Bright Lights Film Journal

Frank Tashlin: The Animated Auteur

“Tashlin’s tenure at Warner Bros. did not provide him with a ‘cartoon aesthetic’ that could be applied, ready-made, to his features; rather, it allowed him to develop a feature filmmaking aesthetic through cartoons.”

Considering the obvious affinities between "Golden Age" Hollywood animation and the live-action comedy of the same era — both, for instance, frequently address the body's relation to technological capitalism, the anxieties of the city space, and the implications of difference in an atmosphere of enforced uniformity — there has been startlingly little written on the interrelationship between the two forms. The lack of any parallel histories of studio-era animated and live-action comedy suggests that there is a hierarchy in place, a hesitation to consider animated bodies alongside human ones, or at least an imagined disciplinary boundary between them. The figure whose work has most consistently transgressed this boundary is Frank Tashlin, who, as one of a very few directors who successfully crossed over from animated films to live-action comedy, has (unfairly) been asked to bear much of the weight of the intersection between the two.

An auteur like Tashlin provides a handy fulcrum for comparison, presenting a vocabulary of stylistic indexes as well as a hermetic, individualized timeline. The most obvious (and indeed most frequent) observation in this light is that Tashlin's live-action films show many signs of having been influenced by his cartoons. While this reasoning has its merits, I prefer to resist the urge to mine his remarkable films of the fifties for traces of a cartoon aesthetic; doing so becomes a fait accompli, and the real give-and-take between the two is given short shrift. Rather, I think it more useful to look at the influence of the classical Hollywood (live-action) style on his animation, and consider the historical context of his transition from the cartoon to the feature film.

Tashlin's career spanned the gamut of popular comedy; between 1933 and 1936 alone, he wrote a comic strip ("Van Boring") for the Los Angeles Times, animated for Ub Iwerks, and wrote gags for Charley Chase at the Hal Roach film studio before being hired as a director at Warner Bros. — at the age of twenty-three. His ambitions, however, lay in directing feature films, and he developed a distinctly cinematic approach to cartoons. Unlike his colleagues in the "Termite Terrace," who thought in terms of animated gags and comic effect, Tashlin had in mind editing strategies, camera movements, simulated angles, and other "filmic" effects. He was known amongst his peers for "attending classic movies with a black book and a flashlight, noting down the tricks of the masters, and the ways of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy,"1 and admitted that he was "trying to do feature-type direction with little animals"2

Tashlin's time at Warner Bros. (from 1936-1938, and again from 1943-1946, after a five-year stint working at Disney and Columbia) began at a moment when the influence of vaudeville was fading and animators "had come to depend on Hollywood as a source for both structure and humor."3 Tashlin, though, was unique in his dependence on Hollywood features as a source for visual language. A comparison of his wonderful Porky and Daffy short Porky Pig's Feat (1943) with Bob Clampett's Draftee Daffy (1945), a fairly typical Daffy short, clearly evidences the difference in Tashlin's style.

In Clampett's film, every framing and movement is motivated by the gag: "pans" are used almost exclusively to follow Daffy's frantic attempts to escape a man from the draft board, and the cuts are rough, serving simply to reframe Daffy in a new setting. The visual composition of the film never approaches the gloss of the Hollywood continuity system; unsurprising, considering Clampett's affinity for disjunctive, gag-based narratives. Clampett has at his disposal any number of directorial flourishes — as we will see with Tashlin — but opts to leave them in the toolbox. In comparison, Porky Pig's Feat is a feat of cinematographic virtuosity. The film concerns Daffy's and Porky's efforts to skip out on a hotel, but the pursuit is rendered in a radically different manner. Tashlin eschews the background-blurring whip-pans approximated by Clampett in favor of more deliberate "camera movements" and editing patterns.

Our first glimpse of Daffy is an unfamiliar one; having lost his money playing craps, he walks dejectedly — and slowly — down the hallway of the hotel. Tashlin milks the scene: Daffy, captured from below (almost floor-level), takes a few steps at an oblique angle toward the "camera," which then follows him in a slow track against a completely bare background. He uses movement not to mimic Daffy's vitality (as Clampett does), but to emphasize the lack of it — Daffy is shown here, painstakingly, sapped of the very thing that makes him Daffy.

Daffy stops at the door of his room, where Porky and the hotel owner are speaking, and peeks through the keyhole. At this, there is a cut to a view of the inside of the room — ostensibly, this is an eye-line match, and we're seeing what Daffy is seeing. But when the hotel owner makes a comment that offends Daffy, he zips into the frame, leaving us watching from an unclaimed or disembodied point of view. Interestingly enough, Tashlin does not use movement when Daffy flies into the room — his velocity is portrayed in contrast to the stillness of the shot, so that Daffy seems to magically appear. At his entry, there is a cut-on-action to a close-up of Daffy face-to-face with the owner (Daffy's speed replicated in an accelerated edit), which pans right as Daffy pushes his face literally inside the face of the owner, the pan perfectly matching the pace of Daffy's advance. The scene is capped by a dramatic "shot" in which the owner lurches toward the "camera" (which pulls back very subtly) until his face nearly fills the frame, and Daffy's reaction is reflected in his monocle. The imagery owes as much to Orson Welles as it does to Friz Freleng, approximating deep focus and extreme close-ups to dramatic effect. The scene's gags are emplotted by Tashlin's use of continuity devices and cinematographic vocabulary, so that they seem less an interruption than an element of the mise-en-scene.

The timing of Tashlin's move to live-action filmmaking was impeccable; working as an animator during the height of the classical Hollywood era in the mid-thirties and forties allowed him to borrow from a wide array of recognizable cinematic visual codes, but to use them in the "liberated" format of the cartoon. The limitations that the Hollywood system placed on the average director — tight budgets, strict narrative conventions, censorship constraints, etc. — had much less of an effect on the animator. Thus, Tashlin could develop a visual style that authorized and accentuated excesses — of color, of narrative, of characterization — divorced from the economic and moral overdetermination of the studio system. This is not to say, of course, that the Warner Bros. animators were exempt from the oversight of the studio; on the contrary. My point is that when practical and financial concerns over set design, cinematography, and acting performance are largely removed from the filmmaking equation, the cartoon director finds himself in an enviable position of freedom to cultivate a personal style "in miniature," as it were.

Having cultivated this style throughout the period of Hollywood's greatest power, Tashlin came to feature filmmaking just as that power was waning. By the time he directed his first live-action comedy in 1951, Hollywood's formal codes had already begun to be destabilized. As Ed Sikov argues:

What sets the Hollywood of the 1950s somewhat apart is the frequency of the violations [of formal codes]. As a contemporary director, Frank Tashlin is especially interesting because he disrupts the tradition even while embedding himself in it. One might argue that the fifties could be characterized as a period of late classicism in which conventions turned in on themselves in parallel response to the economic breakdown of the studio system.4

Tashlin, then, became a Hollywood filmmaker at a moment when Hollywood filmmaking was taking on an entirely different meaning; that is, a moment when Hollywood could accommodate his cartoon-inflected, excessive style. This style is made manifest in Tashlin's best films, like Artists and Models (1955) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). In these films, one can easily recognize the sensibilities Tashlin honed at Warner Bros. in the expressive use of color, lush composition, and calculated gags. One can also sense, in Tashlin's ready appropriation of the untraditional formal regime of the fifties' "late classicism," the idiosyncratic style of a man used to turning conventions in on themselves.

It is easy, when thinking about Tashlin's live-action comedies, to apply a cartoon aesthetic to them, and indeed doing so can yield useful results. Sikov, for instance, makes the familiar point that "Tashlin's background in animation, where anything can occur as long as it can be drawn, enhanced his acute consciousness of color design as well as his tendency to bend the physical laws of planet Earth at will"; an apt, if somewhat facile, observation.5 Tashlin's fortuitous and fruitful collaborations with Jerry Lewis compound the matter; if ever a performer could be described as a living cartoon, it is Lewis. However tempting the similarity, my intention here is not to make this argument, but to qualify it. To construe Tashlin simply as an animator who brought his distinctive vision to the feature film comedy is a fallacy that misunderstands the complex exchange between the two forms.6 Even when he was working at the Termite Terrace, Tashlin considered himself a feature filmmaker first and an animator second. His tenure at Warner Bros. did not provide him with a "cartoon aesthetic" that could be applied, ready-made, to his features; rather, it allowed him to develop a feature filmmaking aesthetic through cartoons.

There is no simple causality to be found here between animated and live-action features, only a complex interplay of direct and indirect influences. Frank Tashlin is without doubt a crucial figure in any study of the histories of animation and live-action comedy in the studio era, but it is necessary to acknowledge that these histories are essentially intertwined, and not to use Tashlin's career to reinforce a restrictive binary between the forms. This is a false, harmful boundary that, as in one of Tashlin's cartoons, needs to be transgressed, so that the cartoon short can takes its rightful position in a continuum with other forms of physical and personality-based comedy. For constructive work to be done on the relation between cartoon and live-action comedy, it is necessary to think of the two not as different media or genres, but as discrete but related fragments of the same reality.

  1. Stefan Kanfer, Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story (New York: Scribner, 1997), p. 93. []
  2. Michael Barrier, Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). []
  3. Hank Sartin, " From Vaudeville to Hollywood, From Silence to Sound: Warner Bros. Cartoons of the Early Sound Era," in Kevin Sandler, ed., Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), p. 69. []
  4. Ed Sikov, Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 209. []
  5. Ibid., p. 180. []
  6. Greg Ford's insightful essay " 'Cross-Referred Media': Frank Tashlin's Cartoon Work" (published in Roger Garcia, ed., Frank Tashlin, London, UK: British Film Institute, 1994) deserves special mention here for deliberately avoiding easy arguments and seeking out a similarly complex exchange between Tashlin's cartoons and feature films. []