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Sunday, May 31, 2015


I originally watched these cartoons during my college days, many years ago, on a tiny portable TV.  Thus, I never realized that they're actually fairly nice-looking, colorful cartoons with some lovely backgrounds.  My only reaction at that time to the Gene Deitch "Tom & Jerry"s was abject horror at how awful they seemed compared to the earlier Hanna-Barbera ones, which were actually known to win Oscars from time to time.

The only way any of the thirteen cartoons in Warner Home Entertainment's TOM AND JERRY: THE GENE DEITCH COLLECTION would get an Oscar would be if producer William L. Snyder taunted members of the Academy enough to have one thrown at him.  With Hanna-Barbera's departure from MGM, the studio turned to Snyder and Chicago-born animator-director Gene Deitch (a former Terrytoons producer and father of famed underground comix artist Kim Deitch) to keep the cat-and-mouse game afoot.

From Snyder’s Prague-based animation studio, Rembrandt Films, they churned out 13 new shorts from 1960-62 (after viewing some of the celebrated originals for the first time and disliking them) and created a run of "Tom & Jerry"s which stand as some of the oddest, least accessible, and, some might say, most bizarre mainstream cartoons ever made. 

Even as the age of the theatrical cartoon began to wane, moviegoers young and old must've scratched their heads as these wacky artifacts unspooled before them on the big screen. (A later Deitch creation, the Nudnik, would be even harder to relate to, although, to his credit, one of Deitch's unrelated shorts during this period won an Academy Award.)

A follower of the UPA style of animation, Deitch was unused to MGM's old-school, freewheeling slapstick hijinks and outlandish gags.  His attempts to recreate the works of animators such as William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, and the brilliant Tex Avery while adapting their brand of outrageous comedy to his post-modern sense of humor resulted in a series of hybrid efforts which, while hardly as entertaining as their forebears, are nevertheless curiously compelling.

Many of the odd, poorly-rendered gags make little or no sense--after being buried alive in "Switchin' Kitten", Tom's tail slithers up out of the ground and then his head appears on the end of it like a flower, looking just as perplexed as we are. The eye-pleasing artwork is at odds with the jerky movements and editing, while the sound effects often consist of reverb-heavy electronic noises that seem to have been recorded in a restroom. 

Rather than simply come up with the usual domestic antics for the duo, Deitch started putting them into all kinds of outlandish settings and situations (something Looney Tunes vet Chuck Jones would continue to do when he took over the reins from Deitch later on).  Haunted castles, ancient Greek cities, the jungle, outer space, and even a ship under the command of Captain Ahab ("Dicky Moe") are some of the backdrops for these stories.

Some of them consist of Tom simply doing what's expected of him--protecting the homefront from vermin.  Meanwhile Jerry, who is basically a home invader out to steal food (and, let's face it, spread disease), gleefully causes the hapless feline to get beaten and tortured for his efforts.   Honestly, it's as though we're expected to despise cats with a passion in order to find these cartoons funny.

Deitch lays the anti-cat sadism on thick as the writers try to top themselves coming up with ways for poor Tom to suffer (some of his punishments here are positively medieval) while Jerry, of course--insufferable little bastard that he is--dances around gloating and basking in his own horrid "cuteness."  The cat-hate is taken to especially uncomfortable extremes whenever Tom's new owner, a surly fat guy who constantly abuses him, takes him aside for a severe beating as Jerry looks on with a smirk and gorges himself on ill-gotten food.

Fortunately, some of the later entries in the series manage to tone down the Tom-related violence a tad as the stories become a bit cleverer and even the already-passable artwork seems to improve.  "Landing Stripling" and "Calypso Cat" come closest to the classic MGM cartoon style (while still displaying the usual Deitch touches) with an old-school look and gags that are actually funny. 

In "Landing Stripling", this is helped by making Tom the clear-cut bad guy from the start so that he deserves what he gets for once (although it's clear we're being manipulated to feel that way).  The duck character here is a throwback to Yakky Doodle from the classic era although not as cute.  "Calypso Cat" finds Tom once again trying to woo a beautiful girl cat, this time aboard a luxury cruise ship, while Jerry mischievously cramps his style--leading to some genuinely funny gags.

Deitch also harkens back to earlier cartoons with the music-based "Carmen Get It!" and the fourth-wall-breaking "The Tom & Jerry Cartoon Kit", although such attempts tend to emphasize the relative awkwardness of the newer ones.  "Dicky Mo", the western "Tall in the Trap", and "Sorry Safari" suffer from Deitch's grotesque depiction of human characters, whom Hanna-Barbera generally avoided save for the occasional pair of legs.  Another above-average entry is "Buddies...Thicker Than Water", whose tale of penthouse-dwelling Jerry taking in a homeless, freezing Tom actually generates some charm.

The DVD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is in standard format with Dolby mono sound in English and Spanish.  The 13 cartoons are newly remastered and look very nice.  Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.  Extras consist of a Gene Deitch interview, "Tom and Jerry…and Gene: The Rembrandt Years", and a series retrospective entitled "Much Ado About Tom and Jerry" which spans the decades from their debut cartoon all the way to their most recent TV incarnations.

Although as a cat-lover I eventually came to find even the earlier, classic MGM "Tom and Jerry" cartoons somewhat hard to endure (feeling sorry for Tom and seething with hatred for Jerry the whole time), I still watch them from time to time simply to enjoy the sheer genius behind their creation.  As for the 13 shorts in TOM AND JERRY: THE GENE DEITCH COLLECTION, the reason I watch them is the same reason I watch Ed Wood movies or gaze at kitsch art--because some things are so interestingly bad that they instill in the viewer a curious blend of revulsion, disbelief, and perverse pleasure.

Featured Shorts:
•Switchin’ Kitten
•Down and Outing
•It’s Greek to Me-ow!
•High Steaks
•Mouse Into Space
•Landing Stripling
•Calypso Cat
•Dicky Moe
•The Tom & Jerry Cartoon Kit
•Tall in the Trap
•Sorry Safari
•Buddies Thicker Than Water
•Carmen Get It!

Buy it at the WB Shop

Street date: June 2, 2015


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