Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Batty Baseball (1944)

Batty Baseball (MGM, 1944) 
Dir: Tex Avery
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

For a genre that flourished in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s when baseball was not just called "The National Pastime" by rote, but actually still was a pastime in which a majority of the nation participated in some way, there aren't that many great baseball cartoons. Immediately, four cartoons come to mind: Baseball Bugs, Disney's pair of Casey at the Bat pictures, and this one, Batty Baseball. The list is amendable, and if someone were to bring up either Porky's Baseball Broadcast or How to Play Baseball (with Goofy), I wouldn't argue the point for long and open up the list to slightly lesser films. As for Batty Baseball, the truth of the matter is that, gag-wise, I tend to get this cartoon mixed up with the later Baseball Bugs. While two entirely different films, there are enough similarities between them that I have begun to mix them up in my head to the point where if I'm watching one, I start thinking that one of the jokes from the other film are about to show up.

There isn't really a plot to this film; it is merely a collection of the usual Avery gags, but they fly at you like hard line drives, and every once in a while, the director goes opposite field on you, and takes the extra base on your double-take. I won't recount the entire picture with a play-by-play, but will merely show you the highlight reel.

Avery just can't wait to start this picture, and after the title shows up briefly, it headfirst slides right into the action. A player sliding for home reminds Avery in mid-dive that the director forgot "the MGM title, the lion roar and all that kinda stuff," so the film has to restart. There is a disclaimer that reads "Any similarity between the title of this picture and the story that follows is purely an accident." And what a hilarious accident it is... The ballpark is called "W.C. Field," and long before Monty Python sacked the people who sacked the people who screwed up the titles to the film about the Holy Grail, Avery tells us with a screen card that the fellow who came up with the corny gag has been fired.

Avery works in his trademark topical references, and because this picture was a wartime one, they are hung on the pitcher, the only player left on the team due to his 4-F status (the rest of the players were 1-A), and to the largest batter in the world, whose uniform is branded with the designation of B-19. There is a grand moment where a baseball smacks into a billboard for a product called Toothodent (with Delirium), a supposedly glamorous toothpaste, but the ball knocks a couple of teeth out of the mouth of the Rita Hayworth-type model on the sign, and she is left gap-toothed and goony-looking. The pitcher throws endless variations of pitches (spitballs, fastballs, even bowling balls) each one leading to a punchline, such as the curveball that cuts the expected outline of a hot girl into the air, causing the entire stadium to whistle, and the spitter that zips past the batter as a strike and then hawks a huge loogie into a waiting spittoon far behind the plate.

No one incorporates sexiness into a cartoon better than Tex Avery, not that many people were given a chance to do so back in the day. Here, "warming up a new pitcher" takes an unexpected turn when a pair of typically shapely Avery dolls, looking gorgeous in their heavy makeup and eyelashes, tight sweaters, and legs that go on for days, run into the dugout and start smothering the player sitting on the bench relentlessly with kisses. Surprised at first, he starts to go increasingly hog wild over the attention, and is clearly going to be "up" for something when it is through.

Death looms large in this ballpark. The abusive fan scenario is taken to the extreme, when his cries of "Kill the Umpire! Kill the Umpire!" are acted upon a little too literally. When a gun blast is heard from the field, we see his saddened reaction to his severe order being carried out, while "Taps" plays on the soundtrack. The camera never leaves the fan's face  — which literally turns gray — during this entire turn of events. Be careful what you wish for, pal. Such sudden turns from silly gags to a very dark moment (while still being part of a silly gag) are par for the course in an Avery picture, and what I feel is what makes his films, ironically, burst with life a little more for the viewer. 

The infield fly rule of comedy — the "rule of threes" — has been in clear effect since the beginning of Batty Baseball, and it must be fulfilled by picture's end. The running gag in the cartoon (an Avery necessity) involves the pipsqueak catcher running under and in front of the batter over and over again, catching the ball before it gets to the plate, yelling things like, "That's the ol' pepper, boy!" and "That's the ol' stuff!" (which Bugs Bunny similarly says in his baseball cartoon). As a result, in the finale the catcher ultimately "catches it" right in the head from the batter (but the terrible blow is taken offscreen). The narrator announces a moment of silence, and the now-winged and haloed catcher is seen floating up to heaven holding a sign that reads, "Sad Ending, Isn't It?"

It is sad, yes, but extremely shocking and funny. And that's the point of a Tex Avery film, isn't it?

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were expanded and updated on 11/5/2015.]

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