Before there was the term “frenemy,” there was “Tom and Jerry.” The cat-and-mouse duo took the interplay between cats and mice to a dizzying and often destructive height. Debuting in 1940, the animated rivals still have a following today, and their more than 75 years in the public eye have not diminished their anarchistic antics and chaotic shenanigans. Tom and Jerry continue to earn worldwide fans as long as slapstick continues to provoke laughter.
Steiff is releasing a limited-edition mohair version of the conflicting and cantankerous duo. Tom, the cat, will stand 13 inches and has three joints that will allow for posing of his arms and head. Jerry, at a smaller 8 inches, has one joint and can only pivot his head. The Steiff creative team has deemed them to be “adversary/friends.” Oh, how right they are!
The bickering and battling critters have that strange, symbiotic relationship that many showbiz partners attain: together, they are undeniable superstars; separate, they are ordinary pests. I like to imagine Tom and Jerry as the cartoon versions of Martin and Lewis, Hall and Oates, or Simon and Garfunkel. All three of these duos were known to have big blowouts backstage before they emerged from the wings to the sound of ringing applause. Sure, they all could have careers as solo entities, but their combined talents made them so much more. These combos were much more than the sums of their parts.
In today’s political climate, think Trump and Cruz, or Trump and Rubio, or Trump and Kelly. Pretty much, Trump and anyone! Having a foil to quip and quibble about has altered the GOP campaign into a live-action Tom and Jerry romp. (Hillary and Bernie haven’t gotten into the spirit of unapologetically whacking away at one another. News watchers will have to wait and see if the goodwill begins to shrivel as the convention draws nearer.)
The legacy of Tom and Jerry as joined-at-the-hips foes spawned Itchy and Scratchy, the parody that the Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his animators had a ball illustrating. Itchy and Scratchy were at each other’s throats in episode after episode, and their increasingly barbaric behavior would elicit guffaws from Lisa and Bart. Even baby Maggie seemed to be yowling with hysterics behind her pacifier.
Luckily, to borrow an Elvis Costello lyric, Tom and Jerry do have shared moments of “peace, love, and understanding.” In 1945, a little more than 70 years ago, box office champ Gene Kelly danced with Jerry in the musical “Anchors Aweigh”. Jerry played a sad royal rodent who is taught to rejoice by the athletic and agile Gene Kelly. Tom has a small bit part in the sequence as a servant. What a dig! Interestingly, the “Anchors Aweigh” producers initially wanted Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck for the dance sequence. Roy Disney, however, declined the offer, saying that Disney was not in the business of making cartoons for competitors. That tough talk proved to be short-sighted when one measures the impact that dance number had.
It is invoked as one of the most clever breakthroughs in movie musicals—rhythmically knocking down the barrier between “real” and “imagined”—and it influenced scores of other animators who paired their drawings with human co-stars. Even today, director/writer/actor Seth MacFarlane gives a nod to “Anchors Aweigh” as one of his earliest influencers. In the “Family Guy”, MacFarlane superimposed his creation of Stewie over Jerry the mouse’s dance movements. In this way, his droll and sarcastic Stewie was able to time-step with Gene Kelly. Take that, Magic Kingdom!
Proving the longevity of their partnership, eight years later, in 1953, Tom and Jerry made another big splashy film musical. This time, Tom and Jerry both got Technicolor screen time, and their co-star was the aquatic phenomenon known as Esther Williams. In “Dangerous When Wet”, the million-dollar mermaid gets to dive, swim, do incredible underwater acrobatics, and never smear her mascara with the two cartoon characters. It’s a fun and fabulous production number, and both cat and mouse are naturals at the physically challenging synchronized-swimming choreography. (If you’ve ever watched the Martin Short and Harry Shearer SNL sketch, you’d appreciate the demands of this “sport.”)
Like many cultural references that had their origin in less enlightened times, Tom and Jerry have faced criticism for some of their offensive, outlandish characters. Some of their outrageous humor is insulting and demeaning to minorities and women when judged by today’s standards. It is shocking to realize that these “jokes” were laughed at and considered tame a scant half-century ago. Such insensitivity and broad stereotyping would never be conceived of or allowed past the censors today. In that way, Tom and Jerry’s original incarnations are like a time capsule of what used to be permissible and allowable not just in Hollywood but in everyday life.
That’s a lot of baggage for two limited-edition collectibles to hold, but Tom and Jerry are up to the task. In their film career, these two rascally animated adversaries were nominated for 13 Oscars, and William Hanna and Joseph Barbera won the Academy Award seven times for these short-subject productions. The contemporary cartoon versions of Tom and Jerry have grown more sensitive and more in tune with acceptable behavior and modern mind-sets. At least, that is something the cat and mouse could finally agree on: there’s no use fighting or opposing the needed tides of social change!