Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.
Will the Real "Tom and Jerry" Please Stand Up?
Since its debut on February 10, 1940, Tom and Jerry has been delighting fans and tickling the proverbial funny bone in both the young and old. But is their place in Americana rooted in theft or just very clever recycling? Here is their origin story.
A Recycled Beginning
Amadee J. Van Beuren ran the Van Beuren Studios in the 1920s and 30s, producing wild silent cartoons as part of Paul Terry's Aesop Fables series. In October of 1928, the small studio had actually beaten Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie to the theater with their first synchronized sound cartoon, Dinner Time, co-directed by John Foster. But even though they beat Disney to the punch on sound, Disney's cartoon proved to be more popular, and thus many people grew up with the myth that Mickey Mouse held the title of first cartoon "soundie." They were in complete ignorance of both Van Beuren's early short and a number of "soundies" the Fleischer Studios had done even before Van Beuren's Dinner Time. The following year, Paul Terry would abandon his creation Aesop's Fables—now Aesop's Sound Fables—to start his own studio, Terrytoons, leaving Amadee J Van Beuren in need of a fresh start and new mascots.
John Foster, Amadee J Van Beuren, George Vernon Stallings, and George Rufle brainstormed over new mascots for the company.
Their first venture was with a small number of shorts surrounding Waffles, a very tall cat who was originally a villain in the silent Aesop's Fables cartoons but was now slowly becoming a scheming and nervous protagonist, and Don, a charming little dog who served as Waffles's foil and comic relief. Waffles and Don appeared in a few shorts off and on during the early 1930s. They even appeared on a scarce amount of merchandise, but they didn't quite catch on, so Van Beuren moved on.
Rufle, Stallings, and Foster then collaborated on an idea of making a pair in the same vein as the then recently closed Barré Studio's Mutt and Jeff series, a line of cartoons Stallings had worked on for 11 years based on the King Features Syndicate comic strip between shorts for Krazy Kat and Colonel Heeza Liar.
The result would be Tom, a lanky and tall man, and Jerry, his short, plump and funny best friend. Similar to Waffles and Don, Tom and Jerry, named for an 1820 mixed drink and an 1821 stage play respectively, starred in a series of surreal cartoons from 1931 to 1933. However, the first cartoons lacked direction, sliding from one strange occurrence or wild imagery to another. Animation quality varied, and the studio would accept help from moonlighting animators from rival Fleischer Studios, and from young animators willing to work for a pittance.
Enter Joseph Roland Barbera, a plucky 21-year-old hired in 1932 who worked as an animator and storyboard artist.
Until the end of the series in 1933, Barbera would define Tom and Jerry's madcap adventures, adding context to the stories, but Van Beuren never gave the young animator credit, nor was he paid what he was worth. Nevertheless, Barbera stayed loyal to Van Beuren until their closure in 1936.
After a brief stint with Terrytoons, Barbera was hired by MGM in 1937 and quickly found his desk directly across from William Denby Hanna, one year after his directorial debut with the Happy Harmonies short To Spring. Hanna and Barbera hit it off right away, just in time for MGM to announce that they needed new cartoon stars to replace the Captain and the Kids series based on the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, and Bosko, whose last cartoon would debut the following year in 1938.
At first, Hanna and Barbera thought of doing cartoons based on a fox and a dog, but they soon decided on a series of cat and mouse cartoons.
Fred Quimby gave them only one chance to prove themselves, but they took the risk. On February 10, 1940, Puss Gets The Boot debuted, produced by Rudolph Ising, who was largely hands-off, save but for giving Hanna and Barbera the blessing to use Bosko's mother, now known as Mammy Two-Shoes. Yet it was Ising who would gain screen credits, and not Hanna nor Barbera.
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Fred Quimby was initially against Hanna and Barbera doing any more "cat and mouse" related shorts, because at the time, every studio in Hollywood had done plenty of shorts involving a cat attempting to kill and eat a mouse. Even Disney's Mickey Mouse already had a nemesis in Pete the Cat, a leftover villain from the Alice Comedies, but something about this pair was truthfully unique, so much so that after Texas businesswoman Bessa Short wrote MGM asking for more shorts, Quimby would acquiesce to the short's potential and allow Hanna and Barbera to continue the series.
Just one problem. What would they call them?
In Puss Gets the Boot, the cat is named Jasper and in pre-production, the mouse was named Jinx, but this didn't have the ring MGM was looking for. A contest was held, and animator John Carr won $50—roughly $923.67 in 2021—to name the duo Tom and Jerry, and while the legend was that the name came from that 1820 drink, this was likely a reference to Van Beuren's cartoon since Barbera worked on that Tom and Jerry too.
Ising would work on two more Tom and Jerry shorts, this time uncredited, before leaving MGM to fight in World War II in 1942.
As for the original Tom and Jerry, Castle Films held the rights to re-distribute the old shorts, but they did so by re-naming the Van Beuren duo Dick and Larry to avoid issues with MGM.
A Recycled Legacy
Hanna and Barbera would go on to produce 114 Tom and Jerry shorts between 1940 and 1958 before MGM closed the cartoon studio and Hanna and Barbera would leave to form Hanna-Barbera Productions.
MGM held onto the rights to the 114 shorts and the subsequent characterizations of the Tom and Jerry cast. This also included a line of comic books, storybooks and other merchandise featuring the characters as drawn by other people. Then in 1961, MGM gave the Czechoslovakian Rembrandt Films the rights to animate 13 new shorts for theaters, directed by Gene Deitch. Then in 1963, MGM slowly started taking over Chuck Jones's new Sib Tower 12 Productions, having him direct 34 new cartoons for theatrical release, then in 1965, they had the former Looney Tunes director draw over existing Hanna and Barbera shorts featuring Mammy Two-Shoes, replacing her with either an Irish dubbed-over Mammy, a White Mammy, or a thin White woman, all three of which were voiced by June Foray.
Hanna and Barbera would not get the rights back to the Tom and Jerry characters until 1975. By this time, they had recycled Jerry's original name Jinx for another cat and mouse series, Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks. But the two would later allow MGM another chance at the feline and rodent with a short-lived joint production with Filmation in 1980, before all of the MGM library would go to Turner in 1986, and subsequently, all of Turner would go to Warner Brothers in 1996. By 2001, all of Hanna and Barbera's cartoons would follow.
Despite the buyouts, Hanna and Barbera remained active producers of Tom and Jerry until Hanna's death in 2001 and Barbera's in 2006.
Barbera recycled a cartoon pair twice over, and earned a fought-for legacy still entertaining audiences today.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Koriander Bullard