Hollywood director Frank Tashlin is the recipient of one of the greatest movie reviews of all time. In a 1956 critique of Tashlin's Artists and Models in Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard called it "an acme of stupidity." Godard's apparent dismissiveness is actually a compliment. The critic, soon to launch his career as a filmmaker, wrote: "With Tashlin there is no starting point, and this is precisely his originality. Only the point of arrival matters, a scene at the very limits of absurdity ...."
The object of Godard's scornful praise is the story of an unemployed artist (Dean Martin) who uses the superhero scenarios literally dreamed up by his nutty roommate (Jerry Lewis) to land a job as a successful comic book cartoonist. In the famously conformist mid-'50s, comic books and slapstick comedians Martin and Lewis represented lowbrow entertainment, and provocateur tastemakers like Godard obviously relished the effrontery of Tashlin's assault on conventional good taste. Better to be "seized in a pitiless mesh of imbecilities" than to be bored to death.
No one is going to be bored at "American Nonsense," the Pacific Film Archive's concise, six-title tribute to Tashlin (1913-1972), the most joyously visual of comic filmmakers. The one thing everyone knows about Tashlin is that he carried over his stints as an animator for Warner Bros. and Walt Disney (A Tale of Two Mice, Booby Hatched, etc.) to his ultimate career as one of American film's most uproariously inventive artists. Tashlin delighted in having his actors behave like cartoon characters, the crazier the better.
In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, advertising executive Rockwell Hunter (Tony Randall) tries on a suit owned by movie muscleman Bobo Branigansky (Mickey Hargitay), but the suit is grotesquely too big for Rocky-boy — combined with Bobo's elevator shoes, the outfit makes him lurch around like an effete Frankenstein monster. As chicken-hearted tenderfoot Junior Potter in Son of Paleface, Bob Hope lopes through a succession of Western sight gags: his pipe explodes when he encounters dancehall girl Jane Russell, a strong saloon drink makes his head spin around, etc. Later, in the film's funniest scene, he shares a bunk with Roy Rogers' horse, Trigger, and they squabble over who gets the blanket.
Jerry Lewis' spastic shtick on the staircase with Shirley MacLaine in Artists and Models is the stuff of legend for Lewis fans — all others take warning. In fact, Lewis and Tashlin developed a working relationship over eight films, beginning with Artists and Models and going through The Disorderly Orderly in 1964. The director evidently appreciated Lewis' physical humor, one step removed from the antics of Daffy Duck. Godard thrilled to "the richness of the invention constantly aggravated by the poverty of the situations," but Lewis' juvenile pratfalls and freakouts — his billboard routine in Artists and Models, the chase finale of The Disorderly Orderly, and his interaction with Mr. Bascomb the Great Dane in Hollywood or Bust come to mind — only feed one part of the Tashlin pop-cultural mill. All those cartoonish gags had more or less specific targets. Tashlin was one of the great satirists of the '50s and '60s.
Not only did he make fun of corporate culture in general, advertising, television, publishing, and the recording industry, but he also aimed his barbs at the movies, including his own filmography. Fifties audiences were simultaneously titillated by big-business boardroom hanky-panky, rock 'n' roll, true crime, and Westerns, and Tashlin lampooned them all. Only a frequent director of harmless sex comedies like Bachelor Flat and the Doris Day vehicles The Glass Bottom Boat and Caprice could get away with the libidinous whoopee Tashlin uncorks in his funniest scenarios.
In common with fellow cartoonist Robert Crumb, Tashlin was a fan of giant, leering women and their effect on nerdish noodniks. How else to explain the havoc wreaked by Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? ("Oooohhh! Lover doll!"), not to mention the pneumatic horseplay of Jane Russell in Son of Paleface and Dorothy Malone and Shirley "Bat Lady" MacLaine in Artists and Models? Sex in a Tashlin movie has the prurient, eye-popping brazenness of a teenage boy's pinup come to life, in CinemaScope and Technicolor.
The PFA's Tashlin mini-series opens on Friday, April 11 with The Girl Can't Help It, an early rock 'n' roll exploitation flick like any other, but with the Tashlin difference. Bombastic gangster Edmond O'Brien does a Born Yesterday thing with his mind-blowingly busty girlfriend Jayne Mansfield — he wants her to be a star, so he hires poor shnook Tom Ewell to package her as a singer. As if anyone could fit Mansfield into a package. He takes her to a nightclub and the place melts down.
The other real star of The Girl Can't Help It is Little Richard, one of the featured musical acts along with Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, and Ray Anthony. In his iridescent suit and shiny process do, Little Richard does almost as much damage as Mansfield with his version of "She's Got It." If Tashlin had had the nerve, he would have romantically paired Mansfield's Jerri Jordan with Little Richard and set race relations in the United States forward by about thirty years. But this is a Twentieth Century Fox production we're talking about. No chance.
Included in "American Nonsense" is the relatively rare 1962 It'$ Only Money, Tashlin's sixth film with Lewis, who stars as a TV repairman with crime-busting ambitions. Unlike the very best Tashlins, it wasn't written by the director, but that doesn't stop him from poking fun at Alfred Hitchcock, labor-saving gadgets, and the vagaries of over-commercialism. As in the climax of the chase scene in The Disorderly Orderly with its impossible eruptions of hundreds of brightly colored canned goods in a supermarket, too much was never enough for Frank Tashlin.