Tom and Jerry is a cartoon that dates all the way back to the 1940s. Despite that it has aged like fine wine with the two title characters’ wanton destruction and comedic timing. Their slapstick routines practically defined cartoon violence. This is a cartoon beloved not only by children across generations but also by directors and film historians. Slapstick comedy and cartoon violence have been all around the world of cinema and television (all to varying degrees of success) but Tom and Jerry did it exceptionally well. And it comes down to a variety of reasons.
While there was a little bit of story in each short, the story was not the focus. It was just the framing device for Tom and Jerry to maim one another in a variety of ways. And the animation regarding the characters’ movements, expressions, and pain also have a great deal of creativity. The expressions, in particular, were spot on. Tom for instance when he thinks he has the upper hand often had a smug expression which often gave more of an impact to the humor when he is foiled.
Tom and Jerry rarely had any dialogue in the shorts. Some of the side characters like Spike and Tom’s owners spoke but Tom and Jerry themselves rarely spoke. When they did speak it was rare and only used to add a bit of silliness to a scenario. Had the voices been used too much it would lose its humorous impact. This allowed more time to devote to the creative physical humor of it all rather than the motivations. Something like the Looney Tunes shorts which came out around the same time as Tom and Jerry and their subsequent spin-offs also had great slapstick but it often intertwined with how characters like Bugs, Daffy, and Porky talked. Tom and Jerry often set up its story within the first couple of minutes and from there on out it was all cartoon violence from there which has always been the heart of the episode.
Tom and Jerry may have not been able to speak but they did have distinct personalities defined through the aforementioned movements and expressions. Jerry is often playful, smart, mischievous, and often just looking to survive from Tom’s wrath. Sometimes he can have a little too much fun in surviving leading to him torturing Tom far more than he deserves. Tom, on the other hand, views his mouse foe as a meal or nuisance. In almost every episode he is always the one that starts the fight always making it fun when Jerry bests him. Tom is also short-tempered, cocky, and prideful which makes him a fun fall guy. But what he and Jerry have in common is the same sense of playfulness even when chasing each other. Even though the two go to great lengths in hurting each other they still have the enjoyment of the chase. This makes it believable in the few scenarios where they join forces.
When it comes to the slapstick animation it’s timed perfectly. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera knew how to animate each frame and expression down to the letter. No matter what way Tom and Jerry fought each other they knew how fast or slow to animate the violence and how to portray the pain. Tom and Jerry, like most cartoons, exaggerated pain detail but it did so to just the right amount. If Tom or Jerry were hit by something it the detail would always have some exaggeration but they would still have some amount of realistic pain through the way the objects they were harmed with resulting in an imprint on them.
Tom and Jerry not only walked as humans but also when they got hurt, let out human screams (through some fantastic voice work by William Hanna). And human beings can relate more to other human beings being in pain. If they kept to animal sounds and movements like they did in the early days the humor would not be nearly as effective.
Tom and Jerry have had various spin-offs over the years such as The Chuck Jones collection and them being put into popular properties like Robin Hood, Wizard of Oz, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and I’ll get to that one day). They even had their own feature-length movie. All of these had varying degrees of success but when they stuck to the heart of what made these characters so popular it was done well. Even at their worst, they did physical humor in all the right ways. It didn’t set any precedents for physical humor but it knew how to enjoy its audiences. While Tom and Jerry aren’t featured prominently today their legacy can never be tarnished.