Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cult Movie Project #20 (of 200) :: Some Like it Hotter and that Certain Itch You Just Can't Scratch: Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956)

Wanting to turn his latest in a long string of girlfriends into a singing sensation, mobster Marty "Fats" Murdock (O'Brien) must scrape the bottom of the talent agent barrel due to a lack of any perceivable vocal talent exhibited by his main squeeze. Thus, Tom Miller (Ewell), wanting to keep his kneecaps intact, crawls out of a bottle long enough to shop Jerri Jordan (Mansfield) around to several hot night-spots to show off his client's *ahem* assets, which quickly negate her inability to carry a tune in a bucket and lands Jordan a recording contract. However, Miller soon realizes Jordan wants nothing to do with showbiz and is being pushed into it by Murdock as a vehicle to fulfill the mobster's own secret ambition to be a songwriter.

Blessed with a shrilly voice that can shatter glass, Jordan is reduced to just mimicking a wailing siren during each refrain of Murdock's number, a tune he wrote while serving a prison stretch, which Miller tries to sell to Wheeler (Emery), a former mob rival of Murdock's, who controls a payola monopoly over the jukebox trade. But Wheeler refuses to add the record to his playlist once he finds out who wrote it. Furious over this, and suspicious of the budding romance between Miller and Jordan, Murdock takes matters into his own hands and starts strong-arming his way into Wheeler's territory, forcing bar owners and restaurateurs to buy their jukeboxes from him instead. This causes Wheeler to hire some gunmen to rub-out Murdock, who is looking to rub-out Miller, who only wants what Jordan really wants, and what Jordan wants is to play house with him. And from there, all kinds of mayhem ensues...

After successfully making the jump from animated shorts to live-action motion pictures, Frank Tashlin was a bit of a rarity. A bit of a live-wire as well, Tashlin had worked for, quit on, got fired by, then rehired, only to quit or be fired again by nearly every major animation studio head: Paul Terry, Leon Schlesinger, the Fleischer brothers, Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, and Screen Gems. Known to work fast and for infusing his own kooky sensibilities into his projects, during one of his many tenures at Warner Bros.' famed "Termite Terrace" (Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies), Tashlin brought a sense of cinema to his shorts (-- odd camera angles, crash-cuts, montages, and vertical and horizontal pan and zooms); and together with Tex, Chuck, Bob and Friz, revolutionized the art-form and set the standard that has lasted to this very day.

After World War II (-- during which he contributed to those Private Snafu shorts), Tashlin gained some traction as a floating gag writer for the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Bob Hope, who asked him to help salvage a stagnant musical number for The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). Liking his pitch, Tashlin managed to leverage his way into directing his concocted "Silver Bells" sequence; and Hope was so happy with the end result, Tashlin was tagged to direct his next feature, the hilarious Son of Paleface (1952), which led to directing a feature for Martin and Lewis, Artists and Models (1955), they're best co-flick of ever. 

And with all the sight gags, garish colors, frenzied pacing, manic music, mixed with those colliding plot-lines twisted into pretzels, if those two features didn't prove you could take Frank Tashlin out of cartoons but you couldn't take the cartoon out of Frank Tashlin, then The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) made it an absolute fact chiseled into bedrock.

Theoretically based on the Garson Kanin novel, Do Re Mi, in actuality the film is more of a thinly disguised mash-up of Born Yesterday (1950) and The Seven Year Itch (1955), smushed together as a starring vehicle for Jayne Mansfield, who had just signed with 20th Century Fox as an insurance policy against their collapsing relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Here, reluctant gangster moll Mansfield is teamed up with a hapless talent agent, Tom Ewell (-- Monroe's tongue-wagging straight-man in The Seven Year Itch), at the behest of her boyfriend, Edmond O'Brien, who wants Ewell to turn her into a singing sensation (-- no matter that she has the vocal range of an avocado), or else. From there, Tashlin plays his well-endowed star (all 40-18.5-36 of her) as a mobile sight gag and a living, breathing double-entendre. And to her credit, Mansfield is keenly aware of this, I think, and plays it to the hilt. And how the hell they ever got that orgasmic, erupting milk-bottle gag past the censors is beyond me and anybody's guess.

I don't think any movie captures the loopy zeitgeist of the 1950s more than this film; an anthropological study of booming consumerism, mass-marketing, mass-psychosis, and the cultural obsession with image and the "in thing" that Tashlin takes to the woodshed and cynically lampoons and lambastes with the ferocity of a rabid badger armed with a pointed stick. And sticking with the popular trends of the day, The Girl Can’t Help It is also an astounding showcase for the burgeoning rock 'n' roll movement. 17 musical interludes are plugged into the plot, highlighted by the Platters, Fats Domino, Abbey Lincoln, Ray Anthony, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, all beepin', boppin' and potato chip'n along.

And then there's Little Richard, wailing the theme song to the rafters (-- written by Bobby "Route 66" Troup), bringing down the house each and every time. And while I think Tashlin was also attempting a Moe Howard eye-poke on the fad (-- especially during the rockabilly numbers), his spirited staging and the depth and texture of the CinemaScope and Deluxe Technicolor (which just pops) brings such a vibrant vitality to these scenes, even on the crappy YouTube print I watched, you just wish there were more of them. And there almost was.

Apparently, the production tried to get Elvis Presley to perform a number for the movie but, as usual, Colonel Parker asked for too much money. However, Tashlin would get the last laugh on Parker. For, as we reach the climax, after several dubious plot machinations collide, O'Brien, who, if not for Little Richard, would've stolen the movie as Fats Murdock, is stranded on stage, surrounded by rabid teenie-boppers and a trio of assassins. Stuck and thus, Murdock belts out the tune he wrote for Jerri while in the pokey; a familiar sounding ditty called "Rock Around the Rock Pile". 

And as O'Brien starts gyrating and swiveling his hips and bouncing around the stage, with Ray Anthony and his band decked out in prison garb behind him, as I nearly laughed myself to death, even I could see how eerily this number presciently predicted Presley's own "Jailhouse Rock" production number destined to hit a year later, making Tashlin less of a satirist and more of a prophet.

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“Tashlin never made a masterpiece, but The Girl Can’t Help It rates a near-miss. It’s a highly innovative film, briskly paced and extremely colorful; one-liners are bandied back and forth, actors are in constant motion, music blares, and there’s even a screen which, upon Ewell’s command, switches from black and white to color and expands to CinemaScope. The off-color jokes, double entendres, and sexual innuendos all staples of Tashlin’s humor – will make you either smile or walk up the aisle cursing about adolescent humor. I bet you’ll stay seated. It is a 1950s comedy that seems to improve with time, and today looks much better than most highbrow comedies of the period.”

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The Fine Print: The Girl Can't Help It was gorged via YouTube. Watched as a Mansfield-Chambers Taboo-Breaking Sex-Symbol double-feature with the Mitchell brothers' Behind the Green Door (1972). What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 20 down, with 180 to go.

The Girl Can't Help It (1956) 20th Century Fox Film Corporation / P: Frank Tashlin / D: Frank Tashlin / W: Frank Tashlin, Herbert Baker, Garson Kanin (novel) / C: Leon Shamroy / E: James B. Clark / M: Leigh Harline, Lionel Newman / S: Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O'Brien, Henry Jones, John Emery

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