BAXTER'S BREAKDOWNS
December 6, 2017 posted by Devon Baxter

Tom & Jerry in “The Zoot Cat” (1944)

Latch on, Jackson! Get hep to the jive! Sport yourself a new zoot suit in this week’s animation breakdown!

There has been a change of plans for this month’s theme. Instead of moonlighting animators in comics—which will appear next month—I will provide animator breakdowns on select Tom and Jerry cartoons from the 1940s.

As some of you might already know, there is no further surviving documentation for this series as of this writing. Sometimes, it feels a little restrictive to discuss and analyze cartoons based on the surviving drafts, and there are many titles I’ve wanted to write about on Cartoon Research. However, the key animators who have worked on these cartoons, as Tom and Jerry reached their peak by 1943, are easy to decipher through their drawing/animation traits. To further the point, the evidence from the surviving drafts shared on this column confirms scenes by Ken Muse, Irv Spence and Pete Burness as absolute.

On a last note, this frees up a bit more time to conduct research on further installments in the coming year. I’m hoping my most ambitious project will see the light of day—it grows hefty the more I gain insight.

By the time the model sheet for The Zoot Cat was prepared in November 1942, its story elements satirized a then-current trend in fashion in the midst of World War II, the zoot suit. These long coats, with wide shoulders and flowing trousers with “reet” pleats narrowed down to tight ankles, were often associated with African-American jazz musicians—namely Cab Calloway—during the late 1930s. During America’s involvement in World War II, the zoot suit became the preferred clothing of young African-American and Mexican-American men, the latter known as pachucos.

This fashion trend was soon seen as extravagant and unpatriotic, since they used an abundance of fabric to manufacture the suits, which was rationed during wartime. In June 1943, shortly after the pachucos refused to comply, thousands of white American servicemen granted shore leave hunted down and attacked African-Americans, Filipino-Americans and pachucos in local hangouts, tearing off and burning their suits in the city of Los Angeles. After a week of these riots, the Navy put a limit on shore leave and the police force intervened, arresting many pachucos, much to the support of the press.

At the same time the model sheet was prepared, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s Tom and Jerry cartoons introduced an enthusiastic, frenetic energy unprecedented in earlier entries. No doubt the influence of Tex Avery’s aggressive directorial style took effect; his unit’s first two cartoons (Blitz Wolf and The Early Bird Dood It!) saw release in August 1942, and many of Avery’s 1943 and early 1944 releases were in different stages of production during the same year. In Hanna/Barbera’s cartoon, when Tom’s love interest answers the door and catches sight of his new zoot suit, she reacts in Avery-esque fashion: her eyes bulge out and her body spins into a braid.

The Zoot Cat is one of the few Tom and Jerry cartoons with extensive dialogue. Sara Berner, prevalent in many animated cartoons of the late 1930s and early 1940s, provides the voice of the girl cat and Jerry’s one line of dialogue. Radio actor/impressionist Jerry Mann supplies the voices of the radio announcer who advertises the services of Smilin’ Sam, “the Zoot Suit Man,” and also Tom, as transformed into a hep cat. He also provides Tom another persona—a suave French lover, in an impersonation of Charles Boyer, whom Mann often parodied on Rudy Vallee’s 1940w radio program. His façade and phony endearments—related to a burning passion—are interrupted by a blazing hot-foot, as he remarks to the audience, breaking character in a Groucho Marx voice.

One often-overlooked facet of the success of the Tom and Jerry cartoons is how Hanna and Barbera usually gave their animators extended sequences, which manifested their strengths in character animation. Pete Burness animates the opening scenes of Tom sprucing up for his date, up until Jerry’s response to Tom’s efforts of scat-singing on the ukulele—with an ear of corn. When the girl cat denigrates Tom with a barrage of jive slang for his antics, each insult wounds him as he winces and gradually shrinks into a ball outside of her porch.

Irv Spence (assisted by Tony Ligerra) animates the scenes of Tom listening to the radio outside her window, which convinces him to impress his girlfriend with a zoot suit. Here, Tom displays a wide range of emotions; at first, he is inquisitive on how to win back his girlfriend’s affections, which turns to awe as he stares out after hearing the measurements of the suit. Finally, he registers determination to acquire a zoot suit, but on his own terms. Spence also animates the jitterbug sequences, which don’t closely resemble the popular dance but still maintain a youthful exuberance, as the characters rapidly move their feet back and forth. Presumably, animating an authentic representation of a jitterbug might have been slightly difficult.

Ray Patterson

Ken Muse (assisted by Barney Posner, later an animator at UPA) handles the girl cat’s reaction to Tom’s new zoot suit. Showing off his new makeshift flamboyant clothing, he uses a hanger to accentuate the broad shoulders and a bathtub stopper for a chain. Muse also animates Tom as Charles Boyer; his girlfriend reclines on the piano, impressed and charmed by his faux-suave allure, which Tom responds to with a sly wink at the audience.

Like Muse, former Disney animator Ray Patterson (assisted by Bob Newmiller) left the studio during the 1941. Patterson tended to draw/animate Tom and Jerry with more detail, particularly on Tom’s fur; he also tended to use furrowed brows and pursed lips on his characters. Compared to the timing in Muse’s animation, Patterson’s work in the cartoons appears more slower with less in-betweens. He animates the last section of the film, where Tom endures great pain, as Jerry jabs both of Tom’s eyes with his feet. After being submerged in a fishbowl, his zoot suit shrinks around his body, an excruciating experience indicated by his grimaces.

Though The Zoot Cat bears an essence tailored to the 1940s, a few song references from an earlier era in musical underscore. Scott Bradley utilizes significant hit tunes from the 1920s in his usual abrasive style: Billy Rose and Con Conrad’s “You Gotta See Mamma Every Night (Or You Can’t See Mamma At All)” is heard in the first scenes of the film with Tom ready to impress his girlfriend; Tom scat-sings Phil Baxter’s “I’m A Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)” in a manner that is certainly outdated, to the point where he deservedly receives a blow from a loose floorboard; the jitterbug scenes are accompanied by Phil Boutelje and Dick Winfree’s “China Boy”, a 1922 song that regained popularity through Paul Whiteman’s orchestra several years later.

There are two instances in the film where the animators switch in the middle of a scene. Ken Muse’s animation of the girl cat offering her hand to dance with Tom, and Irv Spence takes over as they begin their jitterbug. Later in the cartoon, as animated by Irv Spence, Jerry and the girl cat jitterbug together before Tom interferes with a small fireplace shovel. The drawing/animation changes significantly when Pete Burness animates Tom about to strike Jerry. Instead of having Burness handle the entire scene, it seemed rational to save money by using an earlier section beforehand.

According to Irv Spence’s cartoon diary, The Zoot Cat had a preview screening at the Fox Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills on January 27, 1944. The general release occurred on February 26th. The film was re-issued on October 7, 1950. This is the more common version, though a rare original nitrate print exists of the 1944 release, which showcases a vibrant main title sequence rather than the bland treatment given to its re-issue.

Enjoy, you hep cats!

(Thanks to Jerry Beck, Mark Kausler, Keith Scott and Christopher Lehman for their help.)

16 Comments

  • >(assisted by Tony Ligerra)
    Is this, perhaps, John Liggera who later inked comic book pages for Western Publishing (https://inducks.org/creator.php?c=JLi)?

  • Just terrific, Mr. Baxter! I learned a lot from this.

  • An old favorite of mine. Gotta love that old ’40s slang. One note: the “You set my soul on fire” speech was reused later on “Solid Serenade”.

  • I worked for RayPatterson at Hanna Barbera many years ago. He told me a lot of stories about working at Disney and M.G.M
    He was a great animator and director. He always told me when directing storyboards that “your job is to make that storyboard work”. Each time I would leave his office he also always say “keep smiling”. Ray was also a really nice man. I still miss him. Keep smiling Ray.

  • Interesting post, though I’ll admit I had trouble getting past that truly god-awful poster. I don’t know the name of the person responsible for the hideous art that turned up on MGM’s short subject posters for too many years, but I guess it shows how little attention the studio paid to what was going on with their one- and two-reelers as long as they came out on time and didn’t go over budget.

    My daughter, who is six, dislikes this cartoon. She always complains that Jerry’s just being a jerk and ought to leave Tom alone.

    • Aside from being off-model, the poster-art appears to try and turn Tom into an African-American stereotype, as if to really hammer home the zoot suit connection, based on the shadowing around his eyes and the white oval subbing for the fur around his mouth. Unfortunate, but it represents nothing that’s in the actual cartoon.

    • The trouble intensifies here:
      http://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/which-is-the-ugliest-mgm-cartoon-poster-nsfw/

  • All this poses a deep sociological question: what’s worse, 40s fashion or 80s fashion?

    Great entry, Devon. Also a great backstory to go with it. Thanks!

  • My man, Bax, now that’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout daddy-o. You broke down to the nth degree the [this and that] of “The Zoot Cat.” If I could I would give you some serious skin for imparting the solid 411 on this hip Tom & Jerry toony toon. I dig the hell out of the outro when Jerry, who is draped to the nines in his big city vines, gets his way-too-cool stroll on and deep bops off the set all smooth-like.

    A welcome bonus of this short is that the disturbing (from the waist down) image of archetype Mammy Two Shoes is thankfully MIA.

  • Another fantastic article Devon! I wonder what is was like to be working at the MGM animation department at this peak time. I wonder if they knew what an impact they were having and that their legacy would endure.

  • Hmmm. Do you think you could do “Cellbound”? That’s a Tex Avery cartoon that Hanna-Barbera’s animators worked on? I’ve always wanted to see who did what in that short (I can identify Ken Muse’s scenes in that one; the rest I’m not so sure of).

  • I like how the original title card features a magnification of the hammock / suit fabric.

  • Great break down of one of my all time favorites. First saw it when it was bundled with a handful of other early T&J cartoons and a half dozen Gene Deitch entries in a festival package released theatrically by MGM in the early 70’s.

  • I didn’t know about the sailors attacking zoot-suiters in LA, but that’s really interesting! I imagine the servicemen resented the hell out of guys partying it up in extravagant suits while they were off fighting the enemy in uniform.

    • During the “swing revival” of the mid ’90s, the Cherry Popping Daddies recorded the song “Zoot Suit Riot,” inspired by that incident.

  • I love the Tom and Jerry breakdowns, thanks Devon!

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