Archive for Frank Tashlin

Happy Without Love

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by dcairns

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So, for some time I’ve been writing about the Marx Bros films, writing around the Bros themselves and focussing on supporting players, scenery etc. For The Late Show, this left me several options — I could write about A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA, the last film in which all three brothers appeared in the same frame, or about THE STORY OF MANKIND, the last film to feature all three brothers (albeit in separate scenes: blame anti-genius Irwin Allen for that bright idea). But I’m choosing to focus on LOVE HAPPY, which features Harpo, Chico and Groucho in that order, and allows the brothers to interact in pairs (although Groucho is never actually in the same shot as Chico, suspiciously enough).

As a Marx film, this one suits my purposes admirably, crammed as it is with other items of (slight) interest. The behind-the-scenes credits are interesting in themselves. For starters, it calls itself a Mary Pickford Production, though how hands-on was she? The director is David Miller, who had a long career with really only one distinguished film that I can see — but SUDDEN FEAR is a pretty good one to be remembered for, although Joan Crawford and Jack Palance are about as different from the Marx Bros as you could ask. Co-writer is Frank Tashlin, and though the film isn’t good enough to be called wholly Tashlinesque, there are a great many sequences that harken forward to his later work.

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Tashlin’s cowriter is Mac Benoff (me neither) but the IMDb ascribes no less than four uncredited subsidiary hacks to the project, including William “News on the March” Alland and no less than Ben Hecht. This can’t explain the scenario’s lacklustre qualities, unless Hecht was rewritten by Alland, but it does explain its incoherence (Chico affects not to know Harpo, then greets him as an old friend). Songwriter Ann Ronnell was probably responsible more for the musical content, while Harry D’Abadie D’Arrast had been an assistant to Chaplin so maybe they figured he’d be good at visual gags. And hey, it’s also Harry’s last screen credit. A last Film twice over. Harpo is credited with the idea.

Choreography is by Billy Daniels, longterm partner of Mitchell Leisen, and it’s pretty good. Which leads us to Vera-Ellen, Miss Turnstiles herself, who deserves to rank quite high among Marx Bros leading ladies, not for the acting scenes which are indifferently written and impossible to excel in, but her dancing is great and the Sadie Thompson number, in particular, passes muster as a decent musical interlude, something Marxian romps hadn’t exactly excelled in. Of course, one would prefer NO musical interludes if that led to more high-quality Marxian hi-jinks, but those are a touch thin on the ground here so one will take any entertainment one can get.

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The supporting cast is unusually strong. True, nominal leading man Paul Valentine is nothing much, but we get Ilona Massey, AKA Elsa Von Frankenstein as vamp, “wearing the pants of the dreaded cat woman,” as Groucho’s VO puts it. She has two henchmen, Alphonse and Hannibal, but her thick accent renders the latter as “Honeybar.” The former is Raymond Burr, bringing a welcome touch of film noir to come. A few years of henching and he’ll be set to be a mob boss in an Anthony Mann B-picture.

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Marion Hutton, Melville Cooper and Leon Belasco provide supporting comic action, and Burt Lancaster’s old circus sidekick Nick Cravat doubles Harpo in the numerous acrobatic stunt sequences. Eric Blore shows up for no reason and all too briefly. The filmmakers seem to have the idea that the Marxes need supporting clowns, when what they really need is second and third bananas. The absence of Margaret Dumont is felt. An apoplectic heavy like Sig Rumann or Louis Calhern (the walking fontanelle) would have gone a long way. Even the uncharismatic, grating bad guys of the MGM films would have been very useful.

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Best known of the supporting attractions is Marilyn Monroe, whose character comes from nowhere and vanishes whence she came, and exists only to give Groucho someone worth leering at and quipping over. Supposedly the producers gave Groucho his pick of three hopefuls for the role. “Are you kidding?” he is said to have said, implying that Marilyn was the shoe-in. In terms of looks and what Billy Wilder would call “flesh impact” (or Fleischeffekt), this is certainly true. Acting-wise, without a John Huston to support her, she seems a little uncertain in some line readings, but what the hell. Monroe and Groucho on-screen together is the movie’s raison d’être,

There are other highlights, though. I’ll post my favourite scene later.

An early bit with Burr and his fellow henchie roughing up Cooper is weirdly disturbing and unfunny — Frank Tashlin seems to have believed people getting beaten up by thugs was inherently amusing — see also HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. The protracted but intermittently interesting rooftop climax features a smoking billboard — shades of ARTISTS AND MODELS. Tashlin’s brushwork can also be detected in the surreal, cartoony use made of neon signs by Harpo, who at once point evinces the ability to teleport whenever the illumination blinks off. Salvador Dali wrote an unfilmed treatment for the Marxes, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD, which is a lot of ill-judged nonsense and proves he really didn’t understand what was going on in their films. Unable to follow the comic logic (which is pretty language-based, and Dali’s English was worse than Chico’s), he saw only chaos. That’s kind of what bits of this climax are like. Proper comedy cohesion is lacking.

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Harpo as Godzilla is an intriguing thought, though.

Still, while long stretches of this unfondly-remembered pic are eye-rollingly dull and unfunny, bits were a lot better than we remembered. With low enough expectations, the film can be pleasing. It’s like the logical next step down from THE BIG STORE, I guess. It’s like A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA never happened.

I love Ewe

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 21, 2016 by dcairns

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From the Frank Tashlin short I GOT PLENTY OF MUTTON (great title). A wolf wants to eat some sheep, but they are protected by a powerful ram.

The wolf dresses up as a sheep, but not just any sheep. A sexy sheep.

Rather than merely pass unobtrusively among the flock, he wants to seduce the ram, then murder him. This doesn’t go well.

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At the sight of a sheep wearing lipstick and a sarong, the ram turns into Charles Boyer — anticipating Pepe le Pew by a year. And the rest of the film turns into a blatant rehearsal for the Parisian skunk’s amours, with an added dose of homosexual panic, as the ram — whose horns uncurl, stand to attention and turn red at the sight of a sheep in a sarong — pursues the dragged-up wolf over hill and dale.

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When the desperate lupine rips off his disguise and declares, “I’m a wolf!” the ram replies “What of it, so am I!” and bays in a lustful (and kinda phallic) manner — anticipating the climactic shrug of SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Canary Row

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2016 by dcairns

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A bit of Warners Islamophobia to balance Disney’s anti-semitism.

I bought a DVD of Porky Pig cartoons because it was only 33p, and seemed worth a punt. I didn’t recognize any of the titles. Well, I doubt Porky is anybody’s favourite Warner Bros cartoon character, and by the time Warners got around to issuing his own collection, it seems all the valuable titles were used up. The disc contained several b&w Porky titles, and a couple of colour cartoons not featuring Porky (doubtless somebody feared the kids the product was being advertised to would be disappointed with only monochrome pig action), and most strange of all, a b&w toon not featuring Porky. But this was probably the highlight of the set.

It seems like the DVD, though labeled KIDS WB, was really intended as CAIRNS WB, because I can’t imagine there are very many more people in this country who would have devoured it with more interest. The majority of the contents were directed by Frank Tashlin, sometimes credited as Frank Tash. Since most of his WB cartoons are b&w, most of them haven’t been made available, and so I haven’t been able to compare his animation with his later live action work as much as I’d like.

Several of the filmlets featured pomo/fourth wall breaking gags, including two separate altercations with some guy in the third row of the cinema in which the cartoons are putatatively being screened. So that was good. Tex Avery is the guy best known for this kind of thing, but Tash was the one who was permitted to carry it over into feature films.

We were also treated to lots of extreme angles and cinematic showing-off, including obsessive play with shadows, so you could see the filmmaker’s ambition.

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Plus — scary villains! Not so much of that in later Tashlin. There are occasional grotesque moments — one could argue that the entire oeuvre is somewhat grotesque — Lindsay Anderson felt like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT had been photographed inside a juke box — but Jerry Lewis is much more disturbing.

Then there’s PUSS N’ BOOTY, with Tashlin credited as “Supervision” (the Director’s Guild didn’t consider these guys to be directors, and I don’t think Warners did either) and Cal Dalton as lead animator — but the whole thing feels very Chuck Jonesian, thanks to the excellent cat animation. True, the mistress of the house appears only as legs and bits of torso, like the maid in Tom and Jerry, and Tashlin shows a more salacious interest in those legs than Hanna & Barbera would at MGM, an interest which is quite typical of his later work. And the cat and canary conflict anticipates Sylvester & Tweety Pie, characters I mostly associate with Friz Freleng. But all this beautifully observed feline stuff is hugely reminiscent of Jones’ Pepe le Pew heroine.

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It’s an eye-popping cartoon — at the start, the cat has just finished off its fifth canary, and is overjoyed when its owner orders a sixth. Sylvester never got to actually kill any of Tweetie’s relatives. And the punchline is pretty remarkable too — the cat finally gets into the canary’s cage, after the expected slapstick failures. A titanic struggle. And when the mistress arrives to investigate — only the canary remains… and then it belches and the cat’s bow flies out of its mouth.

It’s unusual to find a cartoon with real killing in it, and no translucent ghost angel figure to make it unreal. I just know this one would have upset me as a kid. So I admire it greatly as an adult.