“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part Two)

A Comparative Perspective

Hoberman’s most important contribution is the way that his essay takes artists who are often discussed as idiosyncratic within their own medium and reads them collectively and comparatively as part of a larger artistic project that took shape across and between media in the post-war period. There is still a lot we do not know about these artists and how they might be related to each other, but it is increasingly clear that Hoberman’s intuitive sense of their fit with each other reflects some behind the scenes collaborations. Let’s take for example the musician Spike Jones. Jordan R. Young’s biography of Jones, The Man Who Murdered Music, traces his migrations across different media (stage, radio, live action and animated cinema, comics, television, and records) as well as his collaborations with a range of other artists often associated with ‘vulgar modernism': Jones sought advice from Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin on gags for his various film and television performances, contributed material to Ernie Kovacs’ television series, and published pieces in early Mad magazine. All signs are that these artists knew each other socially and professionally, were informed by each other’s work, drew on the same aesthetic roots, and in every other sense, constituted what we might describe as a circle. They did not adopt a shared label or issue manifestos to describe their motivations. Basil Wolverton, for example, did speak, tongue in check, of himself as belonging to the “spaghetti and meatball” school of art, a term which reflected his own low-brow aspirations and to the particular way in which he drew flesh and hair, but this term never extended to the others in this circle.

Over the past decade or so, each of the artists associated with “vulgar modernism” have undergone a rediscovery with new books published on Will Elder and Jack Cole, a recent coffee table book reprinting sketches and published works by Basil Wolverton, and the reissue of some long-lost television and radio performances of Spike Jones on dvd. This essay draws heavily on this new material to reconsider the Vulgar Modernists, attempting to offer a more systematic mapping of their shared aesthetic vision. I will define what they had in common and why it is productive to draw comparisons between works produced across such a broad array of different media. For the moment, I am accepting Hoberman’s ‘vulgar modernism’ as an inherited and problematic term, which reflects the ways a generation of critics has talked about these works I write this essay in the hopes of sparking further evaluation rather than making a definitive statement. My focus is going to be on Tex Avery, Spike Jones, Olsen and Johnson, Will Elder, Jack Coles, and Basil Wolverton, but for space considerations, I am not taking on Bob and Ray, Ernie Kovacs, Frank Tashlin, and many others who would also belong in a more thorough discussion of vulgar modernism. My focus here is primarily formal, though there are important ideological questions, having to do with their representations of race, gender, sexuality, wartime propaganda and postwar advertising, censorship and regulation and so forth, which will need to be confronted in any larger discussion. In short, this essay opens a can of worms, hoping more people will pay attention to these artists and their contributions to American culture. But then, comedy is always messy business.

Cartoonus Interruptus

Enough throat-clearing. Let’s begin with a consideration of one of the emblematic moments from Tex Avery’s oeuvre, the opening sequence from Screwball Squirrel. The streetwise protagonist highjacks “the picture” from his cloying counterpart, Sammy. Sammy’s big eyes, fluttering eyelashes, baby talk, coy gestures, and sentimentalized music stands in sharp contrast to Screwball’s aggressive manners, broad gestures, nasally voice, slangy language, elastic body, and slapstick gags. Sammy and all of his “cute little furry friends in the forest” are no match for Screwball who takes the more effeminate squirell behind a tree and knocks the crap out of him, turning to the camera to explain “you wouldn’t have liked that picture anyway” and promising “funny stuff” as soon as the phone rings.

Animation scholars have correctly identified this moment as a critical confrontation between two schools of American animation, though most of them have incorrectly aligned Sammy with Walt Disney, where-as read in the context of Tex Avery’s recent move from Warner Brothers to MGM to take over the animation division, it is more likely that the immediate reference point was to Harmon-Isling his predecessors. We can read the gesture as acknowledging the changing of the guards at Metro, much as Avery began his first MGM cartoon, Blitz Wolf, by offering a syncopated version of the MGM Lion’s opening roar. Both moments mark a repudiation of the past and signal that nothing was going to be taken seriously in the Avery era. There were, of course, other works by the Vulgar Modernists which more explicitly took on Disney, such as Will Elder’s “Mickey Rodent”, which opens with a panel depicting, among other thinks, the Fox walking a naked Pinocchio on a leash and Horace Horszneck being taken away by goons from Walt Dizzy because he went outside without his white gloves. Basil Wolvertoon created two sketches for his own amusement showing Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto confronting the kind of grotesque creatures which were his own stock and trade.

Perhaps more broadly, we can see these artists as taking on what Mark Langer has called the West Coast school of American animation with its middle class ideology, middlebrow taste, and classical aesthetic, in favor of a style which took nothing sacred, including the norms of classical cinema, and which saw itself as more “adult” at a time when American cinema in general was re-inventing itself to reflect the sensibilities of a post-war audience. Langer, himself, contrasts the West Coast school with the New York School, which he associates with the Fleischer Brothers. Many of the defining traits of the New York School carry over to this post-war generation of artists, including a focus on transgression of social norms, an emphasis on the artificiality of the characters and their drawn nature,” the use of “exaggerated effects” which call attention to the “artificial” and “manufactured” nature of cartoons, and a “polyphonic and heterogeneous” mixture of elements.

Many of the ‘vulgar modernists”, however, come from the middle parts of the country, not from the coastal cities, and fell outside both urban sophistication and middle class propriety. Yet, like the Fleischer Brothers, their work was informed through borrowings from the vaudeville tradition where so many of them got their start. Indeed, there is a long tradition of confusing the kinds of transgressions found in vaudeville with devices associated with modernist distanciation, but it’s worth remembering that the devices are deployed here to very different effect: to intensify rather than diminish our emotional experience.

We might understand the opening of Screwball Squirrel in relation to a widespread vaudeville trope, the interrupted act. In another essay, which traces this motif across Buster Keaton’s film career, I describe the functions this device played in variety entertainment: “

The interrupted performance was a common act structure within the vaudeville tradition, seeming to hold open the prospect of onstage action as spontaneous, unrehearsed, improvisational. Vaudeville sought to maintain the illusion – and it was only partially an illusion – that the audience’s response shaped the performance. In a theatrical tradition described by one Chicago critic as ‘the field of the expert,’ there was a certain pleasure in watching a performance go awry, witnessing events disrupt and threaten the performer’s mastery over stagecraft, only to see order restored once again.”

Such moments enact the tensions between narrative and spectacle or between normality and transgressions which are central to this school of comedy. We take pleasure in the disruptions and interruptions even as we hope for order to be restored.

In their stage show, Hellzappopin, Olsen and Johnson took this principle of the interrupted performance to the absolute limits, resulting in a show which was able to sustain the longest run of any Broadway production up until that point on the promise of the unexpected and the spontaneous: “

During Hellzapoppin, the audience had bananas, beans, ‘pottie-seats,’ eggs, and live chickens hurled at them; loud shots exploded; planted hecklers raised a rumpus; a ticket scalper cavorted up and down the aisles with tickets for a rival show; a clown tried to extricate himself from a straightjacket for the show’s duration; an elderly woman, outraged that her dress had been lifted by a trick gust of air from under the stage, attacked the entire cast with her umbrella…A woman persisted in bellowing ‘Oscar, Oscar'; the audience was bombarded with rubber snakes and spiders; and a whirling madness of cacophonous pandemonium and blatant boorishness engulfed the theater.”

Universal brought the production to the screen as one of the last gasps of the 1930s anarchistic comedy tradition, resulting in what Hoberman described as “an alternative universe as might have been scripted by Victor Shklovsky under the influence of mescaline.” The opening sequence literally pulls the floor out from under a high class musical number, sending a chorus line dressed in fine evening clothes and singing about heaven, falling gracelessly towards the pits of hell. The film concludes with Olsen and Johnson’s elaborate attempts to disrupt the performance of a play within a play, destroying a ballet sequence, for example, through the tactical deployment of sneezing powder, sticky paper, men in bear suits, and thumb tacks, among other things.

While some of the running gags carry over from the stage, Hellzapoppin also finds cinematic equivalents for the play’s disruptions of the theatrical experience, introducing, for example, an ongoing battle between the characters in the film and a projectionist (played by Shemp Howard), who grumbles about being forced to become an onscreen actor, mixes up the reels, jolts the projector sending shockwaves through the fictional world and in a gag which confuses the role of cameraman and projectionist, refuses to pan to follow the action but prefers to remain focused on a bathing beauty extra. In discussing the Comedian Comedy tradition, Steve Seidman and Frank Krutnik have argued that both social and formal transgressions get articulated around the figure of the central comedian whose normalization and social integration by the final reel shuts down the possibilities for reflexivity. In Hellzapoppin, this formal transgression can get dispersed across a range of different performers (here, including not just Olsen and Johnson but also Shemp Howard, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, and others). A woman crying out for “Oscar” interrupts Olsen and Johnson so many times that they demand someone do something about her, a request accompanied by off-screen sounds of gunshot and then silence. A title asking Stinky Miller to go home is projected over the action of a musical number, which ultimately has to stop dead until the silhouette of an audience member passes out of the theater. Hugh Herbert bombards Olsen, Johnson, and Raye with arrows during one particularly exposition-heavy conversation, with characters nonchalantly dodging or plucking away the projectiles whizzing all around them.

Just as disruption of the stage performance of Hellzapoppin could come from any direction and could exploit any aspect of stagecraft, the film version promises us a world where “anything can happen and probably will.” Hellzappopin embodies this tension between the textual and the extratextual in the recurring gag of the distracted and increasingly antagonistic projectionist. In one sequence, a fight in the projection booth jolts the projector, causing the characters to bounce uneasily on the screen; their attempts to restore balance by adjusting the frame line throws the image further off kilter bringing the film itself out of alignment; one character’s head gets repeated slammed against the frame bar as they try desperately to right themselves; and then, the characters get thrown into another film altogether, a western spliced in the middle of their reel, where they must battle Indians, before finally arriving back in their proper place in the film. After all, an opening title warns us that Hellzapoppin will bear no resemblance to any actual motion picture.

This interrupted performance structure was the stock and trade of another ‘vulgar modernist,’ Spike Jones. Literary modernist Thomas Pynchon emphasizes these elements in an essay written in tribute to the man known for his contributions to “music depreciation,”

“Spike’s preferred structure was first to state the theme in as respectably mainstream a manner as possible, then subversively descend into restatement by way of sound effects, crude remarks, and hot jazz, the very idiom Spikes Jones and his Five Tacks had begun with back in high school, to the great displeasure of their parents.”

Jones and His Cityslickers produced a range of fractured recordings of classical music but could also directed these auditory challenges at middle brow lounge music, as might be suggested by his best-known work, “Cocktails for Two.” One widely circulated recording of the song opens with a few bars on the piano and a humming chorus, gradually complimented by strings and a male vocalist who valiantly tries to maintain his decorum as the band adds gunshots, clinking glasses, slide whistles, kettle drums, fire bells, gasps, coughs, hiccups, and belches. It is a classic showdown between music, which defines the high, and noise, which defines the low. Many modern listeners know the audio recording of “Cocktails for Two” which was a favorite on the Doctor Demento radio show but the stage performances relied as much on sight gags as on comic sounds, including the use of drunken midgets, two headed men, acrobats, and a range of other activities which upstage and engulf the soloist (as can be seen on recently reissued kinoscopes of his television series). Members of the Spike Jones troope always emphasize the highly structured nature of these comic disruptions – describing how they had to be taught to burp with the beat, if not in tune with the music. As Dick Webster explains, “The things that seemed so crazy on stage were intensely worked out. It looked like bedlam but it was organized bedlam.” The dvds give us access to multiple versions of “Cocktails for Two,” each sharing common elements, but each also including novel additions, suggesting a structured but still open space for improvisation within each performance.

From “Cocktails for Two,” it is not hard to find our way back to Tex Avery’s The Magical Maestro, which depicts the showdown that occurs when a carny magician , knocks out an orchestra conductor and takes his place, waging war on an opera singer who is offering a fairly straight rendition of a classical aria. The maestro does everything he can to distract his high class rival, including magical transformations of his identity, turning him into, among many others, a ballet dancer, a football player, an Indian chief, a convict, a black-faced minstrel, a South Seas Islander, and a Chinaman. These disruptions include both visual gags (proliferating Rabbits) and sound-based gags, including abrupt shifts in musical genre (including Hillbilly, Hawaiian and Minstrel performances). While the film offers a narrative frame for the interrupted act, disruptions, as in Hellzapoppin, also occur from outside the narrative space, such as hair which seems to get caught up in the film’s projector and lingers until the opera singer plucks it away. Once again, the interrupted performance structure allows us to pit high culture against low, music against noise, and professional polish against liberating improvisation.

(To Be Continued)