The Girl Can’t Help It

(Frank Tashlin, USA, 1956): Arguably less impressed by the new sound of rock & roll than it is Jayne Mansfield’s natural wonders, Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It is about things busting out all over. Opening with a photo-Godardian gesture of self-reflexivity in which hangdog adman Tom Ewell flicks the black-and-white academy ratio box into Cinemascopic Technicolor to make way for Little Richard’s pistol-hot rendition of the title song, the movie is perhaps more famous for its twin gags conflating Ms. Russell’s jugs with the more wholesome variety: a milk bottle pops its load simply at her passing, and Jayne — as the terminally untalented but sweet-natured gangster’s moll Ewell’s mad man is hired to cash in on the new jukebox craze — nestles a fresh pair of glass decanters right against her real ones. While the true cash cow here is therefore open to debate, what isn’t is the fact this is a movie about things fit to bust all over.  It ain’t called pop for nothing.

By this point in is post-Warner Brothers Termite Terrace cartoon career, Tashlin had all but erased the animator’s pencil lines separating drawings and live action anyway, and this may be his crowning act of rendering the difference between the two irrelevant. With its convenient but boldly sketched setting in the ad game, insistence on packaging as the universal principle of successful consumption, and knuckle headed Billy Wilder framing of rock & roll as a gangster’s playground, the movie is as high on pure pop fumes as it is convinced of its own irredeemable trashiness. It would be dangerously subversive if it weren’t also so damned irresistibly fun, a triple-layered, pink-frosted cake for the having and eating too.

Despite having been turned down by Elvis — the Colonel having his own notions about movies and marketing — whose career that year was cresting definitively toward the epoch-changing stratosphere, Tashlin makes more than the most out of the available jukebox talent, including Little Richard (eyes rolled upward in electrified transfiguration), Abbey Lincoln (a strip of crimson — in a dress on loan from Guys and Dolls — sparkling against a blue velvet curtain); Gene Vincent (howling from a second story recording studio window); a hallucinated, sheerly transparent Julie London reclining on satin sheets; and Eddie Cochran ripping through 20 Flight Rock on a tiny black and white TV screen.

While most if not every one of these performances is a cinematic eye-bonbon, they’re also uniformly mediated as framed and fully packaged goods for the taking, entirely sealed off from any organic interaction with even the nominal plot, but functioning as a kind of fully effective bodysnatching conformity supplement nevertheless. (It’s also worth noting that the movie’s ‘live’ performances, in the nightclubs and recording studios and such, are easily ignored by the characters busy working the script, but anything on TV freezes rap attention. So much for incitement to revolt.) As patently exciting and expressively exploitable as the music is, it nevertheless renders its teenage masses visibly bovine and dumbstruck, oblivious even to the ad-man’s hand waved literally in front of their face. (The other hand is presumably picking the kids’ pockets.) New opiate, same old masses: the next generation will be as ripe for the suckering as any other. Although an indispensable touchstone of mid-’50s pop cultural trash compacting, The Girl Can’t Help It is most definitely not buying what it’s selling. (20th Century Fox)