There was great news for fans of early rock and roll this week when “The Girl Can’t Help It” featuring Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Platters, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent was released on DVD for the first time. Unlike other rock and roll flicks of the period, there’s more of interest than just the opportunity to see the legends in color in their prime (although that is attraction enough) as “Girl Can’t Help It” is along with “Jailhouse Rock” the definitive rock film entertainment of the first era. (“King Creole” belongs more to the gangster, film noir, and traditional musical tradition.) It is the one ‘50s rock lineup you can watch without having your fingers firmly set on the fast forward button.
Directed by Frank Tashlin, who directed many of the most appealing early Jerry Lewis films with and without Dean Martin, “Girl Can’t Help It” is filled with rock and roll vitality and an important mirror on its era and the impact of the then nascent rock and roll. Although it is ultimately a series of inspired set pieces rather than a great piece of filmmaking, it’s still ultimately a compelling viewing experience.
A vehicle for ‘50s sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, the “Girl Can’t Help it” is the story of gangster Edmond O’Brien’s attempt to transform his seemingly talentless girlfriend (Mansfield) into a singing star. He hires a down and out talent agent (Tom Ewell) to accomplish the act.
Mansfield though doesn’t want any part of show-biz, preferring to settle down and start a family. Eventually, Mansfield falls in love with Ewell and O’Brien realizes that he himself would prefer life in the spotlight and becomes a rock and roll star.
From the plot you wouldn’t think that “The Girl Can’t Help It” would be any more of a film and any less curiosity than the dozens of other of exploitation rock films that were made in the era. If there’s anything you can see from this film, it’s how often inessential pure plot is to a good movie. ‘Girl Can’t Help it” succeeds on style and energy. And rock and roll is at the heart of that style and energy.
I don’t know what Tashlin’s opinion was of rock music and some have taken parts of this movie to indicate he was at best ambivalent but this movie clearly gets the music in a way that no other film of the 1950s save perhaps “Jailhouse Rock” ever do.
There is an overwhelming sense that something new and exciting and important is happening. Whether this movement will be for good and bad is unknown and irrelevant; it’s here and we’d better either get the hell out of the way or join in.
You can see this in the classic opening sequence. Ewell, dressed in a tuxedo, comes out on to a stage decorated with classical instruments. The screen is small and black and white. Ewell flicks the screen and it turns into a Cinemascope wide screen. A second later Ewell gives the command and we’re in color. With the setting established, Ewell starts on what appears to be a boring lecture on music trends. Before you can blink he’s drowned out by the furious horn strains on Little Richard’s title track. Not only is Ewell’s voice drowned out but soon Tashlin abandons him visually and zooms his camera in a on a juke box spinning a Little Richard 45 on the Specialty. Tashlin then shows a group of teenagers dancing to the music using odd tilted angles in garishly colored light. Loud, fast, raucous, sexy, the music is the only thing that’s happening.
The message could not be clearer. Things have changed baby. The old world of repressed and at times admirably restrained manners and mores and ideas has been replaced by something bolder and more aggressive that just refuses to be contained. The King is Dead!!! Long Live the King!!
Even 50 years down the line, when rock and roll has been replaced by hip hop as the dominant form of cultural expression, it still packs a punch. That’s understandable because the line in the sand drawn by the early rock explosion really set the tumblers into place for every significant cultural movement since. Compare this to the tame defenses of rock and roll in other early rock films like “Rock Around the Clock” or “Loving You” where the music is just dismissed as merely the latest youth fad, another hula hoop. Or compare it to a flick like “King Creole” where the characters timidly refer to the music as folk music.
Tashlin not only gets the implication of the new culture but he also understands the lines that are being broken by that culture. Taboos and barriers are being tumbling. Watching an Eddie Cochran performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” the Ewell character, a middle aged white man, looks befuddled. At the same time, his black maid, a young adult woman, dances around the room and clearly gets what Cochran is doing. Could Tashlin have been clearer about the lines being drawn around the music revolved around race as much as taste? (The scene also lets us know that television not movies is the dominant form of visual entertainment in the new universe.)
Tashlin even better understands the connection between the music and overt sexual expression. In scenes that anticipate music video, Tashlin uses music to comment on Mansfield strutting her stuff. This is some of Tashlin’s most ground breaking stuff. Watching Mansfield jiggle her buttocks as Little Richard wails “She’s Got It” gives us a view of the way future directors would use rock music in movies. The song is used as a comment and emphasis on the action of a scene and the movement of a scene in contrast to the music being the center of the action in the grand musical tradition. Watch Robert DeNiro walk in the bar with the Stones “Jumping Jack Flash” as a soundtrack in “Mean Streets” to see the way Tashlin’s movie changed the vocabulary.
The most celebrated scene has the platinum bombshell jiggling down the street to the strains of Little Richard’s title tune and setting off pandemonium in the male population. A chunk of ice melts when Mansfields walks by. An old man’s glasses break. The non-musical ending of the scene where Mansfield rests two bottles of milk upon her breasts is most commented upon by critics. Yet the moment a few seconds before where a milkman’s phallic bottles boils over at the sight of Mansfield is the real highlight. Even in 2006, it’s still outrageous.
It should be said that these scenes and much of the film works so well because Mansfield is as perfect an exemplar of the new culture as the music. In her brightest and sexiest moments in the film, Mansfield wriggles and writhes with wonderful sense of self-awareness and humor. It doesn’t necessarily work for the character, who is supposed to be a down home wholesome girl underneath it all, but it works wonderfully for the film. It’s as if Mansfield and Tashlin are aware of not only the fundamental absurdity of 1950s sexual mores but of the sex act itself. A scene Mansfield climaxes with a violent bite into apple is almost too rich in its comment and imagery. Unlike perpetual victim Marilyn Monroe, Mansfield knows the power she has over men and thinks it’s funny.
The new music and culture sit well on her. Just as James Dean was a rock and roll star without singing or playing a note because of what he represented in his movies, Mansfield was a rock star. Baby she’s got it.
Also of note is the respect with which Tashlin treats the real rock stars. With the exception of Little Richard’s title song, all the rock music in the movie is homegrown. And the superstars chose their best- Little Richard gives us “She’s Got it” and “Ready Teddy”, Fats “Blue Monday”, Gene Vincent “Be Bop a Lula”, Cochran “Twenty Flight Rock” and the Platters, the lesser known but beautiful “You’ll Never Know.”
Not only does Tashlin let the rockers do their own stuff, he does nothing to tame them down. The results are often revelatory. Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps rock so hard their hats fall off. Little Richard comes off even better, crouching, bending, striking dramatic poses away from the piano and looking beautiful in color. For the youngsters who see Richard as only a celebrity joke in a Geico commercial, “Girl Can’t Help it” is essential viewing since seeing only a few minutes of the man in his prime reminds us not only why he was famous but why he mattered. (Richard does omit the legendary leg on the piano that we often see in vintage Richard pics.)
The film is far from flawless. Instead of giving vent to a full blown live action cartoon celebrating the new culture Tashlin weighs down his film too much with a conventional love story. Whenever, the film slows down for romance the energy level drags. The majority of love scenes between Ewell and Mansfield are dull as is Ewell’s performance. He comes off as sort of a hangdog William Holden with less authority. He should be much funnier. (Edmond O’Brien’s gangster though is a howl and helps keeps us going in Tashlin’s more mundane, less musical, less sexually inspired moments.)
The music is also not all gold. Although we do get the super legends, we also get a group of non-entities including the Three Chuckles and Eddie Fontaine. To be fair though even these performers have some curiosity value for the true rock aficionado. For example, Three Chuckles’ leader Teddy Randazzo later went on to be a first class uptown soul producer in the mid-1960s (Little Anthony and the Imperials et al.) while sax man Nino Tempo went on to be part of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew.
Most frustratingly for rock and roll fans, we only get part of many of the musical performances as Tashlin intercuts them with dramatic scenes. As understandable as that is, it’s still frustrating to only get half of “Be Bop a Lula”.
Also, it's sad that the crowds appreciating the rock and roll depicted in the movie are strictly segregated. The only blacks are on stage.
Even with these flaws, the film is still essential particularly when you also get some of Tashlin’s much praised satire of the back world of the music industry and some good verbal wit as well. All in all, it is still one of the best rock films of any period.
Sadly, the new DVD is only available as part of an expensive three disc Jayne Mansfield boxed set which also contains the first rate “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter” another Tashlin film. Still, rent it from net flix and dub it if you have to. It’s worth it.
The DVD presentation is first rate with a beautiful anamorphic print of the film with great sound. (Unfortunately, the technical perfection of DVD makes it that much more evident that our heroes are lip synching.) There’s a documentary on Mansfield and a nice audio commentary included. The commentary stresses the influence the film had on future rockers like Paul McCartney, who was apparently infatuated with Mansfield, as well dishing out little trivia tidbits like the fact that Mansfiled had a picture of herself being devoured by fish in her swimming pool.)
If you’re a rock and roll fan, you owe it to yourself to see this film in its new presentation.
Last edited by likethebike on Tue Aug 15, 2006 8:02 am, edited 1 time in total.