Sunday, June 7, 2015

Swtichin' Kitten (1961) and Tom & Jerry's kooky Gene Deitch era

Tom & Jerry steers back into spooky territory (I previously posted on their encounter with a witch) in Switchin' Kitten (1961).

A stormy night finds Tom seeking shelter in this creepy old castle beautifully rendered in a multi-plane shot.

In a blink-if-you-miss it gag, Tom is actually tossed from a passing carriage into a swamp in a rope-drawn sack. The drowning of unwanted pets in this manner was apparently a common enough occurrence to be referenced in children's entertainment (there is at least one other instance of the "drowned kittens" trope found in the Tom & Jerry canon, 1949's Heavenly Puss).

Jerry, meanwhile, is living in the castle as assistant to a mad scientist performing experiments on animals. Here's his colorful array of beakers.

And the mad scientist's dungeon of cats for use as subjects.

If the characterizations of Tom and Jerry seem just a little... "off" in this episode, its because this was the first time they were depicted by Czech-based animation team Rembrandt Films.

When William Hanna and Jospeh Barbera left MGM in 1957 to launch their own studio focusing on animation for television, a deal was hatched with TerryToons animator Gene Deitch to churn out shorts in half the time and a fraction of the budget. Deitch's Czechoslovakian animators (Deitch, himself an American, had moved to Prague in 1959) had little exposure to American animation in general, and had never seen an actual Tom & Jerry short in motion, relying only on model sheets and stills for reference. The result was a bizarro-universe interpretation of Tom & Jerry that sometimes reminds me of the homemade, off-model cartoon characters you might find painted on the wall of a children's day care or on the side of a south-of-the-border supermercado.

Dietch attempted to compensate for the limited animation necessitated by the low budget with unusual sound design (instead of the standard cartoon-noise palette, these shorts are punctuated with what sounds like balloons popping underwater), eye-catching background paintings (like this rocky path illuminated by a lightning flash)...

...colorful, sometimes abstract effects...

...and inventive if not downright weird gags, like Tom, after having been buried alive, returning to the surface as a flower!

The Gene Deitch era lasted only two years (1961-1962) before the property returned stateside under the stewardship of veteran animator Chuck Jones, so these shorts represent little more than a detour in Tom & Jerry history. While reviled by many fans who felt these were merely a cheap knock-off of the real thing, I was always attracted to these cartoons because of their modern style and general strangeness, and would give them my full attention whenever they turned up on the local TV kiddie-show cartoon jukebox.

Switchin' Kitten wasn't the only fright-themed episode of the Deitch era. In Buddies Thicker Than Water, the duo are feuding in a modern apartment high-rise when Jerry powders up from head to toe, tosses on a Halloween sound effect record (Somber Records)...

..and proceeds to stalk Tom as a ghost.

This episode is also notable for a scene in which the pair get literally fall-down drunk after raiding the liquor cabinet!

The drunk jokes continue in Tall In the Trap, a western-themed episode set in the dusty town of Dry Gulp, where main street is a whiskey row of alcohol-centered gags. There's "Rigor Mortis Saloon. Come in and get stiff"...

..."Six Gun Saloon. Come in and get loaded"...

..."Band Aid Saloon. Come in and get plastered"...

...and finally, "Rocky's Saloon. Come in and get stoned".

Here's a sample of the colorful and artful design that crept its way into these shorts, a still from a dynamite explosion that looks like a tie-dyed flower.

With the endless back-and-forth cycle of violence between the two, have you ever wondered why Tom didn't just shoot Jerry in the head and put an end to it once and for all? Well he tried in one Deitch episode, Mouse Into Space.

Spoiler alert, Jerry survives, leaving Tom so guilt-ridden he offers Jerry a free retaliatory shot!

This episode finds Jerry applying to be an astronaut on a colorful rocket...

...but not before he passes his physical. No, this isn't a Hasbro Ghost Gun target, it's Jerry's X-ray.

The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit episode is a behind-the-scenes look at the cartoon making process, which turns out is little more than rearranging stock elements from a kit (and this kit not only includes Tom and Jerry, but a pack of cigarettes and cup of coffee for the animators!)

In this same episode, the pair enter a Judo school, which proceeds to shake, squash and stretch in reaction to the physical exertions within. In these stills you can see the morphing building becomes a work of modern abstract art.

One of Deitch's contributions to the Tom & Jerry universe was the addition of a new character, Tom's "owner", who for all intents is actually an abusive, angry father figure. I must confess this character's animal-like growlings and explosive expressions always unnerved me a bit.

Here he is sweating hate and administering beatings in Down and Outing.

And from High Steaks, the Angry Dad character is basically force-feeding his "child".

"Angry Dad" was cast as Capt. Ahab in an episode spoofing Moby Dick, Dicky Moe. Here's a funny gag where Tom, blackened from head to toe after falling in gunpowder, hides from the captain by pretending to be his shadow.

Ever been called "whale butt" and wondered exactly what part of the whale that is?

A beautiful multi-plane shot from the same episode.

Another bizarre Deitch gag... Tom transformed into a turtle after a steel drum is dropped on him in Calypso Cat.

Some attractive backgrounds from Carmen Get It...

...and from a jungle-themed episode, Sorry Safari.

Tom & Jerry visit a beautifully rendered cartoon-modern ancient Greece in It's Greek to Meow.

The entire Gene Deitch era is available on a newly released DVD Tom & Jerry The Gene Deitch Collection.