The Girl Can’t Help It
Director Frank Tashlin is something of an overlooked and underappreciated director. Tashlin holds a unique place in cinema history, as the only film director to begin his director career working for Warner Brothers directing Looney Tunes cartoons in the 1930s. Tashlin would bounce around from various Animation studios, then worked as a gag writer in the late 1940s, before he directed his first live-action film in the early 1950s.
One of Tashlin’s most celebrated films is 1956’s “The Girl Can’t Help It,” not only for the cartoon sensibility he brought to the pop-culture satire but also for it being an incredible document of performers from the birth of Rock and Roll. The film stars Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell, alongside Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and Jazz singer Julie London.
In lesser hands, “The Girl Can’t Help It” would have been another “crank ‘em out before the fad ends” exploitation film. In the mid-1950s as Rock grew in popularity, several filmmakers did their best to get cheap B-films rushed to theaters to make a buck off of the teenage audiences. Usually, these films have loose plots to hang musical numbers on to. “The Girl Can’t Help It” is centered around a mobster who wants to make his girlfriend into the next singing sensation. The mobster hires a washed-up agent to help, who takes the bombshell around to various nightclubs to be seen.
In Tashlin’s hands, the music numbers don’t feel shoehorned in. They feel part of the story. Another thing that makes this movie unique is it was a big studio film made with a sizable budget and shot in color with 20th Century Fox’s then-new widescreen process “CinemaScope.” Something the film jokes about, in very Tashlin style, with Tom Ewell addressing the audience directly about the wonders of the film being shown in CinemaScope.
Only the film is in black and white and the traditional square aspect ratio of the era. This is something Ewell fixes on-screen by flicking the black bars on the left and right off, then has to yell to get the film to switch into Color. “The Girl Can’t Help It” is a funny, energetic, absurdist cartoon of a movie that has is gently poking fun at the popular music of the era as it celebrates some of the genre’s biggest pioneers who are in it.
“The Girl Can’t Help It” makes its blu-ray debut this week from The Criterion Collection, the new edition features an HD transfer from the original 35mm negative. It looks good, not perfect, but some of that softness is due to problems that were baked in with the earliest lenses used for CinemaScope films. The colors are bright and vivid, which is what you want for a film like this.
As usual, Criterion has packed their blu-ray full of special features. There’s an audio commentary from a previous release of the film, a new video essay by critic David Cairns, an interview with one of the film’s biggest fans—the great John Waters, a chat between two WFMU DJs about the music, and an interview with one of Mansfield’s biographers. Rounding out things is a trailer, an episode of the podcast “You Must Remember This,” an essay by Rachel Syme, and excerpts from Tashlin’s 1952 book “How To Create Cartoons.”
“The Girl Can’t Help It” is a great delight of 1950s moviemaking. A silly, absurd, live-action cartoon of a film with visual gags most filmmakers would be too afraid to think up. It’s a delightful movie and one I’m so pleased to see out in this fantastic blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. Highly recommended. See you next week.