Friday, May 24, 2013

The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

WHO: Frank Tashlin directed, produced, and co-wrote this. Jayne Mansfield stars, and Abbey Lincoln (pictured above) is one of the fantastic performers showcased in the film's many musical sequences.

WHAT: The Girl Can't Help It is among my favorite Tashlin films, but I knew my friend Miriam Montag would have more interesting things to say about it than I would, so I asked her to contribute an exclusive for Hell On Frisco Bay readers. She came through like gangbusters:
In this potent and colorful satire of pop celebrity culture, ‘50s every-schmo Tom Ewell is a washed up PR man, hired to transform the moll of a faded gangster into a singing star... or else! Advising his new employer (Edmond O'Brien, in a divinely crass cartoony mode) that "Rome wasn't built in a day" he is challenged with “She ain’t Rome! What we’re talking about is already built!"     
This is our first glimpse of Jayne as would-be songstress Jerri Jordan. Wordless in this scene, she is seeming to chafe under the Blond Goddess mantle. Certainly this is foreshadowing -- our sex pot turns out to have a heart set on making a home and lots of babies, not hit platters, domestic goddess being her true goal. Has the embarrassed lowering of her gaze come to mean something more poignant to those looking back on her and other ill-fated bombshells? 
Other than the perfect merger of performer and part in the female lead, the big draw for The Girl Can’t Help It its treasure trove of hitmakers and curiosities, all lightly folded into the action, all the better for skewering that crrrrazy new sound. Amid the Platters, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, bursts Abbey Lincoln, belting out gospel in a tony nightspot.
Poured into a gown once worn by Marilyn Monroe, it’s clear that  Lincoln had the pipes, poise and pulchritude to go far in supper clubs if she wanted to. She didn’t want to. Lincoln would go on to decade-long personal and artistic partnership with drummer/composer Max Roach, singing on the album We Insist! - Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. In her subsequent films she actually had a chance to act, faring well in both Nothing But a Man (1964), a landmark independent film, and For the Love of Ivy (1968), a romantic comedy. She came into her own as a songwriter in later years and grew as an artistic force well into her 8th decade. 
And what of Jayne? Smartest Dumb Blond (she had a reputed IQ of 163) is not a brand that dates well. Since her death she has been rediscovered by successive waves of young, mostly female, fans who revere her, but any online thread about Jayne is prone to nasty trolling by those who just don’t get her, also mostly female. As her Hollywood career flagged, she moved on to nightclubs and sexploitation films; she was the first big-name actress to appear nude in a film. In an ironic twist on Jerri Jordan, Mansfield put motherhood center stage, having her brood accompany her on The Merv Griffin Show. It was certainly a role she treasured. Three of her five children were accompanying her to a club date in Florida when Jayne and  the other adults in the car were killed in a crash.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, at 5:40 and 9:15.

WHY: If Miriam's remarks don't sell this for you, I don't know what to say. But if you need more incentive, consider this a delayed follow-up to the Stanford's screenings of Tashlin's Artists And Models last month. And if you missed that, all the more reason to go tonight; you don't want to miss out on all the great Tashlin screenings this season, do you?

HOW: On a Tashlin/Mansfield 35mm double-bill with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?


  1. Brian and Lynn (aka Miriam) : I treasure having gotten to see Abbey Lincoln sing at a New York City club in the 1980s. I thought she rather than Diana Ross should have played Billie in "Lady Sings The Blues."

  2. I haven't seen Lady Sings the Blues but I do wish there were more Lincoln roles to savor. I hope Nothing But A Man makes it to a local cinema sometime soon; there was a relatively recent engagement at New York's Film Forum.