“Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?” Here’s the true cult classic of all Tom and Jerry cartoons in this week’s animator breakdown!
In fall 1943, popular bandleader Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five recorded a tune written by Jordan and Billy Austin, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” The song was a huge success and became one of Jordan’s #1 singles. He provided another performance on-screen in the 1944 Universal musical feature Follow the Boys. Soon after, other artists recorded their own versions, including Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with The Andrews Sisters. As sung by Tom, Solid Serenade is perhaps the song’s most iconic usage—it’s instantly recognizable, even to casual viewers.
The singing voice for Tom was unknown for some time. One theory suggested producer Fred Quimby as the singer for the musical sequence. Given his indifference to animated cartoons, it seems unlikely, if not inane. Voice actor/historian Keith Scott’s research has determined that the vocals belong to Ira “Buck” Woods, an African-American musician/actor who mostly played bit parts in features. In one of his prominent on-screen appearances, he is seen singing and trumpeting in the 1942 MGM film Reunion in France. As for Tom’s other line of dialogue, when he tricks Spike the bulldog (named “Killer” in this cartoon) into fetching a stick, it’s unclear who provided those vocals, but it is clearly not “Buck” Woods.
In assigning the sequences to their animators for Solid Serenade, Hanna and Barbera gave the artists lengthy sequences, or often had one person’s scene inserted in between another’s in different portions of the film. Ken Muse animates the entire musical section of Tom serenading his sweetheart to “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” except for Ed Barge’s one scene of Jerry ready to launch a pie (with an iron inside) at Tom. This scene is further enriched by Tom’s moment of making music by plucking Spike’s bottom lip, with an audio effect achieved by pitch-shifting one of the most recognizable MGM sound effects to create the melody. In a bravura piece of character animation, after Tom is struck by the weaponized pastry, he pauses to look for the heckler that sullied his performance before he resumes.
Ray Patterson animates the opening scenes of the film, as Tom looks down at a sleeping Spike with a nefarious grin before tying him up to ensure no interference as he seeks the heart of the girl cat in the window. Later in the film, he animates “Killer” chasing Tom after setting sharper, stronger dentures into his mouth. Patterson is not credited in this film for his work; he re-located to England to teach character animation to inexperienced artists at Dave Hand’s Gaumont British studio.
Ed Barge handles Tom and Jerry’s chase inside the kitchen, with some sharp timing of Tom crashing into a pile of dishes and getting his neck caught in a closed window. He also animates Jerry untying “Killer,” after which he emits a disturbing bovine roar (used earlier in 1944’s Puttin’ on the Dog). Barge tended to draw the characters more rounded and cute, almost harkening back to the Harman-Ising cartoons of the early 1940s. He was one of the few homegrown animators at MGM, with no prior industry experience. He previously worked in George Gordon’s unit before joining Hanna and Barbera.
Like Muse, Mike Lah animates a large amount of footage in the film. With Irv Spence gone to work for John Sutherland Productions, Lah took his place with frantic animation—in breakneck pose-to-pose action—and stylized drawing in his scenes. Lah was a worthy substitute. He handles a brilliant piece of comic timing when Tom, who, brick in hand, poised to clout “Killer,” is exposed by his own carelessness. Nevertheless, he decides to smack “Killer” on the head.
Lah animates a nice portrayal of caricatured canine behavior when “Killer” lets out a joyful bark as Tom throws a stick, with nice follow-through on his jowls. He also animates Tom’s switch from playful instigator to charmer, as he runs back to kiss the female cat in between eluding “Killer,” who Tom unknowingly romances and smooches with a Charles Boyer accent and dialogue lifted from The Zoot Cat.
Pete Burness animates the last minute of the film, when Tom traps Jerry inside the doghouse, slowly entering with a devilish laugh, only to find “Killer” waiting inside. In another delay, similar to Tom’s interrupted serenade, Tom pauses the vicious beating to write his last will and testament before returning to the onslaught. Burness is also uncredited for his work on Solid Serenade. He followed Spence’s lead to move to John Sutherland Productions. Unlike Spence, he didn’t return to MGM and was replaced by Ed Barge.
Hope all of you have a good holiday, and a Happy New Year! Seasons greetings from Tom and Jerry:
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Keith Scott and Didier Ghez for their help.)