An Interview by Michael Barrier
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Frank Tashlin's cartoons were among the very best of the many wonderful Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies that emerged from the Leon Schlesinger studio in the early forties. Alone among the Warner Bros. cartoons made then, they invite positive comparisons with Bob Clampett's. Here is some of what I said about the two directors' cartoons in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age:
"In [his] last few cartoons [for Schlesinger], Clampett was freer with all the elements of film than he had been before. In the first half of the forties, only Tashlin among the other Warner cartoon directors was nearly as fluent. The effect in Tashlin's cartoons was subtly different. Tashlin was warming up for the career in live-action films he had always wanted; he was, as he said, 'writing stories at home and trying to sell them for features,' so in his cartoons he was thinking in feature-film terms. He concerned himself first with the film aspects of his cartoonsthe angles, the cutting, and so onand only then with the animation. Clampett, by contrast, was concerned first with the characters, and the cinematic razzle-dazzle in his last few cartoons is there because it enhances the characters and makes them seem more real."
Tashlin was born in New Jersey (as his accent always revealed) on February 13, 1913. He worked at the Schlesinger studio three timesthe first time as an animator, when he was only twenty, and then twice as a director, once in the late thirties and again in the early forties. (The accompanying photo, taken by Tashlin's friend Fred Niemann, a Schlesinger story man, comes from that first directorial stint, circa 1937.) In between, he worked as a writer for Disney, when that studio was at its peak, and he headed the Screen Gems studio when it enjoyed its one and only creative burst. As he said himself, he was a restless man, never satisfied with what he was doing at the time. Only a few years after his second stint as a director of Warner Bros. cartoons, he was directing live-action comedies like Son of Paleface and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter. His name has become as firmly linked with Jerry Lewis'she directed what are generally regarded as the best Lewis filmsas Dean Martin's.
Tashlin was the creator, as "Tish Tash," of a short-lived (1934-36) Los Angeles Times Syndicate feature, "Van Boring (He Never Says a Word)," which was sometimes a single panel, sometimes a true comic strip made up of three or four panels. Its title character was a dig, in name and appearance, at Amedee Van Beuren, his boss at the Aesop's Fables studio. Tashlin himself, as "Tish Tash," was also a recurring character in "Van Boring," especially in the continuity that made up its last few months, when Tish and Van were marooned on a desert island with two children, Nip and Tuck. Three samples of "Van Boring," one from each year of the feature's life, are scattered throughout this interview.
Tashlin was also the author and illustrator of several children's books, the best known of which is probably The Bear That Wasn't.
I interviewed Tashlin on May 29, 1971, in Beverly Hills, in the company of my wife, Phyllis, a Los Angeles cartoon fan named Bob Konikow, who already knew Tashlin (Bob now owns a multimedia company in Orlando), and, off and on, Tashlin's very young son, Christopher. Although some of his colleagues remembered Tashlin as cold and aloof when he was a young director, I found him immensely likable. He was a very big man, officially standing six-foot-two and weighing perhaps three hundred pounds; he dwarfs me in a snapshot my wife took that day, even though I'm more than six feet tall. He was in good spirits, and he clearly enjoyed revisiting his work in animation.
In the interview, Tashlin rejected statements made about him by two other animation veterans, Tex Avery and Dave Fleischer. Avery's recollection that Tashlin kept a notebook of gags he'd seen in silent comedies was, however, backed up by Homer Brightman, who was a Disney story man when Tashlin worked at that studio. Brightman and Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, both disputed Tashlin's story about dropping Nash out of window in a wicker chair. Brightman also took vigorous exception to Tashlin's claims to have done the crucial story work on "Mickey and the Beanstalk," the aborted Disney feature that wound up as half of Fun and Fancy Free. (Tashlin was very much involved in story work, but the surviving documents are ambiguous as to the extent of his role.) Such disagreements are, alas, an unavoidable byproduct of research into Hollywood animation's history.
Tashlin died on May 5, 1972; he was not yet 60 years old. I had not yet finished transcribing our interview, and so he never had the chance to revise any of his remarksand I never had the chance to follow up. This was one of my first interviews with people in animation, and, as always when I read these early transcripts, I lament not asking all the questions I might have asked. (I've wondered for more than thirty years why it was that Earl Hurd met Tashlin at the Los Angeles train station in 1933.)
I've reproduced the whole of my 1972 transcript here, except for a few repetitious passages and false starts. When I transcribed the interview, I paraphrased a few passages of no particular interest; they're in the bracketed paragraphs below. Portions of the interview have been published before, in books issued in connection with Tashlin retrospectives at Edinburgh (1973) and Lucerne (1994), but this is its first appearance in so complete a form. Literal, stenographic transcripts are usually unreadable, and that would certainly be the case if this were one. For this publication, though, I've reviewed the entire tape and made minor changes in a number of passages to bring them as close as possible to Tashlin's exact words without reducing the interview to incomprehensibility.
To hear a one-minute audio clip from the interview, in which Tashlin talks about Jack Benny's influence on the Warner cartoons, click here (MP3 player required).
As the interview opened, we were talking about Bob Clampett, whom Tashlin remembered as sitting on a stool when he worked, "so he could sit like Uriah Heep, way up on a high stool."
Tashlin: It had something to do with fainting; it bothered him to get up and down out of a chair. So he was way up on a damned stool, but every once in a while he would topple over. Chuck [Jones] and I would lift him up, and pat him, and get him awake, and we'd put him back on the stool.
Barrier: This was over at Termite Terrace?
Tashlin: No, Tex named it that, I guess, after they moved down there. That was even worse than where we were. We were under the stars' dressing rooms; they were making all kinds of movies there at that time. When I came out here, I was a nut movie fan; you know, to see real movie starsa real gauche kid. These movie stars would go right past our window; it was Chuck and I and Clampett in the room, and someone else, I don't remember [possibly Robert Cannon]. Clampett was doing in-betweens, Chuck was doing in-betweens, I was animating. Anyhow, these movie stars would go by, and I had a camera, and I used to tell them to stop so I could take their picture. And I'd have them developed, and I'd have them autographed. I'd send these back home, I was a big man. Dick Powell used to come by when he was making a movie. Years later, I directed Dick Powell in a movie; this is over twenty years later. So I brought this pictureI'm like Clampett, I save thingsand I said, do you remember the guy who took this picture? And he starts trying to remember, and he says, yeah, it wasand I said, well, that's your director now.
Barrier: Now, you were at Schlesinger's three different times, so this must have been...
Tashlin: Schlesinger brought me out from New York, and I worked there. Then I started a comic strip, and he wanted a cut of it, and I said go to hell. So he fired me. Then I worked for Ub Iwerks, who was doing a thing called Flip the Frog. Then I came back to Schlesinger's as a director.
Barrier: While you were with Iwerks, you were an animator?
Tashlin: I was an animator, yes.
Barrier: Since Schlesinger had fired you in the first place, what led to the reconciliation?
Tashlin: He was starting another unit, and he [needed] a director, and he said, I'll let you direct. He was a man who thought in money terms. He never let personalities interfere too long; his wallet spoke.
Barrier: And you started off as a director, when you went back to Schlesinger, on Porky Pig cartoons?
Tashlin: That's right. Friz Freleng was there, and Tex was directing, and he wanted a third unit; he was doing twenty-six cartoons a year and he wanted to do thirty-nine. Chuck and Clampett weren't directing yet.
Barrier: Who did you have assigned to you as animators when you first started directing?
Tashlin: A very good animator named Bob Bentley...another fellow, Joe D' Igalo..Nelson Demorest...Norm McCabe, who directed later on.
Barrier: Didn't Bob McKimson animate for you?
Tashlin: Later on. I complained I needed a strong animatornone of these men were too strong, especially in personality animationso I got Bob, because Bob was very, very solid, and he drew very well.
Barrier: There's been a great deal of interest lately among my friends in the cartoons you directed during your first stint at Warners, as a director, because you seem to be anticipating a lot of the stuff they did later, in the early forties, in the sense of the timing and the wilder gags, which they didn't have in the earlier cartoons. For example, I've seen a cartoon of yours called Cracked Ice, and it's very interesting to me, because you start off pretty much like the old Warner cartoons, with a string of fairly obvious gagsthe timing milks the gagsand then you get into the sustained gag, with the pig slipping around the ice.
Tashlin: Was there a Saint Bernard in that?
Barrier: Yes, the pig is trying to get the brandy away from the Saint Bernard. Now, you were beyond even Tex Avery at this time, even though Tex is usually credited with developing the wilder Warner style. Was this a conscious development, or did it just sort of happen?
Tashlin: I would never once think I was ever ahead of Tex, any time, anywhere, anyhow. Tex, I thought, was just marvelous. I'm surprised that you say that. All I was ever interested in was applyingsee, wherever I am, wherever I'm working at the time, my mind and heart [are] ahead, somewhere else. I am never where I'm at. When I was doing cartoons, I was concerned with one thing: doing motion pictures, features. I would try to apply likeI remember I did the first montage they ever did in a cartoon. I was always trying to do feature-type direction with these little animals. And it's like when I was doing films, I started thinking of doing plays. But fellows like Tex and Friz, they stayed with it.
You know, everything came from Disney's, we didn't do anything. It al1 came from Disney's.
Barrier: How do you mean? The characters, or the techniques, or?
Tashlin: Everything. There's a great deal of argument about who created Bugs Bunny. Now certainly, "Bugs" Hardaway, Ben Hardaway, who was a great idea man, had a lot to do with it, and it was certainly his name. But Bugs Bunny is nothing but Maxie Hare, the Disney character in The Tortoise and the Hare. That's the only time they ever used that character [Actually, Max Hare was used in two other Disney shorts.] We took itSchlesinger took it, or whoever, and used it a thousand times. But that whole thing of the guy [here Tashlin made the "whoosh" sound that is used in cartoons to accompany great speed], that's where that was invented [in The Tortoise and the Hare]. So that's all Disney. Maxie Hare had a voice [Tashlin imitates it] that's really a cross of the woodpecker's [Woody Woodpecker] today, and Daffy Duck's. You run The Tortoise and the Hare, and it's almost Woody's voice. So that all came from Disney.
Now, take the mouse that's everybody's used, and that Barbera and Hanna used at MGM for years. That mouse was designed by Disney, and Wilfred Jackson directed it in a picture called The Country Cousin. That's the first time that cute mouse was ever used.
Barrier: But still, the Warner cartoons in the forties had a wildness...
Tashlin: I think that was Tex. Freleng, Izzy, did marvelous, meticulous things, especially with music. I used to try to do things like he did, and never could do them as well as he did. But Tex, I guess, was really the one who developed wild, wild jokes.
A lot of our humor came from Jack Benny, and I'll tell you how. Jack Benny was on [the radio] Sunday night, that's when Jack was very, very big. We'd come in Monday morning, all of us were talking about Jack. Jack had running jokesthere'd be a knock on the door, open the door, Mr. Kitzel would stick his head in and say one line. The rabbit started doing that"What's up, doc?" Bing, door closes, out. We'd get all of this from Jack Benny. We really stole from all over, and perhaps, as it came out of the assembly line, we put some originality to it. But really, we got it from all over. We got the characters, we got everything. But I think of everyone there, Tex was the great innovator. If there was any innovation, it was Tex.
Barrier: But in your cartoons like The Major Lied Till Dawn, for example, there were wild gags that were beyond even what Tex was doing at the time.
Tashlin: Really? I don't remember that one.
Barrier: Looking at the cartoons from that period side by side, you seem to have gone a little farther in that direction before it eventually became the Warner style.
Tashlin: I was not conscious of that; and to think that I'm in any kind of a league with Tex pleases the hell out of me. I have no recollection that I was anywhere near Tex at that time.
Barrier: When you were a director at Warners, how did you work with your story men and your animators? Some directors were very much involved in the stories, others were very much involved in preparing sketches for the animators. Were you story-oriented...?
Tashlin: Oh, yes. Usually, the director had the germ of what he wanted to doat least, what the picture should be about. I had Ted Pierce with me at that time, and Ted was a marvelous story man. We were all like a bunch of country boys, and TedI think by that time he had been married several times, and had lived in Tahitihe was really like an English remittance man. He had a certain glamour to him; he had a marvelous shabby-genteel manner. He was a big devil with the women; oh my God, he cut a big swath through the inking and painting department. He was our Cary Grant. He was clever, he was marvelous with those stories. I think Ted did the story with me on The Major Lied Till Dawn; in fact, that was Ted's voice, for the Major, I think. He was very, very bright.
Barrier: Did you let him work out the stories primarily by himself, or were you right there with him?
Tashlin: No, you'd be directing and handing out animation on the previous picture. You'd go in to see [the story men], and maybe make suggestions, or help them, or if they had a problem they'd call you in. But they really did the storyTed did the story.
Barrier: When the story had been developed, how much guidance in the way of poses did you give to your animators?
Tashlin: That was quite thorough. I would do roughs on really almost every extreme positionvery rough [drawings]. Lots of drawings; I would be almost able to flip them.
Barrier: So you would make several hundred drawings, say, for a typical cartoon?
Tashlin: Oh yes, easy.
Barrier: The second time you left Warner's was in 1938, after you'd been a director there for two years. What was the cause of your leaving then?
Tashlin: I came there in '33, got bounced because I wouldn't give Schlesinger a cut of the comic strip; went to Iwerks, Hal Roach; came back in '36he made me a directorworked there in '36 and '37... oh, yeah, I got into a fight with Schlesinger's assistant, a fellow by the name of Henry Binder. I shouldn't have gotten into a fight with him, because he was an intelligent, bright fellowfor an executive. He was really too bright to be an executive; he helped on stories, and he had ideas. Really a marvelous fellow. But because of some perverseness in me, I got into a fight with this fellowwhich led to, you know, the hell with youand I left. But I think what I really wanted all the time was to go to Disney's, and I went to Disney's then.
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Disney's was to try to help the cause of the union. Ted was the first president of the Screen cartoonists Guild, as it was called then, and I was vice president, and we used to meet in cellarsit was like Communist cell meetings. I guess I was the first person [in the union] making more than thirty dollars a week. The salaries were terrible then. I was making a hundred and fifty at the time, which was what the directors got: Freleng made more, he made more than any of us, but a hundred and fifty was the going rate. So we started this union, and it was tough going: everyone was afraid to join. That was the reason I went to Disney's: we couldn't crack them. I was able to make some inroads over there, and finally we went on strike, and they had to join the union.
Barrier: Is that when you actually left the Disney studio to go to Columbia?
Tashlin: Right. I got into a fight with Walt: I always pick the wrong people to fight with. Then I was put in charge at Screen Gems, and there we did a series of pictures with the Fox and the Crow.
I must stop here and tell you another thing that came from Disney's. It still goes on today, because now with my son I watch Saturday morning cartoons, and I see these Road Runner cartoonswhich I'd never seen in theatersand they are joke-topper, joke-topper. Tries to catch him, sets up a thing, boom, backfires. That happens twenty times and that's the picture. This all came from Disney'sthe whole idea of no story, of using a basic situation. I did it with the Fox and the Crow, because I cribbed what they had at Disney's. You set up your problem: the cat is going to catch the mouse. Well, Barbera and Hanna did it for years. You set it up, and there's a series of jokes, one after another [as the cat] keeps failing and failing. I'm amazed when I look at these Road Runner things. The guys are still hitting walls and leaving imprints, they still fall downI can't believe that stuff is still going on. Those jokes are all forty years old. There's no originality.
That all came from a marvelous fellow who came from Tillamook, Oregon, a fellow by the name of Ralph Wright. He came down, and his pants were twelve inches too short for him, and he wore suspendershe was out of the hills. But he had a crazy, crazy mind, almost as wild as Roy Williams, who is the best of all. Ralph did the first story of that type for Jack Kinney, called How to Ride a Horse. The Goof tried to stay on the horseboom, off, another joke. That was the beginning of what still seems to be going on today. Then he and Kinney made morea series of jokes, just one problem and working it out. It's like a symphony, with a theme and then the development of that theme.
Barrier: How long were you at Disney's altogethertwo years?
Tashlin: From '38 to '41.
Barrier: You were essentially a story man there, weren't you?
Tashlin: A story director. First I was a gag man. When you went to Walt's, no matter where you came from, you had to learn what they called humility. Which meant that your chevrons had to be ripped off you, and the drums rolled. When I left Leon's, I was making a hundred and fifty a week, and when I got into Disney's, I was making fifty. But it was worth it for what I wanted to do. The union; and I wanted to learn what went on over there. Of course, what went on over there was simply one thing, and that was Walt himself. That was the big secret. He would do things over and over again, with no regard to money, to get things perfect. He was getting at that time, they said, forty thousand dollars apiece [for shorts] from RKO, so if he'd made them for twenty, he'd have made a profit. But I remember a shortcalled Donald's Date, or something [probably Mr. Duck Steps Out]that got up to a hundred and ten thousand dollars. But he didn't care, he had to get it right.
That was before we moved to Burbank, and we were over at the Hyperion studio; they didn't even allow me to get into the main studio, I was at what they called an annex with other gag men. Carl Barks and I worked on the same movie together. Carl always wore a cardigan sweater. We sat in the same room with Roy Williams and Carl Meyer, and we would do storyboards. Dave Hand, who was the director of Snow White, would come over and look at our storyboards, and he would tear them to bits, and he would go, in his expensive jackets with the padded shouldersit looked like he wasn't walking, it was like the jacket was walking. Anyhow, he came in and terrified us.
They didn't know what to do with a fellow by the name of "Ducky" NashClarence Nash, he was the voice of Donald Duckbecause 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 asleepand he slept just like a duck, he made funny soundsin 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 humoryou know, you want to talk about low humor, that's what we thought was funny.
Barrier: That sort of thing went on constantly, didn't it?
Tashlin: Roy Williams talked to a very slender gag man at the time, whose name was Dana Coty; he came from Life and Judge. You knew he was a New Yorker, because he worked at his desk with his hat on, like a newspaperman. One day Roy said to him, how do you keep so thin? Roy was a bit gullible, so Dana said, I drink two cans of sauerkraut juice every morning, that keeps me thin. There was a market right next door, and Roy aswhooshout, and back, and he starts putting it down. We got on the phone, and we called all over the studio, and we said, lock all the johns. In a minute, Roy is on his feet, because this stuff doesn't wait. This guy was off, trying to open doors, and he ended up at a tree, with all of us applauding him.
Barrier: You were all working on Donald Duck gags at the time?
Tashlin: They had made some brilliant movies; I think these are the finest examples of great cartoon stories: Moose Hunters and Clock Cleaners. Roy Williams came up with the idea for Clock Cleanershere were three different characters, they all had their own stories, they were all interwoven. Another was called Mountain Climbers [Alpine Climbers]. I think Ben Sharpsteen directed those; they were done before I was there.
Barrier: I think Burt Gillett directed Clock Cleaners [I was wrong; Sharpsteen directed it].
Tashlin: Really? I thought Burt was no longer there then.
Barrier: He left Disney's and then returned, in the late thirties. He was there in the early thirties and directed Three Little Pigs, then he left.
Tashlin: I was back in New York in the early thirties, at Aesop's Fables, and that's when I met Schlesinger and he gave me a deal to come out here. As soon as I left Aesop'sI was an animator thereBurt Gillett came in, and made some bad cartoons.
We were trying to do a story that took place on the Gutzon Borglum sculptures up in the Black Hillswe all worked on it, we all did sequencesand we never got it past "Shoulders," we never got it past Dave Hand. Walt never saw that.
Barrier: You were only a gag man for a brief period, weren't you?
Tashlin: Then we moved over to the new studio. A fellow named Joe Grant had a department which was known as the model department. Originally, Joe must have been a sculptor, I don't know. Little three-dimensional models [of the characters] were made there. Then he branched out and started developing stories. Out of the model department came Dumbo and "Baby Weems" [in The Reluctant Dragon], and he was doing some work on the second Fantasia. He had a great story man with him, a fellow by the name of Dick Huemer. Joe asked for me, and I went up into that department. I worked on a thing called Roland the Pigeon, which never saw the light of day, then I worked on "Peter and the Wolf." I did a storyboard on that. I had Sam Cobean doing my sketchesyou remember Sam Cobean, the New Yorker cartoonist?
We did marvelous Leica reelsdid you ever see a Leica reel? It was an interesting device. They would photograph the [storyboard] drawings, one at a time, so you had this reel of drawings. It ran with a soundtrack, which we took from the Koussevitzky recording, and wherever there was a blank, a piece of tape, that would turn over the next drawing, so you got a feeling of movement to the music. It really was marvelous. Everything was there but the inbetweens. You saw the whole picture moving, to the music, and all you had made were maybe a couple of hundred still drawings.
At that time, Max Fleischer came out with the second animated feature, Gulliver's Travels, and I remember meeting Walt, and he said, we can do better than that with our second-string animators. They had had a story for years that they couldn't lick"Jack and the Beanstalk"and he gave that to me. I licked it, I found the raison d'être for that story. But he would never give me credit, and that's where I got into the fight with him. I had broken the back of it and made it work, and he took it away from me and gave it to a couple of histhe whole feeling was, how can this guy, who's come from another studio, solve this problem that we haven't been able to solve? They took it away, and they made some changes, but they didn't change the basic story. That was our argument, and I left.
Barrier: So the story of "Mickey and the Beanstalk" as it finally appeared on the screen [in Fun and Fancy Free] was your story.
Tashlin: That was my story. I came up with the idea that made it work, which was that this harp that when it played, gave prosperity to the land, had been stolen. Another thing I laid out on the Leica reelI laid it out for Wilfred Jackson, who was a great directorwas called the "beanero," and that was [the beanstalk] growing at night. We had a whole piece of music that Oliver Wallace wrote, for the beanstalk growing and lifting up the house. When we did that on the Leica reel, I tell you it was just marvelous. There it all was, the music and everything. I never saw it in the filmI always had a kind of heartache about that.
Barrier: I understand you worked on the very first development of Lady and the Tramp, too.
Tashlin: That's right, Sam [Cobean] and I did that whole story; I'd forgotten about that.
Barrier: Were you working from the story that Ward Greene wrote?
Tashlin: I don't recall the book. Joe Grant had models of the dog, Lady, and Sam and I did a story. I never saw the film...I think we had rats coming after the baby at the end...did they have that? Then that's what we did.
Barrier: You worked on other features, didn't you, like Pinocchio and Fantasia?
Tashlin: Pinocchio was being worked on when I went there. I went to some gag meetings, I know, but I don't remember if I made a contribution.
Barrier: I would imagine that the change from Warners to Disney's would have been pretty much of a break, psychologically. Did you have trouble adjusting?
Tashlin: No, I was just terribly awed at being at Disney's.
I knew they were the fountain from which all the rest of us were
living. As an example of how we felt about Disney's, I remember
that Tex had gone to a preview of a Disney cartoon called Little
Hiawatha, in which they had narration at the opening. Tex was
the first one ever to use narration in a cartoon, and I remember
him coming in and saying, they used narration, it kinda makes me
feel good, you know. We were happy if Disney took something from
Barrier: I've wondered what you thought of some of the other directors and animators and story men you worked with at Schlesinger'sClampett, Jones, people like that.
Tashlin: My first recollection of Bob and Chuck goes back
to 1933, when I came to Schlesinger's; we were in the same room
together. I haven't seen Bob for some time, but I saw Chuck about
two years ago, and he looks no different now than he did then.
Barrier: How did their working methods differ from yours? What did you think of their cartoons?
Tashlin: The second time I was at Schlesinger's, Chuck was directing, and I thought his things werefor meterribly slow. Sniffles was an attempt, I guess, to do Country Cousin, but they were terribly slow. That's the only impression I have. Later on, I saw that skunk who talked like Charles Boyer [Pepé le Pew] in theaters, and I noticed that they were moving pretty fast. The Road Runner moves as fast as Maxie Hare moved thirty years ago, so things are looking up.
Bob Clampett is a true original fellow; he is the natural disciple of Tex Avery. He had the same wildness. Clampett did some Daffy Duck cartoons I thought were hilarious. He did some really marvelous thingsdid you ever see Horton Hatches the Egg? God, that was beautiful.
Barrier: I've heard the accusation of bad taste against both Clampett and Avery; Friz Freleng particularly makes that point. Do you think there's any justification to that?
Tashlin: Freleng is a very disciplined, orderly, meticulous filmmaker. I mean that in the best sense, really beautifully engineered things. I tried to do some of those [referring to Freleng's cartoons built around music], but what I was doing was, frankly, imitating Harman and Ising, whom I admire very much. When they were working for Schlesinger, they had made several cartoons in which books would come to life to illustrate songs. I made a couple of those; I made one with travel posters, and I made another one with magazines, and I made another one with books. I loved that, because it gave you a chance to do what I called "feature direction." But I was just cribbing their ideas.
Barrier: I've noticed in your cartoons when you were back at Warners in the early forties, and a lot of your earlier cartoons as well, you have the odd angles...
Tashlin: I loved that; that was like the poor man's Ufa.
Barrier: So when you were making these cartoons in the early forties, you were thinking in feature-film terms.
Tashlin: Right, because I was now writing stories at home and trying to sell them for features.
Barrier: So when you were at Warners in the early forties, you weren't looking at any Tex Avery cartoons or Clampett cartoons and saying, this is the way I'd like to do it, too.
Tashlin: No, no. If there was anybody I was really copying, it was Harman-Ising [during his first stint as a director at Warners].
Barrier: Was it during the strike at Disney's that you went to Columbia?
Tashlin: Yes, as a matter of fact. I got into that fight with Walt and left, and went over to Columbia, and was going to be a story man; they didn't have a story department. Then there was a reorganization over there, and Columbia sent a new man in. He fired everybody in the place except me, and he said, you're going to be in charge of the studio. So now I'm in charge of the studio, I'm managementbut management, on the way to the studio, would go by Disney's and walk in the picket line and call Walt dirty names as he drove through in the Packard. Then I'd go to Screen Gems, down on Seward. I hired the picketers, and I built a new studio out of all the people who worked at Disney's. John Hubley...Bob Wickersham...I can't think of [all] their names, but they were good Disney animators, so they all came over and we had a studio. We started doing very well: we started making these Fox and Crow things, and they were going pretty good. I directed the first one, I think, and from there on I wasn't doing any directing, I was working on stories and running the place. Then, the managementthey can't stay happy long when things are going well, so we ended up in another fracas and I left. These guys went on a sit-down strike at that time, I remember, to protest my removal: it was the first sit-down strike in pictures.
Barrier: Was your fight with Walt during the strike, or before it?
Tashlin: The strike started after I had left, when I was over at Screen Gems as a gag man.
Barrier: How did you happen to return to Warners after your stay at Screen Gems?
Tashlin: Schlesinger called me and asked me to come back. When I went back, Tex had left, he had gone to MGM, and there were four units: Freleng, myself, Bob, and Chuck.
There's kind of an interesting story on Disney's in those days. When I first went over there, I did a story, in the new studio, and I put my sketches up on the storyboard in about three or four days. There was an old-time story man over there who was awfully good; he was next door, and he ambled in to see what I had done. He said, that's very good, and Walt won't like it. I said why, and he said, number one, no one can do a story that quick, and number two, you're not letting him have a chance to get in on it. He said, take it down, put in other things, and call for a meeting, in about a month. So I had a month there where I was working on a kids' book I was doing. When the month was up, I called the meeting. Walt came in with people, and he liked how it was coming pretty good. He changed this and changed thatthe pieces I had put in. Finally, after three months of this, the story was back up that had been done in three days.
Barrier: Tex Avery has said that back in the thirties, you would go to the old silent comedies, especially, and take notes on the gags as reference material for use in your own cartoons.
Tashlin: I never went to anything like that, other than the ones I have seen, normally, as a moviegoer. I don't know where Tex got that.
Barrier: But there are echoesespecially in your feature filmsof some of the great comic chases.
Tashlin: Well, as far as I'm concerned, pay homage to Sennett. I wanted to do a picture [of homage to Sennett] long before Truffaut did that homage to Hitchcock, but I couldn't get the studio to go for it. I wanted to have a bust of Mack Sennett, with a light on it, and I wanted myself to be down on my hands and knees in front of it. I wanted to open the picture like that. But when you do a wild chase, it's a wild chase. You got to fall into certain things.
Barrier: My favorite is the chase in The Disorderly Orderly.
Tashlin: What was that chase? Oh, yeah, with ambulances, and the guy on the stretcher. I never saw that film in a theater.
Barrier: When you went back to Warners the second time as a director, how long were you there?
Tashlin: Probably from 1942 to 1944.
Barrier: And you took over Norm McCabe's unit, when he went in the service?
Tashlin: That's right, that's why Schlesinger called me back, to take Norm's unit.
Barrier: Did you create any characters at Warners? Clampett says you created Petunia Pig.
Tashlin: It was nothing; he had to have a girlfriend in this picture, and you couldn't give him a girl duck. The other fellows created all kinds of characters. I imagine Chuck must have created more characters than anyone else.
Barrier: I'd like to get back to your earliest careerwe kind of skipped over that. Dave Fleischer, for whom I guess you were an errand boy back in the late twenties, in New York, in an interview he recorded several years ago with Joe Adamson, he said, "I hired another errand boy, a little fat kid. Wherever I went, I saw him peeking through the doorways, then running away. I said, 'What's all this? He's annoying me.' I held him for a little while, then I discharged him. When I came to Columbia, when the strike was on, there was the same kid, but he was a director, and a good one. His name was Tashlin. Now he's one of the big directors and producers in the business." Do you recall such episodes?
Tashlin: I went to work as an errand boy at the "Out of the Inkwell" Max Fleischer studio. Dave Fleischer, I don't know what he didMax was the head man. And I used to run errands for eleven dollars a week, and also take home celluloids, and wash them, and they would pay you a penny a celluloid, for each one you washed. So that was the night work. I'll remember something that he doesn't remember. They used to photograph Max at the desk, you know, so there was a real camera there. As a matter of fact, someone took a picture of me standing by the real camera. A little box camera, you know, this was it, this was the dream. Well, I guess me peeking in when they were shooting live action, there was some truth to that. But anyhow, that studioDave and Max were bounced out of that studio. They took an animator with them, a fellow by the name of George Rufle, who was a good friend of mine, and he called me up one day, and he said, "Would you sneak out some paper and cels, 'cause we're going to try to make a cartoon any day." And they did make a cartoon, and that's how they got the Paramount release, and this finally became Popeye and Betty Boop, and all of that grew out of that. But I would like Dave to remember that I stole the paper that made the first cartoon, not that I was peeking in doors.
Barrier: Did you work for Fleischer for a couple of years, and then went to Aesop's Fables?
Tashlin: I might have beenfor maybe a year I did errands, and then I went to Aesop's Fables. And I went there as an inker, and there was a contest between another fellow and myself to see who would become an inbetweener. I won the contest, I became an inbetweener, and then I started animating, and then from there I went toI met Schlesinger, and then came out here. The cartoons we were making then were cartoons called "Tom and Jerry." Tall fellow and a short fellow, making them for Van Beuren.
Barrier: Carl Stalling recalls working for Aesop's Fables; do you recall him working there?
Tashlin: Oh, sure. He was the only man in the business taller than I was. Is Carl still around?
Barrier: He's still alive, yes. I talked to him two years ago when I was out here.
Tashlin: He used to do the Disney comic strip or something.
Barrier: Are you thinking of George Stallings, or Carl?
Tashlin: Oh, I'm thinking of George, you're thinking of Carl. Carl worked at Aesop's Fables?
Barrier: He was hired away from Disney's to come to work for Aesop's Fables in New York for a while.
Tashlin: I didn't know him at the time; I never knew him until he came to Warners. There used to be another musician there, when the first picture I made [was scored]the first Porky Piga fellow by the name of Norman Spencer. There was a nice fellow working by the name of [Bernard] Brown, and they did the music, and then the next thing, Carl came in. Carl was great, he was marvelous.
Barrier: Do you have any memories of working with him?
Tashlin: Oh, the most pleasant. He'd come in, and you'd pick a beat with him, depending on what he'd give you, a beat, and then of course the film library we had at Warners was enormousyou know, Harms, and Witmark, every popular song in 'the world you could use. It was great. I have very happy memories of working with Carl.
Barrier: Did you exercise much control over the music?
Tashlin: You picked whatever you wanted.
Barrier: The specific songs?
Tashlin: Oh, yeah, you could use anything. You know, you'd get an idea what song you wanted to use, and you'd go in, and you'd find the tempo with him. The director at Warners, he did really just what he wanted to do. There was no interference. The only interference was, you know, Ray Katz, who was Leon's brother-in-law, the studio manager or something, and he would jive you up once in a while, he'd say, you know, well, like they do in feature pictures, if you're three days ahead, the production manager comes up to you with a smile and says, "We're ahead." Now, if you're four days behind the same bastard comes up to you and says, "You're behind." See? Well, this is the way Ray Katz was, the same thing. That's about all you heard. But you did what you wanted.
Barrier: Carl seems to remember operating pretty much as he wanted to; he would confer with the director, but as far as songs went, he would choose what he thought best.
Tashlin: I guess it was a give-and-take thing, but it was pleasant. As a matter of fact, the experience at Warner Brothers, with those cartoons, was the only time in my life where as a director, I had full control and no interference. I have never once had that in feature pictures. There's always been some moron-who usually went by the name of "producer"who would have to justify his existence, and interfere.
Barrier: Have you ever had any regrets about not continuing in animation?
Barrier: Even with the interference in feature films...
Tashlin: Well, feature films were interesting for a while, now they no longer are. I'm interested in plays, and I have no interest in feature films any more. Like I was telling Bob [Konikow], I'm always where I'm not.
Tashlin: Well, that wasI guess maybe in recent years, with the exception maybe of your best girl friend running you over in your own car, that was just about the worst experience I ever had, the making of that cartoon. I did that book a long time ago, in 1948, and everyone wanted to make an animated cartoon. I heard from studios in Europeall over. And it was kind of precious and special to me, and I said no. Gilbert Seldes, who was at Disney's at that time, called me, he says, "I want to get Walt to get this," and I said, "No, they'd chew it up, it'd be no good." Anyhow, the thing was translated into many languages, and it was always a thing that I liked. Then about four years agofive years ago, maybeChuck called me, and said he would like to do it, as an MGM cartoon. And I said, without reservation, "Fine," 'cause I had seen the thing Chuck had made called The Dot and the Line, where they had taken a book and faithfully put the book on the screen. And that's all I wanted. So I said, "Fine," we made a deal. He said, "I'm gonna give you producer credit on it," I said, "What for, I'm not producing it." He said, "In case we win an Academy Award, you'll get one." You know, that was marvelous, and he had received many Academy Awards. So I went away to make a picture, I never went near it, 'cause I figured that was in the best hands. Why worry about it, the guy was gonna take the book and put it on the screen, and he was a very capable man. I went to see it in a theater, and the thing started, and I guess it wasn't into a minute and a half where they had done a thing that destroyed the whole picture, and that's why it never got anywhere. You know the book?
Barrier: I've read the book, and I've seen about the last half of the cartoon.
Tashlin: Well, they destroyed the cartoon with one little thing. I saw that, I almost cried. I never talked to Chuck about it, I've never talked to him since. It was a terrible thing. This bear, he goes to sleep under a factory, when he wakes up they try to convince him he's a [man], as you well know, and he keeps insisting he's a bear, and that's the point of it. Up front in the beginning of this thing, when they are telling him he is a man and he is insisting he's a bear, they put a cigarette in his mouth. Now, the picture was destroyed there, because by the acceptance of a cigaretteyou never saw where he got itby putting a cigarette in his mouth, he was already a man. You know what I mean? Psychologically, the picture was ruined. It stopped working from that point on. So that was a terrible experience.
Barrier: I want to hear something about your comic strip, "Van Boring"; I'm not familiar with it at all. That was based on Van Beuren, wasn't it?
Tashlin: We used to make cartoons like you do of your bosses all the time, of Van Beuren, around the studio. We were always doing anti-Van Beuren things. We developed a character, which looked something like him. Well, I started using him in magazine cartoons, as a throwaway character, and then when I came out here, I developed him as a pantomime comic strip, and that's all that that was.
Barrier: That lasted about two years?
Tashlin: No, it was longer than that. I started it incame on in '34, and ended in '36.
Barrier: Did the syndicate drop it at that time, or did you decide you didn't want to do it any more?
Tashlin: I quit it, I quit it because then I went back tothe thing that I had in my mind then was to have my own cartoon studio. That's what I wanted. And then I finally got it when I had Screen Gems, which wasn't my own but I was running it. Then I found out that wasn't too happy a thing.
Barrier: Clampett tells the story of your arrival in California, how you got off the train in a white suit, expecting to find sunshine and it was pouring down rain.
Tashlin: [Laughing] I love Clampett's imagination. I never had a white suit, anyone my size who wears a white suit has gotta be out of his mind. It wasn't raining when I arrived; and now I'm glad I told the story about him falling off the stool, as long as he tells these kinds of stories about me. No, that isn't true. As a matter of fact, the man who met me at the stationat the old Union, it's no longer in existence, I guess, in fact the new station isn't even in existencewas Earl Hurd, you know, the inventor of the celluloid. He was working out here, he was working at Disney's. He met me, and drove me through Hollywood.
Barrier: Do you recall anything about the creation of the Fox and the Crow when you were at Screen Gems?
Tashlin: The first story I did there, as a story man, was, I took this Fox and Crow, and I bad seen what Ralph Wright had done with How to Ride a Horse, and those things, and I did the same thing. The Crow had the grapes, and the Fox was trying to get the grapes from the Crow. And it was a series of jokes, and I'm sure I must have made the imprint in the wall, or in the floor, and I'm sure I flattened them up, and I'm sure I did all those things.
Barrier: That was the first Fox and the Crow cartoon [The Fox and the Grapes].
Tashlin: Then we made more.
Barrier: Were the characters already in existence when you went there?
Tashlin: No, that was just a story idea. I did a story that one of the directors there was going to direct, but before they had a chance to direct it, they were all thrown out, and so this was an existing story, so that when I got in charge, I directed it.
Barrier: So you actually created the characters.
Tashlin: Yes, that's right.
Barrier: You've mentioned that when you made your cartoons, you were looking forward to feature work. Now that you've been making features for many years, have there been occasions when you've looked back to your cartoon work, and tried to get a cartoon flavor in certain sequences?
Tashlin: Oh, I guess quite often, because all the reviewersTruffaut, and Godard, and all these people, when they were reviewers on Cahiers du Cinema, they always treated my films, my Jerry Lewis films and all, as a cartoon. I did a picture with Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield, and as far as they were concerned, that was a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and the fact that his name was Tom, and hers was Jerrywhich I never thought ofthey said, "She is the cat, and he is the mouse." And they wrote, you know, all this philosophical double-talk.
One of the first things I did at Paramount, they previewed a Bob Hope picture, called Monsieur BeaucaireBob was a big star at the timeand they went to the preview, and the whole thing led up to a great duel between him and Joseph Schildkraut, but when they got to the duel, nothing happened. The head of the studio called me in, and he said, "Look, will you do about twenty minutes of dueling jokes for Hope, we're going to reshoot and put 'em in the picture." So I did up these jokes. Of course, Bob never reads scripts until he gets on the stage. George Marshall was gonna direct it, and George now tells him the first joke that Bob is to do. So Bob says, "What the hell do you think this is, an Abbott and Costello? What is this slapstick crap?" He goes on and on. And then, "Who wrote this stuff?" George points to me, I'm standing in the corner, you know, with the dunce hat on. Anyhow, Bob did it, and it was a great dueling [sequence]. It was full of cartoon jokes. I remember Bob even sayingthey must have told him I came from the cartoon business, and Bob would say things like, "Jesus Christ, now I'm a rabbit."
Then I made another film with Bob where I used outrageous cartoon jokes, and he did every one of them, a thing called Son of Paleface, and he did everything.
Barrier: In your writing for both cartoons and features, did you draw any line between possible and impossible gags? Friz Freleng, for example, criticizes the use of what he calls impossible gags, characters falling apart and coming back together again, this sort of thing.
Tashlin: It depends who does the gag. Here's an exampleone of the first men I ever did jokes for was Harpo Marx. Now, Harpo was fey and unbelievable; you could do anything with Harpo. Now, I did what, to me, was like one of the wildest jokes in the world, in the first picture with him. He was looking at a mirror, and combing his hair, and you saw the reflection of his face in the mirror. Now, he turned the mirror around, and you now saw the back of his head. He never moved. Well, it got a scream, but that you could only do with Harpo. You could do certain jokes with Jerry Lewis that you couldn't do with Bob Hope. So it depends on who.
Barrier: It's like tailoring a gag to a cartoon character.
Barrier: Have you ever in your feature work found a prejudice against you because of your cartoon work?
Tashlin: Oh, yes. Oh, God almighty, yes. "Don't go too wild...oh, watch out...now, wait, wait, don't go too wild." And many actors have turned me down, wouldn't allow me to direct them.
Barrier: What led to your leaving Warners as a director in '44?
Tashlin: I had sold a story; I had worked one night, on a story idea for a producer who needed an idea, and I had made fourteen thousand dollars. And I said, "My goodness, this is a very good business." I thought you could work every night and make fourteen thousand dollars. So I now had in my mind that I was going to write for films. As a step in that direction, I went to work for a man by the name of John Sutherland, who was making puppet cartoons for United Artists. And these were not like the George Pal Puppetoons, the ping pong heads and that type of thing. These puppets were made out of wax, meticulously. The first one we made was a caricature of the great Mexican star, Cantinflas. You should see this film. We had a girl in there that was the sexiest little thing you ever saw. Well, that was a step toward features, becauseit was just the opposite of animation, because animation, if you want a character to walk across the screen, you must animate him for that, if you want him to walk away, you must animate him for that. But here, you made a cycle of this puppet moving, so it depended where you put the camera. The whole thing was different. You didn't have to draw your camera angle, you put your camera. So that gave me a step, that was like a break from the cartoons to that, and I made a couple of films for Sutherland. The first one was called Choo Choo Amigo; it really was marvelous, and the music was written by Larry Morey, who had written the songs for Snow White. Then I went with Harpo Marx, I did jokes for Harpo.
[At this point, Tashlin looked over an article about his cartoons from Movie, a British magazine.]
Tashlin: Song of Victory, John Hubley and I did. We had the ideawell, I won't blame John with the idea, I had the ideaof making political cartoons. We did a thing here based on Beethoven's Fifth, where we had Tojo, Hitler, you know, the menaces of that time. Marvelous cartoon. We had a great animator by the name of Bill Shull. What an animatorJesus, he was great. He was like Bill Tytla. Remember the great figure in Fantasia, in "Night on Bald Mountain," you know, the great scalewell, Bill Tytla and Shull did that.
Barrier: You seem, in your Warner cartoons especially, not to have worried about being topical and becoming dated. You didn't have any restrictions, I guess, from Schlesinger...
Tashlin: No. No, I think all Leon was concerned aboutI don't know how much he got for those cartoons, but we must have made them for a price, he made that profit in between, and that was it, and he made it on fifty-two cartoons a year, that was it. And the Warner peoplewe never had any truck with the Warner people. Every once in a while they would call, I remember someone calledI made a picture, it was about when Sinatra was just getting hot, and there was competition between two roosters, a skinny rooster and a little fat one, which was Bing Crosby. Swooner Crooner. And that picture became a big hit, and I remember a telegram coming from the distributionthe fellow's name was Norman something [probably Norman Moray], Warners distribution, saying, "Give us more Swooner Crooners." That's right, give us more money.
Barrier: You worked with Porky from the very beginning to the very end [of Tashlin's stay at Warners]; did you have any special feeling for Porky, or was he just another character?
Tashlin: Oh, I hated him, I thought he was a terrible character.
Barrier: Not very flexible?
Tashlin: He was nothing, you couldn't do anything with his body, you know what I mean? Just a terrible character. I remember I did a picture about him and Daffy, couldn't pay their rent or something [Porky Pig's Feat]. I think the backgrounds were stylized; we were getting away from the diffused English-watercolor backgrounds. I'm trying to think of the man I had with me then, doing layouts...Biberman...he worked for Dick Thomas...can't think... [Tashlin was referring to Dave Hilberman]
Barrier: Do you have any particular disagreements with the Clampett interview? I've been getting some very general complaints about itFriz and Chuck were both very upset about it, without saying why...
Tashlin: That's Friz.
Barrier: ...and I've been trying to track down any particular errors in it.
Tashlin: I said to Bob after reading itwe were talking on the phoneand I took issue, I think it was on his interpretation of the way Bugs Bunny was created. I told him what I told you, I said, "Disney created Bugs Bunny, in The Tortoise and the Hare, the voice and everything else." And he had made no mention of that. I think the first time a rabbit was used over there, it was used when Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton were a directing team, and they did it; I remember we saw the picture in this terrible projection room.
[Some general conversation about Funnyworld followed, leading to a mention of I. Klein, and from there to Tashlin's own work as a magazine cartoonist.]
Tashlin: In about 1929 or '30, during the Depression, a magazine by the name of Ballyhoo came along, which revolutionizedthe only humor magazines were Judge and the old Life, and they were full of he-and-she jokes. Ballyhoo came out, which kidded advertisers, it was the first one that made fun of advertisers, and it was a sensation. All the imitators came outHooey, BushwahI can't think of the names of all of them. And I started submitting to those magazines. Fawcett Publications turned out a lot of them. And Jesus, the checks just kept coming in. But I never hit any of thethough I tried, I never hit New Yorker, or Saturday Evening Post, or these things, when they were popular. I used to go around with like sixty drawings under my arm; go in Collier's, wait five minutes, they all came out rejected. Go to another magazine. At the end of the day, you might go home, you had five hundred rejections. [Laughing.] I stopped it when I started the comic strip.
[The conversation turned to Carl Barks, with Tashlin asking me what Barks had been doing since he left Disney's.]
Tashlin: He was a tall, thin, quiet fellow, looked like a Midwesterner: had a mustache. Marvelous gag man.
Barrier: Were there any other people at Disney or Warners who made a particular impression on you? You mentioned Ralph Wright, of course...
Tashlin: Yeah, Ralphand Roy Williams, a powerful fellow, idea man.
Barrier: Who did you have for animators the second time you were at Warners?
Tashlin: I had a fellow whose name was Izzy Ellis. Had a girl, too, doing some animation for me. I can't think of her name.
[A long interval of general discussion about the reaction to the Clampett interview and about the growing interest in the Warner cartoons and their history followed.]
Tashlin: What it's done for me, it's made what we were doing in those days a little more important. It's given me the feeling that maybe we weren't just goofing off, maybe we were doing something.
Barrier: Were there any characters at Warners that were really fun to work with, or were they all pretty much the same?
Tashlin: Well, when the rabbit was so popular, when he hit so popular, and I was working with the stutterer, you know, I envied the other guys who were working with the rabbit. Who wants to see the damned pig, and I'm stuck with the damned pig. It takes him so long to talk.
Barrier: You got to make a few Bugs Bunny cartoons, though.
Tashlin: Yeah, towards the end. You kind of moved up. I kept leaving, and when I came back, I had lost my seniority, I had to come up from the cellar again.
[Some more general conversation followed. Tashlin asked about Avery and mentioned the "Speaking of Animals" series, which Tashlin said Avery had made with Jerry Fairbanks; he confirmed the story that Avery had left the Schlesinger studio because of a quarrel with Leon Schlesinger over the "Animals" series.]
Barrier: Do you remember Walt Kelly from the Disney studio?
Tashlin: I remember him, also Vip Partch. They were justof course, anyone who came in when we were at the new studio, they all had to wear uniforms, and they were what they called "coffee boys." [You'd call down to the commissary] for coffee and doughnuts, and these guys were the ones who brought it to you.
Barrier: Walt Kelly and Partch?
Tashlin: No, the newcomers. And you know who was a coffee boy? The fellow who became Jack Bailey, and invented [the TV show] Queen for a Day. I remember Jack bringing me coffee and doughnuts. They said that Walt had once worked as a waiter, and it taught him humility, and he said everyone should have a little dose of humility. That was the story, I don't know the truth of this.
Barrier: And you got knocked down to the bottom of the pile when you started working at Disney's, for the same reason.
[Posted December 16, 2004]