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!
Shown outside at dusk this Saturday night at the Belcourt, 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.
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