Emsworth Mon Dec 13 19:21:57 2004|
The film career of Frank Tashlin was extremely varied, and his involvement in animation reached an outstanding conclusion during WWII, with a number of sparkling training and entertainment films. While individual animators would shift from studio to studio, it was rather less common for an artist to do so upon achieving the rank of director. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and most of the Disney directors spent the majority of their careers in one place, and Tex Avery and Bob Clampett essentially made only two significant shifts from Warners, to MGM and television respectively. Tashlin, however, was something of a vagabond, spending notable stints at Warner Brothers, Disney, Columbia, Warners again, and then, much like George Pal, finally abandoning animation entirely in favor of live action screenwriting and directing. While at Warners, however, Tashlin's work exhibited an interesting combination of excess and discipline; while to some extent sharing manic sense of humor and fondness for social and sexual subtext of Clampett and Avery, Tashlin also had an almost live-action director's eye for pacing and quick scene cutting. Physical exaggeration and demolition, though still present, were often downplayed in favor of plots which were constructed solidly on a premise and situation, and often with a minor element introduced in the beginning leading to a satisfying final punchline. Tashlin's wartime works are also somewhat more reliant on dramatic montage and over-ripe narration, akin to the "Why We Fight" films produced by Disney and Capra. Through Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, Tashlin was able to use iconic characters to address such issues as military discretion, the importance of defense plants, and scrap drives, establishing the issue clearly at the beginning of the film before allowing his characters and gags free reign.
From "That Damned Pig" to Jerry Lewis Frank Tashlin, whose birth name was Francis Frederick von Taschlein, was born in New Jersey on February 19, 1913 (Bogdanovich 777). He began his animation career as a teenager, performing minor chores at Fleischer's in 1929. Tasks included general errands and washing the paint off of cels so they could be recycled and reused. This led to work at the now more obscure New York studio Van Beuren, serving variously as an inker, inbetweener, and a full animator. In 1933, impressed by his work as co-director on a short called Hook and Ladder Hokum, Leon Schlesinger brought Tashlin to Warner Bros, where he animated on three shorts (only credited on one, Buddy's Beer Garden, as "Tish Tash") before leaving over a financial dispute. Tashlin had created and successfully sold a newspaper comic called "Van Boring," featuring a character patterned after his former boss Amadee Van Beuren, and Schlesinger "wanted a cut of it," as Tashlin recalled in an interview with Mike Barrier (Garcia 335).
Following brief stints as an animator at the fledgling studio formed by former Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks and a gag writer at Hal Roach's live action studio, Tashlin returned to Warners as a director in 1936 (where for his first two shorts, he was miscredited as "Frank Tash"). He worked almost exclusively with Porky Pig, directing such shorts as Porky's Romance (notable for introducing Petunia Pig), Porky's Railroad, and The Case of the Stuttering Pig, all from 1937. One of Tashlin's most elaborate and impressive films from this period is the intricate and incredibly effervescent anti-tobacco short, Wholly Smoke (1938). A child-like Porky, armed with a nickel for the church collection plate, runs into a bully. The bully bets Porky that he can't smoke his large cigar. Porky takes the bet but instantly feels sick; wandering in a smoke haze, he finds himself in a hallucinatory, elaborate tobacco store manned by the manic spirit "Nick O'Teen," who forces cigars, cigarettes, plug tobacco, and other products into Porky's body. Various anthropomorphic tobacco store products come to life including a trio of Three Stooges cigars, poking Porky in the eyes, and a stern grandfatherly corncob pipe, all to the jazzy strains of "Mysterious Mose." Though seldom seen on television today, this film is arguably one of Tashlin's finest shorts, and an appropriate pre-cursor to his excursions into wartime message films.
In 1938, Tashlin left Warners yet again, this time over a dispute with Schlesinger's chief assistant, Henry Binder (Chuck Jones took over Tashlin's unit) (Barrier 352). He then moved to Disney, where he worked uncredited as a story man, notably contributing to the Donald Duck short Donald Steps Out (1940) and to early drafts of several productions which were not produced until after the war, including Peter and the Wolf, Mickey and the Beanstalk, and Lady and the Tramp. Dissatisfied with Disney, Tashlin was lured away by Columbia in 1941, to reorganize the story department of the studio's animation division (which at one point had been run by Charles Mintz, Disney's first distributor). He was soon named chief production supervisor, receiving that title on nearly all of the Columbia shorts released between 1941 and 1942, essentially serving a role not unlike that of Walt Disney or the Flesichers, "working on stories and running the place," rather than the bosses at MGM and Warner Bros (379-380). During this period, he also directed The Fox and the Grapes, the first in the "Fox and the Crow" series, and often viewed in some ways as a predecessor of Jones' subsequent Roadrunner series, in terms of character conflict.
Finally, after Columbia brought it Max Fleischer's brother Dave Fleischer as executive producer, and thus essentially superseding Tashlin in dictating creative decisions, Frank Tashlin returned to Warner Bros. for the third and final time. He was initially brought in as a story director, and contributed the script for Clampett's classic Fantasia parody Corny Concerto (1943). However, he soon regained his status as director with the departure of Norman McCabe, a recently promoted animator who directed Tokio Jokio and Ducktators, to join the army in 1942. (At the time of this writing, McCabe is the only surviving vintage Warner Bros. director). Tashlin directed fourteen entertainment shorts, four of which were constructed around war themes, as well as four Private Snafu shorts. Although only three of these cartoons featured Porky, who had dominated Tashlin's earlier stint at Warners, the director still disliked the fact that he was "stuck with the damned pig. It takes him so long to talk."
Tashlin left Warners in 1944, and was hired by John Sutherland, noted producer of industrial and political films, to direct stop-motion animated shorts in the manner of George Pal. Like Pal, Tashlin's desire to work in live-action films was soon fulfilled, for in 1945, he sold his first live action story, for the musical Delightfully Dangerous. He subsequently co-authored the Bob Hope films The Paleface and The Lemon Drop Kid, directing retakes on the latter. In 1955, he first teamed with Jerry Lewis, directing and co-writing Artists and Models, a satirical examination of comic books and the recent concerns over their impact on youths, and Hollywood or Bust (1956), the last Martin and Lewis movie. He went on to write and direct Lewis in several movies, and also helmed The Alphabet Murders and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), amongst other productions. Throughout his live film career, however, Tashlin's often frantic comedies frequently resembled nothing so much as living cartoons, with Jerry Lewis performing the pratfalls and wild takes that would have been expected from Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Tashlin also had moderate success as a children's book author, publishing three tales between 1946 and 1951. The first book, The Bear That Wasn't, led to Tashlin's only return to animation when Chuck Jones adapted it as an MGM short subject in 1967, with Tashlin receiving credit as producer. The Bear That Wasn't contained a deeper level of satire and cynicism than most children's books, depicting the travails of a bear who is displaced when a factory is built around his cave. Upon emerging from hibernation, he wanders into the midst of production, and is immediately designated a "silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat," and is forced to work on the assembly line to the point where he believes the fiction and is lost when the factory finally closes. This questioning of societal norms and cultural assumptions was in some ways a Tashlin hallmark, from his animated shorts through his live action films and to his books. Frank Tashlin died of a heart attack in 1972, at the age of 59 (McGuire 2).