Thursday, April 5, 2012

Music, Sex, and Sweetness in THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT (1955)


Jayne Mansfield's legacy has been a doubtful one, most often noted for its tragic ending and Mansfield's failure to eclipse the fame of fellow blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. That's a shame, too, because she really shines in the 1956 musical comedy, The Girl Can't Help It. Far from being a mere decorative element in another actor's film, Mansfield comes across as sexy, yes, but also solid, funny, and genuinely aware of the joke being told at her famously curvaceous body's expense.

The film's plot follows washed up agent Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), whose luck begins to change when he's hired by an equally washed up mob boss to turn the thug's girlfriend into a star important enough to make a suitable bride. The mob boss, Fats Murdock, is played with gusto by character actor Edmond O'Brien; he wants Miller to turn Jerri Jordan (Mansfield) into a celebrity, regardless of whether or not she has any real talent. Mansfield amply fills the role of the emerging star; her figure alone is enough to turn the head of every nightclub owner in town, and eventually she turns Miller's head, as well, creating a series of comic difficulties as the anxious agent tries to resist his charge's all too obvious charms.

The opening sequence of the film announces that this is a story about music, and the musical interludes provide a sort of tour through early rock and roll, with performers like Julie London, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Anthony, The Platters and The Chuckles all making appearances. Even the mob boss gets in on the act with a hilariously bad prison themed number that predicts the fame of Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock," which would become a chart topper a year later in 1957. The movie does a great job putting its finger on the cultural moment of the mid 1950s and showcasing the rise of rock & roll as the dominant form of popular music.

Some of the funniest moments, though, are the sight gags that pop up throughout the picture. The opening itself is one extended joke, in which Ewell breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly in order to draw attention to the film's production in Cinemascope and full color. Later, Jerri's stroll down a city street provokes extreme reactions from the ice man, the milk man, and every other male within range, and a scene in which Jerri holds a pair of milk bottles while discussing motherhood forms one of the movie's most memorable, and most controversial, images.

Director Frank Tashlin might well have intended to make Jayne Mansfield a kind of dirty joke; he is famous for saying that he thought big breasts were the funniest things in the world. However, both the star and the movie escape that gag through their ultimate sweetness. Jerri is only a fiction, after all; her real name is Georgiana, and she ultimately attracts Ewell's Miller because of her sincerity, kindness and native intelligence. He comes to know and love the real person, rather than the bombshell persona that Fats wants her to embody. Viewers should be equally won over by those qualities and should come away from the film with a newfound admiration for Mansfield's less tangible talents. The girl might not be able to help it, but she's charming, savvy and fun throughout the entire film.

See more of Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), also directed by Frank Tashlin. You’ll find Tom Ewell in Adam’s Rib (1949) and The Seven Year Itch (1955). Edmond O’Brien, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), can also been seen in D.O.A. (1950), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Wild Bunch (1969).

An earlier version of this review was published on Examiner.com in 2009. The author reserves all rights to both versions of this material.