When cartoon historian Jerry Beck walked up to Gene Deitch and told him he was his greatest fan, the “Tom and Jerry” and “Popeye” director was taken aback.
That was 30 years ago, on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “He looked at me with very skeptical eyes and asked, ‘What do you know about my work?’” Beck told Arab News from his home in California.
“No one respected animation back then. Gene heard from so many people that animation was a second-class citizen. They were just those little things you saw at the movie theater or that ran on Saturday mornings for children on TV,” Beck said.
“If you loved animation, people looked at you as if there’s something wrong with your head. Gene was very sensitive about that. Animation wasn’t just a job for him. It was an art form that he understood and took very seriously. A really great guy. A true artist,” he added.
“I wanted to know if he understood the importance of what he was doing. He was the first original master of independent animation. Back when animators were trained to work in the Disney methods, Gene was experimenting with his art, creating these unbelievable films and influencing a lot of people, paving the way for the independent animators of today, like Bill Plimpton.”
Deitch’s films were rarely shown in theaters or on TV. The artist was written off in the history books.
“One reason I was part of his life was to help more people understand who he is and the full impact of what he did,” said Beck.
Apparently, Beck’s efforts have succeeded. When Deitch passed away on April 16 at the age of 95 in Prague, a deluge of love from all over the world was poured on the director and the characters he created.
“Tom and Jerry” turned social media platforms into memory lanes where many recounted their childhood connection to the iconic pair. Deitch “was the last surviving major figure of the golden age of animation,” Beck said.
In 1961, when he was asked to direct “Tom and Jerry” out of Rembrandt studios in Prague, Deitch came to see what he perceived as “the biblical roots” in the cartoons’ conflict, similar to David and Goliath.
“That’s where we feel a connection to these cartoons: The little guy can win (or at least survive) to fight another day,” Deitch said.
Yet as Lebanese filmmaker and critic Mohamed Soueid said, “Tom and Jerry” creators never played the “good and evil” game that was a staple of Bible-inspired American cinema.
Tom “is more tragic than Jerry because he’s easily fooled and you can easily manipulate his emotions, which makes him the more human of the two,” Beck told Arab News.
During the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, local TV channels, each affiliated with one of the warring factions, would turn to “Tom and Jerry” to fill gaps caused by schedule disruptions, confident that the cartoon would retain an audience that might otherwise channel hop. “Back then, it was the only cartoon available to us,” said Soueid.
As with all superstar cartoon characters, we can relate to Tom and Jerry, or at least to one of them. We are either Tom or Jerry. Or we are Jerry, but we know someone like Tom.
“They represent our everyday struggles. Usually Jerry is minding his own business or trying to get food, and Tom is trying to thwart him in whichever way he can,” said Beck.
“We all have bullies in our lives, and they may not be literal, high school bullies. When you’re an adult, the bully is really your boss, and the deadline, and your landlord, or whomever you owe something to,” he added.
“So we immediately sympathize with the cuteness of Jerry, and whatever predicament they put him in.”
Wherever Tom and Jerry are, they are always in some sort of trouble. “That’s true of the human condition, the fact that you can’t get away from trials and tribulations,” Beck said.
What also makes the series “endearing and enduring” is, according to him, the slapstick comedy.
“It’s running around! It’s chases! Who knows what they’re going to pick up or where they’re going to hide?” Beck said.
“Someone gets hit in the head and the head shape changes. It’s drawn in a funny way. It’s not horrifying. It’s funny. And they’re fast!”
Tom and Jerry attack each other with a variety of weapons. Tom uses axes, explosives and poison to kill Jerry.
Jerry’s retaliation is even more violent: Slicing Tom in half, decapitating him, shutting his head in a window or a door, electrocuting him or pounding him with a club.
Such displays of violence, incomparable to anything ever devised in theatrical animation, have been the source of much controversy.
Salam Abdel Sadeq, head of Egypt’s State Information Service, blamed “Tom and Jerry” for the rising tide of violence in the Middle East.
“‘Tom and Jerry’ portrays violence in a funny manner, and gives the impression that yes, I can blow him up with explosives. It becomes set in the viewer’s mind that this is natural,” Abdel Sadeq said at a conference in Cairo.
But Beck said: “I watched these cartoons when I was a kid, and I certainly would never drop a boulder on somebody.”
Soueid said: “I think (original) creators Hanna and Barbera were just doing it out of pure fun.”
Deitch himself was not a big fan of the cartoon’s “needless violence.” Only when he worked on the series did he realize that nobody took that violence seriously, and it was just “exaggerated human emotions.”
Still, Dr. Christine Shenouda, an Egyptian psychologist who has spent years studying the effects of stories on children, has seen enough damage caused by screen violence that she cannot take it lightly.
“We learn from what we’re exposed to, not just from our parents telling us what to do and what not to do. We learn from the books we read, the cartoons we watch,” Shenouda told Arab News.
“Psychological research points to causality and not just correlation, where we don’t know which is causing what. Increased violence in the media is contributing to higher levels of aggression and violence in real life,” she said.
“I watched a lot of ‘Tom and Jerry’ growing up in Egypt. Of course I wasn’t aware of how stereotypical it was and how violent, but I loved it, and I still love it,” she added.
“But I don’t show it to my kids because of the aggressive content, and because of the sexist content: There are absolutely no females in the show, except when Jerry is flirting with a pretty mouse, or when Mammy Two Shoes begins screaming with her exaggerated black accent, which is very racist.”
Beck said showing old cartoons to his students in California is like walking on eggshells, because the new generation is very sensitive to stereotypes. “It’s like opening a can of worms. I have a lot of explaining to do,” he added.
That is why, once a Saturday morning staple on network TV, “Tom and Jerry” is now presented with a lengthy disclaimer on iTunes about the offensive caricatures in it.
“Now they’re making plenty of new ‘Tom and Jerry,’ and it has none of that political incorrectness in it,” said Beck. Shenouda said: “I’m very happy to hear that.”