Saturday, 2 August 2014

338. Sport Chumpions (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 337.
Release date: August 16, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Various Voices) / Jim Bannon (Narrator) (unconfirmed).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Gerry Chiniquy.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: An off-focus view of sports with several literal interpretations of what each sport may present.

As the spot-gag shorts tended to be centred primarily on Tex Avery, as well as a handful of shorts done by Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng now gives it his shot at directing one. The short's focus is on shorts, which is a suitable short for a director like Friz Freleng, who as everyone knows, is the master of animation timing.

There is a good connection between sports and animation timing, so this is a pressing advantage for Friz, who can experiment with all sorts of speed and timing that sports require. It's the right casting to go to Friz Freleng, as much of the gags in this short rely on comedic timing, which you wouldn't expect from a typical Tex Avery spot-gag cartoon.

The short itself doesn't have much of Mike Maltese's own approach to humour, and the short feels as though it could've been written by almost anyone who had worked for Tex Avery, or Bob Clampett. There isn't really much narrative in this short at all, its merely just a slideshow, supposedly featuring champions representing their own sports they specialise, with no recurring gags or build-up gags.

Such sequences that would require Friz's timing occur in some of the starting sequences, such as the section on billiards. The pool player, who is seen analysing the texture of his cue stick, then positions himself by the pool table to shoot at the most appropriate angle when playing pool.

The following scene switches to an extreme down-shot of the pool player, supposedly "breaking" the rack, but the balls still remain intact. The rack flows throughout the table, hitting at the edges a couple of times, before they all fall in a side pocket--making it a win for the player.

The comic timing of the sequence is successful, being technically difficult to animate, as well as keeping the scene technical to make the gag work.

The following sequence, occurring after the billiard scene, is a group of players competing in a table tennis game. Treg Brown keeps the sound effect of the ping pong looped for consistency, as well as Friz Freleng timing the scenes of the audience's eyes watching in a cycle, to make the synchronisation accurate as well as entertaining, gag-wise. The extreme close-up of a spectator's pupils moving in synchronisation of the ping-ball table moving back and forth. The pupils watching the ping pong ball proceeding to stop is also a very entertaining touch from the genius of Freleng.

Another reflection of complex animation done in this short takes place during the football stadium sequence, at the "Avery Memorial Stadium". Perhaps it was intended to have the stadium named after Tex, as a way of paying homage for Tex's 'influential' spot-gag shorts? Anyway, the sequence centers on a graph of the outline position of the squad. At first, it starts out rather simply, with the blocks as well as arrows moving one at a time to indicate positions to be made by different positions in the squad, such as the quarterbacks. Further on, the chart then becomes even more complex to the point where the graph is unreadable with too many arrows and complicated positions moving at a time that it all goes awry.

Not only does the gag work that way, but it's a technically difficult sequence to do. It's great for it satirises the technical manoeuvres that is required in American football, for it is one of the most boring sports ever invented, and to watch. It's a gag that could have been interpreted by Tex the same way, but this requires Freleng's meticulous nature. The scene itself is very complex to do in terms of timing and animating, that it's a wonder how Freleng timed that scene, and not to mention how the scene was planned out on exposure sheets.

A very complex scene in terms of staging, as well as visually fulfilling is seen during the skiing presentation. The narrator describes the ski chute to be the "highest, longest and more treacherous ski jump ever constructed".

The height of the chute with the backgrounds, as well as the steepness are enough to make the scene suspenseful.

Notice the low-level figure shot of the skier's legs cowering timidly of the height and steepness of the chute. The angle shot is just wonderful in terms of capturing the feeling of vertigo, as well as the idea of courage for the skier. The camera then pans to the skier who skies all the way down through the chute effortlessly, with the skier moving in perspective, and so making the scene looking very complicated to animate. Supposedly, the gag of the sequence is to emphasise that the slide wasn't as scary as how the narrator envisioned it, thus making the descriptions biased.

One aspect which I'll reflect is some of the poorly proportioned as well as animated scenes that occur in the swimming slideshow. Understand, the humans would need to be drawn realistically to an extent that the gag itself will be paid off, and in some cases it does work.

During the sequences with the narrator listing out several different strokes for swimming, the 'crawl stroke' is successfully accomplished in animation, as the gag itself is silly through subtle animation. The mermaid gag itself is also a good touch too.

Where some scenes don't work too well would be some of the shots of the swimmers swimming, though they are distorted with effects animation, to make the poor animation look rather unnoticeable. Other scenes with the divers diving are poorly animated in terms of a lot of circumstances. The proportions aren't flexible and the anticipation is weak.

The timing of the dive is also very poorly timed, as the dive is very slow. The scenes are all on 'ones', but the fact they're all in single frames shows how there are too many drawings done for the timing, which explains the slowness of the dive. Nonetheless, the gag itself focuses on several diving techniques, and it's enough for the punchline to perhaps be amusing to some people. The punchline cuts to "everybody's favourite dive", where the shot cuts to an exterior shot of a saloon titled "Sloppy Joe's", which is a very Tex Avery oriented gag.

Speaking of Tex, there are several other gags which resemble a lot of Tex's style of gag as well as delivery, and punchlines which have been repeated by Tex Avery several times previously. A striking example would be the cycling sequence, which is the type of gag created to test the audience's patience.

Maltese mocks the consistency that cycling races consist of, which are consistent laps. Here, the track is purposefully laid out to look short to make the laps quicker to complete.

A group of cyclers go around in laps rather rapidly, and continue to do so until they all pause, and comment on the race with the cliched punchline from a Warners short, "Monotonous, isn't it?", and they proceed to continue racing. Other gags which resemble the Avery punchline also take place during the football slideshow, (before the graph scene). The squad are practicing out their positions, in a leap frog style (also another excellent scene in terms of timing), and then they come to position as they bundle on top of the referee. The narrator exclaims with suspense, "Is it a touchdown? Did he make it?", the ref pops out of the bundle and responds, quoting Mr. Kitzel, "Mmm, Could be".

As you may expect from a lot of spot-gag shorts, you can't hide the fact you'll expect some very lame puns, as well as gags that are as corny as they can get. A bad pun example is evident during a baseball game. The baseball catcher appears to be called "Gabby" (unless this is satirising a baseball star, though the audio is unclear).

Of course, the name 'Gabby' is already describing his own personality, as he is consistently speaking without a single breath wasted. "That's the pitching in there old kid," and he continues to speak quickly as well as incoherently.

Another sequence occurring earlier in the short, which is corny in how the gag is approached, but you can't help but admire the corniness in it. In the sequence involving athletics, the athletes are at the starting line about to prepare for their high-hurdles race. Once the gun blasts, the athletes are on. They race rather rapidly, but once they reach the hurdles, instead of jumping over them, they lazily climb on top of them, creating a great contrast between speeding up and slowing down, in terms of timing.

Following to the final sequence in the short, is the sequence involving motor racing. Looking at the animation of the motor races, Freleng evidently would add dry-brush effects to give an emphasis of speed shown from an audience's point of view, with no camera panning whatsoever. As they continue to zip through the scene rapidly, a racing car finally wins the race. Watching the scene in closeup, there appears to be a deliberate visual gag that as the car has stopped for the driver to cheer, the car appears to have a purposefully dry brush effect painted as a background; to once again put a lot of emphasis on the speediness the car can take.

Comparing this spot-gag towards the many others produced at Warners, I'll look at this spot-gag a lot more favourably. I'd give it a pass. Friz really takes advantage of his animation timing in areas there it is required: especially during the football stadium sequences, and the eyes following the ping pong. Other aspects are a tad lame, such as the puns which you could expect from a lousy spot-gag short, or running gags that have appeared in some of Tex's shorts. Nevertheless, this was without doubt, an artistically ambitious short to animate and craft. Animating under Friz Freleng is evidently tough enough, for any animator working on a Bugs Bunny short by Friz, or a Sylvester & Tweety, but the results in this short definitely pay off.

Rating: 3/5.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Steve, Maltese or Freleng or whomever appears to have taken Gabby Hartnett's name and turned it into a pun. The gabby catcher gag worked out much better in 'Baseball Bugs,' a great cartoon by any standard.
    I can't help but think that guy in the race car is a caricature of someone on staff. Too bad the only versions of this cartoon kicking around are murky.
    It's an ironic coincidence that Avery was gone from the studio when theatre-goers got a chance to view "Avery Memorial Stadium."

  3. Eric O. Costello5 August 2014 at 03:23

    If I remember correctly, Freleng also uses similar gags later in "Knights Must Fall" and earlier in "Porky's Baseball Broadcast."

    Avery was gone from the WB studio by April/May, 1941 (he went first to Paramount, and then around the time this cartoon was released, went to MGM), so it's possible that this cartoon might have been in production when he left.

  4. Eric O. Costello5 August 2014 at 03:24

    For that matter, Avery himself used a variation on the gabby catcher routine in "Batty Baseball," with "tragic" consequences.