Of mice and men: Generations have grown up with the capers of Tom and Jerry. A new exhibition shows the realities beyond the screen. Iain Gale reports

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The Independent Culture
High above the city, on a scaffolding frame, a high-speed chase is being played out. The bad guy - all gaping jaws and eyebrows - is gaining on the hero, a little fellow half his size. But as he is ready to pounce, he misses his footing and falls twenty storeys - only to land on his feet in a dark cellar. Suddenly a huge explosion rockets him back into the sky, where his head smacks into an iron girder. The hero, meanwhile, falling, manages to grab hold of his adversary and, coming away with his entire skin, uses it to float safely down to the ground. No, it's not a scene from Robocop or the latest Bruce Willis movie, but a sequence from Bad Day at Cat Rock, a six minute masterpiece made in 1965 and featuring, you guessed it, Tom and Jerry.

Bad Day is one of 25 Tom and Jerry films now on show in Farnham in an exhibition which, in film and artwork, demonstrates the genesis of the 34 cat- and-mouse classics which Chuck Jones produced for MGM between 1963 and 1967. Jones was a latecomer to the saga, which had first hit the screen in 1940. It is, perhaps, telling that these cartoons, often criticised for their violent imagery, should have been born of a world on the brink of global war. As the Nazis prepared to invade France, Tom and Jerry marched on to the screen in Puss Gets the Boot. Tom, described by the Motion Picture Herald as 'cat dictator' and equipped with sharp fangs, was not the cat we know. Jerry, likewise, fluttered long, Betty Grable, eyelashes. By the time that Jones got hold of the series in 1963, the duo's familiar features had been honed in more than 100 films produced by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera from 1940 to 1957. In Jones's hands the drawing became slicker, close to the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner series with which he had made his name. Tom, eyebrows preened to a demonic angle, is at his most evil, while Jerry has exchanged his playful puckishness for the sickly altruism of a Mannerist saint. Nevertheless, the series retains its character. Tom and Jerry are no strangers to war, financial depression or alcoholism. More than mere animal instinct, their vendetta encompasses a search for love, wealth, and fame more characteristic of the human condition. Walking through walls or becoming invisible, cat and mouse act out human fantasies.

Fantasy, though, is tempered with didacticism. Warned of the threat of everyday catastrophe, we quickly learn the clues. If a rake is lying on the grass, Tom will stand on it. That iron on the table will, inevitably, flatten his tail. There is a catch. While such accidents surely hurt, their effect is strictly impermanent. When Tom's head hits a girder it's the steel that bends. Swallowing a brick he assumes its shape but by the next frame is back to feline leanness. With their Promethean immortality, Tom and Jerry confirm our childhood fallacy of invincibilty. While sociologists debate whether their clowning is harmful, generations continue to enjoy both the agony and the ecstasy. Cat chases mouse. Mouse gets smart. Cat gets mad. Mouse gets cat. That's all folks.

To 11 Dec, James Hockey Gallery, WSCAD, Falkner Rd, Farnham (0252 732241)

(Photographs omitted)

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