The Academy Award for Best Short Subjects, Cartoon (now known as the Award for Best Animated Short Film) was fairly dominated by one studio in the 1940s. With the exception of two awards won by Walt Disney’s studio (1941’s Lend a Paw and 1942’s Der Fuhrer’s Face) and two nabbed by Warner Bros. (1947’s Tweetie Pie and 1949’s For Scent-imental Reasons), the Academy gave its highest animation honor to MGM an impressive six times within that decade. The first was given to a one-off cartoon called The Milky Way in 1940; this take on the “Three Little Kittens” nursery rhyme broke Disney’s eight-year winning streak, maintained since the very first award in 1932 (Flowers and Trees). The other five awards went to MGM’s newest series of cartoons, which presented audiences with an entertaining take on a very familiar trope: the antagonistic relationship between cat and mouse.
In 1940, two young animators at MGM, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, partnered up to create a new cartoon. In later years, Barbera explained how the partnership came about. “[O]ne time I said to [Bill], ‘Why don’t we do our own cartoon?’ […] So I settled on a cat and a mouse–which everybody thought was about the most unoriginal, stupid idea. A cat and mouse–it’s been done! [Paul] Terry has done thousands of them, [Charles] Mintz has done thousands of them. A cat and a mouse–what can you do with a cat and a mouse? How many of them can you make?”
As it turns out? 114 theatrical shorts over seventeen very productive years, thirteen of which would be nominated for the Academy Award–and seven of which ultimately would win, including the one we’ll be talking about today.
(If this version will not load for you, you can also find Cat Concerto at TCM.)
The Cat Concerto was one of five cartoons produced in 1946 that were nominated for the Academy Award. Its competition? Paramount’s Puppetoon John Henry and the Inky-Poo; Disney’s Mickey Mouse/Chip ‘n’ Dale short Squatters’ Rights; a Walter Lantz-produced Woody Woodpecker/Andy Panda short for Universal called Musical Moments from Chopin; and Warner Bros.’ Walky Talky Hawky, a Henery Hawk/Foghorn Leghorn cartoon.
One short that was up for consideration for the Oscar that year was another Warner Bros. cartoon, Rhapsody Rabbit, directed by Friz Freleng. But the controversy surrounding that cartoon–and its similarities to Cat Concerto–ultimately prevented it from scoring a nomination.
Cat Concerto and Rhapsody Rabbit, which went into production at their respective studios at roughly the same time, share some obvious similarities. Each features an anthropomorphized central figure (Tom and Bugs) acting rather more human than their typical portrayals. Each wears the traditional garb of a concert pianist. Their entrances into their cartoons echo one another. Each pianist’s rival within the cartoon is a mouse–for Tom, his constant adversary Jerry; for Bugs, a nameless mouse. And, of course, there’s the central musical theme of each cartoon, Franz Liszt’s popular nineteenth-century piano solo Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.
But this is where the similarities end, for each of these shorts uses the music in very different ways. While Cat Concerto takes a rather straightforward approach to Liszt’s tune, Rhapsody Rabbit’s composer, Warner Bros. vet Carl Stalling–along with the studio pianist hired to play for Bugs, Jakob Gimpel–inserts other melodies into the cartoon in accordance with the gags onscreen, timing those visual antics in conjunction with the speed of the music. There’s an entertaining (and slightly anarchical) mix of classical and modern in the melodies of the cartoon: the mouse indulges in a bit of boogie-woogie, to which Bugs can’t help but join in; there’s a brief, staccato interlude of the simplistic “Chopsticks;” when Bugs seemingly hits the mouse with some dynamite, a brief funereal dirge plays over the soundtrack.
Still, how did two eerily similar cartoons manage to be released around the same time, and who had the idea first? Well, that depends on who you ask. On the commentary track for Rhapsody Rabbit (included on Disc Four of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2), cartoon music historian Daniel Goldmark points out that Freleng was a big fan of the Hungarian Rhapsody, and in fact had used it already in a cartoon five years prior, the 1941 Oscar-nominated short Rhapsody in Rivets (and, as Goldmark mentions, Freleng would go on to later use the same piece in other cartoons such as 1948’s Back Alley Oproar). Freleng, for his part, was convinced that Hanna and Barbera had plagiarized him.
His two rivals–one of whom, Joe Barbera, had worked with Freleng during the director’s brief sojourn to MGM in the late 1930s–were just as convinced that they were the ones who had been wronged. Barbera was quick to defend himself and his partner. “[K]nowing cartoon minds, and knowing Friz Freleng’s mind, it could happen that you could play the same piece of music and get the same gag. The only thing that doesn’t ring true is, what is a rabbit doing with a mouse? You could understand Tom and a mouse, but a rabbit and a mouse?”
In his DVD commentary on Cat Concerto (found on Disc Two of the Tom & Jerry Golden Collection Volume 1), noted Disney animator Eric Goldberg offers his own explanation of what happened. Goldberg asserts that the film lab used to process both cartoons switched the reels, and when Hanna and Barbera accidentally received Freleng’s cartoon, they could not help but take a peek. What they saw left the pair racing to complete their own cartoon as quickly as possible. When the Academy later gathered folks in the animation field to screen the animated shorts for consideration for the Oscar that year, Cat Concerto was screened first (as it was alphabetically first), and when Rhapsody Rabbit played soon after, it made it appear as though Freleng had copied Tom & Jerry–a claim that, according to Barbera, Freleng shouted down immediately after the screening.
In the end, who’s to say who is right? And after all these years, does it even matter? Regardless of the similarities, there’s no denying that each of these cartoons has its strengths, and both of them are wholly entertaining. They may share the same central musical theme, but the gags and the pacing are, for the most part, quite distinct, and in the end, both are worth watching, and worth enjoying.