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On View : Tom & Jerry & Hanna & Barbera : BY CHARLES SOLOMON

November 25, 1990| Charles Solomon, who has written books about animation and is a frequent contributor to Calendar, reviews "Tom & Jerry's 50th Birthday Bash."

"Tom & Jerry's 50th Birthday Bash," airing Friday on TBS, continues the practice of using "B" list celebrities to "honor" cartoon characters who are more famous (and funnier).

John Goodman portrays a studio security guard/cartoon fan who sneaks into the "Tom & Jerry Production Office" for a quick peek. Once inside, he picks up various props--a cast-iron skillet, a giant firecracker, an outsized iron--and carries on like a dime store Santa Claus trying to win over a skeptical 6-year-old.

He simpers, he sniggers, he makes coy remarks to cardboard cutouts of the famous cat-and-mouse team ("Forget Brando, forget De Niro, you guys were actors!"), he bounces his belly and shakes his ample jowls. Cops in the South Bronx don't see such blatant mugging.

When Goodman isn't doing jolly fat man shtick, he introduces montages of clips from the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons, but he tells the viewer very little about how these films were made or people who made them.

It's sad to see this opportunity wasted, as Tom and Jerry were a surprise success story as unlikely as any in Hollywood history, and the Oscar-winning series almost ended with its second installment.

When MGM needed more cartoons from their animation unit to show with feature films in 1940, story editor Bill Hanna and animator Joe Barbera were given the chance to direct a cartoon short. Their first effort, "Puss Gets the Boot" featured a round-faced cat called "Jasper" and a chubby-cheeked little mouse with no name. It scored a big hit in the theaters. Hanna and Barbera christened the duo "Tom and Jerry" in their second film, "The Midnight Snack" (1941), which also pleased audiences.

At this point, producer Fred Quimby apparently felt that two cat-and-mouse cartoons were enough. Barbera recalls, "Quimby told us: 'Listen, fellas, let's not put all our eggs in one basket; let's not make any more of these.' Fortunately, he got a letter from an exhibitor in Texas named Besa Short asking: 'Are we going to get any more of these delightful cat-and-mouse cartoons?' Quimby had great respect for this woman, and if her letter hadn't arrived we would have stopped making Tom-and-Jerrys."

Happily, they did continue--to 1957, and their work was often brilliant, as their seven Academy Awards attest and the montages of clips suggest.

The excerpts from the cartoons in the special stress such repeating gags as the head-flattening blow with the skillet, the exploding firecracker, the cat's tail getting caught in the waffle iron, and the like. They give the audience some idea of how many variations on these themes the artists could devise.

Unfortunately, the montages destroy the careful structure and split-second timing that made the original films so funny. Not one cartoon is shown in its entirety. The individual gags were never made to be seen by themselves--it's a bit like showing selected square inches from Van Gogh's paintings.

Turner Home Entertainment recently announced that Tom and Jerry have been licensed to "more than several hundred" firms in a merchandising campaign that will include stuffed toys, lunch boxes, T-shirts, comic books, sneakers, key chains, McDonald's "Happy Meal Band" figurines and the inevitable satin jackets. More cynical viewers may be left with the suspicion that this special was created to attract potential customers.

In recognition of their nearly two decades of work at MGM, Hanna and Barbera appear in a 55-second cameo at the end of the show. They portray themselves, planning a salute to the 50th anniversary of Tom and Jerry. Looking vaguely embarrassed, they ask Goodman if he has any suggestions. Well shucks, it just so happens that he does.

The many artists who drew the antics of Tom & Jerry, most of whom are still alive (and, in some cases, still animating), don't even rate a mention.

During the 1940s and '50s, Hanna, Barbera and their animators had to watch Quimby (whom they reportedly loathed) accept the Academy Awards their work had earned. Decades later, they're still not being allowed to enjoy the recognition they deserve.

"Tom & Jerry's 50th Birthday Bash" airs Friday 5:05 p.m.-6:05 p.m. and repeats Dec. 2 at 1:35-2:25 p.m. and Dec. 5 12:05-1:05 p.m. on TBS.

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