Tom and Jerry: Spotlight Collection
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

For animation aficionados, one of the year's most anticipated releases has been Warner Home Video's Tom and Jerry: Spotlight Collection. This set takes an approach similar to Looney Tunes: Golden Collection, although on a somewhat reduced scale (two discs vs. four discs and 40 cartoons vs. 56 cartoons). It's not a perfect DVD set, as I'll get to in a minute, but in addition to the wealth of golden age cartoons, it's attractively priced at just $19.95 and includes two valuable documentaries.

The Tom-and-Jerry cartoon series was the brainchild of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. They each had been working in animation for several years before they moved to MGM in 1937 when the studio formed its own animation company. Hanna had worked for Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising (whose cartoons were released by MGM), principally as a writer and animator. But by his own admission, Hanna wasn't very accomplished at animation. Barbera was a gag man who had worked at Van Beuren Studio and Terrytoons. He was a writer with some skills at animation. At MGM, Hanna and Barbera became a good complimentary duo. Hanna focused on his true strengths, directing and timing; Barbera focused on writing and drawing storyboard sketches.

Since its creation in '37, the studio's stable of characters was anemic. Their Captain-and-the-Kids series (based on Rudolph Dirks' classic comic strip) never caught on with audiences, and Rudolph Ising's Barney Bear, while charming in its own quiet way, was hardly the type of compelling character around which the studio could build its output. Much of MGM's output consisted of one-shot cartoons, such as Hugh Harman's Academy-Award-nominated "Peace on Earth" (1939) and Rudolph Ising's Academy-Award-winning "The Milky Way" (1940), but an audience favorite character had yet to emerge.

In 1940, Hanna and Barbera worked together on a cartoon called "Puss Gets the Boot," in which a maid warns the housecat that he'd better be well behaved or he'll get kicked out. A mischievous mouse overhears and wrecks havoc while the cat desperately tries to stop the destruction. Sound familiar? The cat may have been named "Jasper" and the mouse may have looked thinner than his subsequent incarnations, but this is the unmistakable first appearance of Tom and Jerry. At first, producer Fred Quimby didn't see anything special in "Puss Gets the Boot" and afterwards assigned Hanna and Barbera to new one-shot projects. However, audiences loved "Puss Gets the Boot." Eventually, in late 1941, Quimby gave in to appeals from moviegoers and theater owners and gave Hanna and Barbera the go ahead to create more cat-and-mouse cartoons.

It took Hanna and Barbera several efforts to perfect the formula for their new series. The first cartoons are slowly paced and the timing frequently is off; however, in 1942, Tex Avery moved from Warner Bros. to MGM, and with Avery's arrival came a heightened sense of mayhem in MGM products. Avery did not work on Tom and Jerry, but his influence comes through clearly, particularly in exaggerated facial expressions: eyeballs started jumping out of shocked faces and dumbstruck jaws gaped to the floor. Competition between Avery and the Hanna-and-Barbera team encouraged the pacing of their cartoons to increase dramatically and the gags to become more destructive. These changes served Tom and Jerry well, and soon the series hit its stride, even winning an Academy Award in 1943 for "Yankee Doodle Mouse" (while Avery's "The Blitz Wolf" won this award for MGM in 1942). The Tom-and-Jerry series would continue to take the Best Animated Short Film award in six of the next nine years.

All of Tom-and-Jerry's Academy-Award-winning cartoons are included in this DVD set: "Yankee Doodle Mouse" (1943), "Mouse Trouble" (1944), "Quiet Please" (1945), "The Cat Concerto" (1946), "The Little Orphan" (1948), "The Two Mouseketeers" (1951), and "Johann Mouse" (1952). The set focuses on the series' best years. If you're hoping to find the formative cartoons in which Hanna and Barbera were working out the formula for this series, you'll be disappointed. The set gets off to a roaring start with "Yankee Doodle Mouse," neglecting the duo's first half-dozen efforts, and then proceeding in chronological order (with only a couple exceptions). The set ends with "The Flying Sorceress" and "Blue Cat Blues" from 1956, both presented here in widescreen format. ("Touché Pussy Cat" is also presented in widescreen.) Not long afterwards, with television eroding the profits reaped by MGM's feature films, the studio disbanded their animation department in favor of simply re-releasing cartoons from prior years.

During their stay at MGM, Hanna and Barbera directed every Tom and Jerry cartoon. However, with the demise of MGM's cartoon department, Hanna and Barbera wasted little time forming their own animation studio. With a large stable of characters—including Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, and many others—Hanna and Barbera made animation history (for the better or worse) with limited animation on Saturday morning television. Meanwhile, largely due to Hanna and Barbera's post-MGM success, MGM decided to revive the Tom-and-Jerry series, first with Gene Deitch in control and later Chuck Jones, but neither Deitch nor Jones really understood what made Tom and Jerry unique and their cartoons pale in comparison to the work of Hanna and Barbera. Thankfully, none of the post Hanna-and-Barbera Tom-and-Jerry cartoons are included in the Spotlight Collection DVD set.

Not as voluminous as Warner Bros.' own Looney Tunes collections, this set in nonetheless extensive, with over five hours of viewing material. However, this set is not without its drawbacks which were quickly noted by hordes of fans of golden age animation who flocked to online forums to voice their displeasure. For starters, while the cartoons in the set were widely advertised as unedited and restored, at least three of the cartoons had in fact been edited to remove instances of blackface humor. In addition, the video transfers are the same ones that have been used for the past several years for showings on the Cartoon Network.

These editing problems came as a surprise to animation historian Jerry Beck who was involved with the preparation of this set and contributed commentary tracks for three of the cartoons. Early reports by Beck indicated Warner Home Video was shocked that the cartoons were edited and planned to unearth unedited prints and prepare new transfers, making replacements discs available (all the edited cartoons are on disc one). However, Warner Home Video soon stifled any further comment from Beck, and without any official statement being released regarding replacement discs, it's highly doubtful that those discs will ever become available.

Regarding restoration, these discs exhibit at least one example of recent work: here, "Touché Pussy Cat" appears with a stereo soundtrack. This cartoon was prepared with a stereo soundtrack in the '50s; however, this version never was issued to theaters. As a result, the sound of "Touché Pussy Cat" is much fuller and more robust than the other cartoons in the set, which are all in mono. While the stereo soundtrack for "Touché Pussy Cat" sounds great, it comes with one revision: missing from the stereo soundtrack is the voice of Jerry's little cousin singing "Frère Jacque." You can hear the "Frère Jacque" music in the background (when Jerry's nephew draws a picture of Tom on a wall), but the singing voice is absent.

Okay, the set is far from perfect, but if you eliminate the three edited cartoons, you still have 37 unedited cartoons for an exceptional price. And while the cartoons have not been restored for this release (except for "Touché Pussy Cat"), this is the best these cartoons have ever looked on home video.

In addition, the set comes with a small group of extras. First and most important, the set contains two new documentaries: 1) How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry (27 minutes), which recounts the early careers of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera and traces the development of Tom and Jerry, and 2) Behind the Tunes: The MGM Orchestra (16 minutes), which describes the contributions of composer Scott Bradley and provides plenty of examples of how his music was integrated with the antics of Tom and Jerry. These are both decent documentaries that shed valuable light on the creation of these classic cartoons. Animation historian Jerry Beck has also recorded audio commentary tracks for three of the cartoons—"The Zoot Cat," "Kitty Foiled," and "Heavenly Puss." But the extras with the most replay value are excerpts from two feature length movies: Jerry's dance sequence with Gene Kelly from Anchors Aweigh and Tom and Jerry's underwater swimming sequence with Esther Williams from Dangerous When Wet.

I suspect Warner Home Video's reluctance to provide additional restoration to the Tom-and-Jerry cartoons simply comes from the fact that these are MGM cartoons NOT Warner Bros. products. As a result, Warner Home Video likely wasn't under the pressure of continuing the legacy of their parent company's own marvelous animation company. MGM was the competition. The MGM animation library was acquired by Turner Entertainment, which has licensed the cartoons to Warner Home Video. Hopefully, however, all the original negative elements and original audio tracks still exist and can be made available some day for an extensive restoration project. Until then, this set is a most welcome addition to home video.

Tom and Jerry: Spotlight Collection is now available from Warner Home Video. This two-disc set contains 40 cartoons. Disc one contains "The Yankee Doodle Mouse" (1943), "Sufferin' Cats" (1943), "Baby Puss" (1943), "The Zoot Cat" (1944), "The Million Dollar Cat" (1944), "The Bodyguard" (1944), "Mouse Trouble" (1944), "Tee for Two" (1945), "Flirty Birdy" (1945), "Quiet Please" (1945), "The Milky Waif" (1946), "Solid Serenade" (1946), "Cat Fishin'" (1947), "The Cat Concerto" (1947), "Kitty Foiled" (1948), "The Truce Hurts" (1948), "Salt Water Tabby" (1947), "The Invisible Mouse" (1947), "The Little Orphan" (1949), and "Heavenly Puss" (1949). Disc two contains "Texas Tom" (1950), "Jerry and the Lion" (1950), "Tom & Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl" (1950), "Jerry and the Goldfish" (1951), "Cueball Cat" (1950), "Slicked-Up Pup" (1951), "Jerry's Cousin" (1951), "Cat Napping" (1951), "The Flying Cat" (1952), "The Two Mouseketeers" (1952), "Smitten Kitten" (1952), "Johann Mouse" (1953), "Two Little Indians" (1953), "Baby Butch" (1954), "Mice Follies" (1954), "Designs on Jerry" (1955), "Pecos Pest" (1955), "Touche Pussycat!" (1954), "The Flying Sorceress" (1956), and "Blue Cat Blues" (1956). The discs contain the following bonus features: How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry, a documentary (27-minutes-long) featuring interviews with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera; Behind the Tunes: The MGM Orchestra, a documentary (16-minutes-long) that includes an interview with composer Scott Bradley; the dance sequence with Jerry and Gene Kelly from Anchors Aweigh; the underwater sequence in which Tom and Jerry swim with Esther Williams from Dangerous When Wet; and audio commentary tracks by animation historian Jerry Beck for "The Zoot Cat," "Kitty Foiled," and "Heavenly Puss." Suggested list price: $26.69 (reduced to $19.95). For more information, check out the Warner Home Video Web site.

Photos courtesy of Warner Home Video.