In all of Frank Tashlin’s work, there is nothing quite so boldly staged as the delirious sequence in 1961′s THE LADIES MAN, in which Jerry Lewis, the film’s director and Tashlin’s nominal pupil, deconstructs a panic attack in twenty five seconds.
Framed inside an enormous set that resembles the interior of a gargantuan and painstakingly detailed dollhouse, Lewis’ character, a terrified schlemiel by the name of Herbert H. Heebert, is in the midst of a mad dash up the set’s elaborate staircase when suddenly he’s literally beside himself with fright, splitting into two, then three, then four similarly fearstruck replicants, zig-zagging about the hallways until they all disappear one after another into the safety of their bedroom, the door slamming in quick succesion with four emphatic bangs.
No, there was nothing close to this deft and dizzy blend of Psychology 101 and slapstick in Tashlin’s portfolio, but it’s safe to say that Lewis could never have designed and delivered it so well without his mentor having blazed the trail.
Frank Tashlin began his career in 1933, directing the energetically elastic cartoon duo of Tom and Jerry in a Van Beuren Studio short, HOOK AND LADDER HOKUM and closed up shop with 1968′s dead-on-arrival pleasure-killer, THE PRIVATE ARMY OF SGT. O’FARRELL. In between he merely revolutionized the language of film comedy.
From The Three Stooges to DUMB AND DUMBER, the movies have a long history of live action comedies populated by paper-thin cartoon characters. But it took Frank Tashlin to reinvent the form using the painstaking directorial techniques employed in a seven minute cartoon.
A new book from film historian Ethan de Seife, TASHLINESQUE: THE HOLLYWOOD COMEDIES OF FRANK TASHLIN, is a fairly scrupulous examination of those techniques as well as the impudent artist’s quixotic journey from cartoonist to film director, two vocations that de Seife views, at least in Tashlin’s case, as inextricably linked.
De Seife sifts through the frames of Tashlin’s early work at Warner Brothers beginning in 1932 and finds that even at that early date, the brilliant animator was fine-tuning an approach that would come into play years later in his live action comedies; de Seife suggests that Tashlin’s search for the perfect gag sequence, where the joke is not just a joke, but a story device integral to the film’s narrative, began with Porky Pig and came to fruition with Jayne Mansfield.
Tashlin was, among other things, a sexual provocateur par excellence, and he jumped at the chance to plant this satirically charged sex-bomb at the center of his latest cinematic tinderbox. In doing so, he would define Mansfield’s persona; a complaisant sex doll inflated beyond any realistic proportions sporting a platinum headdress and the helium-tinged voice of a cartoon character. In other words, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe painted by the man who directed Daffy Duck.
Though he considers the comedies made with Mansfield, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER, to be Tashlin’s signature films, de Seife is more illuminating when tackling the complex working relationship between Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, his idiot-savant son, heir apparent and, eventually, his own funhouse-mirror image.
Lewis received on the job training with Tashlin, and their collaborations, from the explosive pop-cultural piñata of ARTISTS AND MODELS to the grating sentimentality of CINDERFELLA to the sporadically inspired THE DISORDERLY ORDERLY, are text-book examples of creative co-dependence. By the time their relationship ended, it was impossible to tell where Tashlin left off and Lewis began.
Lewis was capable of creating transcendently funny gag sequences, master classes in comedic set-up and pay-off but unlike Tashlin, he was never able to establish and sustain a comic narrative through an entire picture (save for the dazzling THE NUTTY PROFESSOR). Still, there are sequences in Lewis’ early Paramount product, including THE LADIES MAN, THE BELLBOY and THE ERRAND BOY, that are among the best things Frank Tashlin never directed.
De Seife wraps his book with a look at two of the directors he considers most influenced by Tashlin, Jean-Luc Godard and Joe Dante. Godard’s Francophilic reverence for the American satirist is well documented in a series of essays in Cahiers du Cinema (where, not coincidentally, the title for de Seife’s book was born: “… when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘‘It’s Tashlinesque’“).
Dante’s admiration for Tashlin’s anarchic worldview was apparent from the beginning of his career: from the found-footage blitzkreig of THE MOVIE ORGY to inviting the little green demons of GREMLINS 2 to destroy the very film that contains them to the shiv-like satirical jabs flying left and right throughout LOONEY TUNES, BACK IN ACTION, Dante’s entire Raison d’etre has been cheeky, cheerful subversion. Like the equally impertinent Tashlin, he bites the hand that feeds him and then asks for more.
Manny Farber summed up Tashlin in one word, “termite”. Not merely a reference to “Termite Terrace”, the moniker bestowed on Tashlin’s animation unit at Warner Bros. but a tribute to Tashlin the Pest… an artist who digs deep and creates havoc. De Seife is to be congratulated for his painstaking analysis of Tashlin’s methods but his dry and humorless tone betrays a pendant’s need to stick close to the safety of the classroom. A truly illuminating book about Frank Tashlin would bring together Farber’s lyrical insights and de Seife’s academic results in one neat package with the ghost of Tashlin waiting in the wings to blow the whole thing up.