I’ll admit: I kind of went into this one a little bit blind. I mean, I’m familiar with Tom and Jerry. Who isn’t? But I wasn’t entirely familiar with Gene Deitch or the era of Tom and Jerry shorts for which he was responsible.
I’ll also admit: I’m not the world’s biggest Tom and Jerry fan. Even as a kid, they were pretty much a last resort. I’d take any of the Looney Tunes over that cat and mouse. Heck, I would’ve probably opted for Merrie Melodies or Silly Symphonies over Tom and Jerry.
But that still makes me a bigger fan of the duo than Gene Deitch was when he took over the franchise in 1961. He’s on record calling Tom and Jerry “dreck” and “primary examples of senseless violence.”
Be that as it may, after William Hanna and Joseph Barbera left MGM to further solidify their place in history on television, the studio handed over the reigns to the theatrical Tom and Jerry shorts to Deitch. And gave him a quarter of the budget that Hanna and Barbera had…to make twice as many shorts.
Oh, and Deitch was working behind the Iron Curtain in communist-run Czechoslovakia. With a team of animators who had never seen American animation let alone Tom and Jerry.
Seems like the odds were against this from the beginning, right?
To be fair, Deitch was in a tough spot. He was put in charge of characters that had been lovingly developed by Hanna-Barbera for almost 20 years, during which time they produced 114 shorts and won a record seven Academy Awards for Animated Short Film. Deitch would also be followed by the legendary Chuck Jones who produced a run of 34 shorts, but there was no way he could’ve known that at the time.
He really was sandwiched between giants.
So what was the result of this collaboration? Thirteen episodes of the weirdest, most bizarre Tom and Jerry cartoons you’ve ever seen. Or never seen. These 13 episodes constitute a strange departure for the series….so much so that Gene Deitch actually received a death threat for his run on Tom and Jerry.
And if that’s not enough to pique your curiosity about these shorts, you might want to check your pulse.
The settings of these shorts are incredibly diverse: a haunted castle, ancient Greece, outer space, the old West, an African safari…and Lincoln Center. In short, we’re not confined to that suburban house and yard so prevalent in the Hanna-Barbera shorts. Also gone is the sadly-stereotyped African-American housekeeper who often played the foil in the Hanna-Barbera days. Tom’s owner (when he appears) is a brutal, sadistic middle-aged man who often inflicts more torture on Tom than Jerry ever could.
The animation and sound design in these shorts take some getting used to. Remember, they were developed by a team of animators who had never even seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon before. On a bare-bones budget. Character movements are less fluid; stories take surreal turns, and sound effects carry a disturbing amount of reverb.
Really, truly bizarre.
As a piece of animation history, this set is undoubtedly a must-see. As a set of kids cartoons, though, I wouldn’t put this one near the top. In fact, my 3-year-old asked to turn it off after two cartoons.
Tom and Jerry: The Gene Deitch Collection is out now on DVD. It includes all 13 Deitch-directed shorts, along with two brief documentaries: Tom and Jerry…and Gene and Much Ado About Tom and Jerry. Both are interesting and place these shorts within the larger context of Hanna-Barbera and MGM history.
(Disclosure: I received a copy of this DVD for review purposes. All opinions remain my own.)