Tom and Jerry, Jack and Dustin

I’m watching a lot of Tom and Jerry at the moment (an early morning enthusiasm of one of my boys) and I’ve been wondering whether there’s anything else of that vintage on TV that still plays so well. Some of the cultural references and social situations are dated, of course. But as a piece of film it’s as fresh today as it’s ever been: a beautifully-executed comic world with its own internally consistent and credible laws and mores. (However, I’m only referring to the original Hanna Barbera cartoons. From a very young age I learnt to rely on that scratchy ‘Fred Quimby‘ signature as a guarantee of quality.)

They’re seventy years’ old this year – so happy birthday, guys. Good going. Why have they worn so well? Chase scenes and one-on-one fights have always been popular, underlined by the fact that the names ‘Tom’ and ‘Jerry’ come from a best-selling journal by Regency sports writer Pierce Egan (who also happens to have first described boxing as ‘the sweet science’). The first edition of Life in London or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis was published in 1821; ‘Tom and Jerry’ soon became terms to describe rough-and-tumbling London youths. So that makes next year the 190th anniversary of Tom and Jerry as characters. Even better going.

But, on reflection, Tom and Jerry aren’t unique in the very-old-but-fresh-as-the-day-they-were-made stakes – there’s the Looney Tunes cartoons. Perhaps a strong indication that they’ve aged well merely because they’re animated? But other animated films have dated quite badly, such as Mickey Mouse cartoons of the same era.

No, whilst the enduring and broad popularity of slapstick-style comedy as well as the artfulness and charm of the animation are essential ingredients to these cartoons’ longevity, they’re not quite sufficient. I think there’s another special, less easily defined and, in fact, rather improbable element that’s resulted in their wearing particularly well. It’s to do with a certain quality in the characters and attitudes portrayed, something which is not so much timeless as influential. How so?

Well, not even the good guys in these cartoons are ingratiating; when they look to the viewer it’s usually to wink a complicit eye or arch a quizzical eyebrow. Nor are they overly cute or straightforwardly good – in fact, they can be gluttonous, destructive, unscrupulous and even downright sadistic. Morally ambiguous, in fact. They’re their own people (or mice, birds, rabbits, etc.), knowing but unknowable, resisting predictability. And, despite being underdogs (or mice, birds, rabbits, etc.) they manage to outwit their stronger, better resourced adversaries.

In a word they’re cool.

I wonder whether this conception of cool influenced the children who grew up to be the film-makers and actors of the sixties and seventies? It might seem far-fetched but don’t Jack Nicholson’s characters often have something of a Looney Tunes quality about them? In Easy Rider or The Shining or One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, for instance? And Dustin Hoffman – say, in The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy – doesn’t he share some features with the fugitive Jerry Mouse? Isn’t the James Bond of the screen the bastard child of Fleming’s novels and Bugs Bunny?

Well, it would explain why we find these cartoon characters as fresh today as when they were made – they provide prototypes of what’s become a familiar filmic character, the less-than-wholesome hero. In other words, they invented our idea of cool.

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10 thoughts on “Tom and Jerry, Jack and Dustin

    September 13, 2010 at 09:28

    How apposite Gaw, that you should mention The Shining. The current issue of The Week has a brilliant cartoon of Blair’s face emerging from the splintered door
    a la Jack in the film, below the caption ‘He’s Back’

    September 13, 2010 at 10:46

    Personally, I always had a lot of time for the Road Runner. Although it would be nice to think the attraction lay in the surreal way that bodies move within space, the way that one only falls through space once one realises one’s actually not standing on anything any more, etc, it probably had more to do with admiration for the way the Road Runner always managed – just – to get away with it. Cool indeed.

    (That’s fascinating Pierce Egan stuff, by the way.)

    September 13, 2010 at 12:10

    Tom and Jerry were too violent and mean for me, but perhaps that is becoz I am both a gurl and uterly wet and a weed. I preferred Top Cat (his intellectual best friends call him TC [and just the idea that there might be some intellectual best friends somewhere in the offing was a nice change from biff baff boff]). Anyway I am now so extremely mature that I watch only Pingu (and that is true – I love that show sooooo much.)

    ian russell
    September 13, 2010 at 12:18

    That’s the Wile E. Cyote who falls only when he realises he’s run out of cliff.

    Mickey & friends didn’t rely as much on surrealism. Their world tended to obey the laws of physics. Even when an elephant flew you were told it wasn’t supposed to, and there followed the scientific explanation. But the real reason is, I think, because Disney culture is white American whereas Tom & Jerry is obviously black.

    September 13, 2010 at 12:57

    I was always a Bugs Bunny fan myself – I like his nasty streak – though Droopy was the one that made me laugh most.

    Though in fact, children tend to take cartoons and comic books extremely seriously.

    September 13, 2010 at 16:47

    Tom and Jerry are uber-cool – and brilliantly funny too. I also liked the Flintstones – and Secret Squirrel.. does anyone remember that? Shhhh

    September 13, 2010 at 18:41

    I also recognise the qualities you’ve described in the Marx Brothers. Yes, they’ve perhaps dated a wee bit more by virtue of being filmed, and it’s often best to skip through the musical numbers, but when it’s just the brothers interacting amongst themselves or with a hapless third party they have that seem quality of anarchic cool that Tom and Jerry and bugs and Daffy have in spades.

  8. Worm
    September 13, 2010 at 20:41

    Love Tom and Jerry, I think also in a large part because the animation seemed so fluid and kinetic. And I must be in the minority as I always really wished that Tom would catch that cheeky little sh*t jerry. See also Sylvester and Tweety Pie.

  9. Gaw
    September 13, 2010 at 21:07

    Mahlerman: I’ve managed to recover from a long-standing interest in politics and it feels marvellous, particularly at the moment for reasons you advert to.

    Barendina: I’d love to read that Pierce Egan piece – my guess is that ‘rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis’ would be right up your street too – but I can’t find it.

    z: I just love that Top Cat song, its the most tip-top. And the pullovers. But still not Mickey, I’m afraid.

    Ian: Interesting angle. BTW the black maid character in T&J is quite controversial nowadays and is sometimes subjected to editing apparently.

    Brit: I like to think BB was chewing a carrot of the Camberwell variety.

    Susan: Secret Squirrel – still a useful name to drop when on present-buying missions.

    Mr Windram: I enjoyed your blog. And you’re surely right about the imperishable Marx Brothers.

    Worm: Perhaps one of its strengths is that you can root for both? I think we’ve all been in Tom’s shoes (close to literally for us last year when we had a stubborn infestation of cheeky, sh*tting mice).

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