Tom and Jerry are an animated cat-and-mouse duo created by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera for a series of theatrical shorts. The first short was "Puss Gets the Boot," released in 1940.
In each cartoon, Tom the cat would try to chase and catch Jerry the mouse, often because the housemaid would demand that Tom catch the mouse or be thrown out of the house. Inevitably, his plans would fail.
Throughout the series, neither Tom nor Jerry spoke regularly, though other cats and mice would, and Tom would often yelp or occasionally utter a sentence or two.
The characters went through a few design changes over the years, and in the 1950s the animation was simplified and stylized in the wake of similarly stylized cartoons from UPA, which were popular and acclaimed at the time. Tom's color palette even changed from a dark blue to a much lighter blue, though Jerry remained brown. The series also became widescreen in the 1950s.
The characters' cartoons were nominated for, and won, several Oscars before MGM shut the doors of its theatrical department in 1957. This event caused Hanna and Barbera to form their own studio for television.
This would not the last appearance of new Tom and Jerry cartoons, however. Gene Deitch released several theatrical shorts with the characters in the early 1960s, followed by Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame). Reruns of Tom and Jerry shorts aired weekly on CBS Saturday (and later Sunday) for seven years, beginning in 1965.
The duo first appeared in new TV adventures in 1975 back in the hands of their creators, Hanna and Barbera. However, due to pressure by family watchdog groups, Tom and Jerry no longer fought with each other. They were now friends, and traveled around the country getting in various innocous adventures. Jerry also sported a red bow tie to give animators room to fragment his movements (appropos for many H-B characters with ties).
In 1980, the pair returned to Saturday morning under the guidance of the Filmation studio. The characters were back to chasing each other, though the violence was very toned down. These cartoons were often criticized for their limited animation and canned music.
In 1990 another incarnation of the characters appeared, this time as Tom and Jerry Kids. H-B was back at the helm for this version. The animation was improved over the more recent incarnations, but the violence was still watered down.
In 1993, the characters starred in their first feature-length film, Tom and Jerry: The Movie. The film was distributed by H-B but made by an outside studio. Tom and Jerry were back to being friends, as they were in the '60s, and they spoke, sang and danced together. The film was met with poor critical and box-office reception.
The pair was not seen again until the series Tom and Jerry Tales, produced by Warner Bros. Animation (which had absorbed H-B in the '90s). This series was modeled more after the look and feel of the original theatrical shorts than any other TV incarnation, under the guidance of Eric Goldberg. However, the series continues to deal with restrictions on violence in children's television.
Jerry teamed up once in a while with a small gray mouse. Sometimes the mouse was named Sniffles and wore diapers; this version of the character did not speak. However, sometimes the mouse was slightly older, could speak and appeared with Jerry in a few "Three Musketeers" parodies. This version of the mouse was never named onscreen, but was referred to as Tuffy in a few comics and other outside sources.
Occasionally there was added conflict from a bulldog, Spike (who spoke like Jimmy Durante) and/or his son (who only barked). Jerry also befriended a talking duck who went unnamed in the shorts but appeared on TV as Yakky Doodle.
In the original theatrical shorts, Tom often inspired ire from the house's maid, Mammy Two-Shoes, an African-American who was only seen to the audience from the waist down. Due to criticism of Mammy being a racist characterization, her voice has been redubbed on many cartoons and some of the animation even replaced with a different character, though this practice has itself inspired criticism from animation historians and purists who want the cartoons to be available in their original form.
Appearances in other media
Jerry the Mouse appeared with Gene Kelly, and matched his dancing step-for-step, in the 1944 feature film Anchors Aweigh. Tom and Jerry also swam with Esther Williams in the 1953 feature film Dangerous When Wet. They also have appeared occasionally in commercials.
The Simpsons contains a cartoon-with-a-cartoon, The Itchy & Scratchy Show, watched by Bart and Lisa, which features a cat and mouse who enact various highly violent shenanigans on each other (with Itchy, the cat, invariably getting the worst end of the deal). In the season 2 episode, "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge," Marge's complaint about the cartoon's violence leads to the cartoons becoming severely watered down in tone.
The duo's theme song is changed from "They fight, they fight, they fight, they fight, they fight," to "They love, they share, they love, they share, they love." Instead of hitting each other on the head with mallets, they give each other roses and candy hearts. In the cartoon proper, Itchy & Scratchy share a glass of lemonade while talking about how nice it is to be friends.
The episode seems to lampoon the "friends" era of Tom & Jerry that was also brought on by parents' complaints.