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.