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April 01, 2006

The Girl Can't Help It


Frank Tashlin - 1956
Second Sight PAL Region 0 DVD

April 1, also known as April Fool's Day seems like a good time to celebrate a comedy.

I'm an unapologetic fan of Frank Tashlin. This is a filmmaker who needs to have his films seen in their theatrical aspect ratios to be fully appreciated. Tashlin not only made a point of trying to utilize the widescreen as much as possible, but also created visual jokes. The opening of The Girl Can't Help it begins with Tom Ewell filmed in black and white, with the "Academy" screen ratio, with the screen stretching to full CinemaScope with color fading in. This is the kind of imagery I would have loved to have seen on a huge theater screen.

At least part of the storyline is attributed to Garson Kanin's novella which was made into a Broadway musical four years later. Tashlin and co-screenwriter Herbert Baker took Kanin's story as a starting point, changing the names of characters and focusing more on the developing youth culture of the mid-Fifties. While the film is a comic version of the "overnight success" of early rock musicians, what makes The Girl Can't Help It continue to be watchable is that Tashlin allows the music to speak for itself.

What I mean by that is that the film isn't saddled with a story about a misunderstood kid and well-meaning parents. There is no authority figure explaining to the audience that rock and roll is just good, clean fun. Unlike other filmmakers at the time, Tashlin ignored most of the template established by Sam Katzman. While The Girl Can't Help It benefits from solid Hollywood production values, Tashlin both celebrates and parodies popular culture, particularly when Edmond O'Brien, nobody's idea of a hipster, takes the stage.

Perhaps the best testament to Tashlin's artistry is in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. There is a scene where the characters watch The Girl Can't Help It in a theater. The scene is doubly nostalgic for having characters in 1968 watch a movie made in 1956. Tashlin cuts from shots of The Platters singing to shots of the audience swaying to the music. Bertolucci in turn filmed his audience swaying along with the film within the film. The song, You'll Never Know serves as a commentary for Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield's feelings towards each other. For Bertolucci the song and Tashlin's film provide contrast between the past as represented by Tashlin and the Bertolucci's characters acting out a temporary nostalgia for that imagined past. If The Girl Can't Help It represents romance and innocence, The Dreamers is pointedly about sex replacing romance and the loss of innocence.

One of the more famous scenes in The Girl Can't Help It is of Tom Ewell imagining lost love Julie London. London is heard singing "Cry Me a River". Ewell can not escape her voice or image, with London appearing in different rooms with different outfits. Even when she is not seen or heard, London, playing herself, haunts Ewell's character, the entertainment agent, Tom. The night after I saw The Girl Can't Help It, I saw V for Vendetta, a film with the title character declaring that there are no coincidences. Well maybe it wasn't a coincidence but for the second night in a row I watched a film that included "Cry Me a River" as part of the soundtrack. And I was really hoping that when Natalie Portman was peaking into the different rooms that the ghost of Julie London would make a cameo appearance. The difference between the Wachowski Brothers and Frank Tashlin is that while the Wachowski's enshrine popular art, Tashlin isn't afraid to be totally immersed in both its absurdity and glory.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 1, 2006 12:13 AM


Peter--I'm a big fan of this film and didn't realize it was on DVD. Was this one of your Nicheflix rentals?

Posted by: girish at April 1, 2006 10:53 AM

I took advantage of the Amazon.uk sale a couple of weeks ago. There is a rumor of a US DVD release as part of a Jayne Mansfield collection by Fox which will include Rock Hunter, possibly this summer. The UK DVD of Girl includes a 25 minute discussion by John Waters.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at April 1, 2006 01:31 PM