Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection
Review by KC Carlson
There are a lot of good reasons to recommend Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection, the new two-disc collection from Warner Bros. The first is right there in the title — it’s all of Chuck Jones’ Tom and Jerry cartoons, whether as a producer, director, writer, or various combinations of all three. There are 34 cartoons in all. In fact, except for two notable non-T&J omissions, this set represents all of MGM’s theatrical cartoon releases between the years of 1963 and 1967, when MGM finally put a halt to the Tom and Jerry theatrical series for the second and final time.
Another excellent reason to recommend this set is that it was, unlike previous Tom and Jerry DVD sets, assembled by the crew at Warners who specialize in animation sets designed for the adult collector, as opposed to the Tom & Jerry Greatest Chases and Tom and Jerry Tales series which are targeted for kids. What this means is that these cartoons have all been restored and, as far as I know (not being a T&J expert), they’re all complete and uncut. Which further means that there is a “May Not Be Suitable for Children” disclaimer on the packaging, because all the classic T&J violence should be intact — although it should be said that Jones’ version of T&J is nowhere near as violent (or racist) as the classic Hanna-Barbera version was. (That’s why the promising but disappointing Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collections ultimately ran into problems, mostly with Volume 3 and the last-minute decision to drop or edit some cartoons.)
Further recommended are the two outstanding documentaries included on this set. Chuck Jones: Memories of a Childhood was recently shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) as part of an excellent Chuck Jones mini-marathon, alongside his very best Warner Bros. cartoons, as well as the best of his later work at MGM, including The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m so glad that Warners has found such a great DVD home for this wonderful 26-minute film. Combining the talents of director Peggy Stern and producer and animation director John Canemaker, Chuck Jones: Memories of a Childhood features Jones discussing his early childhood, while spontaneously sketching the memories he is relating, many of which were the inspiration for his later cartoons and characters. These sketches further inspired the filmmakers to add animated sequences, directed by Canemaker, depicting Jones as a boy living out his childhood adventures and fantasies. Additional material provided by the Jones family archive tells a charming tale of this wonderful storyteller.
Tom and Jerry… and Chuck is a more straightforward 20-minute documentary, narrated by voice actor June Foray (Rocket J. Squirrel, WB’s Granny). It outlines the history of how Jones ended up at MGM working on Tom and Jerry (a cartoon series he was openly critical of) after being fired by Warner Bros. — for moonlighting on UPA’s Gay Purr-ee, which he and his wife Dorothy wrote, while still under exclusive contract with Warners — in 1963. Jones was very blunt about why he took the T&J job: MGM was offering him complete creative control, something he had been dreaming of for his entire career. Also, the budgets for the Tom and Jerry cartoons were significantly higher than what they were at Warners, plus he could continue to work in full animation. Much of the animation community at the time was turning to “limited animation” (basically fewer drawings per second, as well as other cost-cutting techniques) or “illustrated radio” as it was referred to by Jones. Ironically, the champions of limited animation were Hanna-Barbera for their made-for TV hits, such as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, and The Flintstones. H-B were also the team who created and developed the classic Tom & Jerry series for MGM from 1940 to 1957 (which was full animation).
The first thing that Jones did was redesign the classic cat and mouse team. Tom had already started looking more sleek during the end of the Hanna-Barbera run, but Jones went in and tinkered some more, streamlining him further, lengthening his ears and redesigning his face, mostly by adding thick, dark eyebrows. Jerry was made to look even cuter, with a rounded tummy, larger ears and more expressive eyes. Jones paid particular attention to the character’s faces, as his directing style in his later Warner pictures tended to focus more and more on subtle facial expressions and ticks — eye rolls and flicks, tongue flicks and other small twitches and asides — and he wanted his new characters to follow suit.
Also, since subtlety was Jones’ current artistic pursuit, he severely downplayed the excessive violence that the H-B Tom and Jerry were known for. Granted, the chase was still a focal point; in fact, most of Jones’ Tom & Jerry pieces resemble Jones’s classic Road Runner cartoons, although focusing more on the blackout gag format of the series, rather than the psychological and philosophical background that Jones (and writer Michael Maltese) had applied to the Road Runner series. (Jones had all kinds of rules for those characters, focusing on the coyote’s need to eat the bird in order to survive in the desert.)
The action wasn’t as frenetic as the Road Runner toons often were, either — Tom and Jerry often stopped to pose or react to what had just befallen the other. Although much of the violence is gone, some of the end results are still depicted. In “Snowbody Loves Me,” Jerry actually dies!, and a ghost-like Jerry ascends into the heavens. An unfortunate side effect of the relative lack of outrageous violence was the eventual softening of the character’s personalities (actually begun in the latter H-B cartoons). Also gone from Jones’ version was Tom’s trademark bloodcurdling scream, replaced by the under-the-breath mutterings of the too-obvious Mel Blanc. [The character softening ultimately reached its nadir in the 70s, when Tom and Jerry actually started (brrrrr) being pals who went on adventures together in a series ironically produced by Hanna-Barbara, the creators of the most incredibly violent Tom and Jerry cartoons of all.]
Jones was able to bring in most of his old unit from Warner Bros., who were also let go around the time of Jones’ firing, due to downsizing just before Warner officially closed their animation studio (and began outsourcing their cartoons) in 1964. Thus, Jones once again had the opportunity to work with layout artist supreme Maurice Noble (who co-directed many of the T&J cartoons), celebrated writer Maltese, animators Ken Harris, Ben Washham, and Tom Ray, and voice actors Mel Blanc and June Foray.
You’d think that with this much superstar talent, that these cartoons would be instant classics, but it was largely not to be. While the cartoons as a whole are probably the most beautiful cartoons to be produced in the 1960s (mostly due to the stellar design work of Maurice Nobel and the sleek backgrounds by Philip DeGuard, in tandem with the elegant Jones-directed animation), and almost every cartoon has a moment or two — even if it’s just a single facial expression — of magic, with a couple of notable exceptions, the work largely falls into one of the most unacceptable cardinal sins of cartoons — they just aren’t that funny.
The Best Bits
There are funny moments, however. My favorite is a repeated bit where Tom keeps getting blown out of his cat “suit”, ultimately standing there in his boxer shorts and sleeveless “wife-beater” t-shirt, looking annoyed. BTW, under his cat suit, Tom has Caucasian skin tone — as well as hairy arms and legs. In “The Cat’s Meow-Ouch”, Jerry buys a bulldog for protection. Unfortunately, it’s a miniature bulldog, which looks huge to Jerry, but only stands as tall as Tom’s kneecaps. Nonetheless, the dog is ferocious, albeit somewhat comically ineffectual.
There are two “opera” cartoons — the excellent “The Cat Above, The Mouse Below” (although a little too close to the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Baton Bunny”) and “Cat and Dupli-cat” which features a Pete Puma-like rival cat, who re-creates the classic Marx Brothers’ mirror gag with an increasingly annoyed Tom. There are also some nice “slow burn” moments in “Love Me, Love My Mouse” where after Tom catches Jerry, Tom intends to share Jerry with his girlfriend (as a meal), but the girlfriend instead cares for Jerry like he’s her baby.
What Could Have Been Better
One of my pet theories on why many of these cartoons just don’t gel well is because they weren’t able to rebuild the entire classic Warners team, leading to the biggest downfall of these cartoons — the poor quality of most of the music and sound effects, or of the sound mix. With two largely silent “stars” in Tom and Jerry, the music and sound becomes even more essential in helping to tell the story. The music in these cartoons is simply relentless — to the extent that it feels like if the music even stops for a split second, everything will crash to a halt. The music is mostly uninspired and often doesn’t seem to have anything to do what what’s happening on screen. (Notable exceptions: the jazzy score for “Rock ‘n’ Rodent”, credited to Carl Brant, although jazz is not rock — a common cartoon mistake. The later cartoon scores by Dean Elliott are not bad, although there are too few of them.)
Maybe I’m spoiled by the zippy scores that Scott Bradley provided to virtually all the classic H-B Tom & Jerrys, or the clever music of Carl Stalling and his assistant/arranger/successor Milt Franklyn over at Warner Bros., but the music here (mostly by Eugene Poddany) is just too on-the-nose cartoon-y. As are the sound effects. They are often at odds with the elegance on screen, and they are often mixed too loud in the soundtrack. Again, I’m probably spoiled by the genius of Warner sound-man Treg Brown. The best evidence on what I’m trying to say here is clearly apparent in the two “clip” cartoons “Matinee Mouse” and “Shutter Bugged Cat” which use clips from the classic Hanna-Barbera toons but strip out the original soundtrack and replace it with inferior new music and sound effects, drastically changing the mood of the original footage.
But much of the failure of these cartoons have to be laid at the feet of Jones, who in later years didn’t speak much about the Tom and Jerry cartoons that he worked on. The documentary explains that he soon lost interest in Tom and Jerry, mostly because some behind-the-scenes business restructuring allowed him the freedom to develop other cartoons for MGM. The first of these was The Dot and the Line (A Romance In Lower Mathematics), a clever graphics-heavy 1965 cartoon that netted Jones his third Academy Award and won him the clout to stop directing Tom and Jerry shorts (although he continued to produce). You can actually see Jones warming up for The Dot and the Line in some of his early graphics-heavy Tom and Jerry shorts, especially “Ah, Sweet Mouse-Story of Life” and “Bad Day at Cat Rock”.
Jones followed this with “The Bear That Wasn’t” in 1967, which was interesting, but not as successful. These are the two “missing” MGM shorts from the Jones era that I mentioned above. Both of these cartoons were shown during the recent TCM Jones mini-marathon. The Dot and the Line is on the Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection collection, and “The Bear That Wasn’t” was a bonus feature on Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume Three. I’m gonna say right here that I think that both of these Jones-directed cartoons should have also been on this set as bonus cartoons — mostly because they wrap up the Jones era at MGM so nicely, and they would have made this very nice collection near-perfect.
Before Tom and Jerry wrapped up its theatrical run in 1967, Jones also moved into animated television specials, with the Dr. Seuss classics How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hears a Who!, as well as a needs-to-be-released 1969 Pogo special, and the 1970 theatrical release The Phantom Tollbooth. So, the Jones/Tom and Jerry connection didn’t necessarily cause great sparks, but ultimately lead to some classic — and classy — animation projects. That’s a pretty good legacy.
While I don’t always think that the cartoons themselves are all that, this is still an excellent collection of hard-to-find cartoons and an essential assemblage for study, as it also functions as a very interesting chapter — and tribute — to one of the great animation directors, Chuck Jones. I like to think of it as one of those projects that artists occasionally have to do to put food on the table for their family, while they’re “in-between” the work that they truly love.
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)