anarchic glory, along with occasional smoking, boozing, and a very few blackface jokes. The most controversial character is the large black lady (her face is never shown) who speaks with an exaggerated Southern black accent. She was not identified in the credits, but the artists referred to her as Mammy Two-Shoes, and she was an important peripheral character in several Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Lillian Randolph (It's a Wonderful Life) provided the voice of Mammy Two-Shoes. Sometimes she seems to be a maid, but in "Saturday Night Puss" she is portrayed as the house's owner. In any case, her character was considered offensive by some and was redrawn in a white version for CBS when they aired the cartoons in the 1960s. Randolph's voice was replaced with that of voice actress June Foray, who was brought in to redub the soundtracks with a toned-down accent. And that is where the quality control problem with this DVD set crops up. Four of the cartoons that feature Mammy Two-Shoes are the original cartoons, but with the redubbed soundtrack. The incorrectly voiced cartoons—as far as I can determine—include "The Lonesome Mouse," "Saturday Evening Puss," "Polka Dot Puss," and "Nit-Witty Kitty."
In partial defense of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, picture and sound elements on film masters are stored separately. One could certainly mismatch the black Mammy Two-Shoes soundtrack with the white Mammy Two-Shoes picture element, or vice versa. But really, it's difficult to imagine such a slip-up occurring on one of the Looney Tunes collections. The incorrect dubs, in conjunction with some mediocre transfers, may lead a cynical individual to suspect that Warner's is more concerned with preservation of Bugs and the gang than the old MGM Tom and Jerry titles.
Regarding the video transfers, they are not pristine, but they are the best-quality prints that most viewers will ever have seen. Five of the cartoons are presented in their original Cinemascope widescreen aspect ratio, and they are gorgeous transfers that probably haven't looked this good since they were first screened in theaters. Sadly, they are also the dullest, least funny cartoons in the set. (As a side note for the younger readers who don't know cartoon history, all the old Tom and Jerry cartoons were shown in the theater before the main feature. That's why you sometimes see gags recycled from one cartoon to another; they were not intended to be watched back to back, as on a TV cartoon show, but were instead one-shot affairs.) In addition to the Cinemascopes, the first half dozen cartoons appear to have been restored especially for this DVD, and they are a wonder to behold. "The Night Before Christmas" has been one of my favorites visually since childhood. With its intricate, detailed backgrounds and flawless animation, it's a showcase for how fine a cleaned-up Tom and Jerry from this era can look. It's simply a knockout, and one of the sweeter cartoons in the Tom and Jerry canon. As for the other cartoons, they are presentable transfers, though there are numerous scratches and specks that are worse in some places than others. I've read that MGM's pre-1951 cartoon negatives were destroyed in a vault fire about thirty years ago, and the only masters available are dupe negatives from the reissue versions. That does not necessarily excuse Warner's from finding better prints and doing a more thorough digital restoration, however. Once again, it appears the MGM cartoons are being given a second-tier treatment compared to the Looney Tunes Golden Collection sets. In spite of specks and scratches, though, I can't find any fault with the color on the large majority of the transfers. The colors are vivid, intense, and sharply defined.
The sound quality is very good considering the source is often monophonic optical tracks (some of the soundtracks from the mid-1950s onward are sourced from magnetic tape). I did not hear the grating distortion that is common for these old cartoons when the noise level rises sharply; Tom's blood-curdling shrieks were crystal clear. I could not detect any background hiss at moderate listening levels (even when I listened with headphones), and the Scott Bradley musical arrangements, although confined to the center speaker, were surprisingly full and rich. It's a pleasing mono soundtrack that probably could not be much improved.
The extra features are a disappointment not only for what they are, but also for what they could have been. Four cartoons contain audio commentaries by animation writer Earl Kress and Nicole Parker of MADtv. Kress has some interesting comments. He notes, for example, that the early cartoons ran close to nine minutes, rather than the roughly seven-minute length of later episodes, and he talks a little about the less effective comic timing of the earlier cartoons and their more deliberate pace. Then there is Parker, whose only qualification for being on the commentary is that she "loved to watch Tom and Jerry cartoons" as a kid, and, gosh, she's on TV! Just as Kress begins to make an interesting point, she interrupts him with some inane or inappropriate comment. Her chatter is uninformed, counterproductive, and very annoying. There are two more MADtv actors on the "Comedy Stylings" featurette, who contribute nothing of importance. I suppose it's a public relations ploy to attract and bolster the twenty-something demographic for golden age animation. In the meantime, animation historians (Jerry Beck) and the staff (Ken Southworth, Gus and Francis Arriola) who actually worked for MGM are given short shrift; they get to speak only a few sentences about their experiences in the cartoon business.
One nice feature presents "Midnight Snack" as a series of original pencil sketches pieced together to demonstrate how the cartoon was imagined and drawn in its first draft. Background music and voices help to move things along. It was fun to compare the still drawings to the finished cartoon, and it gives one a feel for how animators and writers rough-sketch their ideas.
The discs are packaged in an embossed silver and black slipcover that contains a tri-fold double disc holder. The holder sports a gray and silver cover with four-color process printing for the back and insides. The package I received also contained an animated cel (not an original) in a cardboard frame. The lithographic cel is a rendition of a scene from "Puss Gets the Boot" as drawn by storyboard and layout artist Bob Singer, with a background painted by Hector Martinez. A series of collectible cels comes with the Spotlight discs—at least until the run of cel art is exhausted. It's a nifty little extra for the collector.
This is not the archival set of golden-age Tom and Jerry cartoons that preservationists and hardcore collectors were waiting for, but it is an exciting release—despite its shortcomings—for most toon lovers. If your only acquaintance with Tom and Jerry is from the sixties onward, don't pass up this collection based on those namby-pamby, watered-down versions of the originals. The cartoons on this DVD set bear only a surface resemblance to their post-1958 cousins; these are the real deal. Tom and Jerry: The Spotlight Collection, Volume 2 is a great introduction to the animated capers of the immortal feline and rodent team, and it's indispensable viewing for all lovers of animated films.
The Warner Home Entertainment Division is found guilty of sloppy quality control and failure to find the best elements for these transfers; however, if Warner's promises to deliver an uncensored, fully restored set of Tex Avery's MGM cartoons, the judge will find it in the best interests of the public to release the accused on their own recognizance. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introductions by Whoopi Goldberg
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