Monday, June 16, 2008
The Girl Can't Help It
Considering its inauspicious origins, The Girl Can't Help It has absolutely no right to be as good or as wildly entertaining as it is. It's a blatant exploitation film on at least two fronts, an attempt to cash in on two separate but equally popular phenomena of the mid-1950s: the teen rock n' roll craze, and Marilyn Monroe. The latter is incarnated here by Jayne Mansfield, starring in her first film and outrageously made up as one of the best Marilyn impersonators of all time. She's got down the platinum blonde coifs, the wiggly walk, the breathy murmur of the voice, and even the deliriously silly repertoire of squeaks, giggles, and cries that so characterized Marilyn's ditsy public persona. And as if Mansfield's boffo impression wasn't enough, the film makes every effort to ape Billy Wilder's successful Monroe vehicle The Seven Year Itch, released the year before, bringing over Marilyn's costar Tom Ewell in a similar role as the ordinary schlub bowled over by the otherworldly beauty. Even Mansfield's apartment in the film, with its garishly decorated central staircase, seems inspired by the decor and layout of Ewell's apartment from Itch, where his character was casually seduced by Monroe.
In the hands of almost any other Hollywood director of the time, this situation would add up to little more than a quickie cash-grab, a plain-faced rip-off that attempted to create a new star from the exact same mold as the era's most famous star of all. With this plainly unoriginal material, director Frank Tashlin managed to create a film that not only completely outdid its obvious inspiration even the best moments of The Seven Year Itch seem flaccid and snail-paced in contrast to this colorful, vibrant extravaganza but which stands up on its own as a marvel of design, pacing, and visual comedy. Much has been made of Tashlin's pedigree in cartoons, pumping out animation for Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes line for years before making the transition into comedic screenwriting and directing. Indeed, a great deal of Tashlin's sense of humor and eye for visual absurdity is intimately connected to his cartoon work. This should be apparent right from the film's opening, in which Tom Ewell breaks the fourth wall by introducing himself as the actor who will be playing the agent Tom Miller in the upcoming movie. Ewell starts his introduction in a tiny gray square, growing annoyed as he realizes that the film really should be in Cinemascope color: he pushes out the sides of the screen to their correct ratio, then looks angrily upwards offscreen and makes pointed remarks until the color belatedly kicks in. This kind of metafictional goofing around was a common convention of the Looney Tunes cartoons, which often referred implicitly or explicitly to the offscreen animator, with characters looking upward in this way to get the attention of the artists a device most famously used in Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck a few years earlier. Even the background of this opening, with its abstract landscape and musical instruments floating in space, is a nod to the surrealist imagery of the Warner Brothers cartoons.
More broadly, Tashlin gets a lot of ground out of taking a very cartoonish approach to the film's humor. He gets most of his mileage out of Mansfield early on, making every kind of gag he can think of about her gaga appearance and the effect she has on men, as though he's in a rush to get this obligatory sexual material out of the way so he can move on. So in pretty short order, Tashlin has Mansfield causing a delivery man's hands to melt through a giant block of ice, an old pervert's glasses to crack, and a milkman's bottle to bubble over with, um, white foamy milk (Freudians, ho!). Even more hilarious is a montage of nightclub scenes in which Ewell, as a luckless agent who's been hired to turn Mansfield into a star by her gangster boyfriend (Edmond O'Brien), brings the girl around to club after club to attract attention. Mansfield, of course, never fails to get attention, and her hip-swaying sashay does all the work, bopping and jiving around the room even for as simple a thing as walking to the ladies' room. Dolled up in a form-fitting red dress that's straight out of Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood, Mansfield's curves barely even look human; her body is as hilariously distorted as a Looney Tunes dame. And Tashlin plays up the wolfish reactions of the men around her. When one nightclub owner catches sight of her, it looks like his eyes are about to pop out of his head and steam pour from his ears, so wild is his expression.
This unhinged, cartoony expressionism extends throughout the film, and especially to O'Brien's character. Ewell is a grade-A ham too, and Tashlin uses him well by playing up both his most slack-jawed, anxious moments and his plodding everyman stoicism, but O'Brien is the film's only personality who can compete with Mansfield herself. He's like a sinister variation on Porky Pig, idiotic but perfectly capable of casual brutality. When he's leading Ewell on a tour of his Long Island mansion, pointing out the places where his gangland friends met their ends, he's absolutely hilarious, and he's even funnier singing his maudlin jailhouse rock tunes, which take the idea of "rock" a bit too seriously, dealing as they do with chopping at rockpiles. He's even privileged with the film's very last moment, a prototypical Porky closing when he steps through the enclosing frame of the final shot, walking forward through the black, now-empty space to directly address the audience, entreating them to listen to him sing. It's a very self-serving version of "t-t-t-that's all folks!"
If Tashlin quickly dispenses with the bulk of the film's sexual sight gags featuring Mansfield, getting them out of the way in the first half hour, he never quite grows tired of the film's other central conceit, which was its attempt to jump on the rock n' roll bandwagon that was then viewed primarily as a teenage fad. Though this idea was every bit as much of a cash-grab as Mansfield's creation of a would-be Marilyn II, the rock n' roll is incorporated organically into the film, with original rock artists doing live performances in rehearsal studios and nightclubs. The film boasts quite an impressive roster, too, with A-list acts like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and the Platters bolstered by lesser-known but then-popular artists like the Treniers, the awkward Elvis rip-off Eddie Cochran (who's held up as an example of how you don't need talent to be popular ouch!), Eddie Fontaine, and many others. Many of these artists give stunning performances of their hits, and the film remains, among other things, a time capsule for mid-50s rock at its best. Little Richard and the now-forgotten Treniers in particular are positively electric, generating enough heat and energy with their raucous songs to drive the entire film. This music, by itself, is reason enough to watch the film, but it also helps that the director doesn't simply allow the songs to exist as documentary snippets separate from the film as a whole, but incorporates them fully into the milieu, creating a carefully drawn sense of time and place.
Though the film's producers doubtless viewed rock as a passing craze, Tashlin seems to have much more respect for the artists involved. He really gets this stuff, and he enhances the natural power of these performances by not only allowing them to run almost interrupted for their entire lengths, but by filming them dynamically and with visual panache. A soulful performance by the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln becomes an exercise in visual abstraction and color fields for Tashlin, as the curvaceous singer poses in a bright red dress, her hourglass shape forming a red cutout against the deep blue of the plush curtains behind her. When the number ends, Tashlin pans slowly downward, onto the black and reflective stage, where Lincoln's red shape is transformed into an abstracted series of circles, like the early stages of a cartoonist's character design, the body broken down into geometric figures and color areas. Elsewhere, he intercuts an idiosyncratic Fats Domino performance with periodic shots of the dancing feet of the teenage crowd, the bare feet and swishing dresses of the girls creating a riot of movement and bright color. This echoes the opening credits, which take place over a wild jitterbugging party that seems to have provided the visual inspiration for the opening sequence of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. And why not, since Tashlin has crafted perhaps the definitive cinematic representation of 50s rock culture. This carefully honed aesthetic and attention to color carries over into each of the performance numbers, which are perfectly designed, with seemingly endless attention lavished on the musicians' outfits and the brightly colored sets they're placed in. Even without Mansfield, the film would be a delightful tribute to 50s rock at its best, and Tashlin's lovingly staged musical numbers capture the era's energy and vitality like no other film.
The Girl Can't Help It is a rare treat that is so much more than the sum of its parts, even if on paper its parts might seem to clash quite a bit. It's a gangster movie parody, a thrilling musical celebration, a sexual farce, a love story. It doesn't all always work, and there are a handful of slack moments and missteps here and there like a maudlin fantasy guest-starring Julie London, singing a song of heartbreak to Ewell from his memory but for the most part this is a crackling comedy with some equally potent music at its core.