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15 Reasons Why Frank Tashlin Was Awesome

Today marks the centennial of Frank Tashlin (February 19, 1913 – May 5, 1972), one of the most important figures in the history of American animation.

Frank who?

If Tashlin is recognized at all by the general public, it is for being the Looney Tunes animation director who ended up making kooky, subversive live-action comedies starring the likes of Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield.

He was so much more than that though—a restless and ambitious creative powerhouse who didn’t play by anyone’s rules and whose filmic innovations were often decades ahead of their time.

Tashlin’s reputation has been bashed routinely by film critics, both while he was alive (“Tashlin has become sympathetically obsolete without ever becoming fashionable”—Andrew Sarris) and after he died in 1972 (“Tashlin remained the safe, cold-blooded side of bad taste, never came to terms with the full-length form or the live-action image, but never sensed the pungent onslaught in cartoon that, say, Gillray or Ralph Bakshi have achieved.”—David Thomson). Even online, it sometimes feels that he gets no respect; the editors of the Looney Tunes Wiki can’t identify Tashlin well enough to put up an actual photo of him on his biographical entry.

Still, Tashlin’s work persists and the impact of his unconventional, exaggerated style of cinema continues to reverberate throughout contemporary film. To celebrate Tashlin’s 100th birthday, Cartoon Brew presents 15 fun facts about Frank Tashlin. To learn more about him, visit Tish Tash: A Blog Tribute to Frank Tashlin and pick up a copy of Ethan de Seife’s recent book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin.

1. He named his buffoonish newspaper comic character Van Boring as a dig toward his former boss, Amadee J. Van Beuren, who ran Van Beuren Studios.

More of the Van Boring strips are posted on Facebook.

2. He knew that Porky Pig was a chump and loved to make fun of him.
3. He once claimed that when he worked at Disney, one of his favorite things to do was throw Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, out of the window.

Tashlin told historian Michael Barrier in 1971:

They didn’t know what to do with a fellow by the name of “Ducky” Nash—Clarence Nash, he was the voice of Donald Duck—because when they weren’t recording Donald Duck, what do you do with the fellow who’s the voice of Donald Duck? Ducky had an office in this building, a little tiny office where he would come over and go to sleep. These were hillside places, and the ground beneath his window was maybe twelve feet. Roy Williams, this big fellow, and I, when Ducky was asleep—and he slept just like a duck, he made funny sounds—in this big wicker chair, we would take this chair, with him in it, and we would hold it out the window, and drop him. This chair would hit, and because it was wicker, it sort of had a recoil, you know, the legs went out like this. He’d start quacking away down there, and he’d come up, dragging this chair with him. This happened many times, and it was a high point of humor—you know, you want to talk about low humor, that’s what we thought was funny.

4. He directed the most elegant, cinematically modern black-&-white cartoons in the history of animation.
5. His eclectic career is full of detours into different areas of film, like when he made the stop motion films The Lady Said No (1946) and The Way of Peace (1947).

Tashlin scholar Ethan de Seife has written extensively about The Lady Said No.
6. He played an important role in kickstarting the ‘cartoon modern’ era.

When Tashlin became the head of Columbia’s Screen Gem studios in 1941, he transformed it into a haven for artists who wanted to create modern-looking animation. Zachary Schwartz, who became a founder of United Productions of America, said of Tashlin, “He was an inspirational man to work for.” Another animation modernist, John Hubley, said of his experience, “Under Tashlin, we tried some very experimental things; none of them quite got off the ground, but there was a lot of ground broken. We were doing crazy things that were anti the classic Disney approach.” The visual experimentation continued for a couple years after Tashlin’s departure from Columbia, such as in this 1943 short Professor Small and Mr. Tall:

7. He created the Fox and Crow.

The Fox and the Grapes, the first cartoon that Tashlin directed with these characters, featured a novel blackout-gag structure that served as a model for many later cartoons, including Chuck Jones’ Coyote and Roadrunner series.

8. He invented his own system of cartooning called SCOT-ART.

Tashlin’s how-to cartoon book proclaimed that anybody could create original cartoons if they could draw S(quares), C(ircles), O(vals) and T(riangles). You can find the entire book HERE.

9. Jean-Luc Godard loves him:

Says Godard:

According to Georges Sadoul, Frank Tashlin is a second-rank director because he has never done a remake of You Can’t Take It With You or The Awful Truth. According to me, my colleague errs in mistaking a closed door for an open one. In fifteen years’ time, people will realize that The Girl Can’t Help It served then—today, that is—as a fountain of youth from which the cinema now—in the future, that is—has drawn fresh inspiration….Tashlin indulges a riot of poetic fancies where charm and comic invention alternate in a constant felicity of expression….Frank Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better. There is not a difference in degree between Hollywood or Bust and It Happened One Night, between The Girl Can’t Help It and Design For Living, but a difference in kind. Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘It’s Tashlinesque’.
10. John Waters loves him:
11. He allowed Chuck Jones to adapt his illustrated book The Bear That Wasn’t into an animated short, and when Jones ruined the film, he never spoke to him again.
12. He married Mary Costa, who was the voice of Princess Aurora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
13. He created an amazing graphic novel called The World That Isn’t.

This bleak yet perceptive commentary on modern American life is as relevant today as when it was first published over sixty years ago. Tashlin uses the cartoon medium to expose the follies of humankind, including religious intolerance, environmental destruction, political corruption, tabloid trash, celebrity worship, and nationalism. In his cautionary tale, mankind finds peace only after destroying himself through nuclear apocalypse and starting over again.

14. He was a leg man.

This one hardly needs explanation.

15. He pushed live-action further than anyone before him and anticipated the creative possibilities of today’s CG-infused live-action filmmaking.
  • Roberto González

    Fantastic post. I love his Black and White cartoons.

    But being spanish I’ve never read The Bear That Wasn’t book but I watched the cartoon. I still don’t understand what’s bad about it. I love it. Then again I also think Chuck Jones’ Tom and Jerry get too much hate.

    • Roberto, the crass addition of the cigarette in the bear’s mouth (as fine an example of kitsch as any), not in Tashlin’s book, is was what irked him. Speaking personally, I agree with Tashlin that, however innocent the addition may have been, it takes away the bear’s innocence – he’s smoking, and therefore has accepted entering the human world.

      Jones did not have a good track record appeasing the egos of those whose work he adapted (Dr. Seuss and Walt Kelly as well as Tashlin were displeased with Jones’s adaptations; though, to be fair, Seuss had little to gripe about with THE GRINCH). I agree that the T&Js aren’t that bad though.

      • Everlasting Concubine

        I was mystified by that as well. I think The Bear That Wasn’t is a great cartoon (bear in mind, I am not the harshest critic when it comes to cartoons) but that explanation makes perfect sense – character consistency and integrity is very important, and that detail degrades the bear’s… bearness. Not enough to ruin the experience for me, but I can see how his creator would see that as a sharp stone that could shatter the willing suspension of disbelief.

    • kiptw

      The cartoon starts off with high promise, and promptly sinks into irrelevant cutesiness and kitsch. If Jones had filmed the book, it would have been foolproof, but he had to ‘make it his,’ in much the same way dogs mark their territory.

  • Fantastic list, and I’m glad my Leg Fetish video (combined with Jaime Weinman’s work) is getting attention.

    I think you’ll also find that almost all of Tashlin’s Warner films indicate an evolution towards modern design. There is definitely a far greater print-influence, rather than Disney influence, in them than in the other directors’ films. (I wonder if Tashlin’s time at Disney had an impact on this?) By the time of TALE OF TWO MICE and NASTY QUACKS (both finished by Bob McKimson), you’d swear that WB was going to make the first UPA theatricals.

    One again, fantastic post, Amid.

  • SteveSegal

    Thank you for that well deserved tribute. I love Tashlin’s work. In the 50’s he was better known than Chuck Jones. I remember loving his live action cartoons as a kid, especially the Jerry Lewis ones. When an interviewer told him that Jones used Fox and the Grapes blackout gag structure as an inspiration for Road Runner, he modestly gave credit to Jack Kinney’s Goofy sport cartoons. BTW – I show the exact same clip from Son of Paleface in my history of animation class.

  • Amazing Tribute. I wish there were more facts about him. That Bob Hope sequence was sheer genius!!!

    • Doug

      After reading references to “Scrap Happy Daffy” for decades, this is the very first time in my 61 years that I’ve ever seen it. Talk about “sheer genius” . . . beautifully (and insanely) animated, and one of the most cleverly written cartoons I’ve ever seen in my life. Thanks for posting it!

  • Matt Jones

    Excellent post. Three cheers for Frank Tashlin!

  • SamSchulz

    “Ahhhhhh, don’t work, do they?” – Porky Pig’s Feat 1943

  • Paulie J. Waddle

    Frank Tashlin is my hero.

  • Mike Scott

    Brilliant. That part about chucking the Donald Duck Voice Guy out the window in his wicker chair made me laugh out loud. Legend.

  • Amid says above, “Even online, it sometimes feels that he gets no respect; the editors of
    the Looney Tunes Wiki can’t identify Tashlin well enough to put up an
    actual photo of him on his biographical entry.” The photograph used in that biographical entry seems to be used fairly widely on the Internet as a picture of Frank Tashlin, based on a Google image search. Does anyone know who it really is and how the confusion may have arisen?

  • Pez

    Nice Post. very fun and full of information.

  • He managed to make cartoons that were more cinematic, and movies that were more cartoon-like (among other great things as noted iin your list).

  • Awesome post!

  • Toonio

    Frank Tashin…men of men. (he gets no respect).

  • James Madison

    Interesting. I will have to look for his work.

    Thanks, Amid.

  • mike fontanelli

    Aw, I was waiting for Bob Hope to say, “This stuff’s been cut!”

    If Tashlin had directed nothing except the hotel manager-falling-down-the-spiral-staircase sequence in Porky Pig’s Feat, he’d still be immortal.

  • Doug

    Who was the voice of Professor Tall in the Columbia cartoon? I’m quite sure it was the same person who narrated Chuck Jones’ notable “Dover Boys” for Warners, and who also voiced quite a few other characters for Columbia.

    • John McLeish, who not only did all of those voices you mentioned, but was an excellent storyman and designer. He also was the narrator of most of those classic 40s Goofy cartoons. “… Where the hand of man has never set foot!”

      • Doug

        I had forgotten about the Goofy narrations. I’m less familiar with short subject Disney cartoons, having never seen that many of them while growing up. Cultural deprivation.

    • kiptw

      It’s pretty clear where they got ‘inspired’ for Clyde Crashcup. That and the voice of Richard Haydn. I love this list. At least five of these reasons are new to me.

  • Doug

    I was surprised by the sheer quality of that first “Fox and Crow” short. It’s not just funny (as noted, a precursor to Jones’ Coyote-Road Runner series), but a really elegant piece of animation, comparable to MGM’s cartoons when that studio was in its late-’30s – early-’40s prime, with much attention given to detail. Beautifully done.

  • Roberto González

    Thanks, Alfons. I had no idea. I don’t know if you recognize me here but we met in the last Salón del Cómic in Barcelona.

  • jhalpernkitcat

    I lost it at the tale of throwing Clarence Nash out the window.

  • one who lives in the boonies in the south…I had to work hard to find out more about Tashlin….his speed and timing always stood out to me from the other directors at WB… the visual differences in his main characters…..he was always stylized…and had a wicked humor about him….his Pvt. Snafu’s were my favorites of the series…

  • Nik

    Tash has always been awesome. Love his cartoons and his films.

    I was just telling a friend how great Tashlin was, partly because he made the transition to live action films (something very few animation directors get to do).

  • Roberto González

    Incidentally I know this post is all in good fun, but I must disagree with the notion of Porky Pig being a ‘chump’ if that means he’s kind of a less charismatic Looney Tunes character. He’s kind of a chump in these early shorts but his more defined personality in later incarnations is naive, but not harmless or dumb. He certainly has more character than Mickey Mouse and I always root with him when he’s paired with Daffy-even if Daffy is hysterical and funnier, Porky is likeable and realistic. I just had to say it cause I often feel Porky is a really underrated character these days. They don’t even include him in merchandising. And The Looney Tunes Show often makes him too much of a loser. He was perfectly used in the Duck Dodgers series, though.

  • Howard Prouty

    Great stuff! At the risk of pimping my own (partial) work, here’s a resource that all Tashlin aficionados should have on their shelves: It was published in 1994 in connection with the Locarno Film Festival’s Tashlin tribute/retrospective, which to my knowledge is still the most comprehensive celebration of his work ever presented. As the lead researcher for that event, my contributions to the book were the “Documentation” section (which includes a full filmography, bibliography and other data, plus a full chronology of his life), and the gathering of most of the illustrations. Many of the latter came from Tashlin’s own papers, which until that time had been in the possession of his widow, and are now held — thanks to my efforts and to the generosity of Frank’s son — by the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library….where, by the way, they were extensively consulted by Ethan de Seife for his recent book (cited above).

  • kiptw

    The good news is that _The World that Isn’t_ only costs about $25 today, but that might not last. I bought a copy years ago, even though it had a printing defect (a signature is repeated, so it has some pages twice and others not at all) because I didn’t know if I’d ever see one again.

    _The Bear that Wasn’t_ is simply my favorite book. Even if you don’t read the words (and you should), the illustration is so clean and stylish and sharp-edged you could shave with it. The dispensation of jokes in the scenes is exemplary. The progression of ever-increasing ridiculousness is a lesson in how to do it.

    Before I secured my own copy (thanks, Dover!) I spent some time searching for it. My bookshop friend eagerly showed me one day what he thought was the book, but it was a horrific color remake by some shlep behind the Iron Curtain that ends with the bear shaved and working forever in the factory. Totally missed the point. As Krusty says, “What the hell was THAT?”

  • Gregor Nelson

    Thank you for this! Tash was a hero of mine from childhood, as I was raised on The Bear That Wasn’t (published 1946) and later on, The World That Isn’t (1951). But it was his second “children’s” book, The Possum That Didn’t (1950) that was my all-time favorite. My aunt went to purchase a copy in 1954 from a bookshop in Los Angeles. The clerk furtively produced a copy from under the counter, and in hushed tones said that while they carried it, it was not openly displayed or on the shelf, as it had been decried by some as a subversive indictment of American society (as indeed it is!). The McCarthy Hearings were in full swing right then, after all. My aunt made her purchase and left the shop, certain that G-Men were now on her tail. I still have my three well-loved books.

  • Paul Zahl

    May I sound off for a sec about “The Way of Peace”?
    It’s really wonderful.
    It goes into an unusual area — one that I appreciate as a religious person —
    which is kind of a New Testament spin on the end of the world!
    The last shot, with a text from John’s Gospel, literally imports hope
    where hope has been lost.
    Several Tashlin distinctives can be seen in the film,
    such as the phallic nuclear rocket, dwelt on, you could say, over long.
    The views of the destruction of the church are also poignant, and can carry
    one forward to “War of the Worlds”.
    “The Way of Peace” premiered at Constitution Hall in Washington,
    and it was sent out as a kind of topsy-turvey bouquet in favor of world oneness.
    I think it’s really good, another reason to honor this eclectic artist.

  • Loved his work with Jerry Lewis and the audience gobbled those films up.

  • David Tashlin

    Thank you for this. Fank is my grandfather and I’m glad to see so many people enjoy his work.