It’s a little strange how I came to be thinking of Frank Tashlin at 7:30am this morning. Last night I watched Fritz Kiersch’s film Tuff Turf (1984) starring James Spader, Kim Richards and Robert Downey Jr. There were two sequences in this film that took place at a club whose theme were the fabulous sixties. The set for these scenes looked like an under-designed piece from Absolute Beginners, but still had all the big splashy color and flat lighting that I associate with Julien Temple’s film. And there you have it, the connection to Frank Tashlin.
In the mid fifties, after leaving a career in animation in 1946, Frank Tashlin began directing Jerry Lewis’ first solo starring vehicles. Tashlin would direct six films starring Lewis (Rock-A-Bye Baby, The Geisha Boy, Cinderfella, It’s Only Money, Who’s Minding The Store, and The Disorderly Orderly), before Lewis would begin to direct his own pictures, a handful of which have gone on to be milestones in the genre of comedy. What Tashlin brought to Lewis’ early films were the big vibrant colors of Technicolor, the plasticity of flat all encompassing lighting, and an attention to set design rivaled only by director Roy Rowland (The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T). These elements pushed the narratives of these films far beyond the reality in which we live, and into a space in the imagination often reserved for animated films. This elaborate “other world” that exists in Tashlin’s cinema made the behavior and comedy of Lewis acceptable, albeit reasonable to the audience. Jerry Lewis does not seem out of place in Tashlin’s world, but rather totally synonymous with it.
After six films together (more films than Herzog made with Kinski), it would be hard to deny the immense influence Tashlin had on Lewis as a director. Lewis adopted all the mechanisms he could from Tashlin, but would push them further into the realm of expressionism (observe the contrasting color palette of the two Jerry Lewis characters in The Nutty Professor). Yet Tashlin’s influence did not end there. I have noted above Absolute Beginners, which owes much of its color palette to Tashlin, as does William Klein’s campy Cold War comedy Mr. Freedom (1968). A favorite film of mine now comes to mind as being indebted to Tashlin’s work with Lewis more than any other film, Paul Flaherty’s Clifford (1994).
Clifford (starring Charles Grodin, Martin Short and Mary Steenburgen), is relying on Tashlin’s mechanisms the way Lewis did, that is to say when Klein and Temple barrow from Tashlin, it is primarily the cartoonish atmosphere and radiant color palette they are interested in. Lewis saw how much his bizarre and over the top comedy needed the cartoonish world of Tashlin to be acceptable. What Flaherty does in Clifford is heighten the camp in his narrative, relegates peripheral characters to extreme caricature, and allows the film to revel in the antics of the film’s title character. By doing this, Flaherty is surprisingly successful at bypassing the need for the animation oriented color palette, which was the primary focus for Julien Temple and William Klein.
Tashlin’s contribution to cinema, and it’s hard for a die-hard fan to admit, is a singularly strange one, but is also both unique and necessary to the contemporary American dialect of the cinema. If you have never seen a Frank Tashlin film, a Jerry Lewis Film, Mr. Freedom, Absolute Beginners or Clifford, well then it looks like you have your fair share of recommended viewing for this weekend.