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Comedy is a serious business, and during his exhilarating 1950s heyday, Frank Tashlin fashioned a blend of joyous abandon and trenchant nihilism that continually undercut laughter with despair. The main impression one gets from his comedies isn’t the significant but overused notion of the former animator tending to live-action cartoons, but that of a cutting, slapstick cousin to fellow subversive Douglas Sirk: Like Sirk’s grand gloss-operas, Tashlin’s frenetic romps were vilified by contemporary reviewers, then exalted by Cahiers du Cinéma, and, finally, treasured for their seditious dismantling of Eisenhower-era American mores. Both filmmakers were suspicious of the culture’s worship of success, and both saw the American Dream potentially as the ultimate entombment for the characters, inevitably framed by their material possessions—the TV screen that ensnares and distorts Tony Randall in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter might be the same one that entrapped Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows. Whereas Sirk employed his European irony for distanced commentary, however, Tashlin flaunted his American brassiness for complicit immersion into the nation’s startling pop frenzies; imitation of life is what both auteurs are all about, yet in Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It Juanita Moore is grooving to Eddie Cochran’s rockabilly tunes.

The Girl Can’t Help It, the director’s most emblematic picture, is an appropriate choice to kick off the Tashlin fest at Film Forum (August 25 - September 7). Blinded by the jukebox palette, surrounded by the sounds of rock n’ roll, and alarmed by the ampleness of Jayne Mansfield, it’s a movie made for consumption just as it draws a complex, mutually critical net between consumers and products. Rock music here is but one of the facets of American pop culture which fascinated and repelled Tashlin throughout his career—what links it to comic books (Artists and Models) and movies (Hollywood or Bust) in the auteur’s caustic worldview is how easily such vital cultural manifestations could have their feral energy tamed and bottled for a media-controlled public, with advertisement the Mephistophelian mediator (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?). There’s a feeling that the characters themselves have been manufactured, that Jerry Lewis and Mansfield are brand names, encased into their own personas. Roy Rogers literally plays himself in Son of Paleface, yet it’s interesting to note that this splendid western spoof, one of Tashlin’s funniest and airiest, is staged in an Old West far removed from the suffocating ’50s. It’s also one of the films that reveal the director’s cartoon past most directly, with Bob Hope basically playing Daffy Duck, his body stretching and spinning to the old Looney Tunes rhythms.

Born in 1913, Tashlin had a vast experience in show business, working for both Merrie Melodies and Disney and developing gags for Hal Roach, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Lucille Ball and Red Skelton, among others. Working at the Warner Bros. animation studios along with Tex Avery, Robert Clampett and Chuck Jones, Tashlin learned the freedom allowed by the cartoon line, a freedom he brought to his live-action canvases after he graduated to directing. “Impossible” jests abound in Tashlin: Mansfield’s jiggly stroll in The Girl Can’t Help It melts ice and cracks glass, the tops of Jerry Lewis’s shoes pop out as Shirley MacLaine kisses him in Artists and Models, and oil ejaculates out of Lewis’s oversized cowboy hat in Hollywood or Bust as the gang enters Texas. Brazen sexual gags, all, for Tashlin knew that sex was among the biggest of all products; image is everything in a consumerist society, and the films are full of heroines (Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Debbie Reynolds, Sheree North, Tuesday Weld) contorting themselves in attempts to live up to the sexy-vamp ideals imposed onto them by the male gaze, just as the men are expected to live up to their macho roles. Tashlin’s cinema is a tragic one for, despite the mobility of their caricatured contours, the characters remain mostly unable to break free from their assigned societal spaces.

And yet how many other visions this bleak can feature as many instances of liberating laugher? Tashlin’s is a jaundiced eye, sometimes nearly Nabokovian in its sardonicism—Bachelor Flat features not just Terry-Thomas as a transplanted European teacher surveying modern American, but also Tuesday Weld, one of the early candidates for the movie version of Lolita—but, like Nabokov, he knew the allure of consumerism. His harsh critique scarcely detracts from the riotous appreciation of the characters’ élan, or the celebration of the shiny sheen from which the works themselves are inescapably a part of. There is no moment funnier and more profound in the retrospective than Jerry Lewis appearing on a television show in Artists and Models and becoming simultaneously the poster boy for shilling comic books and a warning sign of their fallout. If Lewis as an auteur glories in the transcendental powers of human personality (his own, of course), Tashlin brutally envisions society’s perpetual desire to package that humanity and vend it to the masses like so many cherry-red Cadillacs. The list of pupils over the years is extensive (Lewis, Jean-Luc Godard, Russ Meyer, Joe Dante, Quentin Tarantino, Álex de la Iglesia), but Tashlin’s hilarious and sobering brand of rebellious comedy remains unique, its exultant vulgarity still richly contradictory.