Wondrous scene from BACHELOR FLAT, directed by Frank Tashlin. I’ve read it described as the ultimate in widescreen composition — a sausage dog dragging a dinosaur bone along a beach — which is funny, and true, but what I also dig is the way Tashlin extends the sequence: the concept is funny from every angle, so he must show it from every angle (restraining himself from going overhead or shooting from below through a glass ceiling a la THE LODGER). The exhaustive variations remind me of Shimura’s walk through the forest in RASHOMON. I bet if you swapped the scores of both sequences around they’d still work pretty good too.
Tashlin was a strip cartoonist and animator in the world of Bugs Bunny etc, the only animation director from that school to break into live-action features (cartoon directors were, and probably still are, barred from the Director’s Guild), which he did by way of gag-writing and screen-writing (he wrote the classic “What are you doing? Holding the wall up?” gag for Harpo in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA). His best stuff shows how gag sequences can be far more than decoration, they can be the very architecture of a comedy script, as in Chaplin and Keaton. We swallow the story painlessly without even realising it’s being fed to us and the entertainment never has to stop to set up the next story point.
Tash is close to unique for the way he adapted cartoon language to live action, with wild distortions, impossible exaggerations, breaking the fourth wall, and semi-vulgar sexual hyperbole that relates to Tex Avery’s super-voluptuous Red Riding Hood toons.
Tash has a certain kind of satirist’s ability to celebrate and excoriate at the same time. He finds Jayne Mansfield grotesque (“Can you imagine THAT in marble?”), as the milk bottles gag makes clear (Jean-Pierre Melville said the American ideal of beauty was “two buttocks in a brassiere) but he also renders her stylised movements lovingly and celebrates the power she has over male bystanders. It’s a little like Tati’s odd relationship with the modern age: he recreates it at its most compelling and beautiful in order to bemoan its very existence.
(Above: Jerry Lewis on Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin made a whole sackful of Jerry Lewis films, from the best Martin & Lewis film, ARTISTS AND MODELS (it’s not easy finding a good romantic interest for Jerry, but Shirley MacLaine can do anything, plus she looks cute in a Catgirl costume), thru the LAST Martin & Lewis film, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, where the two stars wouldn’t even speak to each other (“It was a bitch,”), and on to numerous Lewis solo projects, most of which have great bits, but which aren’t actually the strongest work from either man. Lewis’ need for freedom to improvise kept Tashlin from experimenting with interesting shots, though Lewis was obviously taking notes: he adapts Tashlin’s crazily lurid colour schemes to his own work, to notable effect in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and THE LADIES’ MAN especially.
Away from Lewis, Tashlin was liberated to paint demented distorting-mirror pictures of America in the fifties/early sixties, and his two Jayne Mansfield films brim over with Loony Tunes logic, satiric spleen and lush, candycoloured imagery. Here’s what Lindsay Anderson had to say about THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT:
“Cheaply prefabricated and carelessly assembled, The Girl Can’t Help It is a juke-box thrown into the face of the public with a great blare of ugly, debilitating music. Seeing it is like being shut up for a couple of hours insideone of those huge, booming machines, all pink, green and mauve lights, gobbling up the small change of the ignorant. I suppose that Jayne Mansfield, ‘launched’ in this film, is human: but she so resembles a strip-cartoon parody of the Monroe-Dors figure that she might very well have been fashioned out of some disturbing new plastic substance. The ‘comedy’ is provided chiefly by Tom Ewell and Edmond O’Brien: two desperate, disillusioned performances, whose scenes have the fragrance of stale cigarette smoke and whisky bottles all but emptied.”
Wow! Although clearly Anderson hates the film and I love it, he’s certainly gotten inside it and had a look around: his description is recognisable to anyone who’s seen the film. The only problem is that he approached the film wanting to be sympathetically introduced to rock ‘n’ roll, the better to understand it, and Tashlin isn’t making that movie.
“I love the artist’s use of the colour blue,” — Barry Lyndon.
But Tashlin DOES allow us to hear the music, uninterrupted, and creates images with Deluxe colour supremo Leon Shamroy that have dazzled many a filmmaker before me. John Waters says he’s always wanted to achieve the blue in the above clip. With digital grading it might now be possible to sample the exact hue direct from Tashlin’s film, but without the coloured dress to make it POP, you won’t get the effect. Complimentary colour theory is the filmmaker’s friend.
This film also offers Julie London as a drunken hallucination, singing Cry Me a River in a variety of pastel gowns, appearing in every room Tom Ewell runs to, effectively hounding just him like Tex Avery’s Droopy: “I do this to him all through the movie.”
WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is even wilder, opening with Tony Randall as a one-man-band playing the 20th Century Fox fanfare (fulfilling Tashlin’s ambition to get a laugh before the film has even begin), followed by a flurry of loud, disastrous commercials presented by desperate Hanna-Barbera-type caricature actors. Mansfield truly leaves the human race behind in this one, as a one-note celebrity grotesque (with a poodle called Shamroy – Tashlin can’t resist in-jokes, or jokes of any kind).
Tashlin is a rewarding auteur partly because even his worst films usually have mind-blowing moments of characteristic flamboyance and invention. THE ALPHABET MURDERS is mostly awful rubbish, a strained parody of something Tashlin evidently isn’t too familiar with, the Agatha Christie mystery (he took over direction from Seth Holt shortly before shooting began, with Tony Randall taking Zero Mostel’s place as star), but a few scenes give joy. One, a simple conversational two-hander, can induce schizoid embolisms in the unwary. As Randall and Robert Morley converse, a shaving mirror stands between them. In Randall’s shots, his mouth is eclipsed by the mirror, which reflects back Morley’s, lips enlarged to fill the place that should be occupied by Randall’s. In Morley’s shots, Randall’s lips replace his. It should be easy enough to follow, but as Tashlin consistently shows the speaking mouth and listening eyes, our brains shallow-fry themselves trying to follow what the hell’s going on, until the soundtrack is drowned out by the steam shrieking from our ears.
Tashlin re-creates the world afresh for us, which is what I love most about him. Maybe I’ll blog later on about what that means for me, and the filmmakers who do it most effectively.
My first encounter with Tashlin’s work illustrates the idea somewhat. I was a kid, watching Sunday afternoon films with my granny. I liked Bob Hope. SON OF PALEFACE came on. Tashlin had written THE PALEFACE, which has a great ending plus Jane Russell. After he’d helmed reshoots on THE LEMON DROP KID for Hope, Hope gave Tashlin the job of writing and directing this sequel.
The scene: Hope is driving his jalopy across the prairie, pursued by rampaging, un-P.C. injuns. The front wheel comes off the car. Roy Rogers, helpfully to hand on horseback, lassoos the spare spoke and holds the car up. But somebody needs to grab the wheel, now trundling off into the cactus-filled middle distance. R.R. hands Hope the rope and rides off in pursuit, leaving Hope holding the front end of his car up FROM INSIDE IT. Bob yells after Roy, “Hurry up, this is impossible!”
At which point, whole vistas of impossibility opened up. The concept of The Impossible as something that can only be done for short periods; the concept that you can explode the reality of a film without anybody minding and carry on as if nothing had happened; the concept that you can call attention to the impossibility of something, thereby forestalling the audience’s disbelief; the concept that said disbelief can be suspended, by a rope, from the inside…