Chapter 20: Tom & Jerry: The First Reincarnation
OK, OK. I know what you think of our Tom & Jerries. But do you know the whole story? Let me tell you about it.
Joe Vogel was the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1961, when our Prague-produced "Munro." won us the Oscar. MGM had belatedly realized that they had made a big booboo when they fired Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, and closed down their animation unit. Vogel began casting about to find a possible way to continue their prime cartoon property, Tom & Jerry. Snyder stepped quickly into the breach, brandishing our Oscar statuette, and assured Vogel that we were the very ones to do it - not having the faintest idea whether or not we could. Willy-nilly, we became the very first to attempt continuing these characters!
Personally, as a UPA man, I had always cited Tom & Jerry cartoons as the primary bad example of senseless violence - humor based on pain - attack and revenge - to say nothing of the tasteless use of a headless black woman stereotype house servant. Then there was the Prague animation studio itself, with its diametrically opposed school of storybook animation, always tastefully designed and restrained.
Even if the spirit was willing to give it an honest try, the fact remained that these communist-era, isolated animators had never in their lives seen even one Tom & Jerry cartoon! I had seen more than a few, and in spite of my ideological distance, I did appreciate the perfect craftsmanship, the expressive animation, with its exquisite timing, the endless gag inventiveness, and the characters' incredible damage survival.
I felt that I understood the idiom enough to adapt to its basics, but how in the world was I going to get it across to the capable but totally T&J-innocent group of Prague animators?
Adding to these obvious hurdles was the time and budget restrictions we were presented with. Whereas Bill & Joe and mostly the same four or five animators, had been doing T&J for about twenty years at that time - surely knowing the characters better than their own children - and whereas they had been producing the cartoons for over $40,000 each, (I think making about six of them per year), we were contracted to produce 12 in a year, from a standing start, with a peanuts studio budget of only $10,000 a piece!
It was clear to me that the undertaking was basically impossible, and I knew that my colleagues in the animation industry would be unforgiving in their appraisal of our results. Yet there were overriding personal and financial considerations that made it imperative that I take on this guillotine project. Readers of my book, "For The Love Of Prague," will know that in 1961, receiving an Oscar, and having production offers such as this as a result, was the key to my being able to stay in Prague long enough to sort out my personal life, and be able to marry Zdenka. So Tom & Jerry were actually battling each other to save me! So I had to suppress my preconceptions, rise to the challenge, and do my very best to adapt to the idea that mayhem can be fun.
The first step was for my new colleagues to see some examples. MGM sent me exactly four 35mm Tom & Jerry prints, plus the most recent model sheets, and a few stacks of actual pencil animation, the original drawings on paper. We all studied the material over and over, running the films in projection and on the studio's editing tables. We watched for the little timing tricks, the "takes," the basic attitudes and facial expressions. We practiced drawing the characters in their typical poses.