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 both Tom and Jerry would often yelp or occasionally utter a sentence or two.
The characters went through a few design changes over the years. In their very first appearances in the early-1940s, Tom looked more like a realistic cat with excess of detail—shaggy fur, numerous facial wrinkles, and multiple eyebrow markings; evolving from his quadrupedal beginnings Tom to become increasingly and almost exclusively bipedal. By contrast, Jerry's design remained essentially the same for the duration of the series. By the mid-1940s, the series had developed a quicker, more energetic and violent tone, due to the inspiration from the works of former Warner Bros. Cartoons director Tex Avery, who had joined the MGM cartoon studio in 1942.
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-grey to a much lighter grey, though Jerry remained brown. The series also became widescreen CinemaScope-style 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; Hanna-Barbera Productions.
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. Deitch's Tom and Jerry cartoons were heavily panned by critics and fans, mainly for their very low production quality. While Jones' Tom and Jerry cartoons were considered far superior to Deitch's efforts, however these cartoons never matched the quality of the cartoons from the original 1940s-1950s Hanna-Barbera heyday.
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 1986, MGM's pre-1986 film library was purchased by Ted Turner, thus Tom and Jerry became the property of Turner Entertainment Co. (where the rights stand today via Warner Bros.), and have in subsequent years appeared on Turner-run stations, such as TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, The WB, Boomerang, and Turner Classic Movies.
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. It featured kid versions of the famous cat-and-mouse duo chasing each other. As with the 1975 H-B series, Jerry wears his red bowtie, while Tom now wears a red cap. Spike and his son Tyke (who now had talking dialogue) and Droopy and his son Dripple, appeared in back-up segments for the show, which ran until November 18, 1994. The animation was improved over the more recent incarnations, but the violence was still watered down, since the series was aimed at younger viewers.
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 '70s, and they spoke regularly, 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.
In 2012, Cartoon Network subsequently produced a new series consisting of two 11-minute shorts per episode that likewise sought to maintain the look, core characters and sensibility of the original theatrical shorts, much like its predecessor Tom and Jerry Tales albeit with slightly more cartoon violence than its predecessor. Similar to other Cartoon Network reboot works of the time like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and The Looney Tunes Show, several episodes the new series brought Tom and Jerry into contemporary environments, telling new stories and relocating the characters to more fantastic worlds, from a medieval castle to a mad scientist's lab. Titled The Tom and Jerry Show, the series is produced by Warner Bros. Animation, with Sam Register serving as executive producer in collaboration with Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postelwaite at Renegade Animation. Originally slated for an undated 2013 Cartoon Network premiere, but was later pushed back to April 9, 2014.
Jerry teamed up once in a while with a small gray mouse. Sometimes the mouse was named Nibbles 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 Tyke (who only barked). Jerry also befriended a talking duck who went unnamed in the shorts (but sometimes known as Quacker) 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. She was mostly restored in the DVD releases of the cartoons, with an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg explaining the importance of African-American representation in the cartoon series, however stereotyped.
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), albeit with more bloody gruesome violence than Tom and Jerry.
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 in the 1970s.