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The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas

By Ben Nicholson • December 24th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original airdate: December 6th, 1941
Running time: 9 minutes

Directors: William Hanna, Joseph Barbera

Cast: Tom & Jerry

The Night Before Christmas

I’ve always had, and I’d imagine always will have, quite a profound love of cartoons. I was obsessed with the super-powered anthropomorphic feline heroes, Thundercats, throughout my formative years and that’s hardly abated. A statue of Lion-O stands, Sword of Omens in hand, on the desk beside me as I write this. It’s often remarked that we’re supposed to outgrow cartoons and, whilst those that know me may disagree, sadly I’ve found that modern examples offer little in the way of the magic I grew up with. Partly because I’m older, perhaps, but partly because there seemed to be fewer farts gags back then. And I can’t imagine Andy Crane in the Broom Cupboard shouting “Bogies!”

The cartoons that I really enjoyed, though, played a major role throughout my childhood or are at least have strong associations for me. In many instances this may be more to do with the accompanying toys; I still remember how galling it was when I had to give Paul Howell the action figure of Cryotek (from the TV series Visionaries) when I didn’t have that one myself. In others however, particular cartoons summon such a sense of nostalgia that it’s almost tangible. I must have had the Looney Tune episode Duck! Rabbit! Duck! on video, as I’ve seen it so many times that it’s always the first thing that comes to mind when it snows. Ice-skating makes me think of Tom & Jerry (you know the one) and so, it seems, does the approach of Christmas.

When considering the kinds of Yule classics I could write about, I naturally sprang to the obvious – It’s A Wonderful Life and Gremlins – but my mind also sped to that most beloved cat and mouse duo. The famous opening line of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas is now almost more well-known than the poem itself, and will have a multitude of festive associations for so many people. For me it conjures a very particular image.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…
The Night Before Christmas

The camera zooms in on an all-too-familiar mouse hole in a skirting board. A trap sits outside it with a lump of cheese wrapped in a bow acting as its enticing festive bait. Suddenly a little brown mouse pops his head around the door. Shockingly, Jerry does not get crushed by the mouse trap. He leaves it where it is and goes off to investigate the decorated gift-laden house that is all ready for Christmas Day just hours later.

When I re-watched this short ahead of writing about it, I was astounded by just how much of it I remembered, especially in the opening moments. Jerry looking at his comically distorted reflection in a bauble; the falling dolly scaring the bejesus out of him; hiding in the mane of a cuddly lion; licking the red stripe off a candy cane. Of course, things get a little crazy when he accidentally wakes up a certain sleeping house cat, Tom.

But despite the classic chases, and the incredible cartoon violence, this is a Christmas story. After electrocuting Tom and hitting him over the head with various things Jerry escapes through the letterbox. With Tom’s aims met, he blocks up the hole so that the The Night Before Christmaspesky rodent can’t get back in. It’s snowing outside, however, and we see Jerry trudging back and forth in the snow attempting to stay warm whilst Tom relaxes by the fire.

The wind howls a gale outside. The cat’s hard heart is melted by seasonal spirit and he returns to prop open the letterbox and allow his housemate back in; but there’s no sign of Jerry. Thus, Tom embarks on a trip out in the cold to find the little frozen mouse and nurse him back to health, saving his life in the process. I’m not going to lie, as the duo warily exchange Christmas gifts and agree to put their mutual hatred aside for the holiday, I get a little choked up. When it’s revealed that Tom’s trap was not that at all, I’m positively beside myself.

It’s funny looking back on this film with the benefit of some wider knowledge. As a child I probably preferred the moments where Jerry tricks Tom into running into a wall. As an adult I was able to get a little sentimental about these two dearly loved characters, enemies, getting into the spirit. At the time of release, however, this wouldn’t have been the case as The Night Before Christmas was only the second official Tom and Jerry short.

The first of the pairs’ shorts to be Oscar-nominated (they went on to win five times in the forties); it wouldn’t have had quite the same impact as it does to those who know the characters from so many years of battle. Still, it’s a real delight from beginning to end and has some unforgettable gags and touching moments. Most of all, it imbues me with the kind of spirit we all long for at this time of year – and you get to watch a cartoon to boot!

The Night Before Christmas

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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