Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we celebrate the new Tom and Jerry movie’s arrival on HBO Max by ranking the ten best classics depicting their ancient rivalry.
Godzilla vs. Kong. Alien Vs. Predator. Freddy vs. Jason. Before all these classic title bouts, there was Tom vs. Jerry. Although it’s not really Tom vs. Jerry, is it? It’s Tom and Jerry. That little ampersand is important. Where Godzilla and Kong can go along their merry way within their own franchises, Tom and Jerry need each other to sell their appeal—the never-ending contest.
Tom and Jerry take turns being predator and prey. Often a character may start as one and end as the other. These karmic, ferocious feuds stir laughter because we know they can take it. Guns, knives, and bombs, oh my. No weapon too dangerous, no action too outlandish.
With Tom & Jerry: The Movie, the ultimate cat and mouse rivalry returns this weekend on HBO Max. Inspired by our heroes dabbling into the semi-live-action realm, we wanted to reevaluate the original 114 Tom and Jerry cartoons written and directed by Joseph Barbera and William Hanna. The cartoons generally run six or seven minutes in length, and while some ideas are repeated or remade, it’s still incredible how much variety these creators mined from their simple versus concept.
Discerning the ten best Tom and Jerry shorts is a little bit like blindly throwing a dart at a board that’s all bullseye. You could land on any dozen and be satisfied, but the ten listed below are my favorite as of today. Yet, I can assure you that nothing could shake my top spot. That cat’s the best. No doubt.
10. The Bowling Alley-Cat
- Original Release Date: July 18, 1942
The oldest entry on the list, The Bowling Alley-Cat, is only the seventh Tom and Jerry cartoon, but Barbera and Hanna have already perfected their protagonists’ tantalizing mixture of playfulness and viciousness. The short starts with Jerry wandering into a bowling alley where he transforms its lanes into his own personal skating rink. As the night watchman, Tom can’t stand idly by. He goes to work thrashing the poor mouse, but his instruments of destruction (numerous bowling balls) tend to bounce back hard. The brilliance of the bit is in how Barbera and Hanna turn the environment against their players, crafting pin tables into Play-Doh molds and smooshing Tom’s body into shapes that would make David Cronenberg wince.
9. The Egg and Jerry
- Original Release Date: March 23, 1956
The Egg and Jerry is actually a repurposed-for-widescreen version of the 1949 short Hatch Up Your Troubles. The original could easily be on this list, but I chose the CinemaScope remake because the colors are so much more incredibly bright, and its stretched cinematic appearance makes Tom and Jerry’s war gloriously grander…even if it is an illusion. CinemaScope is basically fake widescreen, but who doesn’t appreciate a magic trick every once in a while?
When a mama woodpecker leaves her nest, her egg rolls from the tree and plops under Jerry’s protection. After the little egg hatches, the bird is targeted by Tom. The ensuing battle is absurdly violent, with the attacker taking most of the punishment. The moment where the baby woodpecker escapes Tom’s jaws by shattering his teeth is pure nightmare fuel, but the dang cat deserves it. This brutality is exactly why you come to Tom and Jerry.
8. Jerry’s Cousin
- Original Release Date: April 7, 1951
What do you do when you can’t get this cat off your back? You call family. Muscles Mouse is the Dom Toretto of Tom and Jerry cartoons. He’s a beefy, mean-faced brawler who will drop everything to protect his family. When he recieves a plea for help from his cousin Jerry, Muscles stops terrorizing his neighborhood’s cats to bring the pain to Tom. Things heat up when Tom calls in his own beefcake squad, The Muscle Cats. The resulting clash is a total bloodbath.
7. The Invisible Mouse
- Original Release Date: September 27, 1947
Taking a tiny detour into the spooky realms of Universal Monsters, Jerry takes a dip into an invisible ink bottle. When he emerges, it’s his time to reign supreme. Tom desperately chases the mouse’s shadow but cannot wrap his claws around his wretched enemy. Jerry is as quick as he is slippery. Thankfully, Tom has seen the same films we have and finds a few solutions to Jerry’s visibility problem. Like the best Tom and Jerry cartoons, The Invisible Mouse is all sight-gags (pun intended). Running seven minutes in length, the short never lets up with the gags, climaxing in a mighty thwack from an unexpected third party.
6. The Flying Cat
- Original Release Date: January 12, 1952
Tired of constantly failing to make Jerry a snack, Tom turns his salivating eyes toward a caged canary. Behind bars, surely the little bird can’t pose any problems. Tom, as usual, is proven wrong. The bird escapes Tom’s chompers and flees to the skies. Tom pursues, but Jerry joins the skirmish. Together, Jerry and the canary literally slice and dice the feline. Good thing everyone relies on trusty cartoon biology.