Category Archives: Animation

A Mishmash of Tish-Tash

Three directors: (left to right) Norman Taurog, Jerry Lewis, and Frank Tashlin

Frank Tashlin was an unusual filmmaker for a number of reasons, one of which has to do with his relationship with Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies producer Leon Schlesinger.

For one thing, Tashlin often contended that, once his comic strip “Van Boring” started to bring in a bit of revenue, Schlesinger — the supervisor of Warner Bros.’s fabled “Termite Terrace” animation studio, where Tashlin worked — felt that he was entitled to some of the profits. Quoth Tashlin, “He wanted a cut of it, and I said go to hell. So he fired me.”

(Incidentally, “Van Boring” – whose eponymous main character was based on Tashlin’s former boss, Amedée Van Beuren, the head of the nearly-forgotten Van Beuren animation studio – has its own Facebook page! Check it out – whoever holds that account posts at least one vintage “Van Boring” strip per day, and many are quite clever.)

I’ve never been able to corroborate that story about Schlesinger wanting a cut of Tashlin’s (assuredly meager) “Van Boring” profits, but it doesn’t seem all that unlikely to me, given Schlesinger’s reputation as a rather stern and shrewd businessman. (He was also regarded as a fairly permissive, hands-off producer, for which many Warner Bros. animators admired him.) In any  case, even if Schlesinger fired Tashlin at that time (around 1933), he would rehire him two more times. Tashlin bounced around from studio to studio quite a bit, as I detail in Tashlinesque.

The other element of Tashlin’s unusual relationship with Schlesinger is that, evidently, the producer granted the animator a unique privilege: the permission to use a nom de animation for several of his cartoons. That nom was “Tish Tash,” a pseudonym Tashlin started using as early as his teenage years, when he illustrated his school’s yearbook and other publications. A handful of Tashlin’s Warner Bros. cartoons – and a large number of the print cartoons that he published in various humor magazines – were signed by Tish Tash.

Leon Schlesinger and friend

 

I have a few bits of Tashlin-related news to report. The first of these is that The Austin Chronicle has published a more-or-less favorable review of my book Tashlinesque, which you can read right here.

A couple of months ago, I did a phone interview with the good people at The Mondo Film Podcast, a very excellent site created and run by true cinephiles. Justin Bozung, one of those cinephiles, was aware of Tashlinesque and wanted to talk to me for an epic podcast about the genius of Jerry Lewis, one of my favorite topics. You can listen to and/or download that podcast here; it runs two hours (!), and my comments occur during its last 30 minutes. Folks, this is only Part One of the Jerry Lewis show. Yes, his genius truly is so enormous that two hours of talking doesn’t even come close to addressing it. I am not speaking sarcastically, here. Here’s a second link from which you can listen to the ‘cast.

Finally, and most incredibly:

For me, one of the most rewarding and exciting things about writing books is that, occasionally, admirers of my work will contact me to share with me their enthusiasm. Not long after my book This Is Spinal Tap was published, I received a very nice email from a university librarian who was compiling a list of resources for students and scholars who wished to do research on mock-documentaries. He didn’t have to alert me to my book’s inclusion on his list, but he did, and very kindly included some words of praise, as well.

Just today, I received an email from Stephen Kroninger, who runs an eponymous animation/illustration blog at Drawger. Not only does Stephen possess an original Frank Tashlin oil painting (see below), he has compiled a remarkably useful and comprehensive post consisting of all manner of Tashlin-related materials, both print and audiovisual.

In addition to containing video of, to name a few, both Jerry Lewis’s amazing dance scene from Cinderfella and Tashlin’s hard-to-see and extremely influential cartoon The Fox and the Grapes (which I have also posted below), Stephen does a great service to historians and students of American illustration by posting, in its page-by-page entirety, Tashlin’s extremely hard-to-find, out-of-print cartooning manual How to Create Cartoons. This book, in which Tashlin espouses his “SCOTArt” system of drawing (which relies on the mastery of four basic shapes: Square, Circle, Oval, Triangle), is quite rare. The only copy I’ve ever seen resides in the Frank Tashlin Archive in the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. Years ago, with permission, I made a photocopy of the book, but the copy that Stephen has uploaded is way better, as it’s in color — well, its cover is in color — and the scans are of very high quality. How to Create Cartoons offers insight not only into Tashlin’s method of illustration, but into the general stylistic and economic tendencies of the market for illustration in the middle of the twentieth century. Again, this is a valuable document.

My own talent for illustration lies mostly in the realm of the notebook doodle, but perhaps it’s now finally time for me to give this SCOTArt business a go. Reader submissions are also welcome!

 

Canter through Coventry, an original oil painting by Frank Tashlin

The Lady Said No

Several years ago – a veritable eternity in Internet Time – Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi, the animation historians/enthusiasts who run the venerable and essential site Cartoon Brew, launched a subsite, Cartoon Brew Films, which they used as a venue for hosting and distributing, for a small fee, a number of cartoons that had slipped through the cracks of film history. The very first film featured on Cartoon Brew Films was Frank Tashlin’s unusual 1946 stop-motion film The Lady Said No, which had fallen into the public domain.

At the time, I was researching my dissertation on Tashlin, so I eagerly downloaded the film, and felt obliged to submit a lengthy-ish comment to Cartoon Brew Films. Alas, Cartoon Brew Films has gone the way of the dodo, taking with it my comments.

The very last of the Dodos!

The comments, I assure you, were no great loss, but I have nevertheless and perhaps ill-advisedly used them as the basis for my notes below on The Lady Said No, which you can watch below, via YouTube. It is not the highest-quality version of this film, but, then, we’re fortunate that it survives at all. I cannot account for the flickering between color and black and white.

The Lady Said No was made using a labor-intensive stop-motion process called “replacement animation,” whereby, for instance, animators would craft, for a single character, multiple heads, each with a different facial expression or lip-position. The heads would fit into the character’s body using some variation of a ball-and-socket joint, and would be swapped out as often as necessary, frame-by-frame, to convey changes in facial expression and/or lip movement. As indicated in the link just above, replacement animation is most strongly associated with George Pal, best known for his “Puppetoon” films, but most beloved by me for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), an oddball movie that gives the great Tony Randall (whom I interviewed once, not a year before he died) a chance to ham it up under layers of crazy make-up.

Modern audiences are most familiar with replacement animation from the films The Nightmare before Christmas and the works of Aardman Studios, makers of the delightful Wallace & Gromit films (notably the truly brilliant Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit), and Chicken Run.

Here is a fascinating bit of film history: a photo essay, from a 1946 issue of Popular Science, about the process used to make this very film. I’ve scanned and uploaded the three-page spread as two (rather large) PDF files: one PDF of the two-page color spread, and one black-and-white page. Some edges got cut off and you’ll have to pardon the three-ring-binder punchholes. The article is really worth a look – the photos are great, and you get some sense of the massive amounts of work required to produce a film that has, 65 years later, been almost entirely forgotten.

The full citation information is:

Bob Newman [photgrapher], “Six-Inch Wax Dolls Are New Stars in Filmland,” Popular Science, Vol. 148, No. 5 (May 1946), pp. 108-109.

popsci_lady_said_no

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Cantinflas has a better moustache than you do.

So The Lady Said No – whose main character, by the way, is meant to resemble legendary Mexican comedian Cantinflas – was made using an unusual animation process, but is also unusual for the ways in which it combines stop-motion technique with traditional 2D animation. Notice, for instance, the “motion lines” when the main character dashes away at around 1:12; the ripples that emanate from the bodies of the waterlogged singers around 4:33; and the smoke clouds at 5:44.

1:12: The setting and puppets are 3D; so far as I can tell, the streaky "motion lines" were painted onto a flat surface.

4:33: 2D ripples surround 3D puppets

5:44: 2D animated clouds cover up a 3D scene.

This was Tashlin’s first foray into stop-motion, which makes these creative techniques all the more impressive. One of my central claims about Tashlin is that he was unusually visually inventive, and The Lady Said No would seem to confirm that idea.

In that stop-motion animation can depict (not just represent) three-dimensionality, it is tempting to see it as “closer” to live-action filmmaking than is 2-D animation. Much of the literature on Tashlin accounts for his career within the bounds of an uncomplicated arc: his work “evolves” and becomes more sophisticated as he moves from animation to live-action. This is too simplistic; it is in fact one of the points with which, in my upcoming book on Tashlin, I take issue most strongly. Tashlin is usefully considered as a gifted visual artist. The print cartoons he did in the 1930s, for instance, are no more or less “sophisticated” than his feature films of the 1950s; they are all products of a restless, curious visual/comic intelligence.

One of the continuities between The Lady Said No and much of Tashlin’s other works is his reliance on tried-and-true comic forms, most plainly the gag/topper/topper-topper structure. Tashlin is a master of setting up gags, varying them, and amplifying them. One of the best in The Lady Said No has to do with the long-necked singer’s Adam’s apple.

The first time we see the Adam’s apple, in a close-up at 1:34, it is funny in its own right, as it slides up and down the singer’s neck.

 

 

 

The second time we see the Adam’s apple, at 4:37, Tashlin emphasizes the up-and-down movement by echoing it in the movement of the fish’s eyeballs.

 

 

 

The third time (5:59), the character sings from inside a cactus, and the cactus’s skin (hide? bark?) bulges and moves along with the Adam’s apple behind it: the gag is thus intensified.

 

 

The last time this gag appears (7:11), Tashlin treats it to a variation that ties in beautifully with the culmination of the film’s narrative. We have a new singer – one of the main character’s many, many babies – whose acrobatic Adam’s apple completes this gag cycle as it brings closure to the story: woo whom you want, but be prepared for the consequences. Tashlin makes his point about the dangers of romance (a theme common in his work) with, as is typical, a sight gag.

The camera is quite mobile in The Lady Said No, moving along all axes with great vigor. Tashlin often composes shots from unusual angles, but we should not take this as a sign of his becoming “more cinematic”: animation is film, too, and is therefore no less ontologically cinematic than any other film form.

I prefer to see the film’s several, striking moving-camera shots as fulfilling two goals. First, they are evidence of Tashlin’s interest in undermining animation’s reliance on the frontal, “proscenium”-style staging that made even some of the best Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies somewhat “flatter” than they might otherwise have been – see, for instance, most of Friz Freleng’s (generally excellent) 1930s films. The rapid camera movement onto the “stage” at 7:25 is a particularly witty gesture, in this context.

Second, and more importantly, Tashlin moves his camera and varies his compositions whenever such a gesture will clarify or intensify his film’s comedy. The several shots of the parade of waiters are fine examples of this tendency.

These shots are taken from “Dutch” angles, the better to render abstract the shapes of the dishes, and the better to emphasize the enormity of the meal ordered by the Lady. Another fine example: Tashlin tracks the camera to follow our hero as he is dragged behind the wagon – what better way to emphasize the humor that underpins his dilemma? Comedy was Tashlin’s great muse, and he followed it throughout his varied, fascinating career.

As discussed above, the basis for this essay was a long comment that I posted to the late, lamented blog Cartoon Brew Films. I would like to extend special thanks to Jerry Beck and Cartoon Brew for graciously granting permission for me to repost my comments, and to Mark Kausler, without whom The Lady Said No would likely be lost entirely.

Just published: Funny Pictures

I am delighted to announce that Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood has just been published by the University of California Press, and that, despite the inclusion of an essay of mine, it is an excellent book.

Funny Pictures, as its subtitle states, is concerned with questions of genre and animation in American film. In their introduction to the book, editors Charlie Keil and Daniel Goldmark lay out its approach to historicizing and analyzing Hollywood animation, a segment of American film that is often ghettoized and misunderstood. A question that they address that is of particular interest to me is, simply: “Why is it that, in American cinema, ‘animation’ is nearly synonymous with ‘comedy’?” After all, there’s nothing in the animated image that makes it intrinsically more humorous, somehow, than the live-action image. While it’s true that laws of physics and representation can be and usually are fractured and radically manipulated in animation, such manipulations are not necessarily tied to a generic identity.

We might look to Japan’s anime industry for contrast: animated Japanese films range across genres far more widely than do American films, particularly those made during the Studio Era. To take just a few very obvious examples: Akira is dystopian science-fiction; Grave of the Fireflies is heart-wrenching drama; the work of the late, great animator Satoshi Kon challenges the very conception of genre. But even when a work of American animation contains elements of pathos or melodrama (the incredibly moving trash-compactor scene in Toy Story 3 is a great example), it is still generally classified as a comedy; right there, at the top of the IMDB page for the film, are the three “genres” into which this film has been slotted, by general consensus: Animation, Adventure, and Comedy. (Don’t even get me started on why Animation is not a genre; that’ll be the subject for another post, perhaps. This post from the venerable Cartoon Brew sums up the issue.)

Frank Tashlin at the drawing board

In any case, the authors of the essays in Funny Pictures investigate and historicize the complex relationship between animation and genre. I’m proud to have an essay included in this book, especially since all the other authors outclass me by several orders of magnitude. My essay, “Tish-Tash in Cartoonland” (excerpted and reëdited from my upcoming book), takes up a recurrent claim about the cinema of Frank Tashlin: that his animated films somehow “look forward to” his live-action features, and that his live-action features are somehow “cartoony.” This is one of the most persistent — and consistently ill-supported — arguments about Tashlin in the fairly scanty body of literature on his work; disputing it is in fact one of my book’s principal projects. While it’s true that Tashlin is one of the few studio-era directors (along with Gregory La Cava) to move from animation to live-action, that unusual career shift does not entirely define or explain away Tashlin’s style or films. The central claim of the essay (and of my upcoming book, The Art of Comedy: The Films of Frank Tashlin) is that considering his films in the context of genre actually explains a great deal more about them than does simply stating that Tashlin’s live-action features are “cartoony,” for instance. No one has ever satisfactorily explained what is meant by this notion.

I’ll certainly be posting more on this topic closer to the time of my book’s publication.