French critics loved him. American critics...didn't love him. And audiences everywhere, who spent the '50s and the '60s paying witness to both his inanities and his insanities, have long forgotten him. Jerry Lewis? Not quite. Frank Tashlin, who directed Lewis in eight films, isn't the first name that springs to mind when contemplating the history of American screen comedy, and yet Tashlin cast as large a shadow over his era as, say, Blake Edwards did over his. From 1952's The First Time to 1964's The Disorderly Orderly ' which just happens to be the period covered by a UW Cinematheque series that starts this weekend at 4070 UW Vilas Hall ' Tashlin revealed what lay behind America's consumer-driven luster and bluster. It was a time when the whole world seemed up for sale, when men in gray-flannel suits marched down Madison Avenue shooting off lines like "Look, Ma! No cavities!" and "See the USA in your Chevrolet." It was, in short, the American Century squeezed into a decade or so. And nobody squeezed harder than Frank Tashlin.
He'd started out as an animator, working on everything from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies to Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; and cartoonishness would always be a hallmark of the Tashlin style. In 1956's The Girl Can't Help It (screening Sept. 21), which unleashed Jayne Mansfield's breasts upon a defenseless nation, Tashlin had the sex symbol sway her hips through a scene that left the iceman's ice melted and the milkman's milk pasteurized. Not since Mae West invited us to come up and see her sometime had a movie star's curves wreaked such havoc on the box office. And although Mansfield was known for her pair of intercontinental ballistic cruise missiles, not to mention a caboose that would have derailed J. Lo's career before it left the station, it was Tashlin who converted her God-given talents into the devil's own playground. A strangely shy actress, Mansfield wasn't a natural flirt. Like Jessica Rabbit, she had to be drawn that way.
Also contributing to the cartoonishness was Tashlin's preference for Technicolor and CinemaScope, processes that seemed to match the country's gaudy ambitions. Neither process "says" comedy, but Tashlin had a way of turning them to his purposes ' especially CinemaScope's vast horizons, which became, in Tashlin's hands, "the ultimate sight gag," as critic Mark Rappaport once put it. And so, not only does part of Jayne Mansfield enter the frame long before the rest of her does, the frame itself gets played for laughs. Halfway through 1957's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Sept. 28), which stars Tony Randall as an ad agency copywriter who tries to get a sexpot movie queen (Mansfield) to endorse Stay-Put Lipstick, the movie suddenly decides to take a TV break, shrinking to TV-screen proportions and fading to TV color and reception. Obviously, Tashlin had picked up on the threat posed by the boob tube, but he was also an inveterate prankster, pulling the movie apart while putting it together.
"Vulgar Modernism," critic J. Hoberman called this in an essay of the same name. He was referring to the pop-culture version of modern art's tendency to pop open the hood and show us what it's made of. Only instead of a painter letting the raw canvas show through, we get Daffy Duck racing through backgrounds that Bugs Bunny, sitting at a drawing board just off-screen, keeps replacing. ("Ain't I a stinker?" Bugs says.) Breaking the fourth, fifth and sixth walls, Tashlin's films tend to start with one of the stars approaching the camera and saying "Ladies and gentlemen, the motion picture you are about to see...." And it's down the rabbit hole from there. The First Time (Sept. 7), which stars Bob Cummings and Barbara Hale as the thoroughly exhausted parents of a 1-year-old, is narrated by the baby. And 1954's Susan Slept Here (Sept. 7), which stars Debbie Reynolds as a juvenile delinquent who hustles her way into an Academy Award-winning screenwriter's heart, is narrated by the Oscar.
Tashlin was considered a satirist, but neither his bark nor his bite leaves much of an impression. Where he does sink his teeth into something meaty is with respect to the Bitch-Goddess Success, which was America's driving passion during the '50s. In Susan Slept Here, Dick Powell's screenwriter hasn't had a hit in a while, and you can practically see the flop-sweat on the screen, especially around Powell's eyes. Likewise, Tony Randall's Rock Hunter is so tangled up in the ladder of success that he breaks down and cries when he's handed the key to the executive washroom. Tashlin's America is a land of missed opportunities, where everything may be for sale but there are hidden costs ' your soul, for instance. The jobs themselves offer a clue to where Tashlin's coming from: scriptwriter, copywriter, press agent. These are hacks who can't hack it, test models for How Not to Succeed in Business While Really Trying.
Whether he was trying or not, Tashlin certainly succeeded in selling a lot of movie tickets during his heyday, and that may be one of the reasons his reputation has suffered, especially among critics. Most have found him too vulgar, and there's an undeniable boorishness in all those breast jokes. (The worst is when Mansfield, in The Girl Can't Help It, holds a pair of milk bottles over her chest, aiming them in the general direction of the Soviet Union.) Like so many satirists, Tashlin wasn't just making breast jokes, he was making fun of people who laugh at breast jokes, nailing American men for their infantile obsession with mammary glands. Even so, there's more than a faint whiff of Russ Meyer in Tashlin's oeuvre ' a super-duper-ultra-vixen fantasy of a world where women are bursting at the seams of their own desire. "You can't sell tires without breasts," Tashlin once said, pointing the finger at America's consumer culture. But you have to wonder whether this particular tire salesman even tried.
The other charge against Tashlin is that he isn't funny ' not exactly what a comedy director wants to hear, but not necessarily a fatal blow, either. Certainly, his films with Jerry Lewis have their moments, however one feels about France's favorite village idiot savant. The UW series has kept Monsieur Lewis to a minimum, showing only The Disorderly Orderly (Nov. 23) and 1955's Artists and Models (Sept. 14). Perhaps the organizers didn't want Lewis to overshadow Tashlin, as he did in real life, taking what he learned from "my teacher" and applying it to The Bellboy and The Nutty Professor. But if Tashlin's Lewis-less films don't have us falling down on the ground in a heap of helpless laughter, they do often succeed at the higher comedic purpose of sending us a funhouse reflection of ourselves at a time when we ' men, that is ' were both obsessed with and acting like big boobs.