By Leo Collis.
Following the release of his book Tashlinesque, I caught up with author Ethan de Seife to discuss writer, director and animator Frank Tashlin, the development of the book and why Tashlin has been so grossly neglected by filmmakers and scholars alike.
Leo Collis: Ethan, can you tell me about Tashlinesque and your interest in Frank Tashlin?
Ethan de Seife: I guess my interest in Tashlin goes back to when I was a college student. I was probably a freshman or a sophomore at Wesleyan University and I saw a print of The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). The opening gag where the small screen is flicked open – at that moment, two minutes into the film, my jaw dropped and I thought, “They can do this!?” I was just astonished. That grabbed me. Right around that time, for my eighteenth birthday my uncle had given me Danny Peary’s book on cult movies, which is a classic. There was a piece in there about The Girl Can’t Help It, so I put those two things together and, being in an educational programme where I could find out about Tashlin, I asked my professors and started to learn a little bit more here and there.
To jump forward a few years, I’ve always been interested in him because my sense of humour aligns pretty well with his. I think his films are funny in an unusual and unique way. When it came time for me to write my dissertation it seemed natural [the book is adapted from de Seife’s dissertation]. I would write papers about Tashlin here and there, for instance the first one I did was probably way back in 1999. I was taking a class on the French New Wave and the final paper I wrote for that class was about the response of the French New Wave critics to Tashlin’s films. Some of that, in a greatly re-edited form, actually wound up in the book. I talked about how Godard and others were so crazy about Tashlin in 1955-57. I worked him [Tashlin] in wherever I could and so writing a book seemed to be natural, because the more I read about him, the more I got the sense that no one really got him. He was either regarded as unique, as a cartoon guy who went into features, or he was explained away. I argue against the simple-minded notion that he worked in cartoons, so his features must look like cartoons and therefore his cartoons must somehow anticipate the features. This felt meaningless to me and seemed like an easy hook to say “O.K we’ve figured this guy out, let’s move on.”
So the literature either treated him in that way; dismissed him by explaining this one facet of his career and using it to explain the whole thing; or he was merely dismissed. Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema (1966) gives him not even a full page and is indifferent, saying it’s mostly Jerry Lewis. So I realised that it was a good topic for a dissertation because it was something I was interested in, I was interested in the films, I liked the humour and because he seemed ripe for reclamation.
There is not much good scholarship on him. There is one book from 1993 or ‘94, published for a retrospective of his films at the Lucarno Film Festival, and there was a book compiled, like a collection of essays and ephemera, biographical and career information. This was invaluable for writing my book, but it wasn’t a monograph – it was a collection of scraps. But no one had really considered him. The last full-length book on him was also a collection of essays and that was from 1973 and that, frankly, was really bad.
LC: You describe how your humour aligns with Tashlin; do you think it’s difficult to define his humour in regards to modern comedy? Does looking back at his work give it less value?
EdS: I guess I might be too into it, but I still think he is funny. I’ve seen all of his movies about 25 times. We just had a screening of The Girl Can’t Help It at my University [Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York] to celebrate the release of the book, and I did a talk with students. The students who were there said it was really funny. It was a little slow, but that’s what they say about every movie made before 1993; but they said it was really funny. What appeals to me about Tashlin is that a lot of his comedy is low brow, it’s jokes about boobs and pies in the face, (not literally), but Artists and Models (1955) opens with this scene of multicoloured paint spilling on people. That’s still funny to me – I don’t care what anyone says. But he combines it with this really acerbic satire, about the modern consumer world, which I think is really sharp, and, as I argue in the book, is best when it’s most ambiguous. When it cuts both ways, when it celebrates that culture as being vibrant and exciting, but undercuts it as being cheap and tawdry.
LC: In the book you discuss how Tashlin often had to defy censorship to get his jokes in. Do you think those subtleties often make the jokes all the more funny?
EdS: He just flouted censorship guidelines all the time. I still don’t know why or how he was able to get away with it; I can’t learn that from the documents. Since the publication, both his daughter and his granddaughter have got in touch with me saying that, “We love the book, and we want you to help archive and preserve his legacy.” Those projects haven’t begun yet, but maybe they might know. Was he a petulant guy? Did he just delight in saying, “Let’s stick it to the man!” I don’t know… it seems to me that he had that streak in him.
LC: In the book you say that undergraduates tend not to know who Tashlin is. I’ll agree when I was an undergraduate student, I had little or no knowledge of him. Do you think it is important for undergraduates to study the work of Tashlin or that more emphasis be given to Tashlin’s work?
EdS: I don’t know if it’s important, per se. I think you can be a stand-up individual without knowing about Tashlin. My personal preference would be that you are at least familiar with at least a few. I do think that he has been unfairly neglected and most importantly he has been unfairly contextualised. The whole point of the book is to say, “Yes, Tashlin has a unique style”; but if you think of him and consider his films in light of traditions of American comedy – especially with the transition from vaudeville to screen – you can actually not only understand him and gain a better appreciation of him, but through him I think you can get a better sense of American comedy. For that reason I think that Tashlin provides an interesting window into not only American comedy, but also popular entertainment at the mid-century. He’s responding to vaudeville, he’s responding to cinema, he’s responding to television as media and – as I make a big point of – he’s responding to the performative traditions from each of those. I think he relies heavily on those performances.
LC: It seems you had a struggle to find some of Tashlin’s work and certain essays and prints. Did any of these findings give you the most joy?
EdS: Most of them have become easier to find since the time of writing; but at the time there were two or three features that were difficult to come by. One was Marry Me Again (1953), which was his second or third film, another was Bachelor Flat (1963), and a third was A Man from the Diners’ Club (1963). These, for various reasons, were out of circulation. I was programming a film series at the time, so I had connections at archives and exhausted every archival connection I could and I did turn up prints of all of them; I don’t remember who had them exactly, but I borrowed prints from directors. Joe Dante let me borrow his print of Disorderly Orderly (1964), as I couldn’t find it elsewhere.
As far as documentation, the single best source of Tashlin papers is at the Frank Tashlin Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library at Beverly Hills – which is the library attached to the Oscars’ office. There is an archivist there named Howard Prouty, who I credited a great deal in my book, and he had compiled that archive of stuff for the Lucarno Film Festival book. In fact that book, although he doesn’t get the author’s credit for it, he wrote half or more of it – he contributed almost all of the materials to it, visual or paper. So getting into that, I couldn’t have done the book without it and Howard was incredibly generous and said that “no one had cracked that archive since he compiled it, no one had even looked at it,” so he was delighted. He contacted me after the book was published and said he was very happy to hand over the mantle of “Tashlin-guy” to me.
Within the paper collection, the things that were most interesting to me was that I got to see some of his early print cartoons, which were scattered across twenty different humour journals from the twenties and thirties. I don’t make much of them in the book but they were interesting to me. Most interesting though and most useful were the censorship files, the PCA files. That revealed a tremendous amount for me. They had them for around eighty to ninety percent of Tashlin’s features, so that revealed a great deal to me. Using those and writing about the history of censorship, those parts came together really nicely for me because of those documents.
LC: Looking at your blog, you have posted up reviews and responses to the book so far. Has anyone come forward who you didn’t expect would appreciate Tashlin so much?
EdS: Just five minutes before we spoke, I got an email from someone who I didn’t know – who said, “I really like your book, and here is my blog post on Tashlin.” In the book I refer to this manual of cartooning that Tashlin did called the SCOTArt system of cartooning. This guy had posted the entirety of that on his website and thought I might want to take a look at it. Another guy who I met at a conference said, “There is this amazing site of Tashlin’s children’s records, that Tashlin wrote and produced.” So I hadn’t heard of these people before. But I got a really nice review from a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Wheeler Winston Dixon. I was really flattered by that.
LC: So what’s next for you?
EdS: I have a few small projects in the works. I have a conference talk in a few weeks to talk about Jean-Pierre Melville and I have a few essays coming out soon, but in the back of my head the next thing I’d like to write about is Brian De Palma. I taught a class on De Palma about two years ago, which I built from scratch, and I was really happy about the way it went. I’d always liked De Palma but I’d never really studied him in a systematic way. From that class I got the idea that it was like a Tashlin situation – that he was gravely misunderstood in certain literature and that no one gets him. He is so easily written off as this violent, Hitchcock-rip-off artist. After watching his films systematically over a semester, I think that from that film school generation of Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, I think he has the finest filmmaking chops of them all. I think he is the most remarkably talented and his films are incredibly complex, and so I’d like to do another reclamation project. A friend of mine has just written a book that came out about a month ago on De Palma, which is great, but he and I take very different approaches. Although I really like his approach, I don’t think it would be the same as what I would do, and so I think there is room for another De Palma book. So that is the next big project that I would like to do.
Leo Collis is a Film, Media and Journalism graduate from The University of Stirling. Now an aspiring film writer, Leo is looking for projects that will challenge him and further increase his love of film.
Leo Collis’s review of Ethan de Seife’s Tashlinesque will be published in issue 10.4 of Film International.