The World That Isn't: The Films of Frank Tashlin

Programmed by Jack Hamm
Essay by Jack Hamm

Even in today’s film industry, it’s an uncertain proposition for animation directors to transition into live-action filmmaking. Brad Bird has made the transition with the fourth Mission: Impossible epic and the upcoming Tomorrowland, while John Carter has ensured that Andrew Stanton will be sticking to cartoons for the foreseeable future. But, more than six decades ago, Frank Tashlin made the switch in brilliant fashion. A former cartoonist and Looney Tunes director, Tashlin left the confines of Termite Terrace to make his way in the live-action world, working his way up from gag-writer to screenwriter to director of some of the funniest movies of the ‘50s. However, he never lost sight of his animation roots, peppering his movies with bizarre, inventive visuals: wild double-takes from male observers as Jayne Mansfield walks down the street, steam coming out of Bob Hope’s head as he quaffs a strong drink, masseurs bending Jerry Lewis’ limbs into impossible contortions. His movies can truly be described as live-action cartoons, and this aspect—combined with a remarkable ability to lampoon the cultural trends of his time—makes him one of the forgotten greats of his era.

Most fans list Tashlin’s two collaborations with Mansfield as the high point of his career, and they certainly demonstrate his comic abilities at their peak. The Girl Can’t Help It spoofs the then-burgeoning rock-and-roll craze, featuring a title song by Little Richard and cameo appearances from many masters of the form. The plot involves a Born Yesterday-style love triangle, with a mobster trying to turn his girlfriend into a singing sensation, only to have her fall in love with the man in charge of the publicity campaign. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is even better, as the immortal Tony Randall is added to the mix in a dead-on satire of the advertising world.

Tashlin also made many, many films with Jerry Lewis, making him an instant hit with French critics. He got in at the tail end of Jerry’s pairing with Dean Martin and quickly made two of the duo’s best films: Artists and Models, a glorious cavalcade of bizarreness featuring comic books, Red spies, and a young Shirley MacLaine, and Hollywood or Bust, a road-trip film which parodies the obsessions of movie fans and features Anita Ekberg playing herself.

Also on our slate of films is Caprice, a comedy-thriller from late in Tashlin’s career starring the unusual pairing of Doris Day and a young Richard Harris, and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, another pairing of Tashlin and Girl Can’t Help It star Tom Ewell. Lieutenant, incidentally, is also notable for the fact that Dorothy Dandridge turned down a part in it. On the dubious advice of Otto Preminger, she declined to take a supporting role in the film, one of several examples of her struggles to find suitable roles after the spectacular success of Carmen Jones. It’s too bad, especially because that character (ultimately played by Rita Moreno) is one of the comedic highlights of the movie.

We close the series with several more Tashlin-Lewis collaborations, from after the breakup with Dino. The first two find Tashlin in a more sentimental vein than usual, but with his unique sense of humor still in full force. Rock-A-Bye-Baby is billed as a remake of Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, but it has so little to do with that film that it’s practically an original. Instead, it takes the characters and basic situation from Sturges’ movie and weaves an entirely new plot around it, featuring Jerry’s efforts to take care of three babies at once. The Geisha Boy is more along the lines of Chaplin’s The Kid, with a Japanese setting and appearances from a young Suzanne Pleshette and an old Sessue Hayakawa (billed in the trailer as “that River Kwai tough guy”!). Finally, there’s It’s Only Money, in which Jerry foils a criminal plot directed at another cartoon alum (Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl), and Who’s Minding the Store?, featuring Jerry wreaking havoc in a department store and the debut of his famous typewriter gag.

Tashlin’s name may have fallen out of the public eye in recent years, but he maintains a cult following among comedy aficionados (including such luminaries as John Waters and Joe Dante). Try his films, and see just how close the real world can come to the cartoon one.


2015-04-05 @ 7:00 PM

Artists and Models

(Frank Tashlin, 1955) · Comic-book fanatic Eugene (Jerry Lewis) keeps roommate Rick (Dean Martin) up all night with his lurid dreams about the adventures of “Vincent the Vulture.” While Eugene encounters the real-life model for his beloved super-heroine Bat Lady (a young Shirley MacLaine), Rick turns his buddy’s dreams into a hit comic book and romances a fellow cartoonist. But can he defeat the Communist spies who think his cartoons are the secret to overthrowing the USA?

runtime: 109 min format: DCP


2015-04-12 @ 7:30 PM


(Frank Tashlin, 1967) · Doris Day joins a pre-Dumbledore Richard Harris in this tale of murder, secret agents, and...hairspray? Tashlin applies the James Bond formula to the cosmetics industry in this comedy-thriller from the classic era of spy films. The story moves from industrial espionage into more sinister international crime, but don't try to figure out the plot. Instead, enjoy this tale of adventure in scenes ranging from the Eiffel Tower to the ski slopes of Switzerland.

runtime: 98 min format: 16mm


2015-04-19 @ 7:00 PM

The Lieutenant Wore Skirts

(Frank Tashlin, 1956)
Greg (Tom Ewell) has a problem: his wife has joined the Air Force, even though he’s unable to serve due to his bum knee. Like any good ’50s husband, he’s upset that he has to stay at home while his wife has exciting adventures in the company of handsome soldiers, and he embarks upon an elaborate plan to get her kicked out of the Service so that she can return to him. An early film appearance of Sheree North, Fox’s answer to Marilyn Monroe.

runtime: 99 min format: DCP


2015-04-26 @ 7:00 PM

The Girl Can't Help It

(Frank Tashlin, 1956) · The earlier of Tashlin’s two collaborations with Jayne Mansfield just might be the best rock n’ roll movie of all time—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, and a host of other legends all turn up. A dopey mobster hires music agent Tom (Tom Ewell) to work with his bombshell girlfriend (Jayne) and turn her into a singing star; the fact that she’s completely tone-deaf is one problem, but their growing affection for one another is a far bigger one.

runtime: 99 min format: DCP

2015-05-03 @ 7:15 PM

Hollywood or Bust

(Frank Tashlin, 1956) · Martin and Lewis again! Gambler Steve (Dino) has cheated his way into joint ownership of a raffled-off luxury car, but the legitimate winner (Jerry) is an obsessed movie fan who wants to drive to Hollywood with his gigantic dog Mr. Bascomb. Steve plans to steal the car the first chance he gets, but he slowly begins to warm up to his oddball companion. Meanwhile, Tashlin’s constantly-inventive gags and musical numbers are a feast for the eyes and ears.

runtime: 95 min format: DVD



2015-05-10 @ 7:00 PM

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

(Frank Tashlin, 1957) · Tashlin hits his peak with this satire of the advertising world, in which low-level adman Rock (Tony Randall) is eager to gain the fabled key to the executive washroom. Needing a celebrity endorsement for Stay-Put Lipstick, he approaches starlet Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), who’ll only sign on if he pretends to be her boyfriend. From the opening credits’ mock commercials to a film legend’s surprise appearance at the climax, this one is not to be missed.

runtime: 93 min format: DCP


2015-05-17 @ 7:00 PM

Rock-A-Bye Baby

(Frank Tashlin, 1958) · Though it's credited as a remake of Preston Sturges' Miracle of Morgan's Creek, this one is Tashlin and Lewis all the way. When a movie star delivers triplets out of wedlock (or, at least, as far out as the Production Code lets Tashlin go), she recruits her childhood sweetheart (Jerry) to take care of them. Can our hero make the grade as a babysitter while fending off the attentions of the star's lovestruck sister (a young Connie Stevens)?

runtime: 103 min format: DCP


2015-05-24 @ 7:00 PM

The Geisha Boy

(Frank Tashlin, 1958) · Frequent Tashlin collaborator Jerry Lewis returns as a stage magician who sets off for Japan on a USO tour. Once there, he promptly gets himself fired, but in the process he befriends a young boy who’s been mired in despair since the death of his parents. This film has a much more sentimental and heartfelt tone than many of Tashlin’s other works, but the director’s comedic style is still very much in evidence, with movie and pop-culture references aplenty.

runtime: 98 min format: DCP


2015-05-31 @ 7:00 PM

It's Only Money

(Frank Tashlin, 1962) · TV repairman Lester (Jerry Lewis) dreams of being a great detective, so when he hears that a wealthy family is searching for its long-lost heir, he jumps at the chance to help a private-eye buddy investigate the mystery. He manages to navigate a world of fortune-hunting lawyers, sinister butlers, exploding boats, and man-eating automatic lawnmowers—but he can’t figure out why the villains of the piece seem so interested in targeting him…

runtime: 63 min format: DCP


2015-06-07 @ 7:00 PM

Who's Minding the Store?

(Frank Tashlin, 1963) · Department store owner Mrs. Tuttle (Agnes Moorehead) is very angry, and with good reason: her daughter is getting married to Jerry Lewis. Hoping to drive the dimwitted fiancé away for good, she gives him a job in one of her stores and sets him up to fail, but he proves much more resilient than she had thought. The highlights of the film are Jerry’s famous typewriter gag and the interplay between Moorehead and her sycophantic sidekick (Ray Walston).

runtime: 90 min format: 16mm


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