Friday, January 14, 2011

Seamless Blending of the Sublime and Ridiculous: The Jayne Mansfield Collection (The Girl Can't Help It / The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw / Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?)

This long overdue collection (released by 20th Century Fox in 2006) deserves a place on your DVD shelf as much for archeological as entertainment value. The two Frank Tashlin-directed films The Girl Cant Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, which parody the more garish aspects of Fifties life but manage to work equally well as celebrations of it, make this set worth the price. The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is icing, provided by the otherwise formidable Raoul Walsh.

The Girl Cant Help It is unlike any other film of its time, or of any other time for that matter. Equal parts comedy, love story, Hollywood musical, gangster movie parody, comic book fantasy, crass titillation, live action cartoon and rock n’ roll road show, it somehow succeeds in engaging the viewer to the point that he or she genuinely likes the main characters—even the felonious ones—and inexplicably soars above and beyond the sum of its parts. Sentimentality is held in check by the adept lunacy of the script, broad visual humor, and the strategic inclusion of then-embryonic rock acts, and perhaps its those acts that cause the film to transcend itself.

The rock n’ roll, rockabilly, and R&B stars, near misses, and never-would-be’s featured in TGCHI are showcased regally. This isnt one of those low budget, black and white, Alan Freed-mentored roxploitation vehicles that were so common at the time. While the acts are presented in a more or less traditional manner for popular musicians in movies (similar to the way, say, Glenn Miller or Harry James were in the 40s), theyre nevertheless the recipients of some perks that were usually reserved for A-list leading ladies and men, such as dramatic, heroic low angle shots, dollying boom shots, eye-popping color by de Luxe, and the grandeur of Cinemascope,” suggesting that something bigger than life was being archived for the ages. With the benefit 20-20 hindsight, we now know that it was. 

Abbey Lincoln spreads the word. 

Or at least in the cases of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, Abbey Lincoln, the Treniers, and Fats Domino—the same, sadly, can’t be said of the Chuckles, Johnny Olenn, and a few others. But, after all, rock n’ roll was still a new thing in 1956, foreign to an incredulous world of worrying adults. Many no doubt thought it a passing fad, a novelty—as a result, every type of youth act the kids might have possibly liked was thrown in for the purpose of reaping immediate dividends. Perhaps, strange as it may seem, the producers saw no difference between Little Richard and The Chuckles, other than the color of their skin. On the other hand, the naiveté of including those otherwise long forgotten performers on the same bill as soon-to-be bona fide immortals adds a certain charm to the film, as well as a sense of time and place of an increasingly distant, more innocent past.

Besides the music and top-drawer production values, an engaging story and some solid actors (Seven Year Itch alum Tom Ewell, Academy Award winner Edmond O’Brien, and Jayne Mansfield, who does a spot-on impersonation of Marilyn Monroe) all playing to the hilt for laughs help to elevate the film above the B-level status it seems likely to have been originally slated for. Director Tashlin, who honed his chops in the trenches of Warner Brothers’ storied “Termite Terrace” as an animation director, can’t resist exceeding a reasonable quota of sight gags and visual irony, which negates any possibility of the love story waxing maudlin.

I would advise first time viewers against listening to the running commentary feature while watching TGCHI—the expert chosen to comment is frequently off base in his assessment of the Big Picture, and his muffing of the minutiae is an ongoing annoyance. As an example of the latter, he doesnt seem to realize that the nickname of Edmond OBriens character is Fats—not Fatso, as he calls him at least a dozen times throughout the course of the commentary. And thats not Phil Silvers—as the commentator would have us believe—delivering milk in the sequence of cartoon-like reactions to Jayne Mansfield's, um . . . contour assets. Silvers was a big enough star at the time (he had been a well-known comic since WWII, and Sgt. Bilko was in the works in 1956) to warrant at least a close-up in a cameo appearance, not to mention at least one line or a quick wisecrack.

The Platters 

The (British) commentator is also oblivious to the sock hop phenomenon prevalent in the America of the 1950s; he strains to find deeper meaning in the fact that members of the teenage audience dancing to the performances of Fats Domino and the Platters are not wearing shoes. It doesn’t take a heck of a lot of research to determine that informal dances called sock hops were often held in high school gyms at the time. They were called that because participants would be obliged to adhere to the enforced prerequisite of removing their footwear in order to dance in stocking feet, thereby sparing the floor from scuff marks caused by hard soled shoesand themselves from the wrath of the principal. The whole thing caught on and kids began shedding their shoes every time they danced, no matter what the locale.

While film historian Dana Polan, who ably handles the running commentary on Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, stretches his credibility a bit on occasion, he’s much more consistently on target than his TGCHI counterpart. For this picture, I would definitely recommend making the commentary part of your second viewing, if only to grasp the film’s place in history, as well as the very history it’s parodying. There’s more to ponder in WSSRH, an honest to goodness send-up of the excesses of postwar affluence, 1950s Madison Avenue, television, the growing cult of celebrity, and the phenomenon of celeb worship that followed as part and parcel.

Tashlin may have been hedging his bets and having it both ways in TGCHI, but WSSRH is ultimately scathing satire. Certainly there's nearly as much palpable warmth permeating this film as the former one, and a sense that the director wants us to feel some affection for the principles, which we do. His way with a visual gag and a witty, evocative line is as alive as ever, and in fact were treated to some of the most brazen and risqué sexual innuendos of the pre-ratings era. But its clear nonetheless that he has bigger fish to fry here. 

Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield

As in TGCHI, the acting is vital to Hunter’s success, and as over-the-top as many of these performances are (by necessity), they are nuanced all the same. Mansfield puts in a very fine performance as sex kitten/starlet Rita Marlowe, against the incredibly talented Tony Randall, the geeky but ambitious Rockwell P. Hunter of the title. The versatile and indispensable Henry Jones, a key player in Girl as Murdoch’s flunky Mousey, also shines, this time as Randall’s co-worker, despicably shameless ad-man Henry Rufus. In Girl Jones was ingeniously understated, in Hunter he goes brilliantly for broke. Veteran actress Joan Blondell is also memorable as Mansfield’s girl Friday and—as is revealed in a scene in which she nearly steals the whole show—damaged goods.  

But, to paraphrase Mousey in The Girl Can’t Help It, I don't want to “louse ya up,” and leave you with the impression that these are necessarily heavy or deep films. Despite their worthiness for dissection and serious critique, it’s all really secondary to the fact that these are two very funny and enjoyable movies, on any level, and both are ideal for an evening of lounging on the couch with a bag of popcorn, forgetting your problems, and laughing your contour assets off.

© Jon Oye, 2007

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