Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Rocktober: 'The Girl Can't Help It' (1956)

Frank Tashlin started his career as an animator, and appropriately enough he directs live action a bit like it's the zany animation of the Warner Bros. shorts he worked on. The Girl Can't Help It is an amusing if sometimes sluggish comedy about a washed-up talent manager hired by a gangster to turn his girlfriend into a pop star. Naturally, the manager and the girlfriend fall in love, and the gangster is none too happy about it. The predictable story is paper-thin, but the appeal of The Girl Can't Help It comes from Tashlin's energetic style, which includes throwing in loads of performances by popular rock musicians of the time (Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, etc.), as well as the vibrant colors and sometimes goofy set pieces that recall his animation work.

Star Jayne Mansfield is also essentially a human cartoon, one of the obvious precursors of Jessica Rabbit, and although she's known for not being an especially strong actress, she's perfect in the part of bubbly, naive Jerri Jordan, who really wants to settle down and get married instead of becoming a singing sensation. Tashlin makes good use of Mansfield's, er, assets, and her somewhat confused demeanor and little-girl voice are perfect for the part of Jerri. Tom Ewell brings more grounded emotional realism to his role as manager Tom Miller, and Tashlin stages a wonderful sequence in which Tom imagines his ex singing to him in various outfits from various rooms of his house as he plays one of her records.

The musical performances, which are often inserted almost in their entirety with little plot relevance, are seriously impressive, and show an energy and intensity to early rock n' roll. Vincent's performance of "Be-Bop-a-Lula" is particularly electrifying, and Tashlin does a very good job of capturing the excitement and newness of rock n' roll without condescending to it, even though some of his characters clearly view the music with disdain. The Girl Can't Help It takes so many elements that people would have regarded as superficial (rock music, Mansfield, the influence of animation) and weaves them into something lively and very timely.

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