A Year in Shorts Day 68: "Jerry's Cousin"
If Tom and Jerry were the undisputed kings of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in the 1940s, by the 1950s their reign was definitely coming to an end. Still, the duo managed a respectable showing at the Oscars that decade, with four more nominations and two wins under their belt. And it all started with today’s short, the hilarious Jerry’s Cousin.
As a brief aside, I am a little confused as to the release situation of this particular short. IMDb and Letterboxd tell me it was released in 1951, and yet it was nominated as part of the 23rd Academy Awards, which honored films released in 1950. This kind of discrepancy is a lot more common today, with the majority of animated films getting festival releases before eligibility, but as far as I'm aware that wasn't the case back then, at least not with Tom and Jerry shorts. But I digress!
Jerry's Cousin is another short directed by Hanna and Barbera, who at some point had to be annoyed that producer Fred Quimby was the one who got most of their Oscar nominations right? But I digress again. Anyway, the premise of the short is pretty straightforward- Jerry, tired of Tom kicking him around, calls in for backup from his cousin, Muscles Mouse. Muscles, who could give Speedy Gonzales a run for his money in the cat fighting department, visits Jerry's house to teach Tom a lesson.
What follows is seven minutes of classic Tom and Jerry mayhem, with the usual brilliant sight gags and hilarious violence one expects from these cartoons. When someone thinks about Tom and Jerry, it's probably this short that comes to mind. Is there anything more iconic than Tom getting shoved into a vase or turned into a collection of bowling pins? I doubt it! Hell, it even spawned a couple of memes, which is pretty impressive for a film that's seventy years old.
But as much fun as it is, I don't think Jerry's Cousin is quite a top tier Tom and Jerry short. One has to grade on a curve with these things, you know, and there are a couple of elements that don't quite work. The animation, for instance, is good, but not great. As a Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry short it certainly looks a lot better than the ones Chuck Jones did (or, God forbid, Gene Deitch), but there's just something off about it. I think it's the lighting. Compare the bright wash in Jerry's Cousin to the more moody atmospheric uses of shadows in the earlier (and somehow not Oscar-nominated) Heavenly Puss, and you'll see what I mean. They're both good-looking shorts for sure, but Jerry's Cousin has a strange flat quality to it.
(via Make a GIF)
I also think Jerry's characterization is off in this one. Since when has Jerry needed his cousin's help? Since when has he needed anyone's help? Jerry has never been an innocent, helpless naïf when it comes to Tom; half the time, he's the one instigating the conflict after all. Jerry being an asshole is a key to the series' success, and while I think Jerry's Cousin is certainly funny enough to make up for it, the short definitely feels weird. I guess we could say that this is a prequel to explain how Jerry learned how to stand up for himself, but of course there's no such thing as Tom and Jerry "canon."
These are all, of course, exceedingly minor complaints, and not someone any normal person would spend much time thinking about. Jerry's Cousin is a classic Tom and Jerry short, and arguably the best way to introduce someone to the series. And as an added bonus, it's not even a little racist! Of course, that wasn't enough for the Academy, who gave the award that year to Gerald McBoing-Boing instead. And honestly, that's hard to argue with. While Jerry's Cousin is a terrific riff on a proven formula, Gerald McBoing-Boing pushed the medium of animation in exciting new directions, and it deserved to be recognized for that. Still, I'm glad that we live in a world where we can celebrate both.
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"Jerry's Cousin" should be on HBO Max, but I couldn't find it. Also can we just talk about how HBO Max organizes its Tom and Jerry shorts? Instead of arranging them in one collection chronologically, they have them arbitrarily divided into "seasons", with all the shorts mixed together with no regard for release date. God help the poor soul who tries to binge watch, the differing quality will give them whiplash.
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