pseudopodium

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Tashlin directs 'It'$ Only Money'

The Road to Son of Paleface, 1

Cartoons are a very stimulating medium.... But it's also a world of enslavement.... You've got to get out of it. We live in fear. How many of my colleagues cling on to their jobs, just like bureaucrats, so that nothing ever changes. They get so caught up in their routine that they lose all desire to break out. You have to live with this fear, because insecurity is part of the life of anyone who devotes himself to comedy.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Robert Benayoun, 1964
I'm always where I'm not.
- Frank Tashlin, interview with Mike Barrier, 1971

Frank Tashlin directed cartoons before directing live-action movies.

The same could be said of David Lynch or Tim Burton. And Federico Fellini drew caricatures, and Mitchell Leisen designed costumes, and Frank Borzage was a cowboy....

But Tashlin's switch was less like an art school kid landing a lucrative day job than like Nabokov losing Russian. Over a fifteen year career at Van Buren, Warner Brothers, Disney (he left after being denied credit for "Mickey & the Beanstalk"), Screen Gems (where he perfected the formula later used by Road Runner cartoons), Morey and Sutherland, and Warner Brothers again at the division's energetic peak (or, as Tashlin called it, the "poor man's Ufa"), he pursued new levels of artifactual self-awareness and new techniques of "speed," of "cutting," of "camerawork," of "POV" the quotes to remind us that all this aggressive anti-convention had to be hand-crafted rather than happily accidental while almost always staying funnier than Pudovkin.

If Warner's animation department hadn't been controlled by budget-crazed maroons, would Tashlin had felt compelled to move? If it'd set up extravagant feature-film units and given full credit to creators...?

I can't guess. During his transition from cartoon shorts to live features, Tashlin worked in a thoroughly independent medium picture books and that career matched the pattern of his others: a couple of masterpieces trailing off into dissatisfaction and unfinished never-quite-abandoned projects. It doesn't take much to make a shy 6' 4" 250-pound man feel trapped.

. . .

The Road to Son of Paleface, 2

This writer, not knowing Hope, can only conjecture what goes on inside the man. He has seen horrible things and has survived them with good humor and made them more bearable, but that doesn't happen without putting a wound on a man. He is cut off from rest, and even from admitting weariness. Having become a symbol, he must lead a symbol life.
- John Steinbeck

Bob Hope starred on radio before starring in movies.

Radio popularity is based on voice. It's an authorial role, and enjoys some of the same freedom. On the blank face of it, Edgar Bergen's radio stardom made no sense. The comic lead of the team, however, was Charlie McCarthy: a little wooden boy who'd somehow acquired the clothing, impulses, and experiences of an Edwardian roué, and was somehow always accepted in all particulars by those around him. Radio was the creature's home; filmed, he became only a ventriloquist's dummy.

Writers are drawn to radio as a medium, and purportedly Bob Hope was the first stand-up comic to openly acknowledge his stable of gag-writers. When he wanted a more spontaneous feel, he'd phone them to rush the gags. Hope's "live" performances were as anti-improvistatory as Mel Blanc's: reliably identifiable no matter how extreme the setting or guise.

Which, in turn, gave them both liberty to step away from setting and guise entirely. Tex Avery's one-shot "Screwy Squirrel" short gets special attention from theorists because the unestablished and unappealing lead doesn't ground the experiment. His self-awareness attracts the eye, whereas audience asides like Bugs Bunny's "He don't know me very well, do he?" are close to invisible.

For radio stars, there's no question about breaking the fourth wall. You've already invited 'em right into your living room. (That's what made radio horror so spooky. When I was seven years old, the prefatory whistle of "The Whistler" and the basso profondo molto legato announcement of "Suspense" provended sufficient nightmare fodder in themselves. No need to wait for the plotline.) Advertisers made the turn to the audience a routine running gag.

Hollywood's openness varied. Relieved from the need to position Hope as a romantic lead, able to give his bloat and stubble free rein, the best "Road" pictures were especially relaxed in their anti-realism, incorporating such absurdities as talking camels and Robert Benchley without strain. You couldn't manage that with Crosby alone, but Hope loosened the reins. Even in his stiffer vehicles, moments of nonsense sometimes tear through the conventional surface. The Princess and the Pirate's highlight comes before the action even begins (which is why I don't feel terribly guilty about spoiling it):

Many, many years ago there sailed the Seven Seas the most bloodthirsty buccaneer in history. Ruthless and daring he was, and, though his soul was black with foul deeds, he feared no creature, living or dead.
Ingratiating Bob Hope inset
"That's not me, folks, I come on later, I play a coward."

Buster Keaton and W. C. Fields drift mildly upwards into their personal unreal, tethered by rude tugs of slapstick and abuse. The Marx and Ritz Brothers drive reality squealing like a moneylender from the temple. Approaching sometimes the misanthropic babble of Groucho and sometimes the nightmarish openness of Fields, Hope is the first movie comedian to attain enlightenment by the road of skepticism: an absolute distrust that undercuts narrative drive, filmic convention, and his own part. On the other hand, he's not a delicate instrument; like a cartoon star, you know that if a bomb dropped on Hope, he'd be nervously wise-cracking in Hell next scene.

Only two things keep Hope's character among the earthly. First, a sensuality which distinguishes him from his colder and more self-conscious (if more consistent) disciples. I can't imagine Bill Murray or Woody Allen matching the delirious canine abandon of Hope as he applied Dorothy Lamour's hand against his face in Road to Morocco. (Allen needed a multiple-orgasm stimulator to come close.) Older burleykyoo types like Chico, Harpo, and Jimmy Durante were too goal-oriented to even notice the species of their objects of desire, much less such particulars as touch, scent, and taste.

And foremost, lack of motivating force. As blatantly untrustworthy as his surroundings and roles are, he sees no alternative.

Lacking other convictions, Hope staked his soul on glibness. If he wasn't "on", he'd vanish completely. No wonder he looks anxious.

... to be continued ...

Responses

Is that signpost at the end pointing to a detour into writing about blogging again?

I'd say you just covered that angle.

. . .

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, 4

The people who are doing cartoons today are basing them on The Flintstones. That was the nadir: cartoons disappearing as cartoons and becoming radio shows.
- Joe Dante, interview with Bill Krohn, Frank Tashlin, ed. Roger Garcia, 1994
Bob Hope is a good radio comedian with a pleasing presence, but not much more, on the screen. There is no hope that screen comedy will get much better than it is without new gifted young comedians who really belong in movies, and without freedom for their experiments.
- James Agee, "Comedy's Greatest Era", 1949

According to Tashlin, while Hope grumbled about playing "a rabbit" when they first worked together on The Lemon Drop Kid, he meekly complied with every outrage in Son of Paleface. I wonder if between the two productions Hope (or his agent) had read Agee's tribute to silent film comics, whose final section used The Paleface as a whipping-boy. Certainly, there's no way Hope could've missed the cartoonishness of this vehicle: everyone mentions it, beginning with Tashlin himself.

Less often mentioned is the extent to which it fails. Tashlin's gag-writing habits developed in tandem with the wild-assed animation techniques needed to support them. If Tashlin had made the transition to live film earlier, such experimentation might've been given a chance in the rich man's Ufa, for example but post-1940 Hollywood frowned on moving cameras and off-the-bias shots. Presented full-face with anonymous cinematography and editing, Tashlin's most blatantly "cartoony" gags become his draggiest: the movie halts, waiting for the effect to effect itself. Attempts to goose the tempo through undercranking seem a miserable defeat compared to the lightning fluidity of Daffy Duck.

Mike peers into Junior's empty turtleneck
Junior's reaction to his father's cocktail
is less Elmer-Fuddy than Eraserhead-ish.

Instead, the effective absurdities are the ones which exaggerate live-action convention: the over-aged leading man; the tormented son-father relationship; ingenious tactics exercised against overwhelming odds.... And the most celebrated shot of the film would've actually been less powerful in a "real" cartoon: Trigger's bedroom scene works because of its gross, almost reeking, physicality and its nightmarishly deliberate pacing like a Pasolini comedy that's funny, if you can imagine such a thing.

... to be continued ...

Responses

lost islands

Can you describe them?

. . .

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."

Responses

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

Responses

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.

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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.