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The Tom and Jerry cartoons: 1940-1958

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MGM's Tom and Jerry cartoons, created by Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, may be the purest of all the classic theatrical cartoons series from American animation's heyday. They didn't star quirky characters like Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck or Popeye and Olive Oyl. You had Tom, a nondescript grayish-blue cat and you had Jerry, a cute little brown mouse. Tom chased Jerry, Jerry defended himself. Often, the cartoons would start in mid-chase, Jerry scrambling around some corner, Tom in hot pursuit, without any explanation of what started it; this is just what they did.

On paper, the Tom and Jerry premise sounds unpromising. A cat chases a mouse? Sounds good for maybe one cartoon, or possibly a handful before the gags run out, right? Ah, but the greatest comedy can come from the simplest of ideas. Hanna and Barbera took their simple, clich├ęd cat versus mouse cartoon called "Puss Gets the Boot" (1940) and, encouraged by its popularity, developed it into one of the all-time great cartoon series.

Tom and Jerry rarely talked, and when they did, you never knew what voice would come out of their mouths, especially Tom. In some cartoons, Tom's voice would differ depending on the situation, such as in The Zoot Cat (1944), where he uses three distinct voices over the course of six minutes, including one that sounds mysteriously like Frank Sinatra. There's nothing really distinctive about the character designs of Tom and Jerry either. Yes, we recognize them instantly today because they are famous stars, but really, take away their names and our memories of their classic chases, and both characters could have fit perfectly into the menagerie of nameless dogs, cats, mice and birds that populated Tex Avery's cartoons from the same studio.

The gags were as simple as the stories. Pies in the face, frying pans to the head, hammers to the tail. Tom would chuckle at a mini-firecracker handed to him by Jerry and - BOOM! - it would turn out to have the power of a stick of dynamite. Hanna and Barbera weren't doing anything all that different in their Tom and Jerry cartoons that the animation department at Warner Brothers was doing in their Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons, but the energy and timing, along with Hanna and Barbera's gleeful use of painfully violent gags, set the Tom and Jerry's apart from the cartoons of rival studios. Like Laurel and Hardy films, Tom and Jerry cartoons had a simple style and an immaculate timing that was irresistible.

Although Tom and Jerry have been brought back again and again through the years, in theaters and on television, the original Tom and Jerry series ended in 1958 with the short "Tot Watchers".

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