' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Girl Can't Help It

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Girl Can't Help It

I read an interview once with American songwriting chanteuse Neko Case where she was told by an audio engineer that she was one of only two people in a particular recording studio that had never employed the autotune. (The other was Nelly Furtado, which, of course, begs the question, really? Nelly Furtado? Although in all seriousness, good for you, Nelly.) The point here is that in this day and age of autotune ANYONE can be transformed into a singing star. Ashlee. Miley. Even Malin, my official Cinematic Crush, in the brief days of her lead singing for the rather terrible band The Petalstones autotuned it up (and admitted it, by the way). We like to think, of course, that this is only a recent scourge, that rock 'n' roll in the old days was pure, righteous, free of all this money-grubbing mischief. "The Girl Can't Help It" (1956) proves otherwise.

The opening is fantastic and shockingly meta for the time. Our intrepid main character, entertainment agent Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), walks onto a stage, looks directly into the camera (not unlike "The Three Faces Of Eve" - apparently this was all the rage in the fifties!) and explains the film we are about to see is in Cinemascope. Except then he notices the pesky bars on either side of the screen preventing the picture from actually being in CinemaScope. So he walks to the right, walks to the left, and pushes those pesky bars outta the way. Then he explains the film we are about to see is also in Deluxe Color. Except then he notices the film isn't in Deluxe Color, it's in black and white, and so he forcefully declares "Deluxe Color!" and, sure enough, presto! The movie's in Deluxe Color. Then he explains that the movie we are about to see is about music, "not the music of long ago but the music that expresses the culture...of the present day." At which point the record player that has slyly moved into the frame to his left revs up Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It" and, thus, drowns out everything else Miller has to say. Eventually the camera abandons Miller altogether and presses in on the record player. What a way to summarize the sway rock 'n' roll must have held over all those youths of the fifties! "What's that, you were saying something? I'm sorry, music's on." Pity the rest of the film can't match it.

Miller, once a great agent who is now down on his luck and has turned to the drink, is approached by the gangster "Fats" Murdock, fresh outta the slammer and also (in his own way) down on his luck, who wants Miller to turn his blonde gal pal Jerri (Jayne Mansfield) into a sensational singing star. Trouble is, Jerri can't sing. In fact, her singing is so bad the only part Miller can get lined up for her is as the part of an, ahem, "train whistle" in a song "Fats" wrote himself when he was in prison and which "Fats" forces onto the jukeboxes of a rival business magnate in order to turn it into a hit. Of course, as it turns out, Jerri doesn't even want to be a sensational singing star! She wants to stay at home in an apron, cooking and baking and caring for her man because this was the fifties, damn it, the fifties (!) and that's how things were done!!! In the end, however, it turns out Jerri can sing quite spectacularly (spoiler alert!) but this little twist does not negate the fact that when everyone thought she had no talent she still became a star.

For a movie about rock 'n' roll, "The Girl Can't Help It's" soul is a tad lightweight and its verve virtually non-existent. Ewell, no offense, hardly seems like a leading man for such material. He's reminiscent of a guy you'd plop into a Frank Sinatra lookalike police lineup as the guy no witness would actually mistake for Sinatra. As for Jayne Mansfield, well, there's a specific reason she was to Marilyn Monroe what, say, Chris Bosh is to Wade and Lebron. Whether intentional or not, Marilyn always had that angelic naiveté, that ability to both command the screen and be the center of attention, not simply without trying to do both of those things but without even really grasping that she was doing both of those things. Here Mansfield is a character meant to command the screen and be the center of attention without knowing she's doing either one but plays it in such a way to suggest she's trying to command the screen and be the center of attention. The way she walks, for instance, in the various night clubs Miller drags her to in order to be "noticed" is meant, I think, to be carefree and unknowing but she never walks like that for the rest of the movie! To appear effortless you can't be seen "trying".

The movie is perhaps most famous for showing a 16 year old John Lennon various American rock 'n' roll stars who turn up in musical cameos - Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino (who dominates) etc. But all of this wonderful music is just sort of hanging out on the side, in the background, deferring to the main story and to Jerri's mild tune "Rock Around The Rock Pile." Kudos to Lennon for seeing it and taking from it what he did because perhaps the world have been a poorer place had he not. It's really quite amazing, I suppose. A mostly unmemorable movie helped to create something unforgettable. Life, she's a mystery.

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