Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tish-Tash: The Forgotten King of Comedy pt.4

The Inner Circle: Interior Meaning

Andrew Sarris defines interior meaning as being “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material…It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor his attitude toward life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in non-cinematic terms” (562). Based on this description, interior meaning can be interpreted as latent themes presented over a period of time or body of work. While many critics lamented the triviality of post-war comedies, Tashlin’s films often dealt with motifs of sexual fear and offered scorching critiques of consumer society.

The typical Tashlin hero is generally a male protagonist caught in a situation of sexual castration. They often find themselves refusing the ardent passes of strong-willed females. In many cases, these females are often wealthier and more powerful than the males they are chasing; Dick Powell refuses to marry for money in Susan Slept Here and although Jill St. John keeps her riches a secret in Who’s Minding the Store?, Jerry Lewis still rejects her sexual advances because he’s waiting to earn enough money to get married on his own. Similarly, The First Time stands as a critique of the economic struggles inherent in the institution of marriage.

We can see these themes in Tashlin’s cartoon work as well. After initially being pushed around by Petunia Pig in Porky’s Romance (1937), Porky rejects Petunia’s bid for marriage because he fears she’s going to turn into a fat, controlling slob. In Plane Daffy (1944), a femme fatale Nazi spy hen named Hatta Mari4 seduces American fighter pigeons for information, but can’t seem to get a grip on Daffy Duck, who manages to escape her electric kisses. In The Stupid Cupid (1944), Daffy resolutely fights against the Cupid’s attempts to make him lovesick . “Oh no you don’t buster,” Daffy says, whipping out his wallet to show the Cupid a picture of his large family. “You hit me last year and look what happened – tied down, no more fun! Now look at me, a has been!” The Cupid eventually succeeds and sends Daffy into a feverish ménage-a-trois with a married chicken couple; a commentary on the dangers of sexual attraction.

These ideas culminate in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, as Tony Randall resists the attractions of Mansfield’s rich and beautiful Rita Marlowe because he is engaged, choosing a simpler life with a simpler wife over the ‘success’ Rita has to offer. Bill Krohn writes “Clearly, the Tashlin hero’s refusal to be seduced is a moral choice, because he is not without desire – he is just free of certain socially conditioned forms of desire… the hero’s refusal is the central symbol of a general critique of the desire for money, youth, fame, and the catch-all concept of success” (35).

The idea of success in a consumer media-driven society plays a big role in Rock Hunter, as it does in many of Tashlin’s films. In some cases, it takes the obvious form of satire: the validity of comic books in Artists and Models, the failed product pitches in Rock Hunter, the glorified ideal of Hollywood in Hollywood or Bust. But Tashlin often ends his films ambiguously. In The Girl Can’t Help It, Tom Ewell plays Tom Miller, a down-and-out alcoholic press agent forced by gangster ‘Fats’ Murdock (Edmond O’Brien) to boost the singing career of Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield), Murdock’s lover. Miller had seen success before – he propelled singer Julie London to stardom despite her desire to settle down with Miller and live a normal life. Throughout the film, Miller is haunted by the loss of London as a lover, and Jordan acts as his chance to rectify the past through the present. In the end, Murdock appeals to Jordan’s desire to settle with Miller and leave stardom behind, despite the fact that he forced her to cut a hit record. Despite the seemingly happy ending, its sardonic tone and valorization of average-ness and the ordinary leaves a mixed message. Are the characters truly happy, or are they simply substituting one image of success for another? Tashlin’s ambiguity acts as discourse on the American dream and the definition of success in a media-driven society. As Bernard Eisenschitz writes, “Tashlin not only identified and denounced the contradiction of American cinema, but also embodied it, since the ambivalence of his films makes it impossible to say which side he is taking, or to be sure that he is not exploiting the very same thing he is denouncing.” (105)

Some videos from Tashlin's films have been added to parts 2 & 3 - check 'em out! Part 5: The Conclusion coming soon...

Check out Part 3!
Check out Part 2!
Check out Part 1!

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