A man, his wife, a cat, and a mouse
The Simpsons, season four, episode twenty-two: “Krusty Gets Kancelled.” Allow me to set the scene: Springfield’s own Krusty the Clown has lost the ever-popular Itchy & Scratchy Show to a competitor—a ventriloquist dummy who goes by the name Gabbo. In its place, Krusty introduces what’s billed as “Eastern Europe’s favorite cat and mouse team,” The Worker & Parasite Show. What follows is a grim assemblage of jerky animation, pained grunts, and stark backgrounds that exhibit the kind of severity that’s only found lurking behind a curtain forged of iron.
Krusty’s response is what we were all thinking:
Itchy and Scratchy and their Eastern bloc siblings were all born of the same parents—Tom and Jerry. Only whereas Itchy and Scratchy were lampooning the cartoon violence of the iconic pair, Worker and Parasite zeroed in on a very specific, very strange period of the cat and mouse’s oeuvre, a period that spanned from 1961-62, and consisted of thirteen theatrical shorts that played to crowds of unsuspecting children at kiddie matinees across the country—ones that did not bear the “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.” stamp that closed previous Tom and Jerry entries. That’s because these shorts were produced a long way from La La Land, in a place where animation was cheap, and “poor product quality” was the phrase of the day. And none of it would have happened if it weren’t for the love of a long-nosed woman.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In May of 1957, MGM officially shuttered its animation studios—amongst those exiting were the directing team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The two had produced and directed a whopping one hundred and fourteen Tom and Jerry shorts for the studio beginning in 1940—with the seemingly endless conflict between cat and mouse garnering seven Academy Awards.
But sometime in the mid-1950s, the bigwigs at MGM noticed that re-releases of the older cartoons were bringing in as many bucks as the new ones, so pennies were pinched and budgets were slashed until all that was left to do was close the entire department. Bill and Joe rounded up the recently sacked staffers for a studio bearing their own surnames—MGM released the pair’s final Tom and Jerry production in 1958.
At the start of the ‘60s, recently appointed MGM president Joe Vogel decided it was time to resurrect the embattled rodent and feline duo, only he wanted it done on the cheap. And when you think cheap, you think outsourcing. Enter Czechoslovakia, then under communist rule and with a rapidly tanking economy—exactly the kind of place a man like William L. Snyder would go to for unsanctioned labor on a budget.
Snyder’s Prague-based Rembrandt Films had been importing and dubbing upsetting Czech puppet movies since the early 1950s, but by ’59 Snyder had aligned himself with Czech animation studio Bratři v Triku—shifting into actual production. He’d task the ramshackle studio with servicing the needs of cost-cutting American producers, while the shop continued to perform its duty of filling local children with despair.
With his outsourcing operation picking up, Snyder needed a seasoned pro to whip his cartoon sweatshop into shape. This led him to the offices of Gene Deitch, the former Creative Director of Terrytoons. Deitch agreed to Snyder’s proposal, but insisted that “For 10 days only,” be added to his contract. Those ten days morphed into fifty-plus years thanks to an affair with Bratři v Triku’s Head of Production, Zdenka Najmanová. Both were married—Deitch with three children, Zdenka with one—but neither that nor the threat of Deitch being ejected from the country could dampen the flames of love.
In his autobiography—For the Love of Prague—Deitch wrote what many historians believe to be the original “I Love My Curvy Wife.” In it he makes clear that Zdenka in no way resembled “a movie starlet,” and notes “She has a long nose and a short body.” He goes on to inform us that Czechoslovakia “boasts the highest concentration of gorgeous women on the planet. And let’s face it,” he adds, “when I arrived here, still a good enough looking and comparatively rich holder of a genuine USA passport, a goodly number of these exotic beauties were willing to jump into my bed at the slightest hint from me.”
But Deitch, you see, was able to recognize that Zdenka “had a magnetic beauty beyond all the others. I simply could not take my eyes off her, or get involved with some Czech Barbie Doll.” No, unlike them, Zdenka “wasn’t awaiting ‘Prince Charming’ me to come and rescue her. But it became my goal anyway.” He then somehow makes things even worse by adding “What makes her great is that even though I actually accomplished that goal, she will now say, 50 years later, ‘I would have somehow managed it by myself!’”
Adrift in a sea of Czech Barbie dolls, but anchored by the long nose of Zdenka, Deitch was assigned to direct the thirteen Tom and Jerry shorts Vogel had commissioned from Snyder and his Eastern bloc laborers. Deitch, however, was not a fan, believing the few he’d seen were “primary bad examples of senseless violence—humor based on pain—attack and revenge.” If Deitch had only a passing familiarity with the property, the Czech crew had none. The physical comedy stylings were even more lost on the foreign animators, with seemingly the only thing they recognized from it being pain—a never-ending cycle of anguish.
Equipped with a meager budget of $10,000 per short, Deitch and his team first delivered Switchin’ Kitten. It wastes no time yanking the characters out of the suburbs, shoving them into a burlap sack, and tossing them from a horse-drawn carriage onto a winding mountain road. After being left there to die, Tom frees himself from his would-be burlap coffin and wanders into a nearby castle. Inside, near-rabid cats are piled in cages, while a maniacal Jerry replaces their brains with that of a bulldog.
Tom unwittingly attempts to befriend a dog-brained cat by flashing his International Brotherhood of Cats membership card, but instead is beaten until he’s a flesh-sack of shattered bones and buried outside in the dirt. He emerges from his shallow grave, encounters a rooster with the mind of a goat, turns into an ICBM, and blasts off into the night sky.
A coded critique of the local government, or were these artisans just not made for the madcap world of slapstick cartoon entertainment? Whatever the answer, the short established many of the hallmarks of the Czech-produced Tom and Jerry toons: cosmic soundscapes accompanied by a minimalist score—there’s rarely a voice or sound that is even remotely human, animal, or earthly—sparse background art, and jerky animation. Also notable is a Tom who wears the years of cranial abuse on his face like a mask—his tired eyes like yellowed ivory.
In Down and Outing we meet the one partly responsible for this cat’s apparent closed head injury—Clint Clobber. A red-faced, alcohol-bloated, explosively violent man who only appears pleased when Tom is in agony or submitting to servitude. Over the course of six minutes, Tom is dragged across blacktop, stomped, strangled, and finally bound and dumped into a bucket of dead fish.
Clobber’s sadism reached its apex in High Steaks, where with a face like a puckered, inflamed anus he has his mind set on two things—grilling meat and torturing his starving cat. Here this gross parody of the all-American man thrusts a glass bottle into Tom’s mouth, stabs him, punches him, barbecues his face, and leaves him to drown. The short almost goes out of its way to be unpleasant, from the all-too-real violence to the fact that the exterior of Clobber’s home appears to have been painted with a dirty diaper—not to mention how the sound of charcoal briquettes being dropped into a grill was unmistakably that of turds plopping into a toilet bowl.
And what is Jerry up to during this exercise in animal cruelty? He’s watching—delighted—as he dines on the steak Tom so desired. Which brings us to the obvious class conflict on display.
Yes, Jerry may appear to be a mouse, but in reality he’s an exploitative pig. Short after short finds Jerry lounging in luxury, casting a disdainful eye down at the oft-displaced Tom. In It’s Greek to Me-ow!, Tom rummages through trash cans in the slums of ancient Greece, while Jerry feasts inside a marble palace—another entry finds Jerry tucked away in a penthouse, while Tom is reduced to freezing in the barren, snow-swept city streets below. In both, Tom’s attempts to pull himself up—to merely survive—are thwarted by the cruel mechanisms of the ruling class of which Jerry prides himself as being a member. It’s no wonder why Tom harbors such homicidal intentions, nor why in him the Czech animators found a brother in suffering.
But what about Gene Deitch, where can his voice be found? In his autobiography, Deitch often speaks of standing by silently while men would line up to fawn over and fondle Zdenka—a situation echoed in Calypso Cat, which sees Tom eager to please a pearly white feline while on a cruise ship en route to the Caribbean. Upon arrival, they’re greeted by a steel drum-playing cat, who first dominates Tom and then seduces the object of his affections—both director and character cuckolded.
Deitch vents his professional frustrations in The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit, a cynical installment which purports to unveil the ingredients for a successful Tom and Jerry cartoon. His contempt is on full display when presenting the elements—such as “one mean, stupid cat”—needed to achieve the “sophisticated humor” found in this “filler.” Worst of all, he abandons the cut-rate Duck Amuck premise a minute it in, and instead it becomes about Jerry dancing uncontrollably after eating watermelon seeds, then taking judo lessons.
While commercially successful, the shorts didn’t receive the critical praise or Oscars awarded to the Hanna-Barbera directed cartoons—the Academy voters apparently unable to grasp the genius of Dicky Moe. To add insult to injury, much of the Czech crew went uncredited—their names were Americanized in order to avoid any apparent ties to communism. In 1963, Joe Vogel was relieved of his position at MGM, and Deitch and Snyder’s contracts were not renewed by the new regime. In their place, they would bring in famed Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones, who had been recently ousted at Warner Bros.
Not that Deitch minded. He remains in Prague to this day, married to Zdenka—who now heads all of Bratři v Triku. While in the years since he has won both awards and praise, it’s these thirteen strange, grim, and much-maligned Tom and Jerry shorts that continue to confound—that force us, like Krusty after seeing Worker & Parasite, to ask—“What the hell was that?”