The three major cartoon factories of the ’40s and ’50s—Walt Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM—traded off Best Animated Short Oscars throughout those two decades. Yet while the Silly Symphonies and Looney Tunes shorts remain broadly appealing today, the Tom & Jerry cartoons that were once the pride of MGM are now prized mainly by cultists and scholars, who don’t mind the repetitive plots so much. Sure, any given 10 minutes of a cartoon cat and mouse trying to outwit each other remains pretty entertaining. Tom & Jerry’s original supervisors, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, had a good grasp of dialogue-free slapstick timing, and the series kept up with the times technically and stylistically, starting with the rounded design and bluish-pink hues of ’40s children’s books and evolving into a looser, more UPA-inspired look (albeit in breathtaking Cinemascope and stereophonic sound). But unlike Warner’s Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote series, the Tom & Jerry shorts aren’t terribly inventive or absurdist in their mayhem. The MGM animators preferred a good clobber to an ironic comeuppance—and a viewer can only take so much clobber in one sitting.
The new two-disc Tom & Jerry: Deluxe Anniversary Collection probably won't win any converts, either. Though there’s a lot to like about its 30 shorts, the set itself is more expensive and less comprehensive than the Spotlight collections that came out a few years ago. The picture and sound quality varies widely, with several widescreen shorts touted as “enhanced” for TV when they’ve actually been enlarged to fill the screen. Much of the context of the Spotlight sets—most notably the commentary tracks by historian Jerry Beck—is missing, which means viewers are left alone to ponder why these funny but minor little chase films were ever considered award-worthy. And while the Deluxe set covers a wide range of T&J history—including some of the acclaimed mid-’60s run of director Chuck Jones, and some from the clunkier TV and theatrical revivals between the ’70s and ’00s—there’s nothing here from the surreal, super-low-budget early-’60s shorts by cult animator Gene Deitch.
Still, the set will do as a basic Tom & Jerry archive, documenting the series’ various eras. Want to see Tom get the boot from an outrageously stereotyped black “mammy”? Want to see Jerry spit at a picture of Hitler? Want to see the series’ creators try to break up the formula a little by introducing a cute duck and a thuggish dog? All that is in this collection, as are examples of Tom and Jerry gallivanting in foreign climes, and posing as classical musicians and/or musketeers between attempts to destroy each other. But worry not, fans of sitcom Americana: There are also plenty of opportunities for cultural archaeology here, for those who prefer to look beyond the warring animals and instead enjoy an amiable 60-year succession of well-appointed, rodent-infested suburban homes.
Key features: Excerpts from live-action/animated sequences of the MGM musicals Anchors Aweigh and Dangerous When Wet, and a too-breezy 20-minute look back at all the duo’s incarnations.