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April 2006
4 . årgang
nummer 16

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16:9 in English: Tashlinesquerie


Frank Tashlin is the director of such superb comedies as Artists and Models (1955), The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Though revered by avowed fans Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Bogdanovich and Joe Dante, little has been written on Tashlin and although laudatory in essence the little scholarly and critical work that exists has not viewed him in the correct perspective. Hence we have yet to disclose what it truly means for a film to be Tashlinesque.

In the mid-1960s, the career of Frank Tashlin, like those of many other veteran directors of the Hollywood Studio System, began a steady downslide. When his decade-long partnership with Jerry Lewis ended with The Nutty Professor in 1964, Tashlin began a slow fade into an obscurity which, save for isolated pockets of adulation composed of auteur idolaters like Peter Bogdanovich, has continued to the present day.


Frank Tashlin.

Tashlin has not yet been reclaimed by the cognoscenti in Hollywood or academe, though several of his contemporaries have been either officially recognized (Stanley Donen and Blake Edwards have both received “lifetime achievement” Oscars) or are the objects of devoted film-studies academic cults (Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray). Though his films show up in the odd repertory series, and still appear fairly regularly on cable channels such as Turner Classic Movies and The Cartoon Network, Frank Tashlin is anything but a household name.*

But the films of Frank Tashlin are well worth serious study, for they reveal a great deal about the nature of mid-century American film comedy. One of the most important facts about Tashlin’s career – and one which is seldom mentioned in the scant critical literature on the director – is that he worked almost exclusively within the genre of comedy. John Ford, the director most famously associated with a single genre, also made dramas and war pictures; Tashlin’s contemporaries Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder were and are celebrated precisely for their ability to make their authorial presences felt in multiple genres. Considering Tashlin through the prism of comedy sheds a great deal of light on his films, as well as on American comedy in general.

Comedy, though, has never been a particularly well-respected field – a fact which partially explains the dearth of good work on Tashlin. After first exploring the reasons for the general critical dismissal of Tashlin, this essay suggests some of the reasons that Tashlin’s style and career are significant and important.

Tashlin’s Critical Reputation
Almost without fail, in the small body of literature which addresses his work, critics and historians observe that Tashlin’s cartoons look forward to his features, and that his features resemble cartoons. It cannot be overstated how pervasive is this assumption: virtually everything ever written about Tashlin makes reference to the apparent connection between his cartoons and his features. It is summed up succinctly in the opening sentences of animation historian Dewey McGuire’s piece on Tashlin’s cartoons: “There are two things everyone knows about Frank Tashlin. One, he made animated cartoons using the language of live-action features. Two, he made live-action features using the language of animated cartoons.” (McGuire, 1)

The major problem with McGuire’s argument is that he never explains what this “language” is. The same is true for just about all of the critics whose assessments of Tashlin are built on the same platform. Tashlin’s move from animation to live-action, it seems, is far too interesting a “hook” for most critics to pass up. To acknowledge that there may be some connections between Tashlin’s cartoons and features is one thing; arguing that one “realm” of Tashlin’s filmmaking can offer a thoroughgoing explanation of the other is a major critical leap. For the most part, the standard evaluation of Tashlin’s works is oversimplified and teleological in a very pat way. Most critics, such as McGuire and the influential Leonard Maltin, hold, very simply, that Tashlin’s cartoons resemble features and that his features look like cartoons, and that these facts serve to explain Tashlin as a director, Q.E.D.

For example: Greg Ford’s essay “‘Cross-referred Media’: Frank Tashlin’s cartoon work,” in which the author flatly states, “It is foolhardy to even approach Tashlin’s feature comedies without referring back to his days at Warner Bros. Cartoons.” (p. 81) Ford is determined to forge links between the animated work and the live-action work, but his conclusions are generally unconvincing.

Tashlin’s taste for the language of feature films was evident from the very beginning in his first stint as an animation director at Warners in 1936. Tashlin’s first Warners cartoon, Porky’s Poultry Plant (1936), contains delirious high and low angled shots (and rapid-fire editing) of a daredevil aerial dogfight with a marauding buzzard. He employs elaborate montages of bugles blown and bayoneted rifles raised high in … Little Beau Porky (1936) … Little Pancho Vanilla (1938) utilizes simulated “camera movement” that was quite unusual for animated films of the period; … Wholly Smoke (1938) opens with a fancy “tracking shot” … [and also] incorporates atmospheric “dissolves” that chronicle Porky’s mounting cigar sickness and tobacco-bred hallucinations. (p. 79-80)

  *In the spirit of full disclosure: I programmed one such film series at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque in the autumn of 2003.  

It is unclear how these techniques – high- and low-angle shots, montages, camera movements, dissolves – are peculiar to the realm of live-action cinema, and how Tashlin’s use of them in his animation is evidence that he was directing his cartoons in a feature-like style. The tools which Ford enumerates are just that: tools, and they had long been available, even in the 1930s, to filmmakers in both live-action and animation. It may be true that, at that time, these (and/or other) techniques were more common in live-action film than in animation, and/or that most cartoon directors did not use such techniques, but such claims require vast amounts of research and are not easily made.* I suggest we abandon the idea of searching for easy stylistic connections between Tashlin’s cartoons and features, and look instead to the comic lineage shared by both types of film.

Another reason for Tashlin’s diminished place in the pantheon of American comedy has to do with the critical reputation of his most important star, Jerry Lewis. Lewis’s undeniable acting and directing talents made him a perfectly reasonable candidate for auteur status. The problem was that, in his eight Tashlin films, Lewis was the star (or costar), not the director, and it is the director, who, in the strictest definition of the politique des auteurs, is anointed “auteur.” Lewis’s own directorial career began squarely in the middle of his career collaboration with Tashlin: from 1960 to 1964, Lewis alternated between directing himself and starring for Tashlin.

By making auteurist exceptions for Jerry Lewis, critics such as Robert Benayoun and Jonathan Rosenbaum have diminished Tashlin’s creative role in the Tashlin/Lewis films. By the early 1960s, Tashlin was known largely as a director of Jerry Lewis films. As a result, Tashlin’s critical reputation suffered, and continues to suffer – his is not a recognizable name to the everyday film enthusiast like those of his fellow comedy auteurs Hawks and Wilder.

The problem is even more complicated. When Jerry Lewis was a popular and bankable motion picture star, and when his reputation among critics was at its zenith – from, approximately, the early 1950s through the mid-1960s – his talent and presence often overshadowed those of Tashlin, the man who, Lewis freely admits, taught him much that he knows about directing. “[Tashlin’s] knowledge of comedy far surpassed that of any director I had ever worked with,” Lewis writes (Gluck, 200). But when Lewis’s reputation started its lengthy nosedive in the mid-1960s in both America and Europe, Tashlin went down with him.

To reclaim Tashlin, we need to consider him within a comedy context; not only that, but within the historical, aesthetic, and economic contexts which are most relevant to understanding his work, for these, too, have been largely ignored. Considering Tashlin as part of a generic tradition helps to explain the roots of his humor and visual style. How, for instance, might we compare Tashlin’s style of animation to that of Tex Avery, whom Tashlin identified as an influence? How does Tashlin compare to the auteurs of mid-century Hollywood comedy such as Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder? To disagree with the claims for Tashlin’s uniqueness or unusualness is not to deny his directorial talents. Rather, it is to the benefit of Tashlin’s legacy to take a serious look at what it means for a film to be, as avowed fan Jean-Luc Godard once put it, Tashlinesque.

Defining Tashlin’s Style
Tashlin is an interesting director for a number of reasons. The relationship between his animated work and his live-action work is one of the most interesting, but not necessarily because the one is the stylistic forerunner of the other. Rather, the fact that Tashlin found success in both of these realms of filmmaking suggests that they are more closely related than is usually acknowledged. Most of the literature on Hollywood animation does not treat it as part of the genre of comedy; most of the literature on Hollywood comedy does not include animation – two reasons for the continuing ghettoization of animation in general. The creative artists in the fields of both animated and live-action comedy drew from the same, deep well: vaudeville, the music-hall tradition, comedian comedy, slapstick. Buster Keaton’s influences are the same as Daffy Duck’s. Tashlin, as it happens, was one of the few to bridge the gap between cartoons and live-action. More than anything, this fact indicates the depth of the common comic heritage; in a way, it is more surprising that more people did not make the leap from animation to live-action than the fact that Tashlin did. Tashlin’s films, then, provide probably the most useful and thorough case study of the give-and-take between animated and live-action comedy.

Tashlin also occupies a curious middle ground between auteurs and programmers. If we define an auteur as a filmmaker whose distinctive stylistic/thematic stamp is apparent in all of his films, and a programmer as a director who churned out genre pictures to fit a studio’s release schedule, Tashlin splits the difference neatly. He is perhaps best considered as an extremely talented program director: Tashlin’s stylistic, thematic, and comic strategies are present to varying degrees in nearly all of his films, but his films are, for the most part, program comedies, a class of film which, during the studio era, neither allowed for nor rewarded stylistic consistency: no Frank Tashlin or Jerry Lewis film was ever nominated for an Academy Award. The fact that Tashlin worked within a single genre is the principal reason for the auteur/programmer complication.

Careful viewing of all of Tashlin’s extant films reveal a number of recurring stylistic/comic techniques that, when taken together, comprise his style. We may usefully gain an understanding of Tashlin’s style as the sum of the following components: performative comedy; sexual humor; satire; the rupturing of the diegesis; and visual gags (as well as what I call “non-gags”). These currents (and more: this is not a comprehensive list) run through all of Tashlin’s films – animated and live-action – to some degree, with Tashlin exploring some or all of them to different degrees in different films.

Tashlin’s Comic Style
Tashlin can most fruitfully be considered in the context of American comedy traditions, not only on screen but on the vaudeville and variety stage; in the context of directors who worked with “comedian comics”; and, most importantly, in a stylistic context: we still do not have a good handle on what makes Tashlin’s style his own – how his methods of camera placement, color usage, editing, and sound compare to those of other directors of the period. In sum, we can refrain from promulgating his uniqueness by first studying Tashlin as the product of the historical forces that influenced him. This does not mean that there is no room for a description of Tashlin’s own particular style, for there is a space in which we can argue for Tashlin’s idiosyncrasy not in spite of these systems, but because of them.

Sight gags and what I call “non-gags” are crucial to Tashlin’s style. The sight gag is self-explanatory; the non-gag, which also often takes visual form, is not. I use the term to refer to gags which are more clever than funny, which elicit a knowing grin rather than a belly-laugh. Jacques Tati is surely the best-known master of the non-gag: Play Time is composed of literally hundreds of them. Tashlin, while not Tati’s equal, did have a particular interest.

  *Of course, there are no camera movements or high-angle shots per se in animation: such effects are simulated by the animator’s hand.  

A rich example of a sight gag comes from the first scene in Artists and Models, in which Eugene (Jerry Lewis) knocks several cans of paint onto his boss and a number of passersby on the street below (fig.1). The vivid hues of the paints are made more vivid by the Technicolor photography; the richness of the colors emphasizes the drabness of the clothes of the men on whom the paint falls, and of the men themselves. Here, Tashlin uses color to bring into relief an additional level of humor: the gag is, on one level, the colors themselves.*

A good example of a non-gag appears later in the same film, in a scene in which Lewis’s and Eddie Mayehoff’s faces are distorted when seen through a water cooler (fig.2 & 3). The gag is not particularly funny, or even clever: it’s something every child has noticed upon looking through a fishbowl. And yet Tashlin employs such gags frequently, indicating that he was at least as interested in playful visual experimentation as he was in visual comedy per se.
Tashlin is a director for whom mise-en-scène is far more important than editing: his is a visual style which relies heavily on humorous props, sets, and performances. Comic performance is of particular interest, for the simple reason that Tashlin’s films are often comedian comedies, as defined by Steve Seidman in his influential monograph Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film. Moreover, much of the performative comedy in Tashlin’s films can be traced to performance traditions of the vaudeville stage. Henry Jenkins’s book What Made Pistachio Nuts? argues for the dominance of vaudeville as an influence on early film comedy; Tashlin worked with many of the comedians in whom Jenkins identifies a particularly strong vaudeville influence: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Danny Kaye. To say nothing of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the stable of Tashlin’s frequent cartoon stars, all of whom derive their performance styles very directly from the vaudeville tradition.

Again, space prohibits a full explanation of the ways in which Tashlin employed the performances of these important comedians; it must suffice for now to argue that he was especially adept at synthesizing comedians’ individual talents with his own. Indeed, this very talent is, in part, responsible for the conflation of Tashlin and Lewis in much of the critical literature. Comedians and comic performance in general are essential components of Tashlin’s style, with Porky Pig, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis assuming special importance.

Reflexivity and Rupture
It is true that the comedy that emerges from the rupturing of the diegesis is an important facet of Tashlin’s style; however, it is also true that this kind of comedy was not unprecedented: in fact, it is a crucial feature of many silent film comedies and comic vaudeville routines. Tashlin’s films take their place within the established generic traditions of American comedy, but this is not to say that Tashlin could not or did not employ this and other devices in forging his own style. His style, like that of any other artist, is surely best considered as a function of the combination of certain aesthetic strategies which appear to be particularly relevant to him. The shattering of the fourth wall, which Tashlin handles adroitly, is one such feature.


Fig.1: Color as comedy in the opening scene of Artists and Models.

*The joke is interesting because it is one of the very few Tashlin gags which makes use of the comic potential of color. As Tashlin is a comedy director whose films are generally regarded to make particularly rich use of color, this comes as something of a surprise.

Figures 2 & 3: Tashlinian non-gags: Lewis and Mayehoff distorted by a water cooler in Artists and Models.


A fine example of diegetic rupture occurs in The Disorderly Orderly, in a scene which also illustrates the importance of performative comedy to Tashlin’s style. In a very funny scene, Lewis, playing the overenthusiastic orderly of the film’s title, commences brushing the teeth of a hospital patient. In belatedly discovering that the man is actually toothless, Lewis pauses, looks directly into the camera and exaggeratedly mouths the following words to the audience: “They’re in the glass. [pause] They’re in the glass. I didn’t know they were in the … Did you know? [to the patient] Did you know they were…? [to camera] He didn’t know they were …” (fig.4) Lewis, as a Borscht Belt veteran, was well-versed in the direct address of his audience; this tactic became an important device for Tashlin, as well.

Satire and Sexual Comedy
Tashlin, especially at his peak, is a formidable satirist, and is at his most compelling when his films embrace a certain ambiguity. Equally important is the sexual humor in Tashlin’s films, a strain of comedy which often overlaps with the satirical: Tashlin directs much of his best and most ambiguous satire at contemporary sexual mores. However, not all of Tashlin’s sexual comedy is satirical. A great deal of it, in fact, is often little more than comic displays of prurience. As nearly every writer on Tashlin has accurately noted, a vibrant strain of blue humor runs through his films – clearly, he was especially interested in jokes of a sexual nature. Though Tashlin’s particular approach to sexual humor is his own, it is hardly the case that films were “clean” until Tashlin came along. American film, nearly from the very point of its inception, is laced with sexual jokes. As well, many of the traditions from which Hollywood comedy drew – vaudeville, the Borscht Belt – are rife with their own forms of bawdy humor. The sexual comedy in Tashlin’s films must be considered not only as an important facet of his style, but also as a tradition into which he inserts himself.


Fig.4: Jerry Lewis addresses the audience in The Disorderly Orderly.

An excellent example of the combination of the sexual and the satirical is found in The Girl Can’t Help It, one of Tashlin’s best films. In a scene in which Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield) prepares breakfast for Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), Tashlin places Mansfield at the left edge of the CinemaScope frame so that her body is visible from just below her shoulders to the middle of her thighs (fig.5). It is an especially blatant case of the objectification of the female form, and Tashlin gleefully employs it for laughs. Moments later, Jerri expresses her dissatisfaction that “everyone figures [her] for a sexpot!” She leans in, exposing ever more of her cleavage to Ewell, and says, “No one thinks I’m equipped for motherhood!” The scene ends with another shot of this same restricted view of Mansfield, her breasts jutting unmistakably into the frame. Ewell does his best not to gaze at them (fig.6). In this and many other jokes, Tashlin uses Mansfield as an emblem of overheated sexuality who quite literally embodies his ambivalent approach to sex and satire. On one hand, her voluptuousness is itself an object of ridicule; but the object of even greater ridicule is Miller, who is confused and astonished by Jerri’s body. Jerri may be humorously voluptuous, but the more cutting sexual satire is reserved for Miller, whose speechlessness stands in for the befuddlement of the modern American male when he is confronted with self-assured femininity. This ambivalence complicates the sexual humor in Tashlin’s films, and represents a key development in his style.


Fig.5: Jayne Mansfield’s breasts jut into the frame…

Fig.6: … and Tom Ewell does his best to avert his gaze.

  Above all other considerations is that of comedy itself. With two small exceptions, Tashlin worked exclusively in the genre of comedy.* A study of Tashlin’s films has the potential to expand and complicate our conceptions of both auteurism and genre itself. Can a director be said to be an auteur if he worked exclusively in a single genre? Can auteurs carve out a place for themselves as the directors of “low” comedies, or is such a notion a contradiction? In short, how does an adherence to a single, non-“serious” genre compromise the claims for a director’s authorship? Tashlin may be an auteur who worked in program pictures, or he may be an unusually skilled program director; the difference is largely academic. But what I wish to suggest is that there is room within our conception of authorship for a director whose strength was not in subverting, combining, or spanning genres, but in adhering to the conventions of one genre in particular. Tashlin surely established a style of his own – a style that was especially dependent on the conventions of the comedy genre.   *The only two non-comic films Tashlin made are The Way of Peace (1947), a very strange, very rare, church-funded animated film about a nuclear holocaust; and Say One for Me (1959), which makes small overtures to the subgenre of the romantic comedy, but which, due to its subject matter (the Catholic priesthood), had its teeth yanked out by the Production Code Administration and which is, therefore, a relentlessly unfunny, even dour, film.  

Quoted literature:

Ford, Greg. “‘Cross-referred Media’: Frank Tashlin’s cartoon work,” in Garcia, ed. Frank Tashlin. London: BFI Publishing, 1994.

McGuire, Dewey. “Well, what do you know? The little light: It stays on!,” APATOONS #121, August 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Who Made Pistachi Nuts?: early sound comedy and the vaudeville aesthetic. New York : Columbia University Press , 1992.

Jerry Lewis with Herb Gluck. Jerry Lewis in Person. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Seidman, Steve. Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film

Other Sources:

Seife, Ethan de. Cheerful Nihilism: The Films of Frank Tashlin. Unpublished PhD-dissertation, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2005.

Garcia, Roger, (ed.). Frank Tashlin. London: BFI Publishing, 1994.

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