Van Boring, by Frank Tashlin
Van Boring (Oakland Tribune, 9 August 1934)

Frank Tashlin was a versatile artist, whose resumé reads like a "who is who in mid-20th century comedy?". He was active in several fields: animation, live-action film, children's literature and comics. The general public knows him best as a director for Warner Brothers' cartoon studio, even though he worked for nearly all the major animation studios during the Golden Age of the medium. Even so his career at Warners wasn't longer than a mere four years, scattered between 1933-1934, 1936-1938 and 1943-1944. But it remains his most enduring work. Like all directors at Warners he delighted in zany comedy and gags which broke the fourth wall. In the 1940s he made several classic shorts starring Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. However, his most important contribution to the studio was done in the field of editing. Inspired by live-action films he introduced quicker camera cuts and more unusual camera viewpoints. Later in his career Tashlin became a live-action director altogether. He specialized in comedies, the majority starring Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis. The line between cartoon and live-action often blurs in his work. His animated shorts have cinematic finesse, while his live-action comedies feature cartoony gags. His most timeless classics are the rock 'n' roll musical 'The Girl Can't Help It' (1956) and the satirical picture 'Will Success Spoil Hunter?' (1957). The inexhaustible artist furthermore wrote four illustrated children's books, of which 'The Bear That Wasn't' (1946) is the best known. As a cartoonist he made the gag-a-day comic 'Van Boring' (1934-1936).

Van Boring by Tish Tash
The cartoonist "Tish Tash" regularly had cameos in the Van Boring cartoons (The Courier Journal, 23 September 1935)

Early life and career / Fleischer / Van Beuren / Van Boring
Francis Frederick von Taschlein was born in 1913 in Weehawken, New Jersey. He studied at Public School in Astoria, Queens, and as a student at Junior High School 126 in the same city he already drew cartoons for his school paper. At age 13 he left school en went out looking for a job. Tashlin was a restless soul who rarely stayed long at one particular place. All throughout his career he went from one job and company to another. The sixteen year old teenager had already worked in various places when he became an errand boy for the Fleischer Studios in 1929. Tashlin worked on the 'Out of the Inkwell' series starring Koko the Clown, but only as a cell washer. He soon moved to the Van Beuren animation studios, but left with an intense hatred of the studio's boss, Amadee J. Van Beuren. Tashlin expressed his frustration in a series of cartoons which often featured an obese man with a Chaplin moustache: a caricature of his former boss. These cartoons appeared in magazines such as Hooey, Slapstick and Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. By 1934 he made this character the star of a pantomime gag-a-day comic named 'Van Boring' (1934-1936). It appeared in The Los Angeles Times and was distributed by the L.A. Times Syndicate from 16 January 1934 until 10 June 1936. Although Van Beuren was obviously targeted he never sued Tashlin for it, presumably because he wasn't even aware of the comic's existence. After all Tashlin signed under a pseudonym: "Tish-Tash".

Van Boring by Frank TashlinVan Boring by Frank Tashlin
Some episodes of Van Boring were presented as newspaper pages. Samples from The Oakland Tribune (21 September 1935) and the Los Angeles Times (25 January 1936)

Terrytoons/ Warner Brothers (1) / Ub Iwerks
Tashlin combined his newspaper comic strip with a day-time job as animator. Since he was a fast worker it all came easy to him. He usually spent his mornings animating his required scenes, so he had the rest of the afternoon for 'Van Boring'. By 1930 he joined Paul Terry's animation studio, Terrytoons, where he directed his first animated cartoons. His directional debut was the cartoon short 'Hook & Ladder Hokum' (1933). The same year Tashlin first entered Warner Brothers' animation department, but stayed only a year before he was fired. Oddly enough this had nothing to do with his overall work for Warners, but more with the fact that he earned extra money on the side from his newspaper cartoons. When Warners' animation producer Leon Schlesinger heard about this he wanted part of the profits. Tashlin refused and thus instantly lost his job! He went to Ub Iwerks' cartoon studio, but this company already faced bankruptcy by lack of success, so he only stayed for about a year.

Hal Roach
Tashlin got his first taste of live-action comedy when he became a writer for Hal Roach, where he wrote gags for such classic film series as 'Our Gang' (nowadays better known as 'The Little Rascals'), Charley Chase and the Laurel & Hardy shorts 'Tit for Tat' (1935), 'The Fixer Uppers' (1935) and 'Thicker Than Water' (1935). Though it should be pointed out that Roach's writers merely penned down jokes, no actual scripts. These jokes were treated as separate ideas which could be used in any picture in need of extra scenes. In that sense Tashlin was less of a scriptwriter and more an idea man.


Van Boring (The Oakland Tribune, 9 May 1934)

Warner Brothers (2)
In 1936 Tashlin was unexpectedly contacted by Schlesinger, who asked him to return to Warner Brothers since they could really need more experienced animators. He returned and discovered that the cartoon studio had undergone some revolutionary changes. New talented directors had arrived, such as Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and the legendary Tex Avery. Avery motivated everybody to Warners to quit imitating Disney and create wilder and funnier cartoons which frequently broke the fourth wall. His spirit influenced many people at Warners, including Tashlin. Still, Tashlin only stayed for two years. After an argument with Schlesinger's assistant Henry Binder he decided it was time to find new horizons.

Disney/ Columbia Pictures
In 1939 he joined the Walt Disney Studio, the company where he wanted to work from the very beginning. However, this lifelong dream soon ended in disillusion. He worked in their story department, but back then these people never received any screen credit and it's therefore difficult to determine his contributions. Tashlin has stated that he worked on the shorts 'Brave Little Tailor' (1938, directed by Bill Roberts), 'Mother Goose Goes Hollywood' (1938, directed by Wilfred Jackson), 'Mr. Duck Steps Out' (1940, directed by Jack King) and 'Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip' (1940, directed by Clyde Geronimi). Two cartoons he wrote narratives for would only be released long after he had left the company, namely 'Donald Duck and the Gorilla' (1944, directed by Jack King) and 'Peter and the Wolf' (1946, directed by Clyde Geronimi). In 1941 the Walt Disney Company was subject of a huge strike for better payment. Many Disney animators were fired or left altogether. Tashlin was one of them. He became head of the story department at Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems, where he had the bright idea to hire many of his former colleagues at Disney. Columbia was known for their 'Fox and Crow' cartoons. One of the best entries in the series, 'The Fox and the Grapes' (1941), was directed by Tashlin and would later inspire Chuck Jones' 'Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote' (1949) series. By April 1942 Tashlin was demoted because Columbia's production manager wanted more control over the content.

Still from 'Plane Daffy'
Still from 'Plane Daffy'

Warner Brothers (3)
And so Tashlin returned to Warners Brothers for the third and final time. By now the studio had entered its Golden Age. Celebrated directors like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson and Friz Freleng were creating hilarious fast-paced cartoons with new stars like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Lesser known directors like Cal Dalton, Arthur Davis, Ben Hardaway, Ken Harris, Cal Howard, Abe Levitow, Norm McCabe, Tom Palmer and Hawley Pratt also followed the same style. Just like his colleagues, Tashlin shared a knack for zany comedy. He particularly enjoyed self-reflexive jokes and gags that broke the fourth wall. In this field he was only surpassed by Tex Avery. According to Avery, Tashlin even kept a notebook of good gags he'd seen in silent comedies, which the man himself denied, but animator Homer Brightman confirmed was true.

Tashlin's Looney Tunes cartoons are easily recognizable due to the more angular designs of characters. He also used extreme angles to provide a frog's or bird eye's perspective. Tilted camera shots, dark shadows and silhouettes and fast-paced editing were his most important contribution to Warners' cartoons. Not only did it make the action look much wilder: the cinematic approach gave Looney Tunes a more interesting style to look at. All directors at Warners took cues from it. Of all 39 Looney Tunes shorts Tashlin directed the following are his most beloved: 'Porky's Romance' (1937), 'Porky's Pig Feat' (1943), 'Scrap Happy Daffy' (1943), 'Puss 'n' Booty' (1943), 'Plane Daffy' (1944), 'The Stupid Cupid' (1944), 'The Unruly Hare' (1945), 'Tale Of Two Mice' (1945) and 'Nasty Quacks' (1945). 'Scrap Happy Daffy' and 'Plane Daffy' are notorious World War II propaganda cartoons. Among the notable people who once worked in Frank Tashlin's unit at Warners were Arthur Davis, Izzy Ellis, Ken Harris and Norm McCabe.

Stills from 'Porky's Pig Feat' Stills from 'Porky's Pig Feat'
Stills from 'Porky's Pig Feat', in which Daffy notices that the pressed up face of his hotel manager now looks like "Pruneface", a reference to a gangster from Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy'.

United Artists / Gag writing / Film directing
In September 1944 Tashlin left Warners for good. He briefly worked for United Artists' stop-motion puppet films, 'Daffy Ditties', and directed one cartoon, 'The Way of the Peace' (1947), in commission for reverend H.L. Rasbach. This stop-motion short is notable for being a dramatic plea for world peace in the light of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These were to be his final contributions to the animation industry, as he moved into live-action comedy. The following decades Tashlin wrote gags for such comedy legends as The Marx Brothers ('A Night in Casablanca', 1946, 'Love Happy', 1949), Bob Hope ('Monsieur Beaucaire', 1946, 'The Paleface', 1948 and 'The Lemon Drop Kid', 1951), Red Skelton ('The Fuller Brush Man', 1948), Lucille Ball ('Miss Grant Takes Richmond', 1949, 'A Woman of Distinction', 1950, 'The Fuller Brush Girl', 1950) and The Three Stooges ('Snow White and the Three Stooges', 1959). He quickly became a live-action director himself, making two comedy films starring Bob Hope ('Son of Paleface', 1952, and 'The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell', 1968), two with Doris Day ('The Glass Bottom Boat' (1966) and 'Caprice' (1967) and one with Danny Kaye: 'The Man from the Diner's Club' (1963). Yet he remains best known for his collaboration with Jerry Lewis. Tashlin directed the final two Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis films 'Artists and Models' (1955) and 'Hollywood or Bust' (1956) and six of Lewis' solo films, namely 'Rock-A-Bye Baby' (1958), 'The Geisha Boy' (1958), 'Cinderfella' (1960), 'It's Only Money' (1961), 'Who's Minding the Store?' (1963) and 'The Disorderly Orderly' (1964). Lewis was always very grateful to Tashlin and once described him as "my teacher."

From: How to Create Cartoons
From: How to Create Cartoons

Despite working in a different medium, Tashlin could never hide his animation background. Many of his comedies feature cartoony gags. At the end of 'The Geisha Boy' (1960), Jerry Lewis even parodies Porky Pig's famous "That's all, folks!" outro. Another trademark borrowed from Warners were his sexual innuendo jokes. Several of Tashlin's comedy films starred famous sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield and thus inspired many risqué remarks and erotic allusions. Tashlin's most beloved films are 'Artists & Models' (1955), 'The Girl Can't Help It' (1956) and 'Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?' (1957). 'Artists & Models' was the penultimate Martin & Lewis picture and often considered their last great work before they split up. Lewis' character is a near self-parody of Tashlin, as he plays a children's book author with a passion for comics. His direction added a lot of satire and sexually suggestive gags usually not associated with Martin & Lewis' style. One of these even lampoons Fredric Wertham's witch hunt on child-unfriendly comic books, for which Tashlin even created a fake comic book called 'Vincent the Vulture'.

'The Girl Can't Help It' (1956) became a cult classic thanks to the unforgettable presence of actress Jayne Mansfield, with many gags poking fun at her infamous breasts. However, the picture is particularly remembered for its exciting rock 'n' roll performances by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and The Platters. Before they were famous, The Beatles were all incredible fans of the film. After rewatching it on television in 1968 the band members all got so excited with nostalgia that they recorded the swinging rock 'n' roll retro song 'Birthday' for their album 'The Beatles' (1968), better known as The White Album. 'Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?' (1957) - which also starred Mansfield and Groucho Marx - satirized television and the advertising industry. It's considered such a classic that it was added to the National Film Registry in 2000 for its cultural, historical and aesthetical significance. In 2014 the Tashlin cartoon, 'The Way of Peace' (1947), also entered the National Film Registry. Ironically enough, this movie is completely uncharacteristic of his work both in style as well as content. It's the only puppet-animation film he ever made and the only blatantly Christian propaganda work, focusing on Christian life in the Cold War era. In contrast only one animated short by Tashlin was ever nominated for an Oscar, but lost: 'Swooner Crooner' (1944).

The Bear That Wasn't
The Bear That Wasn't

Children's book illustrations & other activities
In the late 1940s Tashlin wrote jokes for Eddie Bracken's radio comedy show. Between 1947 and 1948 he illustrated advertisements for Maxwell House Coffee. He wrote and illustrated various satirical children's books: 'The Bear That Wasn't' (1946), 'How the Circus Learned to Smile' (1949), 'The Possum That Didn't' (1950) and 'The World That Isn't' (1951). Of these 'The Bear That Wasn't' has reached classic status. The story revolves around a bear who is mistaken to be a human. Nobody believes him and he reaches a point that even he starts to doubt whether he is a bear? This clever commentary on peer pressure was adapted into a 1967 animated short by Chuck Jones. Even though Jones respected the narrative and graphic style, Tashlin still felt dissastisfied because the whole message of the film fell apart by a small detail which showed the bear smoking a cigarette, thus making him already "human" before people accuse him of such. In 1952 Tashlin also published an instruction book called 'How To Create Cartoons'.

Maxwell House Coffee ad by Frank Tashlin

Legacy
Frank Tashlin passed away in 1972 after being stricken with a coronary. His live-action comedies and cartoon work are admired by celebrities such as Jerry Lewis and film directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Joe Dante and John Waters. In the anthology film 'Four Rooms' (1995), on which Chuck Jones was a creative consultant for the animated opening credits, Quentin Tarantino refers to the Jerry Lewis comedy 'The Bell Boy' and thanks Tashlin in the end credits. Frank Tashlin proved that animators could very well be live-action directors too and thus paved the way for people like Terry Gilliam.

Frank Tashlin

frank-tashlin.blogspot.com

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