Friday, June 24, 2016

The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

USA, 99 minutes
Director: Frank Tashlin
Writers: Frank Tashlin, Herbert Baker, Garson Kanin
Photography: Leon Shamroy
Music: Little Richard, Julie London, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Platters, Treniers, Ray Anthony, Abbey Lincoln
Editor: James B. Clark
Cast: Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell, Edmond O'Brien, Henry Jones, John Emery, Barry Gordon

The Girl Can't Help It looks like it might have started as an attempt to repeat the success of Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch from just the year before. Tom Ewell reprises his role as a mild-mannered (not to say dweebish) comfortable husband type, and Jayne Mansfield gets the sexpot honors that Marilyn Monroe had in the first picture. And the story goes similar places. But there are a couple of key ingredients The Girl Can't Help It has that The Seven Year Itch does not. The first is director and cowriter Frank Tashlin, whose style and instincts were honed as a key figure at the Warner Brothers animation factory in the '30s. After this movie he would go on to work with Jerry Lewis. The second is rock 'n' roll—real rock 'n' roll, from 1956.

In fact, the whole thing is so packed with music there's room for names you're sure to recognize—Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, and the Platters—as well as some that maybe you won't: Ray Anthony, the Chuckles, Eddie Fontaine, the Treniers. And there are even a few names, such as Abbey Lincoln and Julie London, that make you wonder how they happened to wander into this at all. My guess—again, because this is still so relatively early, in 1956—is they just cast the net wide: if it was a hit because of jukeboxes (and/or radio), it was a candidate for inclusion. And it's that sense of all-embracing inclusion as much as anything that makes this movie such a great big kick.

It's not the story, which is functional but trite. Tom Ewell plays Tom Miller, a New York theatrical agent hired by mobster Fats Murdock (Edmond O'Brien, a leering, cackling caricature) to make his fiancée a star. That fiancée is an exceedingly top-heavy Jayne Mansfield, who plays the hapless singer going by the stage name Fats gave her, Jerri Jordan, but born Georgianne to a Southern family, the only girl of eight. All Georgie wants from life, she tells Miller, is to be a wife and have kids. She tells Miller her favorite pastimes are cooking, keeping house, and keeping everything neat. But Fats won't hear of her taking a conventional role—if she's not glamourous, it reflects poorly on him.

Yeah, this movie is deeply 1956 in more ways than one, and complicated too. Mansfield doesn't have much to do but totter around and squeak, but she's good-natured about it. Most of the movie is the music, and that's the best part. The opening is one of rock 'n' roll's purest and greatest moments, which in many ways could only have been concocted by a demented savant of the Warner Brothers cartoon universe. It opens on a small square gray frame—even the studio logo is shown that way. Ewell steps across a shiny stage in tails to introduce the picture, by pieces. First, the "grandeur of CinemaScope," which he accomplishes by flicking his fingers to either side to open the frame. Then "gorgeous, lifelike color by Deluxe," which he has to call for more than once, but soon the colors saturate in. "Our story is about music," he says. "Not the music of long ago. But the music that expresses the culture, the refinement, and the polite grace of the present day"—blammo, LITTLE RICHARD!!!

Rolling in with the title song, drowning out Ewell: "If she walks by the menfolks get engrossed ... If she makes an eye the bread slice turn to toast ... Yeah, she's got a lot of what they call the most." The scenes under the title are of couples dancing on a stage under colored lights, which looks borrowed from the last long dance sequence in Singin' in the Rain, but these kids are madly jitterbugging. Little Richard is riding the currents of that brilliant cut, and the thing is just exciting.

The first scene after that is a frenzied saxophonist auditioning at a nightclub. Soon enough the tedious story is set in motion, but The Girl Can't Help It wisely never gets far from the music. Part of Miller's "build-up" of Jerri Jordan is squiring her around town to nightclubs to show her off. That means we get to see many performers, well known and obscure, rock 'n' roll and otherwise (but mostly rock 'n' roll), playing at these strangely well-lighted nightclubs and music halls. Julie London is part of the backstory, appearing as a haunting memory that materializes when Miller is deep in his cups. Miller is pretty much a lush as the picture opens, which is something to do with her, but he comes to dry up as things go along.

The movie has some nice points other than the music. An impossibly young Barry Gordon (Fish, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) gets a few good lines. There are nice sight gags built on people seeing Jerri Jordan strut her stuff. I think my favorite is the milkman who is holding a bottle of milk in his hand which overheats and spews milk, a surprisingly candid display, but all part of the postwar grotesquerie. It's interesting to see how far this particular conception of beauty can go. I mean, I haven't seen everything, but I'm not sure I can think of any more assiduous dedication to unfiltered breast size, up to and including Dolly Parton. (The Tashlin touch: Even that ends up working to set up one of Jerri's best lines, delivered with deadpan faces all around: "No one thinks I'm equipped for motherhood!")

But the music, and the way it is used, is the main point and the main draw. Even the obvious shoehorning, as done with Fats Domino and the Platters packed in at the end, is welcome, because they yield up such wonderful moments, because it is Fats Domino and the Platters in their prime. Ditto Gene Vincent, whose strange face is rarely so haunting, or Eddie Cochran, also impossibly young, and charismatic. And some of the more obscure acts, notably the Treniers, are also some of the best here. From those who like to rock to those who like to wince, there's something for everyone.

Top 10 of 1956
1. The Girl Can't Help It
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
3. The Wrong Man
4. Baby Doll
5. The Killing
6. Written on the Wind
7. Bus Stop
8. Bigger Than Life
9. The Ten Commandments
10. The Searchers

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