Freeze Frame Friday 1/22/10: The Other MGM Lion Roar

22 Jan

Jerry "roaring" at Tom in climactic scene of "The Milky Waif"

by Rachel Newstead

Somewhere, deep in that vast, labyrinthine archive of visual memories that is my co-blogger Kevin’s mind, lies one of countless indelible images–the one you see above. One which had barely made an imprint on my own brain cells until now.

Not because I didn’t notice it–how could one miss a “money shot” like that?–but because I, having seen so many Tom and Jerry cartoons so many times, took it for granted.

It’s a funny scene, taken from the climactic moment in The Milky Waif . Jerry, having discovered Tom had struck Jerry’s young charge “Nibbles” with a flyswatter, literally roars with a rage that could only come from a parent whose child has been harmed. Or surrogate child, in this case.

Further, he expands to three times his size, making the scene all the funnier. But to me,  it didn’t seem that out of the ordinary for a Tom and Jerry cartoon: just one of a blur of funny poses I’d long since come to expect. Yet as so often happens, it would take Kevin (never one to take visual memories for granted) to pull that image from the blur and in the process, make me realize something I hadn’t before.

In numerous e-mail conversations with me over the years, he has referred to this image as an ideal example of cartoonish exaggeration.  It’s certainly that.  But it’s also more: a turning point in the style of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.

In the six years separating this cartoon from Puss Gets The Boot, Hanna and Barbera had been making slow, steady steps toward Avery-style “cartooniness”. Yes, there had been exaggeration in previous Tom and Jerrys, even in some of the very early ones (watch the girl cat’s eyes when she gets a load of Tom’s “hep” outfit in Zoot Cat, for instance) but before this cartoon, such takes were the exception rather than the rule.   After it, the race was on as Bill and Joe’s animators strove to “out-Avery” Avery.  Where before they had gingerly dipped a toe in the water, from here on in they’d dive in head-first.

By the time our little mouse friend Nibbles makes his second appearance in the Oscar-winning The Little Orphan two years later, they were doing gags like this:

One of many "multiple-eye takes" in THE MILKY WAIF

And this:

Our friend Nibbles gets a little overeager as he swallows an orange twice his size

The slapstick, which always gave the impression it really hurt before, now seemed less…fatal. Compare 1944’s Mouse Trouble–in which Tom’s multiple injuries carry over to the very end–with Mouse Cleaning just four years later. In the latter, Tom does an incredible jaw-dropping, multiple-eye take as he sees the mess he’s unwittingly created–wild enough to do Avery proud. He’s become a thing of putty, a true cartoon.

It’s only fitting, given the nascent Averyish touches in The Milky Waif, that Michael Lah (who would later work for, then replace Tex) should be one of the credited animators on that cartoon. Though I regrettably can’t prove it (I’d give anything for a scene-by-scene animator breakdown) I’d be willing to bet Lah was behind the “Jerry roaring” scene.  And if he wasn’t, he ought to have been.

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