Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

Director: Frank Tashin                                     Writer: Frank Tashin & Herbert Baker
Film Score: Leigh Harline                                Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Tom Ewell, Edmond O’Brien, Jayne Mansfield and Henry Jones

This is one of the first of a kind of film that would become ubiquitous in the late fifties and early sixties. The Girl Can’t Help It is a rock & roll comedy that is probably best remembered as a color extravaganza that featured many of the top rock acts of the day performing in widescreen and fully saturated fifties color. The film begins with Tom Ewell in a prolog that has since become an example of the way that fifties films attempted to do what television couldn’t. He walks out on stage in black and white, flicks each side of the stage and the screen expands, then the color fades in and, as he begins to introduce the film, Little Richard singing the title song blasts from a jukebox. Ewell is a down on his luck talent agent who is hired by former mobster Edmond O’Brien to make his unknown girlfriend, Jayne Mansfield, famous so that he can marry someone of equal fame. O’Brien chooses Ewell because of his reputation for never getting involved with his female clients. At first Ewell turns him down. Then he sees Mansfield and agrees. Flush with cash, Ewell goes out on the town and the next morning Mansfield comes over to nurse his hangover.

His plan is to build her up until club owners come running to him rather than him foisting her upon them. Interspersed throughout the plot are music performances by a dozen different artists. Saxophonist Nino Tempo is seen auditioning as one of Ewell’s acts. And when Ewell takes Mansfield around to create a buzz they stop first at a small nightclub where Johnny Olenn and his band appear. The great Little Richard performs onstage at a large, expensive, supper club, and at the next stop is Eddie Fontaine. This is followed by Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles, and something of a racist gospel number by Abby Lincoln. Ewell is pining over the loss of Julie London, which is the reason he drinks so much and why he’s down on his luck. She sings “Cry Me a River,” a terrific standard, and something Abby Lincoln should have been able to do. But in spending so much time with Mansfield, Ewell begins to really like her, leading to the conflict of the film. Other musical numbers include rockabilly artists Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and performances by The Treniers, Fats Domino, and The Platters.

In keeping with the fifties morality onscreen, there are several suggestive sight gags. The first is the milk bottles that bubble over when Mansfield walks by. And when Ewell picks up a cigarette girl in a nightclub, their wild night of sex is indicated by cigarettes strewn all over his bedroom floor. Even more obvious is when Mansfield holds Ewell’s milk bottles to her breasts. The interesting thing about the film, apart from the music, is how well the main plot with Ewell and Mansfield works, and by contrast how tedious the subplot with Edmund O’Brien is. Every one else in the cast seems to be in on the ironic nature of the story, while O’Brien simply acts like a cartoon. Ewell is the consummate performer, carrying Mansfield as well as the whole picture when he’s onscreen. The other noticeable performance is by Henry Jones who is wonderfully low key as O’Brien’s sidekick. Though not great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, it does have a certain fifties innocence that is enjoyable to watch on its own terms.

As I have come to expect from her, Carrie Rickey does nothing but disappoint in her essay from The B List. She begins with a discussion of early pop art by Richard Hamilton, which is tied to the advertising of the fifties itself, a sanitized, homogenized, one-size-fits-all worldview that is mirrored in Frank Tashlin’s music film. Unfortunately she veers of into Freudian territory--the most prosaic in all of film and literary analysis--and completely misses the point of the film by talking about the sight gags and Mansfield’s breasts. What’s really at work here is something she alludes to without realizing when she sums up the plot as “an agent’s efforts to transform a no-talent into a star.” Rock and Roll began just two years before this film, and in less than a year it would be taken over by “no-talents” like Pat Boone and turned into a commodity to be sold like toasters and dishwashers. The real-life version of this film is Taylor Hackford’s The Idolmaker, which shows exactly how the events in this film unfolded using the fictionalized beginnings of Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Nevertheless, The Girl Can’t Help It is a slice of Americana that, as Rickey rightly observes, is an extremely effective “cinematic article of pop art.”

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