Book Review: Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin
“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.
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).