Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Either Marilyn Monroe really was the problem case her directors and producers complained about, or Fox was utterly ruthless with her. Fox promoted at least two Marilyn clones in the foolish belief that any sexy platinum blonde would fit the bill, and that Marilyn would either toe the line or be replaced. Critic Richard Corliss charted this unworthy activity through the films of Frank Tashlin, ex- humorist and successful cartoon producer at Warner Bros.. Using Marilyn's George Axelrod/Billy Wilder hit The Seven Year Itch as a springboard, Fox and Tashlin tried to fit two starlets into the Monroe mold. The more shameful attempt was with capable actress Sheree North, in Tashlin's awkward role-reversal comedy The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. At the same time, hopeful sex goddess Jayne Mansfield became a walking cartoon character in Tashlin's bizarre The Girl Can't Help It. North was a real talent reluctantly doing her bit in a bad Monroe imitation. Fox didn't keep their part of the bargain and offered her only less promising roles.
But the deal was the perfect match for Jayne, as she wanted to personify the extremes of the public's infatuation with va-voom Hollywood sexpots. If Jayne had acting ambitions, they were secondary; Fox supported her career for a string of well-publicized vehicles. If the truth be told, the perfect venue for Ms. Mansfield's talents were her endless publicity photos. She showed up everywhere -- always an upturned face in open-mouthed rapture and framed by waves of platinum blonde hair. What everyone remembers, of course, were her breasts, that seemed to spill out over whatever low-cut dress she was wearing.
The Girl Can't Help It
1956 / 99 min.
Starring Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O'Brien, Julie London, Ray Anthony, Barry Gordon, Henry Jones, John Emery, Juanita Moore, Fats Domino, The Platters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Treniers, The Chuckles, Eddie Fontaine, Abbey Lincoln, Johnny Olenn, Nino Tempo, Eddie Cochran, The Platters
Cinematography Leon Shamroy
Art Direction Leland Fuller, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Written by Frank Tashlin, Herbert Baker
Produced & Directed by Frank Tashlin
The Girl Can't Help It isn't Jayne's first film; she starred in a weak independent murder thriller called The Female Jungle and played some notable bits such as the cigarette girl in Jack Webb's Pete Kelly's Blues. Although Jayne is quite a beauty in those films, she doesn't do the extreme posing or make with the open-mouthed "breathless" looks that sometimes give her the appearance of a fish out of water. Jayne doesn't even receive top billing in The Girl Can't Help It; it looks as if her patented screen persona was manufactured for this film by cartoon caricaturist Frank Tashlin. Jayne's Jerri Jordan is an exaggerated sexpot, just another wacky cartoon character in a film that looks like a live-action version of a Looney Tune by Bob Clampett, Tashlin or Tex Avery.
Interestingly, Tashlin began criticizing the absurdity of male and female sex roles almost immediately, and many a film studies paper has been filed on his subversive attacks on the social status quo in later pictures like Bachelor Flat. Although Jayne's subsequent characters attempted to steer away from her sexpot interpretation, her publicity never did -- that's the image she was known by, and that she had to live with.
Ex- gangster Fats Murdock (Edmond O'Brien) hires washed-up publicist Tom Miller (Tom Ewell) to turn the attractive Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield) into a singing sensation, so that she'll be a "somebody" that a bigshot like Murdock can marry. Although he pines for his ex-flame Julie London (Julie London), Tom takes Jerri around the various Manhattan Rock'n Roll nightclubs (?) where every manager wants to sign her. Jerri really only wants to be a housewife, and Tom rejoices when it turns out that she can't sing a note: Perhaps Murdock will relent and allow Tom and Jerri to become an item. Jerri becomes a big hit by merely providing a squeal sound effect to Murdock's song Rock around the Rock Pile, performed by bandleader Ray Anthony. Meanwhile, Murdock faces a new challenge when he tries to take over the juke box racket run by his old gangster nemesis, Wheeler (John Emery).
The Girl Can't Help It is like a time capsule of 50s obsessions. It succeeds because it concentrates all the pop concerns of 1956 into one show. Although the night club atmosphere could be from a 40s picture, the sound track is packed with hot R&B and rock performances from Fats Domino, The Platters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Treniers, The Platters and Little Richard. For added appeal there's Abbey Lincoln, photographed almost Mario Bava fashion in lurid colored light. The sultry Julie London appears as a ghostly memory of herself singing Cry Me a River (the song featured heavily in V for Vendetta). The Girl Can't Help It is unique in that it's practically the first and last time that hot black performers would appear in a big color Hollywood musical. It's as if the "word" went out sometime in 1956 that degenerate Rock and Roll should be banned from the screen, especially if Blacks were involved. From then on Rock acts showed up in mostly fleabite AIP and Allied Artists movies and Sam Katzman Columbia cheapies. The majors stuck with manufactured white bread talent like Pat Boone, or spent their time taming Elvis Presley into a form presentable to Grandma.
This is first and foremost a Frank Tashlin film, and it takes place in a surreal universe where glasses break and milk bottles gush at just the sight of Jerri Jordan's various body parts bouncing down a sidewalk. Actually, Jayne Mansfield's sexpot doesn't bounce; she's too shellacked, corseted and trussed for any fleshy characteristics to show through. Her enormous top-end measurement comes partly from having the chest of a body builder and physically jutting herself out; and plenty of padding as well. The result is initially oo-la-la until one realizes that the average bronze statue is probably softer to the touch.
Tashlin gets to sell and satirize the fifties bosom fetish, as it was called. It's as if people suddenly discovered that breasts were sexy -- code-sanitized movies certainly tried to pretend that they didn't exist -- and with everything else in the 50s, too much was not enough. If you want to see real natural wonders of the cinema, there's always 1957's Boy on a Dolphin with Sophia Loren showing things that Catholic Italy wouldn't allow. By the time Anita Ekberg and sub-sub Monroes like Mamie Van Doren got into the act, the party was getting dull. American men wanted to see more, or they began to appreciate elegant beauty in other forms. Interestingly, the non-voluptuous Audrey Hepburn's career rose right along with Marilyn Monroe's ... and she wasn't rejected for the lack of cone-shaped 50s' Rocket 88's.
The film's most famous image is Jayne holding two milk bottles in front of her breasts, a complex Tashlin joke. Is it just schoolyard smut? He's not above having a flat placard of Jayne bounce back up after falling over on the sidewalk. Is Tashlin saying that we're all forgetting what breasts are for in the first place, or is that kind of thinking the result of over-analysis? Do film critics channel their personal sexual frustrations by belaboring the obvious? Moo? Federico Fellini also seems to have pondered this issue in his Anita Ekberg episode in Boccaccio '70.
Beyond the sex angle The Girl Can't Help It turns into a satire of the celebrity hi-jinks and gangster movies worthy of Mad Magazine. Of course, they avoid the real issue of the day (Payola) and invent a Prohibition-style juke box racket, with Murdock and his deadpan gunsel Mousie (the wonderful Henry Jones) invading a bar like James Cagney in The Public Enemy. The movie abounds with gags about wiretapping, CinemaScope, drunken binges and stupid novelty songs. Leon Shamroy's color cinematography is a wonder of stylization. Everything pops in color like a Technicolor cartoon -- cars, costumes, even lowly inserts. Jerri Jordan's dresses blaze across the screen in red and yellow, and Fats Murdock's plaid tuxedoes and other garish outfits are funny in themselves. Hollywood went for cartoonish stories but never picked up on what real stylization could do, probably because it cost too much.
The central conflict is straight out of Born Yesterday. Tom Ewell played a doofus worrywart and a sexually insecure writer in The Seven Year Itch and The Lieutenant Wore Skirts but here channels William Holden fairly closely. Look at the scene in the rehearsal hall where he gets angry with Jerri - his delivery is almost as strong as Holden in The Wild Bunch! No, Ewell's Tom Miller is almost as assertive as the film's real central character, Fats Murdock. Tashlin introduces Murdock with a newsreel, almost like Citizen Kane. Murdock's idea of nostalgia (and the film's idea of all relevant previous history) is a glorified gangland where every good mug can defend his turf with a Tommy Gun. Murdock is an amalgam of Edward G. Robinson's Rico and Broderick Crawford's coarse Harry Brock, a goonish clod with pretensions. Some viewers wish Murdock's character would go away; I appreciate him more each time I see the picture. It's pretty funny connecting this cartoon with Edmond O'Brien's roles in White Heat and The Wild Bunch.
The crazy thing is, Murdock's singing and dancing seems to be based on Tex Avery cartoon characters. In Cellbound, a freaked-out prison warden does a crazy dance that reminds me of Murdock's grinning gyrations to Rock Around the Rock Pile (itself an obvious gloss on the Bill Haley hit Rock Around the Clock). The way he ducks his head and waves his arms is reminiscent of "Spike" in Magical Maestro. O'Brien is the greatest.
Fox's DVD of The Girl Can't Help It really pops in a delirious color transfer. We saw Fox studio prints of all of these films back at UCLA in the early 70s, and most had faded to a magenta that really dulled the experience. NTSC almost can't handle some of the colors seen here.
The audio appears to be only two-channel stereo. Believe it or not, not all 50s Fox CinemaScope releases were in their four-channel stereo, but we'd think this musical would have been, especially in 1956. Other reviewers with better audio sense will have to decide whether it is processed stereo or fresh-squeezed.
The Girl Can't Help It gets the lion's share of extras in this boxed set (the titles don't seem to be available separately). Toby Miller, a film journal editor and UC Riverside professor, goes to town on the commentary -- there's a million things to say about this movie, from Mansfield's manufactured look to the presence of Julie London and little Barry Gordon (A Thousand Clowns). He does mistake the milkman character for Phil Silvers in an otherwise flawless commentary. Juanita Moore has a nice bit as well. Then comes the BIOGRAPHY docu on the life and times of Mansfield, a good overview of what made the woman tick. An original trailer rounds out the package.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
1957 / 93 min. / Oh! For a Man!
Cinematography Joe MacDonald
Art Direction Leland Fuller, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Hugh S. Fowler
Original Music Cyril J. Mockridge
Written by Frank Tashlin from a play by George Axelrod
Produced and Directed by Frank Tashlin
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? comes from a George Axelrod stage comedy about Hollywood. Its title may have been inspired by Budd Schulberg's raw exposé What Makes Sammy Run? Frank Tashlin completely rewrote it so that its new satirical target is Madison Avenue. The Hollywood jabs that remain are only superficial and aimed at star publicity shenanigans. While this movie has its laughs, it hasn't dated as well as The Girl Can't Help It. Rock and Roll is here to stay, but tepid jokes about silly commercial jingles no longer tickle our fancy. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? does stand out by being a forerunner of later 'success story' satires like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Billy Wilder's The Apartment, particularly when a big deal is made about becoming a VeePee and getting one's own key to the executive washroom (cue the heavenly choir).
This time Jayne Mansfield gets top billing and even gets to bring her boyfriend Mickey Hargitay in to play a TV Tarzan actor. But it's really Tony Randall's show and it launched his big-screen career, even though much of it would be played as second banana to Rock Hudson in Doris Day movies.
Jingle writer Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) is told by his neurotic boss Henry Rufus (Henry Jones) that the agency will lose the Stay-Put lipstick account because TV ad jingles have gone out of favor. But Rockwell's niece April (Lili Gentle) has the secret Manhattan address of the glamorous movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) and Rockwell goes over in hopes of getting an endorsement from the woman with the "Oh so kissable lips." Fortunately for Rockwell, Rita is anxious to make her boyfriend Bobo Branigansky (Mickey Hargitay) jealous, and instigates a splashy news furor of a New York fling with a new beau. In exchange for the endorsement Rockwell has to pretend he's "Lover Boy" and put up with all kind of indignities. The agency loves all of this, and the big boss Irving La Salle Jr (John Williams) finally shows Rockwell some courtesy. But Rockwell's fiancée Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake) is furious with jealousy. She cracks up too, with the mistaken notion that Rockwell will only love her if her bust measurement increases.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is amusing and entertaining, but it isn't the roller coaster of delights of the first title in this set, and it really runs out of steam at the end. Possibly because the stylization was so difficult to achieve in the first film, this one looks in general like most every other Fox Color-by-Deluxe picture from 1955 to 1966 or so -- brightly lit and bland. But Frank Tashlin still makes with the conceptual humor, mostly in blackout sketches. The movie opens with parodies of TV ads (that mostly fall flat) and in the middle tries to slam TV by having Rockwell Hunter step out of character to become a fuzzy B&W head in a TV box, so that audiences will be reminded of the inferior TeeVee experience.
Tashlin's story and script are very much like the rags-to-riches corporate tales that would crop up in the next decade, all about men trying to get ahead without compromising their ideals. Rockwell Hunter must become a media gigolo to keep his job, an effort that eventually pays off by his appointment to the top slot in the company. Almost a parody of the mantra from Joe versus the Volcano, being able to Do the Job is irrelevant. The important thing is to Get the Job. As the pill popping Rufus (a really great turn by Henry Jones) says, doing nothing and having no talent is the sure path to success. When it comes time to deal with the issues of success in the corporate world Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? wimps out. Tashlin ends the picture with meek nonsense about executives finding their true happiness by cultivating roses and raising chickens.
But the sexual politics in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? are actually quite astute. Tashlin's America seems to have a serious sexual identity crisis. The fans of overblown, image-driven Rita Marlowe appear to be youngish girls, not the demographic we'd expect to see idolizing a woman who makes living by exaggerating her bra size. Rockwell wants to marry his faithful secretary Betsy but is limited to kisses on her third floor landing. Some of Rockwell's gestures seem downright effeminate, and we wonder if he's really fooling himself about what he wants in life. For that matter, sexpot Rita takes lovemaking as just a bunch of silliness that gets in the way of business: A boyfriend is only good so far as he helps her generate tabloid publicity. In reality, Rita (and her secretary Violet, played by Joan Blondell) both pine for simple romances of the past - Rita lost a Mr. Right named Georgie Schmidlap.
Very little in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is sexy. Rockwell gives Rita a wham-bam greeting kiss, convincing her that he can play the lover boy role for the news cameras. But when he visits her during her afternoon massage, it's like talking to a beached pink whale. Mansfield in a bubble bath might as well be a platinum blonde wig and a generic face -- the only reason she's 'sexy' is because the male cast members act as if she is.
Tashlin gets down to issues when Betsy starts doing exercises to increase her bust. Richard Corliss talked about this as societal abuse against the female sex, as when Betsy stares unhappily at a lingerie display window stocked with various kinds of bust line enhancement appliances. Obviously this remains a major issue as millions of American women still go through various kinds of surgeries just to alter themselves to this crazy male fantasy. If men thought that tiny toes were sexy, women would be binding their feet as was once done in China. The reason is abundantly clear: Competition. Betsy's office peers watch carefully when it looks like she and Rockwell might be breaking up. Rockwell's new secretary (a young Barbara Eden in her first Fox bit part) sizes him up and announces that she's available for service ... anytime.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? slips in the final act. Tashlin ends the various conflicts with cartoon jokes that resolve nothing. (spoiler) Besides the fantasy happy ending to the corporate story, Rita Marlowe's secret love Georgie Schmidlap returns, and he turns out to be Groucho Marx, who says he never kissed her because he could never get that close! The movie ends with more silly jokes on the CinemaScope aspect ratio, a theme that Tashlin started in the previous picture.
Standing out in the cast are the delightful Henry Jones and Joan Blondell, twenty years and a number of pounds beyond her Warner heyday but still a magnetic personality. It says something that in the 'sexy' massage scene, we're drawn to the interesting Blondell more than we are to Ms. Mansfield.
Fox brings the famous Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to DVD with a beautiful enhanced transfer. Colors are excellent. This one does have a 4.0 surround track, indicating a possibility that the same for Girl was lost. The stereo may have come from a magnetic striped release print after all the original release prints for the first film had been played to death.
Film Historian Dana Polan switches from film noir (Border Incident) to social satire and breaks down Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?'s hidden meanings and lost historical context. Finishing off the disc are a newsreel and a trailer.
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw
1958 / 103 min.
Starring Kenneth More, Jayne Mansfield, Henry Hull, Bruce Cabot, Ronald Squire, William Campbell, Sid James, Robert Morley
Cinematography Otto Heller
Art Direction Bernard Robinson
Film Editor John Shirley
Original Music Robert Farnon
Written by Howard Dimsdale from a short story by Jacob Hay
Produced by Daniel M. Angel
Directed by Raoul Walsh
For her last Fox film Jayne went to England and Spain to film this western parody that's half The Paleface and half The Ruggles of Red Gap. Although Ms. Mansfield was probably being shown the studio gate, her swansong film is well produced and she does have a character to play ... sort of. English 'common man' hero Kenneth More gets top billing in a tale where the writer deserves the credit. Howard Dimsdale actually wrings some chuckles out of the old gag of the tenderfoot who cleans up the rough frontier town.
Playboy heir Jonathan Tibbs leaves London respectability to sell his father's fine firearms out in the Wild West of America, where they'll be appreciated. Ignorant of the danger and convinced that English manners are the cure for all problems, he manages to make a name for himself by pacifying the local Indians. Circumstances contrive to convince the gunslingers of competing ranches that he's a fast draw. Actually, Jonathan has never shot a gun or ridden a horse. Hotel owner and entertainer Kate (Jane Mansfield) at first thinks that Jonathan is a fast talking phony, but soon falls for his straightforward innocence. But how can she keep him alive to become her husband, if every gunman in the territory wants to see him dead?
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is directed by Raoul Walsh, of all people; he gives it a professional gloss without any particular style and allows the conventional humor in the script to make its best impression. It's nowhere as funny as earlier comedy westerns, but it's also not bad, thanks to its good-natured attitude.
Actually, the clueless Jonathan Tibbs doesn't solely use his English manner to disarm situations; his father's engineer has rigged him a wrist-mounted derringer that slips into his hand without having to be drawn in any predictable way. Various gun-carrying punks (William Campbell, Bruce Cabot) are taken by surprise with this Travis Bickle trick, and Tibbs prevails over the town ruffians without ever firing a shot in anger. He's more prone to make technical observations, objecting to his appointment as Sheriff by complaining that he shouldn't be able to hold office because he's not a citizen, or telling an angry mob that before charging them he'll have to do some research to find out what American laws have been broken. Thanks to Kenneth More's charm, this basic gag pretty much holds up the entire film.
Jayne has a showy but thankless role as the flashy singer who also is a sharp businesswoman and stern keeper of law and order. She's okay in the part, mainly because she does the western dialogue reasonably well. But there isn't much there to generate any great interest in her acting ability. Worse, they have her sing with the voice of Connie Francis. By 1958 Francis seemed to be the substitute voice for a lot of non-singers, but soon thereafter Mansfield would look as silly as Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, taking credit while hiding behind real talent. The main titles state that Francis sings the title song, but say nothing about dubbing Jayne for two numbers within the movie.
The movie has some fairly stereotyped Indians, and Moore eventually turns one into an English-style butler. A couple of mildly racist remarks sneak in about the other kind of Indians that the English "know how to handle." In this context there might be a bit of real resentment in Robert Morley's remark that "America may still come to its senses and ask to be an English colony again." But The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw makes an interesting Civil Rights statement by having Tibbs pooh-pooh the Western Rule that selling guns to Indians is the worst of all possible crimes. Having befriended the local tribe by treating them with (condescending) respect, Tibbs uses them as his legal enforcers, imposing sanity on the feuding ranchers almost like a U.N. Peacekeeping force. Now that's something you don't see in an American western.
Henry Hull, who overplays so annoyingly in everything from Jesse James to Master of the World, is an unexpected asset here as the corrupt but lovable mayor of Fractured Jaw. Robert Morely and Ronald Squire are less interesting in the brief London episode that sets up the film. Brit comedian Sidney James is a drunk on a stagecoach, but doesn't get much of a chance to use his convincing American accent.
Fox's DVD of The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is yet another near flawless enhanced transfer. Connie Francis' wonderful singing voice is an unexpected fringe benefit. This show is said to be in two-channel stereo as well.
The only extra is a trailer that has no scenes from the movie, only graphics and laughing people telling us that The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is the funniest show ever screened. Uh-oh.
The Jayne Mansfield Collection comes in an attractive card box with a flattering picture of Jane that seems to be from when she was much thinner. An envelope marked Lobby Cards is an assortment of B&W stills on postcard stock. Apparently many Fox releases in the last year or so have included these extras along with printed inserts with sometime-accurate publicity info; but they were often left out of review copies.
Something REALLY good is that none of these Fox discs have the anti-downloading 'public service' propaganda piece that Savant's been moaning and groaning about for the past year. Chances are its discontinuation has nothing to do with protests, but with the expiration of an industry campaign agreement. Rest in Peace.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
| The Girl Can't Help It rates: |
Sound: Excellent but only 2 channel stereo, boo hoo
Supplements: Commentary by Toby Miller, BIOGRAPHY docu on Jayne Mansfield, Trailer
| Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? rates: |
Supplements: Commentary by Dana Polan, Newsreel, Trailer