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Cat and mouse and smokes

LIKE THEIR ANIMATED BRETHREN, Tom and Jerry were long thought to be invulnerable. But the cat-and-mouse team -- the inspiration for “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” the much bloodier cartoon-within-a-cartoon on “The Simpsons” -- has been brought low by a force even stronger than Acme dynamite: PC, which stands for physiological as well as political correctness.

In response to a complaint passed along by Britain’s version of the Federal Communications Commission, a children’s cable channel in that country has decided to excise short scenes depicting the use of tobacco from two vintage “Tom and Jerry” cartoons. Both cartoons are more than 50 years old. In one, Tom drags on a cigarette to impress a female cat. In the other, he plays tennis against a cigar-smoking opponent. (Presumably it isn’t an exploding cigar, or the scene could be excused as anti-smoking propaganda.)

Although it was an ordinary viewer who took exception to the smoking scenes, Britain’s nanny state also did a bit of tail-pulling. The Office of Communications, known as Ofcom, passed along the complaint to the Boomerang network, and it welcomed the network’s subsequent decision to snip out scenes in which smoking “appeared to be condoned, acceptable, glamorized or where it might encourage imitation.”

The bowdlerization of “Tom and Jerry” has created a sensation in Britain, partly because smokers there are less browbeaten than they are in the United States and partly because “Tom and Jerry,” though an import, is a television tradition there.

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Boomerang’s deletion of the smoking scenes already has boomeranged. Its decision was denounced as “totally absurd” by a pro-smoking group called FOREST. (That’s an acronym for Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco, not a reference to the forest fires often caused by stray cigarettes.)

FOREST has a point. Although one can imagine an argument for editing old cartoons -- some of them feature hurtful racial stereotypes, for example -- it’s a reach to suggest that a tobacco-abusing feline would turn children into chain-smoking copycats. And if vintage cartoons can be turned into smoke-free zones, what about classic movies from the same period in which humans light up? Today, Tom and Jerry; tomorrow, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis?

There’s something about this crusade that seems, well, cartoonish.


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