When most cartoon fans hear the names Tom & Jerry we think of that famously violent cat and mouse team. When I was a kid, their theatrical shorts were a staple of UHF kids television. However, nine years before the cat and mouse team appeared in 1940 there was another animated team called Tom and Jerry. These characters appeared in shorts produced by the Van Beuren Studios beginning in 1931. They were two human characters who looked slightly like clowns. One was tall and lanky and the other was short and stubby. Like many animated characters, they did end up facing some ghosts. That’s exactly what happens in their 1931 debut, Wot a Night.
As this short opens, Tom and Jerry are cab drivers waiting outside of a train station for a fare. It’s a particularly stormy day, but they end up picking up two bearded gentlemen and driving them through a massive flood to a mysterious castle on a hill. When the two passengers forget to pay for the ride, our two heroes decide to follow them and quickly notice that there are some strange inhabitants of the castle. One of the first things they encounter is a skeleton taking a bath. Before long, they are surrounded by an army of white sheet-style ghosts.
The skeletons soon start playing music and dancing. Jerry is quite entertained by all of tis while Tom is shaking in his boots. At about this time, the duo encounter a quartet of what I can only describe as blackface skeletons. They sing a spiritual song before crumbling into a pile of bones. Then, as they get ready to leave the castle, Tom and Jerry look under their shirts and see that they are now becoming skeletons themselves.
This is an interesting short to look at because this is an example of a truly forgotten pair of cartoon stars. It’s not hard to see why these characters didn’t really endure. There’s not a whole lot to these characters other than one is short and happy and the other is tall and nervous. The two characters don’t speak all that much either. Jerry’s voice is pretty much a Mickey Mouse clone and Tom’s vocabulary is limited to a few nervous “buh-buh-buh” sounds.
The sequences involving the skeletons, though, make this short fun. These skeletons don’t quite have the same level of detail and depth that Ub Iwerks put into the skeletons in Disney’s The Skeleton Dance, but they are still animated quite well. What I liked about them is that they have a bit more comedic quality than those that appear in other black and white animated shorts from this era. There is, however, the strange moment featuring the black skeletons. I think it’s fair to say that many viewers will find this moment a bit uncomfortable, though the little song they sing is quite enjoyable.
This Tom and Jerry may have been the first to claim those names in the world of animation, but they’ve got a long way to go to match the quality of the famous cat and mouse. I wouldn’t say this is a bad short, but there’s nothing really extraordinary about it either. It lacks the creativity we were seeing from other animation studios like Disney and the Fleischers during this same time. The film is an interesting curiosity, but is far from being an animation milestone.