Here’s an early Tom and Jerry – The Night Before Christmas. It might be two days before Christmas now, but it’s still close!
The draft for this cartoon indicates the original working title was “Not Even a Mouse.” The document was approved on July 9, 1941 (not shown here). The Night Before Christmas was the third Tom and Jerry cartoon from directors Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. Being an early entry, the Disney influence is unmistakable, especially in its picturesque Christmas surroundings. The lighting effects in scene 44 (animated by George Gordon), as Tom thaws out Jerry, seem atypical for the series, but fit quite well with the shot. Such atmospheric flourishes were the norm for most of MGM’s output during the early ‘40s.
Naturally, the chases between the two hadn’t developed their famous speed and intensity at this point in the series. Scene 12, of Tom pursuing Jerry, is more deliberate as he gains traction on the floor, though its animation accurately invokes realistic feline movement. Likewise for Jerry’s punches inflicted on Tom with the boxing glove (scene 21), which seem harmful as a pillow fight on-screen. There is a touch of sharp comic timing in Night Before Christmas. In scene 20, when Jerry hits a model of a train tunnel, there is a moving hold from the impact before he lands. This would be carried over in subsequent entries.
Hanna and Barbera excelled in acting and characterization in the Tom and Jerry series – influenced by the pantomime of Charlie Chaplin’s films, as were many other animators. The Night Before Christmas shifts in tone after Tom locks Jerry outside in the snow; at first, the content Tom rests on a soft pillow by the fireplace, but gradually becomes concerned and remorseful for the little mouse. Tom’s twinge of guilt, as he shivers at the thought of leaving Jerry out in the bitter cold, is a brilliant touch, as animated by Irv Spence. Gags aren’t as bountiful during this latter half, but Spence also animates Tom pulling Jerry out of a snow mound to reveal a snow-covered Jerry as a “Good Humor” ice-cream bar before shaking him off.
Scenes such as the introductory scenes of Jerry reflected onto a spherical ornament like a fun-house mirror, the mistletoe sequence (including Tom’s refusal and reaction to kissing Jerry) and the final scenes where Tom and Jerry make peace with each other display some superb character animation. These scenes were all animated by Jack Zander.
Zander started his animation career in brief stints with Romer Grey, Ted Esbaugh and Harman-Ising at Warners. Zander moved to the East Coast after he heard that former Disney director Burt Gillett needed experienced animators at Van Beuren. Shortly after that studio folded, Paul Terry offered Zander a job. In mid-1937, Zander received a call from production manager Carmen Maxwell, inviting him to MGM’s animation department. He left Terry’s studio, and brought Joe Barbera, among his other fellow artists, along with him (George Gordon arrived later.) Incidentally, Zander directed only one Terrytoon, 1937’s The Mechanical Cow with Farmer Al Falfa.
Zander left MGM, and theatrical animation altogether, in the early ‘40s, when he served in the Army Signal Corps on animated training films. He went into commercial animation after the war as the head of Willard Pictures, where he produced an animated commercial for Chiclets. He became director of Transfilm Inc.’s animation department in 1948, working for clients such as Gulf Oil, Camel, and Shell Oil. In 1954, he formed Pelican Pictures, and as an early president of the Screen Cartoonists Guild (in 1938), employed several animators previously blacklisted from Hollywood.
In the early ‘70s, he started Zander’s Animation Parlour in New York, creating television commercials for Hamm’s Beer, Rolaids, Alka-Seltzer, Crest, Colgate, Raid, Vlasic, Green Giant and more. Among his artists were Tissa David, Dan Haskett, Mark Mayerson, Eric Goldberg, Tom Sito, Emery Hawkins, Nancy Beiman, and Dean Yeagle. Zander also produced a television special, The Gnomes, which aired in 1980. (Interestingly, the special has become a cult favorite in Sweden.) By 1984, Zander animated shorts with a character named Tippi Turtle for Saturday Night Live, before retiring two years later. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 99.
The Night Before Christmas was released on December 6, 1941 – the day before the Imperial Japanese Navy initiated their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. This cartoon’s message of peace during Christmas might’ve been the last semblance of goodwill amongst American audiences before the country entered World War II. The cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Disney’s Lend a Paw.
Merry Christmas to you all, and enjoy this breakdown video. (Wait until you see next week’s installment. It’s gonna be a great one…)
(Thanks to Mark Kausler and Frank Young for their help.)