The Cartoon Closet: Van Beuren Tom and Jerry – Part 1

EDITORS NOTE: Today we welcome a new semi-regular contributor to the Cartoon Research fold. Esther Bley is a queer animation archivist, historian, researcher, and the creator of the website Esther’s focus here is to put a spotlight on LGBTQ archetypes we are familiar with (or may not have noticed) in past animation – what it meant then, what they may mean now. While there are books and online resources that have examined this subject, no singular comprehensive site exists to view or learn more about it. Esther will bring attention to this often overlooked subject – and trace a detailed history by identifying characters, crediting directors, animators, and voice actors. From Bugs Bunny in drag to The Reluctant Dragon – there was always more than meets the eye back then – I’m especially excited to read more about all this from Esther’s point of view. – Jerry Beck

For years, I often referred to Cartoon Research when I wanted to learn more about music in animation or found myself going down an anime rabbit hole (pun not intended). When I started the process of selecting films for my website, Queer Animation, I knew that Cartoon Research would have some leads. Steve Stanchfield and Fred Patten’s articles in particular were incredibly useful during the initial gathering process. Steve’s for pre-Code animation, and Fred’s for OVAs and films from Japan. I’m incredibly honored to be selected as a new columnist for Cartoon Research and cannot wait to share more of my insights on this site.

Let’s begin by looking at two early Van Beuren Tom & Jerry entries…

Trouble (10/10/1931, dir. John Foster and George Stallings)

Trouble contains the first queer-coded character in the Tom and Jerry series; by queer-coded, I mean a figure stylized as stereotypically gay through looks, behavior, or both. Although this character’s appearance is quite brief – around a whopping 3 seconds – for those interested in finding him, he is the only drummer shown in the marching band sequence when Tom and Jerry are advertising their legal practice.

Now, if you’re wondering what makes this particular character queer-coded, there are several reasons – let’s break down his design. First, the “teapotting” pose, where a character rests one hand on their hip with the elbow at a 45-degree angle, and their other arm is bent outward to the side. This extended arm usually has the pinkie pointed out. Next, is the physique. On average, early gay cartoon characters are reed-thin, and move in a swishy, pompous manner. For the drummer, this is demonstrated by his dainty, tiptoe walk cycle. Lastly, another common detail is a made-up face complete with eyelashes and cupid bow lips, a touch which blurs the line between defining masculinity and femininity. Separately, these characteristics do not necessarily indicate a character is queer. Combined, however, it showcases the stereotype of a queer coded man; a design not new to the 1930s, but instead something audiences could identify over a decade earlier during the silent era. 

Note the physique, pose, made-up face, and bows on his attire.

While silent animation contains fewer queer-coded characters compared to the 1930s, one of the more overt examples from the silent era appears in The Breath of a Nation (1919). Like the drummer in Trouble, this character is unnamed. His purpose in the story serves as a gag reveal from the effects of alcohol. When the audience first sees him before he enters the soda fountain for a treat, he is wafer-thin, and he shares many design similarities to the drummer in Trouble. However, upon leaving the shop, the alcohol he consumed transformed him into a burly (yet still effeminate) strongman. To further emphasize his otherness, he went into the soda shop because he was interested in having a fruit sundae. At that time, the term ‘fruit’ was a derogatory term for gay men, and demonstrates that as early as the late 1910s, queer-coding already had a visual shorthand understood by audiences.

By the early 1930s, due to the Pansy Craze, queer coded characters became popular and began to appear in more live action and animation. The Pansy Craze, a period which lasted roughly from the late 1920s to mid 1930s, was a time when audiences outside of the LGBTQ+ subculture, began to attend drag shows and or other explicitly camp and queer public performances. This fad occurred in cities like New York and San Francisco, and globally in Berlin, London, and Paris.

With Van Beuren located in New York City, the staff had a much higher chance of having an awareness of Pansy Craze performances. Considering the studio’s frequent references to popular culture and risqué jokes, and including queer coded animal characters – such as the effeminate goose seen in shorts like A Romeo Robin (1930) and The Animal Fair (1931) – the act of including a stereotypical human character who fits the image of the “ideal” Pansy Craze performer is a more direct example of Van Beuren capitalizing on the fad.

A concluding note: as evidenced by the drummer’s brief role and his simplistic design, it would still take some time before Van Beuren would evolve these queer coded characters and place them in more significant roles.

Jungle Jam (11/14/1931, dir. John Foster and George Rufle)

Jungle Jam’s comedy contains the type of material that the Hays Code would have prohibited during its enforcement. Although the inclusion of Native cannibal stereotypes was not unique before or after this period, the racial interactions between the Chief and Jerry, and other integrated scenes would have been looked upon disapprovingly by the Code. These scenes toe the line of the Code’s “miscegenation” rule, specifically between the ways Black and white individuals interact on screen.

While adventuring in the jungle, Tom and Jerry are captured by a Native tribe. The Chief selects Jerry as the first one to be prepared for eating. When Jerry’s shirt comes undone, it is revealed that he has a dancing woman tattooed on his chest. The Chief becomes enraptured, watching the dancing woman. His interest in the tattoo shows his interracial heterosexuality and (more scandalously for that time) his attraction towards white women. Jerry’s trick saves him from being eaten, and the Chief expresses his appreciation by giving him a kiss on the cheek and temporarily sparing Tom and Jerry’s lives, leading to the whole tribe celebrating soon afterwards. 

It’s tempting to interpret the Chief’s kiss as expressing “romantic” feelings toward Jerry. However, in contrast to the drummer character in Trouble, the Chief does not act effeminate nor share any of the other coded characteristics. Furthermore, since Tom and Jerry cannot communicate with the tribe, the Chief’s actions are his way of expressing gratitude and a desire for peace. This is evident by the fact the kiss on the cheek gag was incorporated in an earlier short, Polar Pals (1931), when Tom, trapped in a block of ice comes face to face with a walrus. In an unexpected twist, the walrus removes their tusks, which are revealed to be dentures, and kisses Tom’s cheek. A horn sound that resembles a “hello,” plays afterward to let the frightened Tom know he is not in danger. However, Tom does not become calm; instead, he remains anxious during the encounter.

Unlike Polar Pals, there is a follow-up joke in Jungle Jam. When the Chief goes to kiss Jerry, Jerry is resistant. Afterwards, however, Jerry shows no sign of disgust, and instead, he becomes coy. He averts his eyes only to sneak a look back towards the Chief, mutter a flirtatious “Oh Chief,” and let out a sigh. The shot concludes with a comical cuckoo sound effect as Jerry coyly looks back at the Chief one more time, thus letting the audience know that Jerry’s behavior is not “normal”, and he is reacting absurdly.

This scene is ultimately a one-off gag, and there are no further instances of queer representation or similar jokes in this short. Soon afterwards, when everyone is celebrating, Jerry’s heterosexuality is reinforced. As shown by him and Tom dancing with women from the tribe. This second, longer integrated scene between the Black and white characters would be another instance of the film containing “scandalous” content, and if released a few years later not passed by the Code. While all the scenes I have discussed are quite brief, the fact these would have failed the Code’s guidelines demonstrates how much of an impact the Code had even on animation and restricting what could be allowed.

Next Time: More Van Beuren observations.

(Special thanks to David Gerstein)