The Girl Can’t Help It

Dir: Frank Tashlin, 1956. Starring: Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O'Brien. Classics.
The Girl Can’t Help It

The Girl Can’t Help It is a pop art explosion of retina melting Deluxe Color insanity built around several incredible performances from some of rock 'n' roll’s earliest and best groups. It could have been just another teensploitation picture meant to capitalize on American teenage culture of the mid-1950s and the “fad” of rock 'n' roll music, but in the hands of director Frank Tashlin it becomes a delirious candy colored satire of the music industry and the commoditization of sex to sell records.

Frank Tashlin started his career as an animator for Looney Tunes, and it is said that his cartoons were more like films and his films were more like cartoons. There is a gleeful anarchic streak that runs through his movies, and the clever satire of American life that was his directorial hallmark can be as essential to understanding the America of the 1950s as the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows). Tashlin worked with a lot of musical comedy performers that we consider pretty hokey now (Bob Hope, Martin & Lewis, Doris Day) but it’s surprising how smart and genuinely funny the films in which he directed them are. He was a proto pop artist using the shiny gaudy images he created as a send up of celebrity, advertising, and pop culture and their detrimental effect on the American public. Although he had no great love for rock 'n’ roll, with The Girl Can’t Help It Tashlin inadvertently made one of the best rock 'n’ roll movies of all time.

The plot involves a down-on-his-luck press agent Tom Miller (played by Tom Ewell from The Seven Year Itch) who is hired by a cigar chomping mobster wearing an orange plaid smoking jacket called “Fats” Murdock (played by the incomparably awesome Edmond O’Brien) to represent his blonde bombshell aspiring singer girlfriend Jerri Jordan (played by screen goddess and rockabilly pin-up queen Jayne Mansfield), who is quite possibly talentless. Miller takes Jordan (the girl who can’t help being so bitchin’) to all of Manhattan’s rock 'n’ roll clubs she needs to be noticed at. With her almost anatomically impossible figure and her va-va-voom strut she turns heads everywhere she goes. Every club they hit there’s a rock 'n’ roll legend playing live including Little Richard doing “Ready Teddy,” Eddie Fontaine doing “Cool It Baby,” and a group that time forgot that went by the name of Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles doing their Four Aces-esque “Cinnamon Sinner” about a girl who tells “lollipop lies.” Other performers in the film include Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps doing “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Eddie Cochran doing “Twenty Flight Rock,” and Fats Domino singing “Blue Monday.”

The music alone gives The Girl Can’t Help It a timeless appeal, but the film’s offbeat gags and prescient satire make the film truly unique. Tashlin’s flair for Looney Tunes style pandemonium is put to excellent use when Jayne Mansfield walks down a Brooklyn street, all to the strain of “She’s Got It” by Little Richard, and she causes an ice truck to melt, a milk man’s milk bottles to explode, and an old guy’s glasses to crack. The humor is almost Benny Hill-esque but there’s a distance that Tashlin keeps from the material. He’s making fun of, as he put it, the immaturity of the American male’s obsession with breasts. In Jayne Mansfield, he had his perfect female lead, as she was as much product as person.

The rest of the plot involves Miller’s efforts to get Jerri Jordan to learn to sing on account of Fats, her boyfriend, who insists she become a celebrity because he can’t go out with a “nobody.” But what Jordan really wants is to be a house wife and a mom, and she and Miller begin to fall in love. In what may be a dig at pop music being less a democratic art form than something corporate overlords conspire to force down the throats of the public, Murdock begins strong arming bartenders into stocking jukeboxes containing the 45s that he wants promoted, including one that Jordan lends her walloping screech to. But it's Murdock who winds up with a hit record about prison time called “Rock Around The Rock Pile” (which is awesome) and, though it turns out at the end that Jordan really can sing, she and Tom go off to have lots of kids, happily ever after.

The Girl Can’t Help It has had a huge influence on everyone from David Lynch (who lovingly aped the film’s sock hop credit sequence for his own Mulholland Drive) to many of the French New Wave directors, including Truffaut and Godard who were championing Tashlin’s vulgar fantasias long before any critics in the U.S. really took notice—and those that did are too few and far between. It’s a shame that Tashlin’s work is still relatively unknown in this country, but thanks to DVD there is now a lot to discover from his amazing body of work.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
May 13, 2009 3:11pm
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