Saturday, 16 November 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Signor Thomasino Catti-Cazzaza and Mouse-tro Jerry

This is how most people remember Tom and Jerry...

...a violence-prone pair of psychotics, constantly bent on bodily harm and killing each other. But to quote a Fugees song (and why not?), few people remember they also sometimes killed softly, with their song.

When Tom and Jerry were first created in the 1940's by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, there was little left to the imagination. "Cats hate mice and vice versa, so let's make a series of funny shorts about them beating on each other." But about 6 years after their first release, Tom and Jerry started to show signs of significant musical sophistication.

These seeds of song were planted by Hanna Barbera long before Tom and Jerry were a famous cat and mouse. Prior to that, when Hanna Barbera was working for the Van Beuren studios in the 1930's, Tom and Jerry were a couple of average schlubs, picking up odd jobs as stories dictated. In 1932's 'Piano Tooners', this "other" Tom showed quite a gift for piano playing, as do the mice who appear to have infested his apartment. This would prove symbolic of what was to come.

Tom and Jerry, the cat and mouse, would commence their musical leanings by tackling popular songs of the time, like in 1946's 'Solid Serenade', where Tom plucks a heavy-handed bass and adopts a voice that sounds very blues influenced.

One short year later, Tom and Jerry would reveal more classical influences, and were suddenly performing sold-out shows for live audiences (with complete orchestras!), as seen in 1947's 'The Cat Concerto'.

The great thing about this cartoon, especially noticeable if you're a pianist, is the accuracy shown in the playing. At least more so than you'd see nowadays, where the camera angle would purposely peer over the piano from the backside, in order to avoid having people attempt to animate fingers. This cartoon embraces a multi-angle look at those keys, where gags in the finger placement become plentiful. Not sure if the playing is 100% accurate (anyone know Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2"?), but it certainly seems to be, at least in relation to Tom's position on the bench and keys. When his right pinkie impossibly stretches to reach those high notes, it makes you wonder as you listen to the music how it could have possibly been played by a human being. It's probably very realistic, but the cartoon makes me believe it isn't.

The other great thing about this short (along with every other first-edition Tom and Jerry, thanks to brilliant composer Scott Bradley) is how the violence is perfectly synced to the performance. Like most classic cartoons, I consider it a musical education. Here, I can take an interest in Franz Liszt, but simultaneously laugh 'til I cry, as Tom's flattened fingers struggle to ensure the show must go on. 

There's a Bugs Bunny cartoon that came out that same year called 'Rhapsody Rabbit', a reference to the fact that it too features the same piece of music by composer Franz Liszt. This one also features a musical battle against a mouse, who lives in a piano and eventually gets the better of Bugs. It's a very funny cartoon as well, but regardless of who ripped off whom (both Warner Bros. and MGM fought about it, but don't think they ever resolved it), I will always give the edge to the Tom and Jerry version, because it doesn't need dialogue to be spectacularly funny, and it deviates less from the actual "performance". (ie. no audience members were harmed in the making of the film)

I think The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared my sentiments, as they awarded Tom and Jerry with the Academy Award for Best Short Subject that year.

By the way, Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" became a cartoon classical go-to. Numerous Warner Bros. cartoons used it, like 1941's 'Rhapsody In Rivets'. Daffy and Donald Duck entertained The Ink and Paint Club with it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Daffy also released a parody of the song called 'Daffy's Rhapsody', which was used as the soundtrack for a CG cartoon of the same name last year. 

But I digress. What sets Tom and Jerry apart from the Warner Bros. lot is that they didn't need to milk Liszt for all he was worth. They had other influences.

'Johann Mouse' from 1952, pays homage to one of the most famous waltzes in the world, Strauss's "The Blue Danube". Everybody knows this song, but people are more likely to know it as referred to here - "The Waltz".

Johann Strauss was saluted again in 1950's 'Tom and Jerry In The Hollywood Bowl', which put the cat and mouse back in front of a captive audience - this time not as musicians, but as orchestra co-conductors.

Only the makers of Tom and Jerry could somehow showcase the overture to "Die Fledermaus" and set it to footage of a cat getting hit by a bus. 

Click the poor bow-eyed bugger below to watch. 

Tom and Jerry's musical influences continued post-Hanna Barbera as well. Gene Deitch's final Tom and Jerry cartoon, called 'Carmen Get It!' from 1962, placed the pair in the Metropolitan Opera House where Georges Bizet's 'Carmen' was being performed. The opera acts more as a setting than a profession in this one, but Tom still seems cultured enough to know a few notes from "The Toreador Song"

Click any of the below cases below to watch.

Tom (or is that, Thomasino?) and Jerry were actual vocalists in a production of 'The Barber Of Seville' (another classical cartoon staple) in this Chuck Jones-directed bill from 1964, called 'The Cat Above And The Mouse Below'. And based on the destructive outcome, I can only assume the show didn't receive an extended run.

Because of that, or perhaps uncomfortable with being pigeon-holed as a classical mouse-ician, Jerry went bohemian in later years to become an underground drummer in a hipster nightclub, as evident in 1966's 'Rock N' Rodent'.

As for Tom...he ditched the ego and went back to his roots. And while I'd like to consider him progressive, he seemed temporarily content to close his syndicated TV show every week by simply tickling the ivories. Until that damn mouse turned up again to piss him off. Quite honestly, I don't know where these two found time to practice. 


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