One hundred and sixty-one “Tom & Jerry” cartoons were made from 1940 to 1967, directed by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera (1940-58), Gene Deitch (1961-62), and Chuck Jones (1963-67). Naturally, the Hanna & Barbera era is what people will imagine first when they see the characters, and it is their chase template everyone has tried to match with each new film or series.
As a child, we had a Tom & Jerry video cassette at home that presented a number of shorts in random order – mostly Hanna & Barbera-directed ones, but with some Deitch and Jones cartoons thrown in. They were not ordered by year or director, just one cartoon after the other. Much later, I would buy all the shorts on DVD, this time arranged in order of release, and you could see what happened over time: the shorts became progressively less detailed and more stylised until they stopped (Hanna & Barbera), then they became funky and weird (Deitch), then turned into Road Runner mark two (Jones).
I was surprised to discover the general consensus is that Deitch’s cartoons, which I like for their funkiness, are the worst, with articles and videos online agreeing this is the case. I am doubtful those writing these will have seen or grown up with them, as all of Deitch’s shorts only became available on DVD in the US in 2015 – I bought mine ten years earlier, their having long remained in circulation in the UK on home video and television. If I hadn’t preferred them, I would still be more used to seeing them against the others.
Gene Deitch had been commissioned to make thirteen new “Tom & Jerry” shorts after “Munro,” a short animation about a four-year-old boy accidentally drafted into the US Army, had won an Academy Award for Animated Short Film – Tom & Jerry had done this seven times by this point. Because MGM had disbanded their cartoon unit in 1957, and had been re-releasing old films, Deitch’s shorts were produced at Rembrandt Films in Prague, (at the time still) Czechoslovakia, where Deitch had relocated to produce “Munro,” and had decided to stay.
However, the budget constraints that smoothed out detail and simplified backgrounds in the latter Hanna & Barbera shorts, limitations the duo continued to work with in television, would also be imposed on Deitch: where “Tom & Jerry” cartoons had cost up to $50,000 per 6-10 minute short, with $1,000 going to composer Scott Bradley each time, Deitch would have only a $10,000 budget per cartoon. What is more, Deitch’s Czech collaborators had not seen “Tom & Jerry,” leading Deitch to do much of the writing and key animation poses in addition to directing.
Tom & Jerry were drawn as they had been previously, and the theme tune remained the same, but the rest was brand new. Instead of constantly running around a house, the locations changed – a haunted castle, ancient Greece, a tropical island, the Wild West, outer space. Only the title characters remain – no Spike and Tyke, no Nibbles or Quacker – and other characters like they come from a different series entirely. Any previous friendship or comradery between Tom & Jerry were gone, replaced with a tit-for-tat, David and Goliath struggle. The gags have a different sensibility - Tom is forced to drink a bottle of cola, taking on the shape of a bottle; Tom prepares to spit watermelon seeds at jerry, so his face becomes the shape of a cannon; when Jerry’s blood pressure is monitored, he inflates. Tom is whacked more than before, often from his owner or another person after something Jerry has done, or because he is simply there. The action itself is less fluid, becoming jerkier and more manic. There are no real stories, each being a succession of scenes until an end is decided. As stated in a voiceover in “The Tom & Jerry Cartoon Kit,” featuring the most impressionistic backgrounds of all the shorts, by using none, “the result may not make sense, but will last long enough for you to be comfortably seated before the feature begins.”
What probably led to the death threat Deitch apparently received was how clearly there were different decisions being made – the music was written for mood and not action, the gags weren’t the same, and Tom & Jerry still looked like someone else drew them. Deitch admitted in 2017 that they could have been better animated, and truer to the original cartoons, but the inexperience of his team, and the low budget, meant only so much could be achieved.
However, Deitch was a cartoonist more in the modern mould – he served an apprenticeship at UPA, pioneers of a modernist limited animation style seen in “Gerald McBoing Boing” and “Mr Magoo,” and would later create Tom Terrific and Clint Cobbler when later at Terrytoons. As previously stated, Deitch had won an Oscar, and the sort of production he would make could have been anticipated - if he didn’t think the job was for him, he could have said no. On the part of MGM, they had the most financially successful cartoons of 1961-62, beating Warner Bros. for the first time.
The death of Gene Deitch in April 2020 led to “Tom & Jerry” being the most remarked-upon work of his career, bypassing his feature film “Alice of Wonderland in Paris” (1966), his episodes of the “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat” TV series, and a twelve-minute adaptation of a book made to meet a deadline on film rights, meant never to be seen but now posted on YouTube when rediscovered in 2012 – “The Hobbit.”
MGM contracted Chuck Jones to continue producing “Tom & Jerry” in 1963, the producer that signed Deitch having left. I guess that Jones is more of a known quantity through the Looney Tuines and Merrie Melodies series, but he redesigned Tom & Jerry entirely, their dynamic is different again, the gags are different again, the music is scored differently... and everything else that was said about Gene Deitch’s version.