The comic filmmaker Frank Tashlin (1913-1972) is probably best remembered today for directing Jerry Lewis in several outings during the 1950s and early 1960s, before Lewis embarked on his own directorial career. One label that I’ve observed other writers use to describe the filmmaking style of both Tashlin and Lewis is “plastic control.” This notion of “plasticity” in regard to the filmic image seems to refer to a kind of synthetic, artificial quality, an anti-naturalism if you will. In Tashlin’s case, this extreme degree of stylization makes contextual sense: he began his career as a cartoonist, working during the 1940s as a Looney Tunes animator at the “termite terrace” of Warner Bros. Studios. In animated film, the artist controls every aspect of the cinematic frame, and Tashlin certainly applied this tight formal control to his subsequent live-action comedies, often working with actors like Lewis and Jayne Mansfield whose exaggerated performative styles sometimes resembled that of cartoon characters.
But the Tashlin comedies, many of which were filmed in the early widescreen processes of CinemaScope and VistaVision, differ from the solo Lewis efforts in that they contain an interior, sociopolitical dimension, a darkly satirical edge. His film comedies, like those of Preston Sturges from the decade before, have a uniquely American sensibility in that they do away with artistic pretense in favor of a kind of brash vulgarity, and they look disparagingly at modern consumer culture, or what Tashlin himself once aptly referred to as “the nonsense that we call civilization.”
Tashlin’s deliriously colorful comic extravaganza of 1955, Artists and Models, taps into a visual style based on comic books and ‘50s advertisements in telling its zany story about two aspiring graphic artists. This sexy and hilarious film, which turned out to be the penultimate collaboration between Jerry Lewis and his early partner Dean Martin, won Tashlin the affection of the French Cahiers du cinéma critics, among them Jean-Luc Godard, who famously wrote: “Henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘it’s Chaplinesque’; say loud and clear, ‘it’s Tashlinesque.’” Tashlin dismissed the heady praise he received from the Cahiers critics as mere “philosophical double-talk,” but his approach to cinema, while not serious in tone, merits serious attention from an artistic perspective. Artists and Models remains a sterling example of Tashlin’s somewhat complicated creative process, which might be said to be characterized by a kind of image-based synthesis – a sophisticated bricolage within the film’s visual fabric of various elements gathered from the corporate world of ads and models which Tashlin is ostensibly critiquing.
For my money, this film remains a more interesting example of what a “comic-book movie” can be than the more self-serious Marvel movies of today. Shirley MacLaine, in a wonderful early performance, plays the model for the “Bat Lady” cartoon strips, which are illustrated by her flatmate (Dorothy Malone). They live above Martin and Lewis in a New York apartment building where every tenant seems to know about the intimate goings-on of their neighbors, a scenario that might be read as a kind of satirical parody of the Greenwich Village apartments in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, released just one year before this film. Lewis’s character dreams up extravagant cartoon stories in his sleep, most of which revolve around his fictitious creation “Vincent the Vulture.”
All four of these fiercely creative figures – artistic dreamers running amok in a corporate jungle replete with billboards and stuffy ad executives – are positioned as cartoon variations within Tashlin’s garish directorial style. In one particular scene, Lewis’s character runs up and down the apartment staircase time and time again in order to keep inquiring about a phone call for Martin’s character, and he eventually devolves into pantomime communication because he can’t speak due to physical exhaustion. This display of expressive antagonism toward the normal regulations of physical behavior recalls the outlandish comic movements of Bugs Bunny or the Tasmanian Devil.
Although Artists and Models sees Tashlin forming a strange dialectic between comic art and corporate advertising, the filmmaker sharpens the satirical edge a degree further in his later film Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a bold and uproarious Jayne Mansfield vehicle from 1957. Though ostensibly based on a contemporaneous stage play by George Axelrod, Tashlin’s film bares virtually no resemblance to its source material, only retaining the original title and Mansfield as lead actress. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called Rock Hunter “Tashlin at his most avant-garde,” and it’s true that the film leaves behind almost all preconceived notions of good taste and narrative rationality in order to arrive at a kind of wild and scathing attack on ‘50s America.
The film opens with a very funny series of fake commercials behind the opening credits, advertising a group of products that fail to deliver what they promise to – this strange decision effectively sets a tone of chilly modernism over the proceedings. From there, Tashlin launches into the ludicrous, barely coherent plot, which has something to do with the advertising exec Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) pretending to be the boyfriend of glamorous model Rita Marlowe (Mansfield) so that she will endorse his “Stay-Put Lipstick” line. Mansfield’s performance here rivals Lewis’s in the previous film in its gleeful sense of hyperbole – she delivers all her lines in a breathy, squeaky vocal tone that seems to lampoon contemporary ideas about corporate femininity. Randall’s attraction to Mansfield here, which is both sexual as well as clearly guided by his own capitalistic desires, is in keeping with the film’s overarching thematic concerns: the breaking down of any distinctions between money and sex, as well as between advertising and television. Tashlin’s immediate grasp of ‘Scope framing and composition remains astonishing: he depicts his characters in relation to other items and people that define them, rather than as singular individuals. For all of Tashlin’s apparent investment in the specific urban milieu of ’50s America, the ideas and images that he dealt with in his films remain startlingly relevant to this day.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.