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.
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.)