As cited on our main page, Tom and Jerry weren’t the first of their kind at Van Beuren. Their direct ancestors in earlier Aesop’s Fables cartoons were Waffles the Cat and Don Dog. Waffles was born as a fairly generic — at times, even evil — cat in late 1920s shorts. By 1930, though, he’d come to cut a more distinctive figure. Tall, flighty, and nervous, he was the first to run from a scary situation… though he might not admit to his flaws if you asked him!
Don, meanwhile, was a new kind of character: calm, boyish, and cool, he had fun in the face of danger, often at his tall pal’s expense! Before long, this animal pair would be reincarnated as our likeable human heroes. But before we get into that, let’s have a look at some shorts that featured the original fur-bearin’ critters…
THE HAUNTED SHIP (4/27/1930)
Direction: John Foster, Mannie Davis
Waffles and Don journey through the sky in a two-man plane, Waffles in the pilot’s chair and Don in the rumble seat. Waffles plays music on the plane’s steering wheel and exhaust pipes, but the concert stops when a storm breaks overhead. The rain’s so severe that our heroes must row the plane like a boat, then fight a lightning demon who comes down from the clouds to chase them. Waffles and Don escape from the demon, but their plane sinks underwater. They’re not aware of the submersion at first; but when a stern walrus sings Asleep in the Deep, Waffles ducks down in his plane seat to hide.
Swimming across the ocean floor, our cat and dog take shelter in a wrecked ship’s hull. There they dodge a big squid and an iguana, but are pursued by floating human skulls! Frantic Waffles gasps “REEOWR,” but Don isn’t scared; just suspicious. When a bony hand appears waving a chain, Don knocks it aside with a rock; when a dogfish swims through, Don stays cool in spite of Waffles’ frenzy. Our heroes slip down a trapdoor to the hold, where the scares don’t end. Black and white skeletons, then a big eel menace our heroes. Waffles tries to warn Don of the danger, but nothing fazes him — until an entire skeleton crew chase Waffles and Don both into the ship’s ballroom.
Thinking they’ve got a chance to relax, our boys play Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep on piano and xylophone. Drunk turtles, a fat flounder and other sea creatures join in the song for Sweet Adeline. But then the ship’s captain, skeletal Davy Jones, appears on the scene. He chases Waffles and Don back to the ocean surface, leaving the turtles to finish Adeline alone.
This first look at the ancestral Tom and Jerry is a nice, solid cartoon. The characters’ personalities are still in embryo. Waffles has an extra-catlike look typical of earlier Aesop’s Fables, and a catlike high voice complete with yowls and howls. Meanwhile, the debuting Don isn’t just calm and cool — he’s totally deadpan in a startlingly Droopylike manner. As an additional note, some skeleton animation in this cartoon is highly sophisticated: on par with Disney’s SKELETON DANCE and far superior to skeleton scenes in later Van Beuren shorts.
JUNGLE JAZZ (7/6/1930)
Direction: John Foster, Harry Bailey
Traveling on safari, Waffles and Don are attacked right out of the gate by a huge ape. But when their gun discharges in the resultant battle, it knocks a bird from the sky who falls on the ape and knocks him out.
Continuing to explore, the cat and dog meet a golfing gorilla and a python, who chases them into a native hut. Inside is a piano, which Waffles plays to tame the snake: it actually transforms into a dancing girl! But alas for our heroes, the hut’s owners — a tribe of cannibals — appear on the scene and encircle the hut in a war dance! Waffles is terrified, but Don stays cool, even when the bellowing natives stick their heads through the hut’s walls.
Moments later our boys are in the tribal cookpot. One cannibal struggles to start the fire, but his lighter won’t work; in spite of Waffles’ protests, Don coolly hands him a match! As our boys begin boiling, natives blow their trumpets and announce their king’s approach; the situation looks dire! But when his majesty strides up to the pot, Don squeezes his nose hard — scaring the entire tribe away. Looks like Don had an escape plan all along… and a relieved Waffles gives his pal a hearty handshake. Animals sing Jungle Town as Waffles and Don beat a rhythm on the cookpot with sticks.
Aside from standard, sorry ethnic cliches of its day, JUNGLE JAZZ is a funny cartoon, with laugh-out-loud interplay between our two heroes. Don’s deadpan reactions to danger and innate mastery of every situation are cleverly portrayed.
FROZEN FROLICS (8/31/1930)
Direction: John Foster, Harry Bailey
Waffles and Don head out via dog sled to find the North Pole. The journey comes to a halt when a rabbit scares the dogs and sled away, leaving Waffles and Don with only one possession — a single bottle of water.
Native fauna provide an interlude. Bear cubs dance cheerfully. An expectant father penguin gets an unexpectedly large brood (“Oy!”). Walruses and seals sing in saxophone-like tones; another seal uses a discarded snowshoe as a guitar. Two polar bears do a shuffle-step and then try acrobatics, only to fall under the sheet of ice they’re standing on.
Waffles and Don wearily make their way through a blizzard. Don weakens and needs water; but when Waffles’ supply freezes up, Don passes out, lying on his back. Taking the dog for dead, Waffles picks Don’s pocket, starts eating his shoe, and places a cross by his limp body. But when Don begins to breathe again, Waffles quickly puts everything back! Our friends next discover the actual North Pole — where a barber bear is shaving a walrus, though the pair scatter as Waffles and Don approach.
Reaching the pole, joyful Waffles shouts “Hooray!”, with Don echoing him in a more deadpan fashion. Enthusiastically, Waffles kisses Don, who rejects the show of affection. As Waffles struggles to remove the pole, Don directs him to an arriving bear. Making eye contact with the beast, Waffles screams “WOW!” — then impulsively shoves his pal forward to be eaten first!
The bear appears to be viciously mauling Don. Figuring the dog is doomed, Waffles tosses down a cross at the scene of the fight and goes back to work at removing the pole. The bear returns to maul Waffles, and after giving him a good beating reveals himself to be Don wearing the defeated bear’s skin. Waffles whistles in amazement as his pal has the last laugh.
FROZEN FROLICS is an interesting cartoon with lots of funny personality interplay: an unusual amount, in fact, for a post-Terry Van Beuren short. Waffles and Don repeatedly — and effectively — emote in positive and negative ways. It’s an eye-opener for cartoon researchers who might otherwise perceive the studio as lacking character development.
GYPPED IN EGYPT (11/9/1930)
Direction: John Foster, Mannie Davis
Waffles and Don nap in a hammock supported by a walking camel’s legs. When they awaken and spot a pool of water, the camel wants his share — but Waffles impulsively grabs the animal’s neck and bashes him dead (!). A horrific giant sphinx nears our heroes and chides Waffles: “You killed him!” Waffles tries to repent, but to no avail: the sphinx magically transports Waffles and Don into a pyramid.
Waffles is scared at the sight of an ancient sarcophagus, but calm Don merely tosses a coin into the tomb — summoning a skeleton who jumps out, dances, and plays music on his bones. Horrified Waffles watches hieroglyphics dance on the wall. When the skeleton goes back to its tomb and forgets its leg, Don calmly picks it up and returns it! Don peeks into the tomb, but panicked Waffles accidentally pushes him in from behind. The cat falls in too and a scuffle goes on inside; becoming so wild that a stone-carved character on the sarcophagus falls off and runs away.
Our heroes are magically transported elsewhere within the pyramid, where Waffles panics and impulsively throttles poor Don. When the cat comes to his senses and apologizes, the dog shrugs it off — but then quickly pulls an alarm, calling an ancient Egyptian fire department consisting of skeletons and hellhounds. Entering another pyramid corridor, Don discovers a piano and plays Chopsticks with a skeleton, who falls lifeless afterwards. Don removes the skeleton’s skull and throws it to Waffles, who gets goosebumps just touching it! At last the cat finds an escape from the wretched place: a stairway, which he and Don ascend. It leads to an elevator run by a skeleton operator, who lets them off at a ledge. Waffles thanks the operator (“Nice ride”) until he discovers he’s standing in thin air! Our boys plummet to the ground and flee toward the horizon, only to be chased back towards us by the returning giant sphinx.
An eerie and highly surreal short, GYPPED IN EGYPT is a something of a cult classic among cartoon researchers today. You just have to love its sheer creepiness and unintentionally crude animation.
MAGIC ART (4/25/1932)
Direction: John Foster, Harry Bailey
Huh? A Waffles and Don cartoon produced after Waffles and Don evolved into Tom and Jerry? Waffles the artist paints on a dancing easel. Onlooker Don is curious at first. But, rebuffed by a faceful of paint, he brandishes a magic pencil to go Waffles one better. Don draws himself a magic top hat from which birds emerge to dance on eggs. He draws a series of silhouette fairies — then pulls up the edge of the cartoon’s background for the fairies to pass underneath! A blob of ink from the pencil (yes, ink) becomes a dachshund, then a string of sausages.
When Don draws a sexy girl dog, Waffles tries to flirt; but the girl vanishes back into the pencil, angering the cat. He sucks ink out of the pencil and spits it to the ground, but produces only a rabbit. Waffles goes to sulk under a tree, but Don isn’t finished. He draws magic boots that walk past the cat — with a bum emerging from one to give Waffles a booze bottle. Waffles can’t open it, so Don draws a pig whose tail is to act as a corkscrew. The pig runs away, though, with the cat and dog hanging onto the bottle for dear life.
They get it uncorked; but, being a magic bottle, it’s only full of fireworks and additional corks. It rockets into the air, then falls earthward to hit our heroes on the head.
MAGIC ART is a fascinating piece. The original Waffles and Don looked, acted, and dressed like an animal Tom and Jerry; now, with Tom and Jerry established as humans, Van Beuren made this one effort to carry Waffles and Don on separately. One can see why it didn’t work, though: the two still act as Tom and Jerrylike as ever, and a physical overhaul of Waffles to remove his Tomlike clothing leaves us with a rather unattractive naked, whiskery cat.
The “drawings come to life” story concept would be revisited by the real Tom and Jerry, too, in PENCIL MANIA. There, at least, the pencil in question used good, old-fashioned lead!
Yikes! Before the cat and mouse, before the humans and even before the cat and dog there seem to have been a man and a mule! While we know very, very little about these silent shorts from Arrow Films, the ad suggests that the heroes were animated puppets. It also suggests that a full series was released, though silent film researcher Denis Gifford only ever tracked down two:
THE GASOLINE TRAIL (8/1/1924)
TOM’S FIRST FLIVVER (9/1/1924)
If you can tell us any more about this series, we’d be grateful for the knowledge. We don’t even know which character is Tom and which is Jerry!
Update February 2010: Lee Roop, grandson of these characters’ creator, is now coming forth with their story. See further information here.