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Book Review: 'Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin'

Fred Patten reviews the first American book devoted to the work of a master of comedy in both animated shorts and live-action features.

Low-angle composition of Porky Pig from "Wholly Smoke." Click on image for larger version. All images courtesy of Wesleyan University Press.

Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin, by Ethan de Seife.  Illustrated.

Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, March 2012, hardcover 978-0-8195-7240-0 $35.00 (xvii + 251 pages), Kindle 978-0-8195-7241-7 $16.99.

“Director Frank Tashlin has left an indelible impression on American and global film comedy.  His films are some of the funniest, most visually inventive comedies ever made, and they feature landmark performances by some of the greatest comedians in American film history, a list that not only includes Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis but Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny.”  (Preface, p. ix). 

Francis Fredrick von Taschlein (1913-1972) was such a master of comedy in both animated shorts and live-action features that one is tempted to wish equally that he had never abandoned animation for the live-action features, and that he had started his live-action career sooner without getting sidetracked into animated cartoons.  But his live-action directing included the same zany fantasy that made his animation so funny, and was so surreal that it remains unique after fifty years of live-action movies.  Tashlin has been the subject of numerous studies in France since 1958, but Tashlinesque is the first American book devoted to his work. 

Tashlin, born in New Jersey, got his first animation job at 16 years old, washing cels at the Fleischer studios in New York.  He moved to the Van Beuren studio where he became an inker, an in-betweener, and finally an animator.  In 1933 Leon Schlesinger recruited him for his animation studio at Warner Bros., and Tashlin moved to Hollywood.  He had a restless career there, working briefly for Schlesinger, then as a gag writer for Hal Roach’s live-action comedies from 1934 to 1936, then back to Schlesinger from 1936 to 1938.  It was during this second stay at Termite Terrace that Tashlin made his first mark on animation, directing 21 animated cartoons including those that established Porky Pig’s screen presence.  Tashlin moved to Disney as a writer in early 1939, then in 1941 to Columbia to head the story department at Columbia’s new Screen Gems animation studio.  He lasted barely a year there, returning to Warner Bros. in mid-1942 to supervise 14 civilian cartoons featuring all of WB.’s animation stars, and four military Private Snafu cartoons.  In 1944 Tashlin became the supervising director of United Artists’ stop-motion shorts, leaving animation for good in 1946 to become a gag-writer on live-action comedy features for Paramount.  In 1950 he advanced to become a notable writer-director of features, moving back and forth between Paramount,  Columbia, Universal, RKO, United Artists, Twentieth-Century Fox, and MGM.  His last film was in 1968, four years before his death.

Off-screen-space humor in Puss'n'Booty. Click on image for larger version.

The two chapters “Tish-Tash in Cartoonland” and “Tashlin, Comedy, and the ‘Live-Action Cartoon’” focus upon Tashlin’s animation in detail.  The emphasis is on Warner Bros., 1936-1938, during which Tashlin defined his directorial style and established Porky Pig as a star with a distinct personality; Screen Gems, 1941-1942, where Columbia’s lack of supervision allowed creative artistic freedom; and Warner Bros., 1942-1946, when Tashlin made his most sophisticated animation.  “The Live-Action Cartoon” compares “impossible” gags in Tashlin’s pre-1946 animation, and the same or similar outrageous situations in his live-action features.  Above all, they establish Tashlin’s comedic approach.  “These [live-action] films provide ample evidence of the director’s penchant for an episodic, gag-centric structure that either diminishes or is at odds with any degree of narrative unity.” (p. 55).

Only these first two chapters, pages 16 to 68, concentrate on Tashlin’s stint in the animation industry.  But the rest of the book should also be of interest to animation fans.  It will be a revelation to today’s devotees of animation who have extensive collections of remastered cartoons on DVDs, but who are ignorant of Road to Rio (Bing Crosby and Bob Hope),  Son of Paleface (Bob Hope and Roy Rogers – Hope gets into bed with Trigger, Roy’s horse), Cinderfella (Jerry Lewis), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Jayne Mansfield and Tony Randall), or the many other features that Tashlin directed.

Chapters 3 through 8, pages 69 through 210, focus upon Tashlin’s live-action features.  Even here there are many references to his pre-live-action animation.  De Seife makes a straight-faced comparison between Porky Pig and “bombshell” actress Jayne Mansfield; both were nonentities pre-Tashlin, and he created their screen personas.  The book focuses upon both Tashlin’s features, and his constant behind-the-camera battles with studio management, the censors, and other forces that tried to control his struggles to make his features the way that he wanted to make them.  The final chapter analyzes the influence that Tashlin has had on later directors, notably Jean-Luc Godard and Joe Dante.  As is usual with scholarly books, there are an extensive filmography, Notes, and index.

The wicked stepsisters in Cinderella Goes to a Party prepare for the ball. Click on image to view larger version.

Tashlinesque is not complete.  From 1934 to 1936, Tashlin wrote and drew a single-panel pantomime newspaper cartoon, Van Boring (He Never Says a Word), under the name “Tish-Tash”.  Tashlinesque dismisses Van Boring in seven lines, without any sample illustration.  There are several animation and cartoon websites that have posted one or more Van Boring cartoons, which de Seife acknowledges in his Notes; it would have been easy for Tashlinesque to include a sample of this ‘pure’ example of both Tashlin’s writing and his art.  This book covers the live-action features that Tashlin directed in detail, but barely mentions those that he wrote but did not direct.  For example, Kill the Umpire, a 1950 Columbia baseball comedy starring William Bendix and Una Merkel (with a large pre-I Love Lucy supporting role by William Frawley), directed by Lloyd Bacon and written by Tashlin, is totally ignored except for a one-line entry in the filmography.  Yet Kill the Umpire contains several scenes of the “impossible” animation-style comedy live-action that were Tashlin’s trademark, notably the climax where Bendix, in an ambulance, tries to escape from gangsters who want to fix a ball game, in an extended, exaggerated chase very like one of the Road Runner & Coyote’s.  Tashlin wrote & illustrated three short picture books, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946), The ‘Possum That Didn’t (1950), and The World That Isn’t (1951).  These are, obviously to anyone who reads them, social satires for all ages but primarily adults, similar to Jules Feiffer’s Munro or Walt Kelly’s Pogo newspaper strip.  Nevertheless, because they are largely pictorial, de Andrade describes the first and third in one line each as “his putative children’s books” – The ‘Possum That Didn’t is not even mentioned. 

Possibly these are partially unfair criticisms.  Tashlinesque is subtitled “The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin”, and except for ignoring his non-directorial features, the book does cover his Hollywood comedies thoroughly.  But it could have been so much more if it had just devoted a few extra pages to his outside-Hollywood work as well.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.