Frank Tashlin’s Landmark Rock’n’Roll Comedy Arrives on Blu-ray
Whatever his other qualities or deficiencies as a filmmaker, you gotta give this to Frank Tashlin: The man knew funny.
If you don’t know Tashlin by name, you probably know his work. Tashlin was an innovative voice in animation in the 1930s, eventually ending up as a director for many Termite Terrace shorts, better known as Looney Tunes.
After he moved on from animation, Tashlin worked as a gag writer for everyone from the Marx Brothers to Lucille Ball, and then eventually made the jump to live action direction, including a number of collaborations with Jerry Lewis, the fantastic Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?—a movie that beats Mad Men to its every satirical punch forty years in advance—and the film we are here to discuss today: the rock’n’roll classic The Girl Can’t Help It, courtesy of the pristine new disc released by Criterion.
Tashlin’s career in toons is quite evident even when he’s dealing with flesh and blood performers and more than two dimensions. There’s a manic energy to his features that allow these venerable comedies to feel, well, modern. Many is the classic comedy movie that has its origins on the stage, whether because the film is a direct adaptation of a theatrical piece, or because that’s where all the creative leads cut their teeth.
Which isn’t a bad thing, to be clear. Especially when the dialogue is diamond-cut and the performers are volleying off each other at the peak of their talents and their interrelated charismas. When you watch, say, His Girl Friday, it’s so fun listening to those character unleash overlapping torrents of words that you might miss that the film takes place almost exclusively in two rooms and that most of the runtime is devoted to nothing more than people talking on and on and on.
Tashlin wasn’t afraid of verbally dexterous bantering and tongue-twisting insults, not at all. But decades before the likes of Airplane! would make an art form out of bombarding the audience with jokes packed into every corner of every frame, Tashlin was exploring every possible way that the camera itself could be used as part of the joke. Not content with offering America a funhouse mirror distortion of its own ridiculous culture, Tashlin builds gags out of everything from the aspect ratio to the color correction, no margin too tiny to escape his doodling jokes within them.
The titular girl who just cannot help it is none other than Jayne Mansfield, swaggering into her first starring role like she already knows she’s an icon. Jayne plays Jerri, a bombshell so to-die-for that milk bottles pop like champagne when she saunters on by.
So, obviously, hapless agent Tom (Tom Ewell) doesn’t stand a chance with her. As the film starts, Tom is a washed-up drunk who can barely cover his tabs at the various nightclubs and concert venues he used to command. That makes him easy pickings for down-and-out gangster Fats Murdock (Edmond O’Brien), who’s still rattled by the loss of his headline-grabbing notoriety. But Fats has a plan: He’ll turn his kept woman Jerri into a major singing sensation, and then marry the newly minted bigshot. Tom’s available, he’s actually pretty competent when he’s sober, and, best in Fats’ mind, Tom is famous for never trifling with any of the women he represents.
So, obviously, Tom and Jerri (ha) hit it off and things start getting complicated, fast.
Only one year before this film, Ewell played almost the exact same character in The Seven Year Itch. If you needed a chinless schmuck to go cross-eyed and fall over himself on account of a stacked blonde, he was your man, I suppose. Blatant as the retread is, Ewell is excellent at this brand of schtick, and he has enough genuine chemistry with Mansfield that you buy their budding connection.
For her part, Mansfield comes out of the gate locked into how Tashlin’s animator brain wants to play off her physicality. To loop back around to The Seven Year Itch, in that film and many of her other iconic roles, Marilyn Monroe was asked to play dreamgirls who were utterly guileless as to how people (and/or men) viewed them (that wasn’t always the case, of course. My favorite Monroe performance is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which her character cheerily manipulates every single slobbering stooge she encounters out of every penny they got on ‘em).
But Tashlin is using Mansfield as a parody of male fantasies even as he’s projecting that fantasy onto the biggest canvas imaginable. Credit to Mansfield: she seems to be having a ball demolishing her screen presence when her career was still very much in its infancy. She’s better served in Rock Hunter in a role that gave her greater latitude to drive the plot and wield her outsized screen presence like a bat, but she still feels perfectly attuned to the live-action cartoon energy Tashlin brought to The Girl Can’t Help It. It’s a collaboration that really sings.
Also really singing: A lot of the cast members in the film! The Girl Can’t Help It is a benchmark not only for portraying a pivotal moment in rock’n’roll and legitimizing the genre by parodying it, but for the many cameos and musical numbers from canonically important figures in the evolution of the genre. Most noticeably, The Girl Can’t Help It has a theme song performed by Little Richard and his band. Take that, every other movie ever made.
Other luminaries who show up to quake the ceiling beams include a haunting Julie London, a scorching solo by Abbey Lincoln, and musical numbers by The Treniers, Fats Domino, Eddie Fontaine, Eddie Cochran, probably a couple other Eddies, The Platters, and more.
The Girl Can’t Help It ends up being a living tribute to rock’n’roll, even as Tashlin and his cast are merciless in their all-purpose skewering of the artificiality and calculation that go into selling revolution to mass audiences.
The new Criterion disc brings every eye-popping color to luminous life, really emphasizing how much Tashlin’s live-action work still brought his background in animation to bear.
Even if Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a slightly more perfectly assembled comedy, The Girl Can’t Help It remains a jam-packed bullet of a good time. Between all the great music and all the jokes crammed into every spare corner, it’s nigh on impossible to go unentertained.