Geek obsession: Frank Tashlin
Why it’s daunting: Frank Tashlin trafficked merrily in the disreputable. He was a peerless vulgarian with no respect for the fourth wall. His characters addressed the camera directly, commented on the action, and generally did everything in their power to remind audiences that they were watching a movie. At his most precious, Tashlin had an Academy Award statue narrate the show-business satire Susan Slept Here. That kind of game-playing can be off-putting to audiences who like to lose themselves in movies and not be constantly reminded of the director or writer’s presence. Tashlin was also a mentor and frequent collaborator with Jerry Lewis, arguably the most ridiculed comic performer of his generation, and made two of his most transcendent 1950s comedies with Jayne Mansfield, a figure of camp not commonly associated with eviscerating social satire or even good movies for that matter.
Also, Tashlin did a little bit of everything. Over the course of a career that began when he dropped out of school at 13, Tashlin wrote a comic strip, directed animated shorts, and wrote and drew children’s books in addition to directing live-action films. Tashlin’s career has so many different components that it can be hard to know where even to begin.
Possible gateway: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Why: As a director of animated shorts at Warner Brothers during its golden age—where he worked alongside the likes of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones—Frank Tashlin specialized in making cartoons that looked and felt like movies. As a feature filmmaker, Tashlin specialized in making live-action movies that looked and felt like cartoons. In his 1956 classic The Girl Can’t Help It that meant making Jayne Mansfield so ridiculously sexy that the wiggle in her walk makes the milk in milkman Phil Silvers’ bottle boil over and pop its cap. Mansfield’s sexuality is so over-the-top it even affects inanimate objects. As the one of the most famous gags in Tashlin’s career suggests, Tashlin’s obsession with transforming live-action into animation often overlapped with an appreciation for the curves of the female form second only to Russ Meyer.
Tashlin loved working with human cartoons like Mansfield and Jerry Lewis, but, more than anything, Frank Tashlin was in love with pop culture. He loved the sum of it, but he particularly gravitated toward the vulgar and lowbrow: comic books, pin-ups, cartoons, stereotypes, advertising and the rest of the white noise hissing beneath American life. He maintained a healthy skepticism about it too, thus, 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? serves as the apogee of the director’s love-hate relationship with pop culture. It’s not success that spoils Tony Randall’s lovable protagonist so much as internalizing the false values of an advertising and publicity world that deifies the shallow and superficial at the expense of the substantive and real. Tashlin’s love for pop culture didn’t blind him to its noxious and pandering elements and its insatiable commandment to sell, sell, sell.
The film casts Tony Randall as a junior achiever whose life’s goal is to secure the fabled key to the executive bathroom. Randall will do anything to get ahead, including posing as the boyfriend of his advertising agency’s star client (Mansfield) in an attempt to make her bodybuilder boyfriend (Mickey Hartigay) jealous. Randall becomes a celebrity overnight, a development that affords Tashlin an opportunity to affectionately lampoon a star-making process that transforms nobodies into somebodies for the most ridiculous reasons. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’s gleeful satire of the American lust for success and our willingness to degrade ourselves in the quest made it won over the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd, which particularly dug Tashlin’s genius for meta-textual and post-modern gags that riffed both on the conventions of the romantic comedy and on films as a medium. But Tashlin isn’t a dry or academic filmmaker. He’s a sensualist whose movies pop as they radiate life, color, and impish good humor. Tashlin wasn’t just a great artist. He was also a great entertainer.
Next steps: Tashlin and Mansfield made one of the first and one of the very best movies about rock and roll with 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, a risqué satire that takes its leering tone from Little Richard’s nearly obscene title song. The film casts Tom Ewell as another hapless flack, this time a boozy press agent who is roped into representing the girlfriend (Mansfield) of mobster Edmond O’Brien. Even by Tashlin standards, The Girl Can’t Help It is cynical about stardom and rock ’n’ roll, which is presented as the feral bleating of juvenile delinquents and wild-eyed madmen with guitars and drums making a tribal ruckus. The film doubles as an invaluable time capsule that captures Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran at the height of their rebellious youth.
Fans with high tolerances for the antics of Jerry Lewis will want to check out Artists & Models and Hollywood Or Bust, two hilarious Eisenhower-era satires Tashlin wrote and directed for the comedy team of Lewis and Dean Martin. Artists & Models satirizes the hysteria regarding comic books in the age of Estes Kefauver and Fredric Wertham while Hollywood Or Bust finds Tashlin on solid ground spoofing film, a medium he knew, loved, and gleefully dissected like few others.
Where not to start: Following his 1950s heyday, Tashlin made the mistake of continuing to collaborate with superstars like Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope long after their prime. Tashlin was very much a filmmaker of his time. He thrived in the excess of the ’50s, but his ’60s films often look dated. At worst, Tashlin’s fabled cartoonishness lapsed into heavy-handed overkill. There are flashes of wit and some deft slapstick to be found in Who’s Minding The Store? and 1962’s It’$ Only Money, but Tashlin’s later solo collaborations with Lewis lack the freshness of Hollywood Or Bust and Artists & Models. Although Tashlin’s later work does not have a sterling reputation, he scored a curious comeback of sorts with 1967’s “The Bear That Wasn’t,” a lovely adaptation of a Tashlin children’s book turned into an animated short by Chuck Jones. It’s an elegant little exploration of individuality from one of film’s great characters.