. . . Jane Russell

. . .

While the rest of Webbed America focuses on Burning Man, we return to the thinking man's present participle:

I agree with Curt Salada; let's leave the bourgeois-bashing out of this. It took a lot of work for me to become bourgeois, and I have to say that it's even nicer than I imagined.

No, when I picture the Thinking Man, it's not with a particular type of residence or size of bank account. I picture Hugh Hefner on that TV show he had around 1960: knees pressed together, lips clenched around pipe, absolutely rigid with fear of embarrassment.

And when I picture the Thinking Man's much-prized possession, it seems always to be some "safe" instance of a Guilty Pleasure. E.g., "Westerns are a guilty pleasure," and then you get "the thinking man's Western." Or "pin-up," or "slasher novel"....

Now, I've never understood that phrase "guilty pleasure." Pleasure is good by definition, and how can anyone feel guilty about what's good? On close examination of particular instances, what's being talked about seems to be "inadequately analyzed pleasure," or even "unsatisfying pretense of pleasure," but mostly "potentially embarrassing pleasure."

For example, a Western is merely an example of a genre, and to place a work of art in a genre is to say absolutely nothing about the merit of that work: the qualities that make a movie good -- rhythm, grace, insight -- fit equally well inside any genre. But what a genre does say something about is marketing. And yeah, marketing can be kind of embarrassing. But rather than remembering that they're separable issues, "the thinking man's Western" attempts to deal with the marketing problem by pouring markers of high seriousness (many of which trip up all attempts at rhythm, grace, and insight) directly into the work of art itself. Like topping cheesecake with castor oil for the sake of digestion.

That seems to cover thinking man's Westerns and slasher novels, anyway; I don't know enough about pin-ups to be able to talk about 'em. (This parenthesis is dedicated to Frank Tashlin: It's true that a photo of Jane Russell hangs in my office, but that doesn't count because it's only a bust.)

. . .

yes - it is dark

Tricky Cad: Case V, 1958, detail
Flirty skirty Marcel Duchamp had his little fling with "4-dimensional perspective," but when you're portraying eternity nothing beats a long-term relationship. And the paste-ups of Jess show a forty year commitment to four-dimensional perspective studies, with time, no longer viewed in rigid profile, as the fourth dimension.

As we all know by now, comic strips use spatial separation to convey temporal change; Jess's early "Tricky Cad's Time Space Continuum Has Collapsed!" work exploited that convention. To rearrange the sequence of comics is to change our four-dimensional point-of-view, to focus down an oblique line that cuts across the forward-march of image....

Jess's later work layers precisely trimmed and arranged bits of advertising, art books, jigsaw puzzles, and news magazines ("the images of our times") into a very-deep-focus Universal Now! as dizzying in its novel jumping-out of dimensionality as Jane Russell in 3-D or the "floating pictures" of the Dutch, the restless lost-in-time and lost-in-space eye shifting across a single, massive, unified, static surface that seems to dis-and-re-establish a new implied viewpoint every quarter-inch or so....

Arkadia's Last Resort
Arkadia's Last Resort; Or Fête Champêtre Up Mnemosyne Creek [Autumn], 1976, detail
Jess's monumental paste-ups of the 1960s through 1980s reproduce ex-TREEM-ly badly. First, they're huge -- Arkardia's... is 47" by 71", which is, what?, a four-by-five? Second, since they're built up of printed material from very varied sources, pretty much any reduction into new print material is going to obscure differences and blur dividing lines. Probably the only decent way to preserve and distribute this stuff is in high-quality fold-out prints even larger than the original or in large high-resolution digital scans with no photographic middleman. For the curious and easily satisfied, the Club provides a just-as-inadequate full sketch of Arkadia's....

. . .

The Road to Son of Paleface, 3

Well, you know, I spent a long time doing cartoons. Finally, I just lost interest in it. So I thought what can I do? Be an agent, a gagman, a writer. I went into writing. Then, a few years later, I wrote a picture called The Paleface. After seeing the preview of it, I could've shot Norman McLeod. I'd written it as a satire on The Virginian, and it was completely botched. I could've killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1962
Tashlin confers with Jane Russell
"Frank Tashlin [having] got religion from Jane Russell, attends her bible class every Thursday night."

I've seen no information on Son of Paleface's production aside from the none-too-convincing publicity photo caption on the right. The script's progress, however, is documented at the Academy library.

As intellectual property, the "original story" Robert L. Welch registered in early March, 1951 compares well to most software patents. It can be summarized as "Paleface was a hit, My Little Chickadee had a plot, and Roy Rogers is available."

In late April, Welch and Joseph Quillan delivered a bulkier treatment. Their mish-mash of received storylines now included one which made it to the finished product the local Native American community's thirst for vengeance although it speaks well for Hollywood quality control that such proposed character names as "Chief Yellow Feather" and "Little Big Horn" were dropped. At this point the comedy is stocked with sure-fire laugh-getters like stranglings, knifings, and a bent shotgun shooting injuns over the shoulder. Even so, the authors' invention flagged: at the end there's a big chase, and "Then Bob Hope leaves for a series of personal appearances in Minneapolis."

Tashlin's name first appears on the June 8 draft. There's still an overly complicated snarl of characters, but Junior's sexual and filial neuroses and the peculiar loyalty of old Hank (later to be old Ebeneezer) are settled, along with many cartoony sight gags and a twisted revision of the first movie's hit song, "Buttons & Bows."

By the end of June, Tashlin has completely restructured the film, complete with a real ending, albeit not the one finally used. (The ghost of Potter's father nuzzles Jane Russell. JUNIOR: "I don't understand this. Crosby always gets the girl!") Most tangles are gone except for some unnecessary complexity in Jane Russell's motivation. (In this version, Potter père and his partner had stolen a gold mine from Russell's father, shot him, tripped him, and pushed him over a cliff.) A stage direction explains the train of thought which led to one of the film's more elaborate non-sequitur gags: "JUNIOR is in a large barrel bathing in the coy manner of all the deMille bathtub heroines."

At the end of July, the Breen Office unleashed its righteous wrath. Most of the excised material must have been written with some knowledge of its likely fate:

LILY: Darling, you look so warm. Let me loosen your tie.
JUNIOR: All right. Just don't loosen my belt. I'm liable to break a toe.
LILY: (Caressing his face) Darling, how smooth your skin is!
JUNIOR: There's plenty more where that came from, baby!
JUNIOR turns from keyhole.
JUNIOR: Hold on, friends -- in my excitement I swallowed the doorknob.

... and, sadly, the payoff of Junior's "kaboodle talk":

... what with havin' to sashay mah mavericks an' sagebrushing mah dogies an' brandin' mah stray buckboards till I'm plumb ornery... an' I ain't had mah ornery plumbed since I left Harvard.

Unsurprisingly, the Office also insisted on censoring all hints of homosexuality or bestiality. But despite their confident assertions "As you know, such a passage could not be approved in the finished picture," "Junior's dialogue is unacceptable for obvious reasons" Tashlin ignored every one of these requests. A Junior Potter without sexual confusion would have no character at all. The single damaging cut accepted by Tashlin (leaving the prenuptial scene short on gags) was comparatively innocuous:

LILY: I think I'll go and freshen up, dear.
JUNIOR: (Anxiously) Hurry back before the Reverend Mr. Schwartz gets here... Just think, pretty soon we'll be three... counting Schwartz... and then, in a year or two, who knows... maybe Schwartz will have a son.

Did they fear a reverend with children might offend Catholics?

. . .

The Road to Son of Paleface, 5

Q: In your writing for both cartoons and features, did you draw any line between possible and impossible gags?
A: It depends on who does the gag.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Mike Barrier, 1971
I think one of the reasons you invest yourself in characters is: who plays them? When he was doing a Bob Hope vehicle, he could have Bob Hope carry the movie, because everybody knew Bob Hope and the kind of stuff he did, and he'd be able to use that.... It's just that he's not afraid to take them a little further than people were used to being taken at that time.
- Joe Dante, interview with Bill Krohn, Frank Tashlin, ed. Roger Garcia, 1994
Junior and Mike get lucky
Hope is the thing with feathers

To the promised land of feature film Tashlin carried assets of self-awareness, anxiety, and vulgarity: an ability not just to tap the repressed, but to hand it the reins. Hope's stardom mixed two inherently unstable comic staples: the wise-cracking fool and the feckless letch. By exaggerating both to previously (and thereafter) unimagined levels, Tashlin achieved the comedian's apotheosis. And, as Mel Gibson taught us, apotheosis is a painful process.

Macaroni supreme, Junior Potter presents something more bizarre than puffed-up cowardice. Outrageous camping combines with eye-bulging homophobia; expressions of randiness are compulsive, somewhere between a tic and a fit, but seem unattached to any thought of consummation. From observation of his Harvard classmates, he knows lust calls for leering and predatorial behavior and he knows it involves some division between men and women, but I'm not sure he knows precisely what that is. Literally dozens of gags concern sexual panic.

His confusion overflows into the script at large. Jane Russell's character (renamed from "Lily" to "Mike") promises, "As soon as I get him under a full moon, I'll empty his father's chest," and it's positioned as a laugh line but meaning what exactly? Another irrationally-numbered entendre closes the film.

As Junior proudly declares, "I'm a novelty." Where does such a creature come from?

A line of arrested-development "Juniors" stretches across Tashlin's career from the legged-egg of "Booby Hatched" to the frustrated boss of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? The original Paleface ended with its hero losing his bride-to-be before their wedding night, and although it's probably sanest not to consider that film as sharing its sequel's universe, Junior Potter comes close to androgenesis. The ghost of his legendary father the lyin'est crookedest mangiest rottenest low-down critter that never drew a sober breath literally haunts the movie. Whereas all we know of his mother is that Senior disinherited her and that she assigned Junior a gender at age twelve, two years after he kissed a girl (and darn if he ain't ready again).

Junior gazes into his father's... chest?
... begotten by Despair / Upon Impossibility.

But the queerest, feyest thing about Junior is the extent to which his queerness escapes notice. Despite the extremest efforts of Edith Head's costume department and Technicolor's saturated reds, every character in the film accepts Potter at face value as just a dude with an inheritance.

What Bob Hope had to add to Donald Duck's sputter and Daffy Duck's self-awareness was fear. Not fear of death so much as the self-devouring fear of humiliation, of being found out. And left unremarked that fear swells to universal proportions: isn't everything as empty and arbitrary as he suspects himself to be? Junior isn't just an intrusion of fantasy; he's the sole recognizer of fantasy. When the film's title is announced, and when de Mille puts in his cameo, Hope conveys a metaphysical perplexity as anguished as Kleist's. He alone grasps the implications of the singing cowboy's hippophilia and he alone considers "Mike" "a pretty masculine handle for such a feminine pot of goodies." When he cautions a character not to repeat a shtick from an earlier scene, his admonishment is blankly accepted, no curiosity, no questions asked. He's the guy who knows the score, but no one's interested in the game.

Long before Junior's horseless carriage set forth, galli, berdaches, hijira, and sangomas blazed a path from ambiguous alienation and ambiguous knowledge to ambiguous power. Michael Ripinsky-Naxon describes three phases of shamanic initiation:

  1. Androgyny and adornment 1
  2. Administration of hallucinogenic preparations, with "an echo of a strong sexual tenor permeating all aspects of the trance" 2
  3. A journey on which one meets a "power animal" who "may even become the shaman's spiritual spouse" 3

While the parallels to Son of Paleface are striking, Tashlin's conclusion more directly addresses a fellow satirist, Andrew Marvell:

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne'er have flown,
But vainly flapp'd its tinsel wing. 4

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt. 5

When a gift for fantasy becomes dependent on a hypocritical system of fantasy, betrayal and complicity entwine. To the lasting offense of right-thinking critics everywhere, Tashlin, unlike most movie-makers, grappled openly with that dilemma. We're all in the same boat, but conscience demanded he at least admit there's a boat here and water underneath. In Hope's other solo vehicles, his character was walked through some pretense of "redemption" before receiving benediction from the plotline; Tashlin instead rewards Junior's decision to, all right, then, go to Hell.

In a world where nothing rings true, anything is permitted. Boy gets girl in extremis, when she fully recognizes his supernatural (or supergeneric) abilities. And the very next the next-to-last gag, prurient and nonsensical at the same time, is an extravagant reminder of the characters' encasement by Hollywood film.

All Junior knows is what the movies show him, and he knows that can't be right. But one has to live.

1   See above.

2   Tête-à-tête (pardonnez-moi, madame) chez Mike with champagne cocktails.

3   Ghost town rendezvous with Trigger.

4   The miracle of the flying flivver.

5   "But you know, it's no fun talking to the woman you love through a wire screen."


Joseph Jon Lanthier, in March 2013:

I tethered myself to your SON OF PALEFACE post in the href storm, only to discover that it was more of a steeple than a post. Regarding this, though: "When he cautions a character not to repeat a shtick from an earlier scene, his admonishment is blankly accepted, no curiosity, no questions asked." I'm entertained by your narratological analysis of these fourth wall breaking moments, but wouldn't "vaudeville logic" (in which Hope was conversant, and some of which Tashlin had earlier transposed into cartoon logic) dictate that such lines are intended for only the audience, and comprise a "pausing" of action? I'm not really contradicting your point so much as wondering if the performance tradition trumps the character dynamic you recognize. A stringently diegetic form, vaudeville requires the implied "character" of the audience, and their less-than-suspended disbelief, to function properly--which is directly referenced by Hope when he apostrophically chides the vultures perched on his car for being "implausible".

I certainly agree with your historical insight, but demure (for myself, if not for history) at the "trumps". While experiencing or re-experiencing a movie, nothing quite trumps what we see and hear there, right there. What makes Margaret Dumont more memorable than other Groucho stooges is her embodiment of pause. In Son of Paleface, Bob Hope has become lost in a world of Dumont.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.