My household was late to the cable television game, so in the late 1970s and early 80s I took what I could get cartoon-wise. While waiting for some of my favorites, like Looney Toons, Scooby-Doo or the Flintstones to flicker across my screen, I’d make do with the sociopathic antics of Woody Woodpecker, or the sadomasochistic practices of Tom and Jerry.
Tom and Jerry cartoons weren’t among my favorites growing up, yet I’d chance a bet that I’ve seen all the shorts produced between the 1940s and 1970s. When it came to cartoon cats, I preferred Sylvester of Looney Toons fame. I think Mel Blanc’s voice work gave the character more depth, and as a child with a minor lisp, perhaps I felt a kinship in our shared thpeech impediment. Jerry, however, made for a far more interesting adversary than the freakishly encephalitic Tweety Bird. While I always rooted for the cat in Sylvester and Tweety cartoons, I was team Jerry all the way when watching Tom and Jerry. Had Sylvester and Jerry ever faced off in an animation studio crossover, my young mind would have been truly blown.
Though they weren’t my favorites overall when I was younger, a couple Tom and Jerry shorts remain among my all-time favorite cartoons. The first is “Pecos Pest” from 1953 which features Jerry’s mustachioed Uncle Pecos, a country singer who comes to pay a visit to the city for his big television debut. Uncle Pecos is a tiny mouse whose face is obscured by a comically huge mustache and an oversized ten-gallon hat. Uncle Pecos arrives guitar in hand, and after a “Howdy there nephew!” he begins to rehearse a stutter-ridden variation of “Frog Went A-Courting” called “Crambone.” The performance, voiced by singer and character actor Shug Fisher, relies on yodeling false-starts, and an affected stutter for laughs. Despite its potential offensiveness to anyone with a stutter, I can’t help finding the song hilarious. If we are to learn anything from old cartoons, it is that speech impediments are comedy gold.
The main gag in this short is Uncle Pecos’s inability to keep his guitar strung. His song is continually interrupted as one of his guitar string breaks with a poing. In search of a guitar string, Uncle Pecos finds a handy substitute in the whiskers of a sleeping Tom and fearlessly plucks one, stringing it into his guitar. The result is an obligatory chase, as Jerry rescues his uncle who continues to stutter his way through “Crambone,” oblivious to the danger of the house cat on their tails. As Uncle Pecos continues to break strings, he boldly seeks out another one of Tom’s whiskers, reversing the formulaic cat-and-mouse chase, as the tortured Tom flees the whisker-hunting mouse.
More than 30 years after first hearing them, the lyrics “froggie went a-courtin’ he did ride c-c-c-c- crambone!” still manage float up to the surface of my consciousness.
My favorite Tom and Jerry cartoon is the 1954 short, “Mice Follies.” In it, Jerry and his sometime sidekick, the younger diaper-wearing mouse named Nibbles, turn the kitchen of the house they inhabit into an ice skating wonderland. I generally disliked episodes featuring Nibbles, perhaps because I was confused by the small mouse’s relationship with Jerry. Were we to assume that Jerry was a divorcee with weekend custody of Nibbles? This might explain his infrequent appearances, but it was confusing nonetheless. It’s likely that I’m projecting here given my own experiences with sidekick status to my own divorcee dad. Despite the younger incontinent mouse’s presence, I was always smitten by “Mice Follies.” I don’t find it as amusing as “Pecos Pest,” but I’m enamored by the overall production design of the short.
Mice Follies opens with Jerry and Nibbles flooding the kitchen by turning on all available water sources and then flash freezing the water with a cooling element from the refrigerator. The result is serene and twinkling wonderland of ice. The backdrop of the frozen kitchen is rendered in placid blues and greens with sparkling translucent ice. Jerry and Nibbles skate and slide across the kitchen floor to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, complete with a spotlight imaginatively created by a flashlight shone through different colored Jell-O molds.
Before long, Tom awakens to find that the kitchen has been turned into an ice-skating rink, pursues the rodents, and quickly learns that his feline grace is useless to him on the ice. As usual, the mice get the best of Tom, freezing him into an ice sculpture and taunting him as they skate circles around him. Watching as an adult, I find that I have a greater sympathy for Tom. Those mice put that poor cat through hell. Perhaps it was easier to identify with the little guy as a child, but since meeting my wife I’ve been converted into a cat-person (potentially of the crazy variety).
While “Mice Follies” is rife with the usual gratuitous violence, it is interspersed with quiet moments and an overall tranquil tone thanks to Scott Bradley’s score and beautiful backgrounds expertly painted by Robert Gentle. I’ve always been enamored with the aesthetics of “Mice Follies”. It evoked a dreamy state where I’d lose myself in its beauty and imagination. It’s one of the cartoons that I wanted to live in when I was younger, perhaps as an escape from a far less placid reality.
Watching them now, I find that I’m more of a Tom and Jerry fan than I used to be. I now prefer them over their Looney Toons counterparts. With the exception of appearances by speaking characters like Uncle Pecos, the storytelling in Tom and Jerry relies on non-verbal communication, allowing more room for the viewer’s imagination. As an adult, I’ve assigned a higher value to imagination. It’s a commodity that many adults tend to lack. Thankfully my ability to momentarily lose myself in these cartoons remains intact. I’m glad for that.