Sometimes, Criterion puts out a movie that you didn’t know you were waiting for them to put out, but once they do, you absolutely have to pick up a copy. The Girl Can’t Help It was one of those movies, since I’ve known about it for years due to it being a pivotal film for the members of The Beatles when they were first discovering rock ‘n’ roll. In The Beatles Anthology documentary, there are even clips of the film interspersed with Paul McCartney talking about how big of a deal The Girl Can’t Help It was for rock fans yearning to see Little Richard on the big screen, while the film also features the song that McCartney played for John Lennon during his audition for his first band The Quarrymen, “12 Flight Rock” by Eddie Cochran.
Apart from this Beatles connection, I’ve also always wanted to see The Girl Can’t Help It because I’d seen a couple of director Frank Tashlin’s other movies, and I was definitely taken with his cartoonish style, even though I’m a little wary of his connections to Jerry Lewis. Tashlin is not the type of director that seems like the most natural fit for the Criterion Collection, since it’s incredibly debatable whether there’s any argument to be made for his work being considered “art”. But there is an inherent craft to the kitschiness of his movies, and the way they skewer pop culture, as well as taste itself, doesn’t seem so far removed from Criterion-anointed masters of camp like Russ Meyer or John Waters, the latter of whom even did an interview about the film for its Blu-ray release.
The Girl Can’t Help It begins quite cheekily with Tom Ewell (who plays the main character, press agent Tom Miller) addressing the audience in black and white and standard aspect ratio, telling them that the film they are about to see is about music. He then flicks the screen on both sides to open up the film to widescreen before the film also turns to color and his monologue is then drowned out by a jukebox playing the film’s title track courtesy of Little Richard. After the colorful credits roll, we get to learn that Tom Miller was a once successful agent to several famous musicians, but his appetite for alcohol has held him back. He has a meeting with an over-the-top gangster known as Marty “Fats” Murdock (Edmund O’Brien), who wants Tom to turn his buxom girlfriend Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield) into a successful singer, despite the fact that she can’t sing and is more interested in being a housewife than a singer.
Instead of first working on her act, Tom takes Jerri (see what they did there?) to several nightclubs and more or less tries to get each nightclub owner’s attention just by having Jerri walk toward the bathroom and be hot in front of them. It’s in these nightclub scenes that we get to see some of the film’s many musical performances by up-and-coming rockers of the era, some of which have become iconic (Little Richard, Fats Domino) and some who definitely have not (Johnny Olenn, The Three Chuckles). As Tom gets to know Jerri better, he becomes more and more reluctant to follow through with getting her career off the ground, since in the scene where she first actually tries to sing, it’s so bad she shatters a lightbulb. However, when Tom expresses this to Fats, he forces him to record a song he composed himself in prison called “Rock Around The Rock Pile”, in which Jerri screeches one single note that’s supposed to sound like a police siren.
Tom tries to shop the song around to various promoters in the hopes of getting on jukeboxes across the country, but runs into trouble when people learn that it was penned by the infamous gangster Fats Murdock. This causes Murdock to take matters into his own hands and destroy all of the jukeboxes around town and have them replaced with his own, which compels a rival mob boss to assassinate Murdock. Before the big show where this is about to happen, Jerri professes her love to Tom, and sings him a love song onstage, explaining that she actually did know how to sing but just wanted to get out of pursuing it as a career. Surprisingly, Murdock approves of their relationship, and shortly after, to avoid getting shot, goes onstage and performs “Rock Around The Rock Pile” himself, and thus kicking off his own singing career, as Tom and Jerri later see Fats performing on TV with his band.
As for the musical performances, there are a lot of them considering that most of the main characters in the film barely sing at all. About half of them take place in various nightclubs that Tom frequents, though it is a little silly how ritzy these places are compared to the dives that most rock singers were playing in real life at this time. However, there are some other more inspired settings for the musical numbers, such as Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps playing “Be-Bop-A-Lula” in the attic of a talent agency or Julie London appearing as a singing ghost throughout Tom’s apartment one night, since she was supposedly one of his former clients.
As one of the first rock and roll movies, and really the first rock movie to feature big Hollywood production value, The Girl Can’t Help It is kind of fascinating in providing context for how rock and roll was seen in its early days. At the time, it was mostly seen as a fad, and one whose parameters weren’t quite as well defined, which speaks to why rip-roarin’ rockers like Little Richard or Eddie Cochran appear alongside doo-wop singers like The Platters or The Treniers, as well as jazz singers like Abbey Lincoln and Julie London. Still, because the songs of the era were so short, and because the movie does a good job of interweaving its A Star Is Born-esque plot around the performances, it’s not too much of a drag on the movie that not all of the performances are by generational talents.
As for the look of the film, it made me wish that Criterion would remaster more movies from the widescreen technicolor era of Hollywood filmmaking, because this thing is just a delight to look at. When it comes to Frank Tashlin’s work as a film director, it’s pretty much always touched on that Tashlin worked as a cartoonist and animator throughout the ’30s and ’40s and before making the leap to directing live-action comedies. This is because his films do contain a certain cartoon-inspired element, and here Tashlin’s world is as colorful as possible, with a distinct use of lighting and set-design that’s very much of its era. Tashlin’s animation background can also be seen in a variety of visual gags, with the most memorable sequence in this regard happening early on in the film, as Mansfield is walking down the street and causes ice to melt, milk to curdle, and glasses to shatter at the hands of various horny men.
As for Mansfield, I thought her performance here was quite good, despite the fact that she was often regarded as being a less talented Marilyn Monroe. Meanwhile, Tom Ewell feels like he’s in his element playing against another bombshell just a few years after The Seven Year Itch, while Edmund O’Brien is just incredibly fun to watch as a cigar/scenery-chewing mobster with musical ambitions. While there’s a part of me that wishes there had been a few more of the types of cartoony sight gags that only Frank Tashlin can do, I also appreciate that the relationship between Tom and Jerri is actually kind of sweet, even if it’s wrapped in about five layers of absurdity. Either way, it still makes for a very entertaining grab bag of pop culture elements, and one that may have been partially responsible for the formation of the greatest band of all time.