A Year in Shorts Day 309: "The Cat Concerto"
It has been quite some time since we last covered a Tom and Jerry short, hasn’t it? Yes, unfortunately, we’re nearing the end of the Oscar-nominated Tom and Jerry films. But luckily for you and me, I’ve saved the absolute best of the lot for a special occasion. And now the time has finally come for us to talk about the hilarious, Oscar-winning and surprisingly controversial 1947 short, The Cat Concerto.
Directed once again by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, The Cat Concerto has a fairly straightforward premise. Tom, for reasons known only to him, is a concert pianist, performing Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" for a formal audience. (Interestingly enough, that exact same piece of music was at the center of Rhapsody in Rivets, the first animated film we covered in our Year in Shorts. That may or not be a coincidence, but more on that later.) Unfortunately, Tom has the bad luck of playing a piano which also, apparently, doubles as Jerry's home, and the mouse doesn't take too kindly to being roused from his sleep. You think this would be a regular occurrence for Jerry, and perhaps a sign that he should move, but I don't know how the mouse housing market (the mousing market?) works. Regardless, this is a Tom and Jerry cartoon, so a reasonable compromise is out of the question, and the typical cartoon hijinks ensue. On paper, The Cat Concerto may not seem all that different from most Tom and Jerry shorts we've covered. And yet, there was clearly something about it which made it stand out. Aside from its Oscar win (the fourth for the duo, tying the then-record set by Silly Symphonies), The Cat Concerto is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, Tom and Jerry cartoon. It is the only short in the series to make that 50 Greatest Cartoons list we mention from time to time (coming in at a respectable 42nd place), and was even listed by one Australian critic as their favorite film of the year. Not just the best short, the best film, beating out beloved classics like Brief Encounter and Mildred Pierce. So what makes The Cat Concerto stand out? Well the answer lies, as it always does, in the short itself.
For starters, it's important to note that The Cat Concerto is a unique Tom and Jerry film in a few important ways. While the idea of taking Tom and Jerry outside their typical milieu may seem old hat to us by now, it was a far less common occurrence in 1947. For the most part, Tom and Jerry's squabbles had been domestic ones, give or take the occasional trip to heaven. Having Tom and Jerry in roles other than a house cat and a mouse was pretty revolutionary for the series, and it's no surprise that it'd be a well Hanna and Barbera would return to frequently within the next decade. Perhaps more interesting, however, is the change in the Tom and Jerry dynamic present in this short. While most Tom and Jerry films have Jerry consistently besting Tom's attempts to catch him, thwarting Tom's plans and causing him a great deal of physical pain in the process, The Cat Concerto sees Tom consistently having the upper hand. Granted, Jerry gives as good as he gets, but he never manages to dominate the short the way he normally does. Perhaps this is because the stakes here are much lower than they usually are; Tom isn't trying to eat Jerry, just successfully complete his performance without Jerry getting in the way. And even while Jerry eventually "wins" in the end, Tom does at least to complete his performance.
Of course, none of that really explains the short's popularity. The answer to why this short is generally considered the best Tom and Jerry short is fairly simple- it's just really fucking funny. While the violence in The Cat Concerto is relatively grounded for the two (don't expect to see any dynamite in this one), the short more than makes up for it with the relentless pace it comes at. I think the film's premise aids in that; the structure of the music ensures that film never slows down and informs where all the action beats should be. (It should also be noted that the film is also, apparently, fairly accurate in the notes being played; when Tom or Jerry presses a key, that's actually the key being played in the piece.) Whereas most Tom and Jerry films we've covered have mostly been a series of vignettes, complete with their own setups and payoffs, occasionally culminating in one big action set piece at the end, The Cat Concerto is all action all the time. The fact that it might not be as zany as the other shorts doesn't detract from that; if anything, it helps keep the pacing up. Besides, the humor in the slapstick in these shorts was never just about what Tom and Jerry did to one another, but how they and their bodies reacted to it. Watching Tom try to suppress a cry of pain as he sticks his finger in a mousetrap or seeing Jerry get squashed and squished by the piano hammers is just plain funny, no matter which way you slice it. Jerry's character animation is especially good in this short, conveying a greater deal of emotional range than he's often afforded. One sequence in particular has him look so delightfully smug that it's remarkable it hasn't become a go to reaction GIF on the Internet.
So if this short is so well-beloved, why is there a controversy behind it? Well, it turns out that in 1946, Warner Bros. produced a similar short entitled Rhapsody Rabbit. A very similar short. So similar, in fact, that both studios accused the other of plagiarism. To this day no one knows the truth behind the matter. Rhapsody Rabbit has an earlier copyright and release date, but apparently MGM's cartoons took longer to make. Considering the fact that the Tom and Jerry shorts of the 40s typically had better animation than the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes released in those days, I'm not really surprised. (That might be a controversial opinion, but at the very least it should be pretty obviously true when comparing these two shorts. The animation in The Cat Concerto is far more polished than Rhapsody Rabbit, which is to say nothing of the more detailed backgrounds.) The best anyone has been able to figure is that Technicolor accidentally sent a print of one company's short to the other studio, who either decided to copy it or rush theirs into production.
It is certainly an intriguing case, and there are compelling arguments to be made on both sides. Two shorts about a cartoon animal performing Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2", only for a mischievous mouse to interrupt them and steal their spotlight in the end, is a bizarrely specific coincidence. But who ripped off who? It's hard to say. Like I said before, the idea of Tom as a concert pianist was a pretty strange one at the time, whereas Bugs Bunny had certainly proven to be more malleable in the roles he can play. But at the same time, the idea of Bugs Bunny fighting a mouse seems rather out of character for him, doesn't it? Bugs is rarely the aggressor; he's more of a playful trickster who only doles out punishment on those who deserve it. At least that's my understanding of him, which admittedly comes more from Chuck Jones's interpretation. As Rhapsody Rabbit was directed by Friz Freleng, it's entirely possible his behavior in this short is more in line with his characterization of him. Still, it feels weird to watch a short where Bugs loses at the end; that's definitely more of a Tom trait than anything else.
For what it's worth, I think the plagiarism dispute has been wildly overblown. At worst, one studio used another's idea as inspiration to do their own take on a similar idea. That's hardly the worst crime. Watching the two shorts back to back, one notices far more differences than similarities. The slapstick in Rhapsody Rabbit, for instance, is far more cartoony- in fact, it's not dissimilar from a lot of what you'd expect from Tom and Jerry! There's dynamite and mallets being pulled from nowhere and all sorts of silly things like that. But Rhapsody Rabbit doesn't just have cartoon violence going on. The short is filled with all manner of random, absurd gags, the sort of off-the-wall stuff Warner was doing a lot of in the 40s. There's some risque humor, wisecracks from Bugs, and a great deal more going on than just Bugs trying to deal with the mouse. This certainly varies the types of gags you get, but it also changes the pacing significantly. While The Cat Concerto is a non-stop battle, Rhapsody Rabbit takes on a more episodic structure. (Again, not that different from other Tom and Jerry shorts.) As a result, the music takes a bit of a backseat in Rhapsody Rabbit, whereas it was the driving force in The Cat Concerto. Despite the similar concepts, it seems to me that both Freleng and Hanna-Barbera used the idea as a springboard to tell a story in their own unique style. But that's just one amateur opinion, of course.
At any rate, I will admit that I think The Cat Concerto is a better short. Rhapsody Rabbit has some great gags- Bugs straight up murdering an audience member for coughing is an all-timer, even if it seems wildly out of character for him- but The Cat Concerto just flows better. Still, it is a shame that Rhapsody Rabbit couldn't at least have had the privilege of going head-to-head with The Cat Concerto at the Oscars that year. (For reasons I can not and will not try to comprehend, both shorts were submitted for consideration for the 19th Academy Awards, despite different release years.) It wouldn't have settled anything, but it would have at least been a fun bit of trivia. Not to mention the fact that it's significantly better than the other music-themed cartoon that got nominated that year. Come to think of it, it's also a lot better than the Warner Bros. short which got nominated too! Damn, poor Rhapsody Rabbit can't catch a break!
Whatever the controversy surrounding the road to its existence, the end result is the same for The Cat Concerto. While Heavenly Puss remains my personal favorite of the series, it's not hard to see why The Cat Concerto takes the top spot for so many people. It takes everything we love about Tom and Jerry- the slapstick violence, fast pace and spectacular animation- and distills it into its purest form. Sure, it follows the typical Tom and Jerry formula pretty closely, even if it does add a few wrinkles here and there. But when a formula is pulled off as flawlessly as it is here, why complain? The timeless appeal of Tom and Jerry is difficult to explain, and even after writing a staggering twelve blog posts about them, I find it hard to put into words. Ironically, I think the famously silent duo are better off speaking for themselves. If you want to understand why Tom and Jerry are so beloved, you just have to watch their shorts. And watching The Cat Concerto gives a pretty damn great illustration.
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Both "The Cat Concerto" and "Rhapsody Rabbit" are available to watch on HBO Max.
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