I wish I were a bigger fan of Tom and Jerry. Watching the new DVD Collection of 40 of their '40s and '50s cartoons, I found what I usually find when watching their cartoons: there's a lot to admire, and a lot to enjoy, but not a lot that I actually laugh at the way I laugh at the cartoons of Hanna and Barbera's MGM contemporary, Tex Avery. I find myself thinking, oh, Tom crashed through the floor, that's a good gag, good comic timing. But I haven't really laughed at it. And "The Cat Concerto" doesn't crack me up nearly as much as Friz Freleng's near-simultaneous cartoon based on exactly the same idea (no one really knows who came up with the idea first), "Rhapsody Rabbit."
I'm not sure that I can analyze my problem with Tom and Jerry, but I think it comes down to personalities. Tom and Jerry started as characters inspired by the archetypes of '30s cartoons -- the happy-go-lucky mouse, the devious cat -- and while they developed a lot from that point, I never find much personality in them. Jerry's often not much more than a cute little mouse with a happy personality; guest characters, like the tough mouse in "Jerry's Cousin" or the bird in "Kitty Foiled," have to take up the task of defining the approach to tackling Tom (and the guest characters are often rather weak), because Jerry doesn't really have his own approach, his own style. And Tom is the same way; in a lot of cartoons he comes off to me as just, generically, The Cat. So while the cartoons contain some extremely strong character animation by the likes of Irv Spence and Ray Patterson, I don't always get the sense that these are truly interesting characters, and without that, the appeal of one character smashing another character's teeth to pieces is somehow lessened. But I'm in a very minor minority here; Tom and Jerry were recently picked by a British poll as the best-known cartoon characters in the world, and their millions of fans around the world certainly don't think they're not interesting characters. And I will say that there are some Tom and Jerry cartoons I find very funny, including one that gets a commentary track on this set, "Kitty Foiled."
The selection of cartoons on this set, as you may have heard, is timid in the extreme; it includes 40 of the 117 or so Tom and Jerry cartoons, but not a single one with the unseen but forceful Mammy Two-Shoes ("THOMAS!! Get your head out o' that icebox, boy!!"). This isn't even about, as on the Looney Tunes sets, leaving out cartoons with blackface gags, since, as I recall, we never see Mammy's face; it's just an assumption that they'll get in trouble by including any representation of black characters in a collection of cartoons. An assumption that may, alas, be all too true. Jerry Beck, who does the commentary tracks on this set, has said that "The best is yet to come," so hopefully future collections will let Mammy out of the vaults. Interesting thing: "Kitty Foiled" includes a gag where Jerry poses as an American Indian, and even says "How." This gag is not cut -- all the cartoons on this set are uncut (edit: I spoke too soon: see below) -- but why exactly is stereotyping of Native Americans supposed to be so much less offensive?
Addendum: I regret to say that one of the cartoons, "The Little Orphan," is not uncut; the brief non-speaking appearance of Mammy Two-Shoes is there, but a blackface gag (involving Tom) is removed.
Anywho... don't expect the kind of restoration work that WB is doing on Looney Tunes. These prints don't appear to be taken from the original negatives, but then, since these are MGM cartoons that got sold to Ted Turner and then got picked up by WB in the Warner/Turner merger, it's possible that WB doesn't even have the original negatives, or even that they don't exist any more. The cartoons here don't have the same vibrant colors as the WB cartoons, and the prints have the usual assortment of flecks, specks, and that dot in the upper right hand corner at the end (a signal to the projectionist that it's time to change the reel). They look all right, but "all right" in the sense of being better than what you'd see on TV; it's not really up to the standards of the best DVD releases of old movies or cartoons.
Addendum: I just read elsewhere that, in fact, the original negatives do not exist; the negatives of the MGM cartoons were destroyed in a fire some years ago, so this is about as good as most of these cartoons are ever going to look.
The good news is that the special features are very good. The highlights are two new featurettes. One is on Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera and the origins and history of Tom and Jerry, from their debut in 1940 to the closing of the MGM cartoon studio in 1957. This lasts almost a half an hour, includes extensive interviews with Hanna and Barbera (shot on film, not videotape, giving the interviews a nice "vintage" look) as well as comments from animation experts Jerry Beck and Earl Kress. The other featurette, on disc 2, is a 17-minute feature on the music of Scott Bradley, composer for almost all of MGM's cartoons. This is no puff piece; it's mostly an analysis of Bradley's music and how it works within the cartoons, illustrated with many examples from the cartoons themselves. I wish WB would do something like this on the Looney Tunes sets for Carl Stalling.
So, if you love Tom and Jerry, this is well worth picking up, albeit with a prayer that someone at WB would finally stop being so terrified of Mammy Two-Shoes and Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves and all that kind of thing (if they can release a special edition of Gone With the Wind...). If you don't love Tom and Jerry, it's still worth picking up at the low price. Also, if you don't love Tom and Jerry, you're like me. We're sick. We need help.