American Film of the 50s- The Girl Can’t Help it, by Aaron Pinkston
The wonderful opening to Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It serves two purposes. We see Tom Ewell, who plays the male lead in the film, on a performance stage, looking directly at the camera, delivering a monologue which sets up two of the important ideas of the film. First, simply enough, that this is a film about music — a certain type of music, seen as a fad in a very fad-driven society: rock’n’roll. The other is specifically about the film technology that is used so well. In an extraordinary use of meta filmmaking, Ewell begins his monologue in black-and-white, 4:3 standard-ratio frame, and starts to describe the wonderful CinemaScope. Noticing that the film the audience is seeing isn’t using this technology, he literally pushes the edges of the screen away, which instantly gives us a greater impact of the wide-screen format. Next, he moves on to all the wonderful colors you will see, again becomes annoyed until he is able to correct the picture for us. These effects obviously serve to captivate us by these new wondrous capabilities, but there is also a bit of a dubious undertone — one that marks the decade’s great ideology of consumerism. The film isn’t hawking vacuums or automobiles here, but it does feel intently like an advertisement. Ewell’s persona is the salesman, tricking us into buying what he’s selling. In this way, like other films I’ve covered in this series, The Girl Can’t Help It can be read simply through narrative, but it isn’t quite what it seems.
Once the actual film begins, we learn that Ewell’s character, Tom Miller, is a music agent that has been down on his luck. He’s haunted (quite literally) by his past successes, and at the beginning of the film has become a bit of a joke in music-nightclub circles. His luck changes when he is commissioned by Marty “Fats” Murdock, a former felon gangster type. Murdock hires him to manage his girlfriend, the voluptuous Jerri Jordan, and make her an instant musical sensation — she is played by Marilyn Monroe clone Jayne Mansfield. Miller is reluctant to take on the responsibility, claiming that he’s heard a million pitches from wealthy men who want to pay for their talentless floozies to become stars — that is until he sees Jerri for the first time and becomes instantly entranced by her appearance, a visual joke that occurs many times throughout the movie, often to great humor.
Though a light musical comedy with some romantic trappings sprinkled in, there is a cynicism displayed here, as Tashlin seems to both love and hate his characters and the film’s narrative. In order to make Jordan a musical star, Miller doesn’t immediately cut a record with her to pass out to executives. In fact, we don’t hear her sing until nearly an hour into the movie. Instead, in a play that seems especially coherent today, he literally parades her around nightclubs, catching the eyes of the owners while dropping hints that she’s a singer and too expensive for their clubs. Her actual talent isn’t important, it’s her more natural talents that perk the interests of this male-centric industry. Not surprisingly, once we finally hear Jerri Jordan sing, she is terrible. When “Fats” Murdock realizes that there is little chance of her becoming a star, he basically dumps her, seeing her as inferior to his own cultural status.
Jayne Mansfield is an interesting subject for the film, as I glibly said before, she’s a type of Marilyn Monroe clone — and by all accounts this was how her star rose in Hollywood, often called a “poor man’s Marilyn Monroe.” There is an obvious resemblance in their faces and body types, and Mansfield seems to be doing her best to recreate the Monroe persona through her high voice and outrageous amounts of face-acting. The film also seems to be trying to overdo the persona, making her look more like a caricature of a sexy woman than an actual sexy woman — the size of her waist in relation to her hips is jaw-dropping to to the point where it can’t be without some sort of artificial enhancement.
Beyond the actress and her quite ridiculous sexual appeal, the character works to subvert the objectification of women. To make her a star, she has to undergo a new identity, with a new name and line of work. I saw this as a bit of an indictment of the male-driven society, forcing women to undergo changes in their personalities, appearances and dreams to more conform to their ideal. As Miller gets more acquainted with her, we learn more about who she actually is, a woman named Georgiana, who comes from a big family and wants nothing more to be a wife and mother. Yes, I know, depicting a woman with only domestic dreams isn’t exactly a positive image, but I don’t think that’s the point Tashlin is going for here. When she cooks Miller a gourmet breakfast and talks about her desires of being a loving wife, you can’t help but see some satire here, as it is emphasized so sincerely to become absurdly over-the-top. Still, the more Miller spends time with Georgiana, the more he falls in love with her. He could really care less about Jerri Jordan, the jukebox goddess. Seeing her as an intelligent and real woman comes off much more attractively than the curvy lounge singer men are making her dress up as.
The major aspect that sets The Girl Can’t Help It apart from any other musical comedy of the 1950s is how it handles its musical scenes. For the most part, this isn’t the type of musical where characters on screen break into song without warning. Except for two songs, all of the music in the film is delivered by real rock’n’roll artists of the time, giving the film a really authentic feel. Most of the acts are seen in nightclubs performing for audiences, others exists wholly outside of the narrative space of the film. It’s not exactly experimental, but certainly a different approach from the mainstream Hollywood musical. Throughout the course of the film, we see performances by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and a number of groups and artists that I don’t immediately recognize. These sequences are fantastic as a representation of the popular musical genre, and there is a real edge to all of the acts which emphasizes the niche, fad-like nature that it was seen as at the time. It also showcases the diversity of the important artists and groups of the time, with performances by both men and women, black and white. Like most good musicals, the music informs us of the themes, narrative and characters in the film without feeling too on-the-nose — you can easily relate the specifics of the songs to the film at large and just as easily tune out the rest of the movie and just enjoy the music.
Over and over again we’ve seen through popular culture just how important rock’n’roll was to the 1950s. It’s strange how something that seems to be a mainstream catch all genre today was a very specific, niche artform at one time. Through the likes of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley (neither of which appear in The Girl Can’t Help It, but whose sound is certainly replicated among the present musical acts), a new style of music was forming, inspired by rhythm and blues, jazz and the group ballads of the 1930s and 1940s. The music was less about music and more about the scene, as can be seen in the groups of crazed teenagers in the film — there are a number of jabs that the performers aren’t actually even that talented, but have a certain aesthetic that can make them hugely popular. The Girl Can’t Help It, in a strange way, is the first film in the series to be about young people, even though there are no major characters who are young, their collective presence is known through the music.
I was surprised by The Girl Can’t Help It — it wasn’t the stodgy, old-fashioned musical comedy that I was expecting, and it was yet another film that was deeper than seemed on the surface. I am definitely not surprised that it was paired with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as they both play on the themes of female objectification through their respective stars.