Tom desperately tries to catch Jerry but with Jerry, there's always a catch...
"Mouse Trouble" won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 1944 and what strikes first is how remarkably simple the premise is. You have Tom, Jerry and a book titled "How to Catch a Mouse" (Random Mouse Editions, a joke that went over my head until I discovered Bennett Cerf in "What's My Line"). There's no plot whatsoever, just a successions of short vignettes, each one dedicated to a mouse-catching method, sometimes two, and as the plot advances, they get more spectacular and so does Tom's suffering.
Naturally, the book starts with the fundamentals: the mousetrap. But even a gag as predictable as a defective mousetrap delivers the first item of hilarity. It takes Jerry forever to get the piece of cheese off and get back to his hole. Tom can't put exactly his finger on what went wrong, but there's one little spot the puts his finger on... before letting his trademark scream (provided by William Hanna). This is the weakest gag, which says a lot.
Most of the tricks are aligned on the same 'hoist by your own petard' pattern: Tom uses a tactic that backfires at him, you might tell it's easy to make viewers laugh on it, but no, there's a sense of timing from Hanna and Barbera who knows how to stretch a scene long enough to make the outcome effective, there's a reason why some directors succeeded in cartoon comedy like Chuck Jones, too or Tex Avery and other failed like Harman and Ising. Take the 'curiosity' trap, Tom must pretend to laugh at something he's reading to lure Jerry into getting in the middle of the book so he can flatten him... why does the gag work? Because Tom's laughs are hilarious independently from the gag, Hanna's voice work is just sublime.
The whole cartoon by the way follows a jazz theme that you might have heard in "A Day at the Races" which gives the cartoon a tempo that fits with the theme, it worked as well with "Tee for Two" (the golf episode) or with the wartime music in "Yankee Doodle Mouse". Anyway, long gag short, Jerry gets in the book, Tom slams it, and when he gets Jerry, he's pretending to check something inside his fist, baiting Tom to one hell of a punch in his eye... had the gag ended there it would have barely been a remake of the mousetrap one, but then Jerry gets backed in a corner, there's a dramatic zoom on him catching his breath, prompting Tom to jump at him, encouraged by the book's advice: "A cornered mouse never fights". A discretion shot lets us guess that one of them took quite a beating. And since logic is a flexible notion in cartoons, it so happens to be Tom, whose smashed face pops up behind the wall to immortal a solemn and spooky "Don't You Believe It". I guess the generations of viewers didn't get that joke but I can tell I had to turn the volume down as a kid.
The merit of "Mouse Trouble" is to create an illusion of novelty even by recycling the same gags, just like "Yankee Doodle Mouse" where it was about something exploding at Tom. The snare trap gag is also an equivalent of the mousetrap, we already get the joke when Jerry switches the cheese for a bowl of cream, but even then, who can resist to the hilarious sight of Tom gets played by the tree like a swing ball, Hanna and Barbera were not comedy technicians they had the instinct, the visuals, the sound effects... and the scream. And so at that point, there's no point enumerating all the gags except by praising the work of the sound department, the sound of Jerry chewing and swallowing and then screaming into Tom's stethoscope or Tom's muffed screams where he gets on the bear trap and his head is stuck in the ceiling make up for the predictability of the gags.
Another worthy element is a certain continuity aspects that fit the linear narrative of the book, when a shotgun blast literally scalps Tom, he then wears a ridiculously red toupee for the whole show. It might be a detail but it kind of roots the cartoon into a semblance of reality, it doesn't get back to normal after each fail and in a way it prepares us for more dangerous situations. Which all leads to the surprise package part that had me laugh to tears and that shows how delightfully sadistic and savvy of a certain schadenfreude from the viewers the directors were. Jerry gets a package that hides Tom but instead of opening it, he pulls pins inside, one by one. Why wouldn't he just open it? Because that's the delight of cartoons, logic is flexible. It's ten times funnier to hear Tom groans and moans during Jerry's perforations and imagine the worst. It doesn't get better when Jerry saws the package in half, looks at the package and horrified, break the fourth wall with a "is there a doctor in the house?".
Last attempt with Tom, full of bandages (continuity again) and reading "Mice are Suckers for Dames". I didn't exactly know at 6 what that mouse surprise toy said but for some reason it turned me now, now, I know it's "Come up and see me some time". Would a mention of the ending make the cartoon a spoiler, I doubt that anyone reading this isn't familiar with the short and isn't convinced that it's truly a quintessential Tom and Jerry, it is violent, funny, simple; Jerry wins of course but Tom's failure is the marker of our sympathy, like Donald Duck for Disney, he's the eternal loser, a position that would be elevated to dramatic levels in "Blue Cats Blues" with the worst pain of all: a heartbreak, nothing compared to those damn pins in the package.
Come up and see "Mouse Trouble" anytime!