Half a century ago this summer: Elvis on TV, the surrounding hysteria approached only by that around dead star James Dean; Ike poised for re-election; Marilyn Monroe marrying Arthur Miller, who has just defied HUAC; liberation movements gathering momentum in Alabama and Eastern Europe; Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Searchers still playing drive-ins, The Ten Commandments set to drop, and in production, The Girl Can’t Help It!
Revived for a week at Film Forum, The Girl Can’t Help It is the garish acme of CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color, monumentally loud and blatantly exploitative —a veritable Parthenon of vulgarity and a supremely unfunny comedy that is pure eau de Fifty-Six. This satire of Elvis and Marilyn (or rather, of their clones) shimmers with radioactive pinks and cobalt blues; at once strident and static, the movie defines the atomic-Wurlitzer chrome- tailfin Fontainebleau-lobby look. Producer-director-co-writer Frank Tashlin is one of the very few Hollywood directors who broke into movies as an animator and, like the Dean Martin–Jerry Lewis comedies that preceded it, The Girl Can’t Help It is something like a live-action Looney Tune.
Every aspect of The Girl Can’t Help It is at once secondhand and bigger than life. Malibu doubles as “Long Island,” home of Edmond O’Brien, a retired gangster who favors plaid tuxedos, has a Vermeer on his wall, and desires nothing more than to transform fiancée Jayne Mansfield into any sort of star. (She is already a Kabuki goddess with blindingly platinum, blonder-than-blond tresses and contours that make Jessica Rabbit seem like a bunny-hopping denizen of the Nature Channel.) With unerring irrationality, O’Brien hires alcoholic press agent Tom Ewell to perform his particular publicity voodoo. Like America’s, the resultant success is universal and banal beyond anyone’s dreams. The idea is so much more magical than the achievement . . .
Leading man Ewell is wizened, dyspeptic, and so lacking in charisma that he is easily upstaged by the jukebox that blasts out the movie’s unforgettable title song—appropriated by John Waters some 15 years later as the only appropriate way to introduce his 300-pound gender-blur Divine. Having lusted after Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch (1955), Ewell gets to make out with an imitation Marilyn—devised by 20th Century Fox to punish the original after she left the studio. Self-conscious self-referentiality is Tashlin’s stock in trade, along with a case of alienation so severe it dares not speak its name. Jayne’s unconvincing desire for domesticity suggests one automobile industry observer’s characterization of the newly elongated, blatantly forward-thrusting, gaudily two-toned 1955 Chrysler: “Marilyn Monroe as a housewife.”
Grotesque stereotypes collide with billboard-sized caricatures. This proto Pop Art pathology might be too painful to contemplate were it not for the exotic life forms flourishing around its periphery. Climaxing with a rock show performed for an audience of teenage white zombies, The Girl Can’t Help It is populated by all manner of failed honkers and would-be cool cats—as well as Fats Domino, the Platters, a gospel-shouting Abbey Lincoln, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent (his band, the Blue Caps, wearing actual blue caps). The coolest presence ever recorded by a Hollywood camera may be Little Richard, first seen standing entranced before a piano—as if wondering whether to pulverize or incinerate it.
Julie London is on the set as well—she plays herself as a manifestation of Ewell’s delirium tremors. Instead of the checkered demons and pink elephants he normally sees, the drunken flack hallucinates London sprawled across his rumpled bed chantoozing “Cry Me a River.” But, beyond good or evil, The Girl Can’t Help It belongs to Mansfield—a computer-generated image before the fact. (The Girl and Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? have been newly released as part of Fox’s Mansfield DVD box.)
Squealing and purring, Jayne sashays like Mae West through this raucous, new-minted rock ‘n’ roll world—so abstract that even the sparkles have sparkles. It hardly seems coincidental that she’s given the name “Jerri” to match the Ewell character’s “Tom” and echo the famous cartoon cat-and-mouse combo of the 1940s.
Film Forum is following The Girl Can’t Help It with a week of Tashlin features and one program of his animated cartoons. The two forms should be seen together. Tashlin’s animations are characterized by cinematic angles and editing, even as his features are implacably anti-natural.
An actual and metaphorical flatness heightens the sense of artifice. Gags are callous and the laws of physics flouted with impunity. Bob Hope drives a car across an abyss at one point in Son of Paleface (1952), and his delayed response to Jane Russell’s charms is typical Tashlin: Hope nonchalantly lights his pipe; it unfurls like a party whistle as smoke pours out of his ears; his body spins while his face remains fixed front, drooling over Russell’s bodice. There is a sense in which Tashlin’s best jokes aren’t really funny. But neither is a pas de deux.
Tashlin may have been only Jerry Lewis’s idea of an intellectual, but his oeuvre is a Bartlett’s of mass-culture quotations: His cartoons parody contemporary movies and comic strips; his films typically revolve around some aspect of American mass media. Hollywood or Bust (1956) concerns the movies. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) satirizes advertising. Tom Ewell plays a TV writer in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956). Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis produce comic books in Artists and Models (1955).
For Tashlin, the media constituted a single system. In Artists and Models, Lewis overhears The Honeymooners‘ “Ralph Kramden” fighting with his wife “Alice” in the apartment upstairs; later, Dean Martin dances with “Shirley Temple” and the “Little Rascals,” and when he serenades Dorothy Malone, it is noted that he sings like the guy who sang “That’s Amore,” i.e., Dean Martin. The social context is a nation of robotic image junkies. The movie fans in Hollywood or Bust and Rock Hunter are typical. In Artists and Models, Lewis is exhibited on TV as evidence of “what can happen to the human brain on a steady diet of comic books” while art is synonymous with idiocy. The movie’s insipid, if outrageously derriére-garde, finale has Jerry and Dino duel with their brushes to body-paint showgirls in plumed headgear: “On the streets of Montmartre, there’s a Frenchy kind of art . . . ”
On the back lot in Burbank, however, Tashlin is the original pop-culture Pop Artist. Artists and Models, which ranks with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as his quintessential movie, opens with Dean Martin painting the lips on an enormous billboard face—James Rosenquist before he discovered his destiny. Like Roy Lichtenstein, Tashlin cartooned cartoons; like Andy Warhol, he represented stars as representations of themselves. His landscapes, where they exist, look like molded plastic. They have the fetishized surfaces, at once seductive and repellent, of a Tom Wesselmann still life. The guy couldn’t help it.
Along with Douglas Sirk, Tashlin embraced American vulgarity in all its lurid, widescreen splendor, deploying flesh-and-blood caricatures as if to cast Sirk’s most famous title: Imitation of Life. That one director made “comedies” and the other “melodramas” hardly matters. Both trafficked in Technicolor flesh tones and laminated sheen, the supreme garishness of mid-’50s consumer culture—the flat, flaming all-American inauthenticity that Euro-theorists like Eco and Baudrillard would, decades later, term hyperreal.