. . . Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter

. . .

Having emerged from the interminable horror of World War II into the unterminable horror of a nuclear-powered Cold War, mid-century artists could see no way out but back. Post-apocalyptic pastoral cropped up in forms ranging from 1947's four hit versions of "Civilization (Bingo, Bango, Bongo)" to Bernard Wolfe's Limbo in 1950.

In 1946, director-writer-cartoonist Frank Tashlin published The Bear That Wasn't, a picture book in which a bear was driven into deep delusion by human contact. In 1950, Tashlin published The Possum That Didn't, in which an opossum was driven into deep depression by human contact. In 1951, while working on Son of Paleface, Tashlin published a third picture book, The World That Isn't, written and illustrated in much the same way as the earlier two books, but more unambiguously targeted at adults.

  The Artist Who Is

The Printing Press

Tashlin's message stayed as consistent as his technique: people may vary but their social institutions are inevitably insane. However, with the whole of humanity as its funny-animal protagonist, the third book follows a more ambitious path back to nature. Contemporary American existence is depicted in gag-busy pages and simultaneously "described" by a standard Western account of social evolution: the "Ice Age" is a drunken apartment party, the "discovery of the wheel" takes place in a town full of car accidents and happy morticians, time is measured, Christianity's gentle influence is felt, the printing press aids Man in his quest for knowledge....

Yoking high allegorical intent to his vulgar gag background, Tashlin doesn't distinguish between the familiar mild irritations of mid-century middle-class comedy (nagging wives, rude children, cheating contractors, taxes, billboards) and questions of life-and-death, and the conjunction sometimes jars.

But give him credit for following a premise through. Fantasists tend to wallow in daydreams of a fresh new start while simultaneously recoiling from the mass destruction needed to get there -- which, fairly or not, always seemed a bit irresponsible to me. Tashlin's proto-hippies and neo-arcadia are almost unique in being made possible by what's presented as a consciously -- and ethically -- intended apocalypse. Sort of like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? with Burpelson Air Force Base in place of the chicken farm.

"In spite of the opposition, Man continued trying to think for himself, even though it was more difficult than... or... or... it was even more difficult than... or..."
He knew what to do...

. . .

Our (First) Motto

"Nobody asked for your opinion, Walter. You're just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks."

What I want to say is:

Love the evidence; hate the conclusion.

But that may be a little harsh. Critics compulsively draw conclusions, and I should allow for the possibility that we do so to some purpose.

Revised, then:

The evidence is more valuable than the conclusion, in the sense that a cow is more valuable than a cup of milk.

'Course, not all folks feel up to maintainin' a cow.

Rockwell Hunter, chicken farmer


Sophisticated beatniks write:
Gold is more valuable than what it earns as investment, more valuable than what it buys. OR.
It takes its value from those things it can make possible.
That chain won't break, not even in the dry-lab under the electron-pulse hammer, its contiguity is impervious to the most disinterested analysis.
Without the milk and, by extension, the flank steak and suede, the cow is a grain drain.
Maybe you're stuck in the time thing again. value now/value later giving preference to the now. But now just went and become that this, which was later, which took/takes the name back even as it became/becomes... well... this, again. still.

. . .

Lover Doll

Tony Randall, 1920-2004

"Oh, he's great. Like a comic machine. You feel like Heifetz when you work with him."
- Frank Tashlin, 1962

1960s Hollywood was no place for Heifetz. Tony Randall's first featured role (that's Rockwell P. Hunter, sweetie) remained the permanent high point of both his career and Tashlin's.

Like other virtuosi, Tashlin composed to his instrument. Although anyone could've sold the movie's big quotable gags even Tom Ewell my favorite moments in the film register solely through Randall's precise, agile delivery:

"Wait, that's 'Yankee Doodle.'"
"No. Stop that!"
"Yes, I think so."

Every nuance its own gem.

Definitively widescreen, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a broken-winged bird when pan-and-scanned; if laserdisks, TCM broadcasts, or theatrical showings aren't at hand, I recommend waiting for a DVD.

Those who'd like to pay Randall the fitting tribute of close attention can meanwhile console themselves with the last great performance of his seven-year reign as funniest actor on film, Send Me No Flowers. Imperturbable even in self-pity, Rock Hudson seems to transfer the burden of his fatal secret to Randall, who balances Hudson's noble-showdog obtuseness by a sentimental trajectory through denial, despair, degradation, and rage: the suburban neighbor of Dorian Gray.


Renfrew here. I had the feeling this would be a place with a fitting Tony Randall tribute. I do believe the late-great deserves as much kudos for his turns on "Late Night" at the end of his career, as, without the worries of script and plot movement to worry about, he could just do his schtick, whether it was making sperm donor jokes or having himself slopped in mud. Doing anything for a laugh put him as much in the Catskills tradition (though I think he never trod the boards there, once) as Hollywood.

I'd love to see some of those appearances. I had no idea, though I'm not surprised by his dedication to the job at hand. Not after hearing his rendition of "Poop poop poop-poop, poop poop poop."

Dude. What's My Line rerun. Dorothy Kilgallen like a recently decanted sauterne, Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams with Edie being the linear subject. I didn't catch the whole thing but in addition to B. Cerf and Audrey Meadows, and the aforementioned darling Miss Kilgallen, the fourth panel member was...Tony Randall. And he won too.

. . .

Warlock by Edward Dmytryk, 1959

I probably won't collect much hate mail by claiming that the spaghetti Western culminated in Once Upon a Time in the West, with My Name Is Nobody a yodel-lay-ee-hoo echo in the Spanish hills, and Henry Fonda (of all people) central to both. Along with Ennio Morricone's score, Fonda's Frank is what straps Sergio Leone's wobbling tower of set pieces together, even while he contributes to its imbalance: the Good, the Ugly, and the Italian Girl can't possibly hold the screen against Bad Fonda's intensity or shock value.

Fonda had played clean, and Fonda had played brittle. But how had Leone intuited that Fonda could use Lee Van Cleef as a toothpick? For decades, it seemed the most brilliantly foolhardy piece of casting-against-type I knew.

Until the first time I saw Warlock.

Clay Blaisedell thinks it over
"That was his favorite. He had it printed in his head."
- Luciano Vicenzoni on Warlock and Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in Italy

The mannered acting, message-burdened scripts, aging stars, and ever stiffer rhythms of post-WWII Hollywood (reaching sclerotic apotheosis in Peckinpah's crying jags) could be made shapely only by the most forceful directors: Ray's Johnny Guitar, Lang's Rancho Notorious, Mann's Jimmy Stewart series, Hawks's plot-defying Rio Bravo.... Only Budd Boetticher approximated the balanced terseness of Western fiction's prose.

Warlock's an engaging curiosity in the less successful crowd. Its story riffles through the social studies textbook before pseudo-resolving in big grins and choked-back tears. ("Stay away, Shane! Stay far far away!") The great Joe MacDonald's Cinemascope is rewarding but not quite redemptive. Richard Widmark's prematurely wizened deputy pays penance mostly by looking out of place, and his neurosis and Dorothy Malone's ultra-archness clash like fuschia and salmon.

Am I my brother's gun's keeper?

Anthony Quinn plays the "Is he sublimated or do they just remember to close the door?" Sal Mineo / Mr. Smithers role, except more robust, what with being Anthony Quinn. To make sure we know homosexuality's a disease regardless, on top of being a murderer and a misogynist, he's "a cripple" (i.e., he limps). Despite those liabilities, his adored reacts a lot more strongly to his loss than James Dean did....

The Black Rattlesnake of Ft. James

In the Black Rattlesnake's defense, Henry Fonda's Clay Blaisedell is pretty worthy of adoration, since he's what makes the movie more than a case study in compromised ambition. Unlike most reviewers, I even like his love scenes with proper lady Dolores Michaels. It's refreshing to see someone attracted to a transgressor not because he's confused or reformable but just because he's a shortcut to transgression.

Blaisedell defines the exact midpoint on the line I'd been unable to draw from My Darling Clementine to Once Upon a Time in the West. He's closer to the historical Wyatt Earp than John Ford's, but he's still Wyatt Earp: flesh disturbingly relaxed around a ramrod sense of right; the defender of order, if no longer quite law.

That vector shifts him from taking part in a community to taking part in a process. The change benefits his income and wardrobe. It could even be viewed as beneficial to the community. In particularly tangled circumstances, an outsider can define and resolve problems more effectively than those who are part of the tangle. Anyone who's ever worked with a good consultant will recognize Blaisedell's rhetorical use of "of course" and his matter of fact detachment:

"People generally begin to resent me. I don't mind it when it happens. It's part of the job. But it will happen. When that happens, we shall have had full satisfaction from one another."

But even if he provides satisfaction to the town, he doesn't belong to it, and he has only one human contact outside it. With his technocratic pride, his carrion crow hunch, and his near sneers at the weak and noisy, he's not far from Frank: the defender of mere orders and, finally, the sociopathic carrier of an untouchably solipsistic rectitude.

And when Blaisedell kicks the crutch out from under an old man, we've crossed the Leone line.

I won


Rob Carver writes:

Nice tip of the hat to "Warlock", one of my favorite Fonda films, if a bit wordy for a western and all the better for it. Quinn was eerily goofy in that one, and Widmark was so neutered - all the more to make Blaisedell a more troubling figure to me when I first saw it on TV. Even though the straight-jacketing of the Hollywood Western of the time was close to breaking open, Fonda's quiet, assured menace made one hell of an impression on me, well beyond the conventional heroes or villains other HW westerns were presenting. You could almost compare Blaisedell to Ryunosuke in “Sword of Doom”, in the way he has a code and sticks to it, until the sadly soft ending. I always prefer the ambiguous, such as “Yellow Sky”, “Blood on the Moon”, or “One-Eyed Jacks”, to the white hat/black hat setup, as it allows for interpretation rather than the bland pablum with horses and gunfire. This was also one of the first Hollywood westerns I feel that portrayed hetero sexual attraction well, or as well as they felt they could; you’re right about Dolores Michaels looking to transgress – elegantly repressed lust was never done better in a western from that time.

. . .

Last Exit to the Road to Son of Paleface

The last time I tried writing about Son of Paleface was on September 10, 2001. Despite lingering associations, this seems a good time to pick the topic up again.

First, because PFA is giving locals a rare chance to see Frank Tashlin's self-consciously not-on-television movies on a non-television screen:

7:00 p.m., Friday, April 11, 2008 - The Girl Can't Help It
4:00 p.m., Saturday, April 12, 2008 - Son of Paleface
5:00 p.m., Sunday, April 13, 2008 - Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 16, 2008 - Artists and Models
8:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 16, 2008 - It'$ Only Money
7:00 p.m., Friday, April 18, 2008 - Bachelor Flat

Second, because I'm now as old as Junior Potter was when he graduated Harvard.

Third, because, well, maybe I'll get to that later.

. . .

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.

. . .

The Road from Son of Paleface

Hurry up; this is impossible.
- Junior Potter, Son of Paleface, 1952

Although Son of Paleface made money, Paramount didn't extend Tashlin's option. His next break came in 1955 when he managed to squeak under Hal Wallis's stringently low standards, and incidentally provided Jerry Lewis's first inkling that cinema could be a worthwhile medium.

Hope fell back to familiar (if depleted) ground. No more panicked thoughts of escape; the animal had become reconciled to its cage, unresponsive to prod or thrown trash. When he turned to the camera, it was in search of cue cards. Six years later Hope reprised the watered-down Western parody of Norman Z. McLeod, who Tashlin never did get around to killing. The final stop of interest is 1960's The Facts of Life, a grim comedy of re-failed-marriage in which Hope's forced unfunniness worked as stark naturalism.

Tashlin meanwhile found a way out of his pacing issues, not by accelerating the gags but by integrating them with the mise en scène. In his best pictures, even ontological intrusions fit into an overall rhythm the snapping point intermission of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, the choreographed walks of The Girl Can't Help It, Jerry Lewis's shtick-till-I-drop slow a-goh-nee.... After Son of Paleface, Tashlin redirected his satire from the bad habits of dying genres to those of the movie mainstream: juvenile delinquency, gray flannel angst, and most notoriously the overstated but under-remarked bosoms of the era, which, especially in Rock Hunter, seemed to embody a miserable oscillation between the devalued real and the alluring purported.

His best pictures were intermittant, though, and their generation brief. After being tossed between the Scylla of Doris Day and the Charybdis of Lewis, a stormweary Tashlin vanished beneath the waves in 1968, Bob Hope aboard the wreck.

I have always thought that the most fitting way for an American man to die is in a brutal accident on the freeway. Because that way he will be giving up the ghost in a rare moment of freedom.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Robert Benayoun, 1964
Rich as are the gifts of the imagination bitterness of world's loss is not replaced thereby. On the contrary it is intensified, resembling thus possession itself. But he who has no power of the imagination cannot even know the full of his injury.
- William Carlos Williams, Prologue to Kora in Hell, 1918


Jaime J. Weinman has unearthed Harvard University's response to their less-than-favorite son, and a New York Times piece by Tish-Tash himself.

Doris Day had wings, she could really sing, her timing (musical) is inspirational. She wound up with the zeitgeist overload of archetypal 50's jivety All-American girl, and thus those who disdain that, her. No fair. Like Lucille Ball, another too-popular for her own good genius.

Your cause is just. For that matter, I probably count as a Jerry Lewis fan I keep a copy of The Total Filmmaker close at hand. But this is an essay at Tashlin rather than Day, and I don't think The Glass Bottom Boat or Caprice represent either party's best work.

p.s Firefox blocks psdpdm with a "Suspected Attack Site!" no go page. Sea Monkey doesn't though.

Most of Pseudopodium is hand-crafted and impervious to non-self-inflicted harm, but the one portion of the site which I stupidly made dependent on web-hosted software NO ONE SHOULD USE WEB SOFTWARE! NO ONE SHOULD HIRE WEB PROGRAMMERS! exposed its succulent belly to some predator while I was in the midst of the professional and personal issues which continue to block my next damn post. Google picked that up and alerted the protection service used by Firefox 3. I've hurriedly dealt with the issue and I hope the good Googlians will overlook those intemperate remarks about web programmers and restamp their approval soon.



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.