Blu-ray Review: The Girl Can’t Help It

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Frank Tashlin | CAST: Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O’Brien, Julie London, Julie London, Ray Anthony, Barry Gordon, Henry Jones, Juanita Moore
4/19/22 | PRICE: DVD $20.99, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: 2006 audio commentary featuring film scholar Toby Miller; new video essay by film critic David Cairns; 2004 interview with filmmaker John Waters; new conversation about the music in the film; new interview biographer of actor Jayne Mansfield; on-set footage; interviews with Mansfield (1957) and musician Little Richard (1984); episode of podcast “You Must Remember This” about Mansfield
SPECS: NR | 97 min. | Comedy | 2.35:1 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Rock ’n’ roll was present in Fifties movies but it was marginalized. It was barely acknowledged in A-budget productions. (The Blackboard Jungle had the first rock anthem as a theme song, but the film proper stayed away from the music.) It was only prominent in B-features and Elvis vehicles, which were, for all intents and purposes, glorified B-pictures.

One film broke that pattern — the amusing but uneven 1956 comedy The Girl Can’t Help It. Animator turned live-action director Frank Tashlin used rock ’n’ roll beautifully in the film, making it central to the plot and featuring some legendary rock performers. Tashlin never again used rock in a similar manner, with the sole exception of Jerry Lewis’s nerd-rock explosion in Rock-a-Bye Baby. But he clearly knew how to “visualize” the music in a way that didn’t reappear in cinema until Richard Lester and Ken Russell fused silent comedy with French New Wave editing in British film and television. Tashlin, however, had the advantage of presenting his rock moments in a feature shot in both CinemaScope and De Luxe color.

The decision to adorn Girl with a rock soundtrack was a sharp one. The “frenzy” that the music produced meshed perfectly with Tashlin’s own comic tempo, which he honed as a director of Looney Tunes. In Girl, the rock ’n’ roll sequences elevate the film from being a “so-so” Tashlin (like The Lieutenant Wore Skirts or his last, the Bob Hope vehicle, The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell), jolting the film into the first rank of “Tashlinesque” comedies (alongside Artists and Models, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Cinderfella and Bachelor Flat).

The basic plot is nominal: a publicist (Tom Ewell) is hired by a gangster (Edmond O’Brien) to promote the gangster’s “discovery,” a bosomy blonde (Jayne Mansfield) who seemingly has no talent. The “making of a star” premise allows the film to wander in and out of recording studios and nightclubs where rock ’n’ roll is being played.

The episodic structure of Girl also serves to highlight the best sequences, some of which are live-action versions of cartoonish gags where men gawk at Mansfield. She had already appeared in four films by ’56, but Girl and the later Tashlin-directed Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? were the films that perfectly exhibited the sexpot image she had been adopting for the press.

The visual gags might have been enough to get the film a cult audience, but the musical moments most certainly have made Girl a perennial favorite. Tashlin showcased a number of rock ’n’ roll artists in their prime: among them the Platters, Gene Vincent, the Treniers, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and Little Richard (who also wrote the film’s theme song). There are some frustrating cuts away from the music back to the plot, but at least Tashlin did put each musical act centerstage for a while.

One of the film’s best musical set-pieces isn’t a rock song, though. Tom Ewell’s heartbroken publicist character has a vision of his former client and girlfriend Julie London singing “Cry Me a River,” with the great torch singer appearing to him in different outfits around his apartment. The scene is haunting indeed, as it both contributes to the plot (as simple as it is) and also does offer the perfect visualization of the song and the singer.

Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)

The supplements on the disc are a mix of vintage archival footage and older DVD extras. Fans of Tashlin’s films will be fascinated by two items — a collection of excerpts from Tashlin’s 1952 book  How to Create Cartoons, included as a print extra in the package, and a rare home movie shot and edited by the film’s art director Leland Fuller as a present to Tashlin and his wife. We see two scenes from Girl being shot, intercut with quick gag shots.

A 1984 Merv Griffin interview of Little Richard has the rocker discussing his newly published autobiography and his battles with drug addiction. A 1957 CBC interview of Jayne Mansfield finds the actress visibly sweating as she discusses her career and personal life. A single mother at the time of the chat, she expresses her desire to be an actress rather than a star. She also discusses her work to publicize herself (including posing for pin-up photos) and her in-home menagerie (as of this program, her ocelot had died). Her ability to control a scene is underscored by the fact that she addresses her answers directly to the camera throughout, rather than staying turned to the interviewer.

Mansfield biographer Eve Golden speaks about the star in a new supplement shot for this release. She explores how Jayne crafted her image, saying that, throughout the process, “She knew how to make fun of herself.” Golden also reveals how Mansfield’s hourglass figure was created in Girl (by cinching her waist and padding her chest and hips) and discusses the reason to sit through the admittedly bad movies  Jayne made in the Sixties (“to see how adorable Jayne still is”).

Critic David Cairns holds forth in the best newly shot supplement. He discusses the film’s CinemaScope imagery and how De Luxe color was used to best effect in various sequences. Cairns gives most of the credit to the seasoned cinematographer Leon Shamroy but also outlines how Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus and color consultant Leonard Doss worked with Tashlin on the movie’s color palette.

Cairns is quite eloquent throughout but does get caught up in his own verbiage at points. Describing the dreamy Julie London sequence, he notes that there is “a Van Gogh sense of psychological unease, brought about by colors that strike a note of discord.” At another he declares that “Any shot with Mansfield has a set of built-in Caligari angles.” He rightly connects Tashlin’s style to various other phenomena, including the later photography of Diane Arbus, but he also leaves us with a question and answer concerning whether Tashlin loved or hated popular culture. “A little of neither, a lot of both,” opines the critic with the fancy grammar.

The final word falls to Girl Can’t Help It cultist John Waters, who is seen in a 2004 interview. Waters dotes on one of the single-oddest (yet endearing) aspects of the film — that it depicts a series of nightclubs in which nothing but down and dirty rock ’n’ roll is being performed. (An impossibility for actual nightclubs circa 1956.)

Waters is effusive in his praise for Mansfield, “the ultimate movie star.” At various points in the interview he raves about Jayne as a “glamour girl gone berserk” and “an animated character from outer space.” The most important thing to remember, he stresses, is that she was in on the jokes being made about her.

As for Tashlin, Waters admires his ability to show live-action gags (including milk bottles held against Mansfield’s chest and a bottle exploding when a man sees her walk — “a cum joke!” as Waters puts it), which were “really rude for the Fifties!” He delves into the film’s style, rightly noting that “camp is a rich person’s taste” which is indulged heartily in Girl.

But, he emphasizes, Tashlin never once makes fun of the music itself. Waters notes that he learned from Girl “how movies should look” and that “bad taste… could be beautiful.”

Buy or Rent The Girl Can’t Help It

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”