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"Tom & Jerry Deluxe Collection": Deluxe? More Like Deformed

by on July 15, 2010

Quick, how many “Tom and Jerry” cartoons did William Hanna and Joseph Barbera make?

If you said “Dozens and dozens,” then you are likely a completist, and the new Tom and Jerry: Deluxe Anniversary Collection is probably not for you. True, it collects a nice set of cat and mouse cartoons, but most of them have been released to DVD before. On the other hand, if you answered that question with “One, over and over again,” then— Well, this set is still probably not for you (more about that below), but it might give you a better appreciation for just how varied the series was.

The Hanna-Barbera track record with Tom and Jerry is astonishing. For more than a decade the two directing partners churned out shorts starring the gray housecat and his little brown antagonist, and they never exhausted themselves or the formula, or sought respite with other characters. (Chuck Jones made lots of formulaic Roadrunner and Pepe Le Pew shorts, but those were distractions from his more adventurous cartoons.) From a simple, almost elemental conflict between predator and prey Hanna and Barbera wrung out scores of graceful, energetic, and side-splittingly comedy shorts; and most of them were amazingly beautiful to just look at. With a few exceptions it can be hard to tell them apart from each other, but it’s hard not to break into a grin when the MGM lion fades and Scott Bradley’s jazzy fanfare announces Leo the Lion’s most enduring colleagues.

Beyond that, there’s not much to say about this two-DVD set or its contents, except to give you some idea of what you’d be getting.

There is, naturally, the very first short: “Puss Gets the Boot,” which more or less sets up the formula. The cat (here called “Jasper”) tortures a small mouse; the latter, though, turns the tables by trying to smash glass- and dish-ware in a bid to get the cat thrown out. Most of the shorts that immediately followed played variations on this theme, with Jerry using his superior smarts to get Tom into trouble. Only gradually did the extreme violence that the series is best known for become predominant.

You can see that violence escalating as the shorts unfold; you can also see the animation becoming quicker and sharper and punchier. By “Yankee Doodle Mouse,” which in many ways anticipates the dynamite-happy, blackout-gag structure of the Roadrunner cartoons, Hanna and Barbera were well on their way to essaying all the different ways you can disassemble a cat.

The pair gradually acquired some supporting players while also losing the infamous Mammy Two-Shoes. (The disc comes with a latter-day disclaimer about racist imagery in these shorts.) This set does a good job of representing each of these variations. In “Quiet, Please!” Tom tries to chase Jerry without waking a bad-tempered bulldog; that bulldog, Spike, also appears with his son Tyke in “Tops with Pops.” Tom’s various alleycat pals show up in “Saturday Evening Puss”; Tom tries to court a lady cat in “Puss ‘n Toots.” Meanwhile, Jerry acquired a small sidekick (often named Nibbles), and his shorts are represented with “The Little Orphan” and “The Milky Waif”, and also with the French-inflected “Touche, Pussycat” and “The Two Mouseketeers.” Some birds also show up: a duck thinks Tom is its mother in “That’s My Mommy,” and Jerry is “adopted” by a baby woodpecker in “The Egg and Jerry.”

There are also a few genre-benders. Tom and Jerry join forces in “Dog Trouble” to fend off a vicious bulldog that is after both of them. In “The Lonesome Mouse” the mouse and cat play at chasing each other in order to fool Mammy. And Jerry gets a stylish, Chaplin-esque solo vehicle in “Mouse in Manhattan.”

All of the above-named shorts are excellent, but official sanction comes by way of seven Oscar-winning shorts: the aforementioned “Yankee Doodle Mouse”, “Mouse Trouble”, “Quiet, Please!”, “The Little Orphan”, and “The Two Mouseketeers”; and “The Cat Concerto” and “Johann Mouse.” The last two also show off the pair at their musical best. “The Cat Concerto,” made at the same time as the eerily similar Bugs Bunny vehicle “Rhapsody Rabbit”, pits Tom as a concert pianist against the mischievous Jerry in a performance of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody. “Johann Mouse” has Tom learning to play Strauss waltzes in order to attract the dance-happy mouse. A third short also on this set, the Chuck Jones-directed “The Cat Above and the Mouse Below,” continues the tradition, as Tom (uncharacteristically given a voice) performs Rossini’s “Largo al Factotum” to the annoyance of the trying-to-sleep mouse.

The first disc is given over entirely to the Hanna-Barbera output at MGM. The second disc traces the duo’s subsequent and less happy career. It starts off promisingly enough with three shorts Chuck Jones made in the 1960s after moving to MGM from the just-closed Warner Bros. All three (“The Cat Above and the Mouse Below”; “The Cat’s Me-Ouch”; and “Pent-House Mouse”) are acceptable, but they reflect Jones’ interest in reaction and “slow burn” humor more than the anarchic style of the originals. But they are still much better than what came next. Hanna and Barbera were able to reclaim their stars in the mid-1970s with television’s The Tom and Jerry Show, here represented by the slow, boring and badly animated “Cosmic Cat and Meteor Mouse.” In form it seems like a return to old times: the duo try to watch TV without disturbing a bad-tempered dog, but it has no energy or punch. “Jerry’s Country Cousin,” from a Filmation-produced series in 1980, also takes clear inspiration from the old shorts, as Jerry and his look-alike relative conspire to drive Tom crazy. It is surprisingly energetic, considering the year it was produced, but it is still an embarrassment to set next to the classics.

Beginning in 1990 there was a gradual resurrection of style. It came slowly, beginning with Tom and Jerry Kids, one of the endless stream of classics-in-kid-form cartoons that came out in the 1990s. The representative here is “Flippin’ Fido,” which despite looking better than the 1970s series still feels like a nadir for the team. But a decade later, thanks to Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone, Tom and Jerry once again mostly looked and moved like their old selves. The set closes with the upside-down “A Game of Mouse and Cat” from Tom and Jerry Tales, but the real contemporary classic has to be “The Karate Guard,” which carries Joseph Barbera’s name as a co-director. The colors are frigid and the visuals are very flat, but its movements and designs feel like a pleasing throwback to the glory days of the 1940s.

The set also comes with three special inclusions. Two of these come as actual episodes on the second disc: the live-action/animated special numbers from two MGM features. Anchors Aweigh includes the famous dance duet between Gene Kelly and Jerry, while Dangerous When Wet puts both Tom and Jerry underwater with swimming star Esther Williams. Both are nice to have in one spot with the material that inspired them. There is also a documentary featurette that does a good job of covering the history of Tom and Jerry in twenty minutes.

There are, however, some serious problems with this release. There is no reason to include shorts from the 1970s and 1980s on a Tom and Jerry set unless you are going to cover their full histories; and if you are going to do this then you must include at least one of the shorts that Gene Deitch made for the studio between Hanna and Barbera’s departure and Jones’s arrival. But there is no such short, even though a still from one (“Dicky Moe”) appears in the menus. Even worse is the inconsistent treatment of the CinemaScope shorts. Some of them are shown in widescreen, but some are not. This is especially appalling in the case of “Touche, Pussycat,” which loses almost half its gags when half the screen gets chopped off. The appalling becomes the bewildering when you remember that the short has already been released to DVD with its correct aspect ratio. Warner Home Video is not usually this clumsy.

Issues like these—and there are plenty of others to complain about—compromise this set as a archival set. Buyers who want a compact but eclectic collection of Tom and Jerry shorts featuring their best work will find it on the first disc; for these the second disc will be nearly worthless. Completists, though, will find it mostly redundant. Archivists who don’t feel the need to collect everything might welcome even the television material, but should be vexed at the poor treatment of prints and the absence of Deitch’s material.

The shorts themselves are (mostly) good, and the sampling is interesting as a historical survey, but The Deluxe Anniversary Collection itself feels like it started as a good idea that somehow went astray. It does not have a natural constituency, being too compromised to appeal to specialists and too expensive relative to the Spotlight Collection sets for casual buyers. It may be worth a rental, but few will find it worth putting on their shelves.

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