The over-the-top cartoon violence of Tom and Jerry and classical music shouldn’t make for a perfect pair, but that’s precisely what they are in The Cat Concerto.
The Cat Concerto is directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera and has a very straightforward concept: Tom plays the piano at a formal concert (he’s even dressed in a tux). As the audience applauds, Tom adjusts the seat, wipes his hands, the conductor taps his baton, and he begins playing “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Franz Liszt, backed by an orchestra. Meanwhile, Jerry, the mouse who has been sleeping inside the piano, is awakened.
Jerry comes to the top of the piano and begins mockingly “conducting” Tom, and the cat then “flicks” Jerry off the piano, which only inspires the mouse to torture Tom more throughout the short.
What follows are some tune-fully clever gags, such as Jerry slamming Tom’s fingers with the piano cover, after which the cat continues playing with flattened fingers; Jerry replacing one of the keys with a mousetrap, as Tom then catches his finger in it; Jerry also switching up the music, so that Tom segues into “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” and the mouse also getting caught up in the gears like they’re factory machinery.
What makes all of this in The Cat Concerto wondrous and a standout among other Tom and Jerry offerings is that, here, their hijinks are choreographed (at times to the note) of the music, which Tom continues to play throughout the short, despite all the taunting from Jerry.
The animation and the backgrounds are also beautiful. Tom’s finger movements at the piano are remarkable to watch in their detail and the mechanisms inside the piano move with astonishing precision.
When The Cat Concerto was released, critics were impressed. However, the short was the subject of a dispute between two studios, as The Cat Concerto and the Warner Bros.’ Bugs Bunny short Rhapsody Rabbit bear a resemblance to each other (including the music used in each cartoon).
When both shorts were submitted for consideration to the Academy, MGM and Warner Bros. accused each other of plagiarism, and theories abound as to how it happened. In fact, Michael Mallory wrote an extensive article on the controversy between the two films in August 2011 for Animation Magazine that examines it more in-depth. To this day, it remains uncertain how the two similar films were released around the same time.
The Cat Concerto would take home the Oscar that year and, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Tom and Jerry short is still regarded as one of the duo’s best.
In 1994, it was ranked at number forty-two among The 50 Greatest Cartoons in Jerry Beck’s book of the same name. Will Friedwald, one of the book’s contributors, sums up the appeal of The Cat Concerto perfectly: “The two protagonists revel in the opportunities for comic violence found in the mechanisms of the music-making process-parodying not only the hoity-toity manner of the concert virtuoso but the hammers and strings of the piano itself.”