I think the ones who did it the best were Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. But I think Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera during their MGM days did it better than either of them.
I can't think of any other cartoon series that's more popular than Tom & Jerry. And it's not because of the slapstick violence they're often cited for, it's because these two are living and breathing characters. The Disney guys could never get this much emotion into their films.
I think it's Tom who makes these films though. He is such a great character and by being primarily pantomime, your caring for what happens to him has to come from how he moves and looks. Jerry is great too for all the same reasons.
One of my favorite Tom & Jerry scenes is not even from one of my favorite Tom & Jerry cartoons! It's when Jerry has Tom play "On the Atcheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe" in this wonderful scene animated by Ken Muse from THE CAT CONCERTO (1947). Look at how much Tom is into playing the tune before realizing what he's doing five seconds later! (Irv Spence animated his fingers at the very beginning.)
Ray Patterson was great in this series too. He came up with the trademark pouty lip look that no other animator can imitate! Here's his opening scene from SPRINGTIME FOR THOMAS (1946). Look at how he is able to draw all of those expressions in one scene. Jerry's enjoyment of heckling Tom, his looks of confusion and aggravation at being ignored, and Tom's look of pure mad infatuation! This is gold!
Even the weaker entries are saved with excellent character animation and by the pure likability of Tom & Jerry. LITTLE RUNAWAY (1952) has a very Disneyesque storyline (Jerry protecting a baby seal from Tom eager to collect the reward money for the return of it), but it's saved with great acting. Like this scene by Irv Spence! I love Tom's stupid look of pure enjoyment from Jerry's dancing number. Only a master like Spence could put so much life, energy, and humor into a dead fish. The timing and Scott Bradley's music score are perfect for this scene too. (Ed Barge picks up when Jerry keeps coming back for an encore).
One of my all-time favorite Tom & Jerry shorts is HEAVENLY PUSS (1949). If it's not on your list of favorites, it really should be. This is the ultimate example of Tom & Jerry's love-hate relationship. Leonard Maltin describes it as being a short that can only work with characters as likable and wonderful as Tom & Jerry. He is 100% accurate.
Ken Muse is given a really long piece in this one. He handles everything from Tom coming back to earth to running off with Jerry's signature. Ed Barge picks up with Tom trying to run up the elevator to waking up next to the fireplace. Muse handles the rest.
Tom goes through an enormous range of human emotions in Muse's scenes: relief, surprise, fury, devilish sneakiness, fear, frustration and absolute panic... all without a single word of dialog. There is a lot of good stuff before the scene below, but I think this piece is some of the greatest acting put on film, let alone animated.
Let me know what you think of my thoughts. The above clip marks my 100th video to be put on YouTube... And without being taken down! Special thanks to Mike Russo for his help and suggestions.