Sunday, January 02, 2005

Tish Tash

Mike Barrier has posted his 1971 interview with Frank Tashlin, one of the truly great American film comedy directors. His cartoons are wonderful; they have the fast pace and wild imagination of Bob Clampett's cartoons, but they're a bit more disciplined -- the animation is a little less broad, the gags a little more carefully structured. Tashlin would probably have adapted better than Clampett to the style of cartoons in the '50s, which tended to depend less on squash-and-stretch animation and more on try/fail gags (of the type that Tashlin himself had pioneered in the Columbia cartoon "The Fox and the Crow," the prototype for Chuck Jones' Road Runner series). But by then, Tashlin was in live-action features, establishing himself as one of the best comedy writer-directors in the business.

It's often said that Tashlin brought cartoon humor to live-action, but it might be more true to say that Tashlin brought old-fashioned silent-style comedy to both cartoons and live-action features. Tashlin worshipped Mack Sennett, and reportedly (though he denied it) kept a little book of his favorite early silent comedy gags. His films, animated and live-action, brim with references to silent comedy and attempts to capture the anything-goes spirit of Sennett. Many of his "cartoony" gags are really silent-movie gags, like the climactic chase scene in The Disorderly Orderly. And sometimes his plots are inspired by the silent days, too; one of the few great Tashlin movies available on DVD, Son of Paleface, is basically a Buster Keaton plot, about a pampered Harvard graduate who goes back West and finds himself out of his league among tough guys and gals (this is more or less the story of many Keaton movies, like Steamboat Bill Jr.). It wasn't only silent movies that Tashlin referred to, of course; a number in Hollywood Or Bust called "A Couple of Travelling Guys" is a takeoff on the "Beyond the Blue Horizon" number in Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo. Tashlin even wanted to start the number with a sign saying "You are now entering Lubitsch county," but the studio said no.

Only one Tashlin cartoon is available on DVD, "Have You Got Any Castles?", but I hope that will change when the third Looney Tunes Golden Collection comes out. Among the Tashlin cartoons I've seen, my definite favorite is "Plane Daffy," where Daffy Duck battles the nefarious Nazi spy Hata Mari and tries to get to the front with an important military secret: a paper reading "Hitler is a Stinker." (Hitler: "That's no military secret!" Goering and Goebbels: "Ja, everybody knows that!") I saw this one in a theatre and it absolutely killed; the biggest laugh came with a line Daffy says when he's hiding in an icebox, which I just don't have the heart to give away.

Other great Tashlin cartoons: "Porky Pig's Feat" (the most "cinematic" of his cartoons -- lots of unusual camera angles and shot setups), the horror-comedy "The Case of the Stuttering Pig," Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in "The Unruly Hare," and another wartime propaganda effort, "Scrap Happy Daffy."

One thing that surprises me from this interview is how much Tashlin hated Porky Pig. I think he's a little unfair to the poor guy, but if other people at the studio felt the same way, it probably helps to explain why Porky stopped getting solo vehicles (after 1951 he never appeared in a cartoon without another, more popular character like Daffy or Sylvester).

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