Frank Tashlin -- Master of the Live-Action Cartoon

Yeah, Tashlin started out as a cartoonist -- if memory serves, he was one of the guys who tried to bring the Cartoonists Guild into Disney, God bless him -- and it's one of the trademarks of his live-action features. Watching It'$ Only Money, his fourth effort with Jerry Lewis solo, at a press screening a week or so ago at Film Forum, I was struck by the fact that some of his most gentle gags are the ones that are most cartoon-like. My favorite in that film, not a major Tashlin or Lewis offering by the way but seldom shown on a big screen, is the moment when Jerry pulls his truck up alongside a parking space that is just-not-quite-but-almost big enough. He stops parallel to the spot, gets out of the truck and pushes it sideways into the spot, almost overshooting it onto the curb until he reaches under the truck to stop its motion. It's a charming moment and surprisingly low-key for both director and star.

Of course, the keynote to Tashlin's humor -- and it's sooooo 1950s -- is a no-less-cartoonish approach to sexuality in which the notably asexual male -- Tom Ewell, Lewis, Tony Randall, Terry-Thomas -- is confronted with a hypersexual female -- Jayne Mansfield most memorably. On some level, Tash really is the archetypal '50s comedy director (with Howard Hawks seemingly taking his cues from the younger Tashlin in films like Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). You could make an equally good case for Billy Wilder, but there's a certain level on which Wilder is still an outsider, a Viennese Jew looking acerbically at a strange, decadent society, while Tashlin, born in Weehawken, NJ, dives headlong into the manic energy and unbridled vulgarity of the decade, approving of the trashiest manifestations of American pop with smirking glee. It is hard to imagine Wilder making a film that champions rock and roll with the ferocity of The Girl Can't Help It, or a film that revels in the sheer boneheadedness of the advertising business like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? For better or worse, Wilder is always a step back from American crassness; Tashlin could never make Love in the Afternoon, a consummately European film.

Whatever. This much is sure. You should haul yourself down to Film Forum for the new 35mm print of The Girl Can't Help It and try to catch as many of the subsequent films as your schedule permits. These days nobody is making films with the bright, hard-lacquered jukebox colors of Tashlin's best work; I'm tired of looking at desaturated palettes, even in films where they work well. Tashlin is the perfect antidote.

PS
Tashlin is the only film person of any significance born in Weehawken.
You could probably win a bar bet with that piece of information, but I'd hate to think of the bar in which it might come up.

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