The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Les Girls (1957)
Two classic but revolutionary rock’n’roll movies and one golden-age Hollywood musical, made in the twilight of the genre and the studio system.
If you know The Girl Can’t Help It it’s probably for the rock’n’roll sequences, which are absolutely fantastic but a lot stranger than is evident on cursory viewing. But there is much more to love in Frank Tashlin’s Jayne Mansfield-Tom Ewell comedy.
I first saw it many years ago at a midnight showing on my first trip to London, back in the late ’70s, and it was so strange on so many levels that I didn’t really even have ways to talk about it.
Its director, Frank Tashlin, is best remembered for his work as a cartoon director at Warner Brothers and for his work with Jerry Lewis. When people talk about Tashlin (which they don’t very often) it’s likely they’ll say, “He was a cartoon director,” period, as if that explains everything. Pretty much anytime there is a single phrase people use to define an artist who is worth their salt, it’s an inadequate way to describe their work. Tashlin’s work in animation does point us toward wild sight gags, pop culture references and critique, a brilliant visual sense and a use of color in this film in particular that is almost psychedelic in its vividness.
Tom Ewell was an improbable comic leading man in the ’50s. He was a Broadway star. You’re most likely to know him as the adulterous husband in Adam’s Rib or the protagonist in The Seven-Year Itch. He was from Oklahoma, he was not particularly good-looking, and he had a wonderful low-affect, dry comic delivery that made him the perfect foil for the truly bizarre Jayne Mansfield, who was often misunderstood by viewers as taking herself seriously when she is always in on the joke. The supporting cast includes two first-rate dramatic actors, Juanita Moore (best known from Imitation of Life) and Edmund O’Brien, who was a member of Welles’s Mercury Theatre and appeared in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and D.O.A.
Tashlin starts it out with a visual joke about CinemaScope. The screen comes to life, a black-and-white rectangle, with Tom Ewell walking toward us from the back of the set. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intones pompously, “the motion picture you are about to see is a story about music. This motion picture was photographed in the grandeur of CinemaScope, and… pardon me.” He walks toward the left, snaps his fingers, and the screen edge expands to fill the left side of the frame, then does the same on the right. “As I was saying, this motion picture was photographed in the grandeur of CinemaScope, and in gorgeous, lifelike color by DeLuxe.” He looks down at his wrist, looks disappointed, and repeats, louder and somewhat irritably, “…Gorgeous, lifelike color by DeLuxe!” The screen gradually warms until it is brilliant hued. Ewell mutters, “Sometimes you wonder who’s minding the store…”
The other thing people remember from first viewing is the famous sequence of sight gags as Mansfield strolls’n’rolls down the street toward Ewell’s brownstone. As she passes an ice truck, the iceman’s hands are on top of two blocks of ice, which completely melt as he watches her. As she delicately grinds her way up Ewell’s front steps, a milkman watches her, a quart in each hand, and the milk bottles ejaculate (there’s no other way to put it). And as she continues up the stairs inside, a tenant, wearing glasses, watches her, and his lenses spontaneously smash. It’s not exactly subtle and it’s rather racy stuff for the ’50s, explicitly sexual. I’m kind of surprised it wasn’t censored.
The plot hardly matters, though it makes it possible for Tashlin to make fun of overnight sensations and bizarre musical trends (at the time rock’n’roll was not expected to last more than a few months, which was still the case 8 years later when the Beatles rocketed to megastardom). He also uses the opportunity to parody the desire for celebrity, the conventions of gangster movies and music-business thuggery and romantic comedies.
Everywhere, paradox abounds. Mansfield’s character is presented as a simple girl who just wants to be a wife and mother, as if she just gets up in the morning looking like that… The incredible rock’n’roll acts who perform in the movie are shown in glamorous nightclubs, with the patrons swathed in furs, and as John Waters says in his remarks on the DVD, Little Richard never got near the Stork Club… (onstage or off: The Stork Club was famously segregated).
Says Waters: “What’s so radical is the color and the costumes and the extreme-looking people filmed in a very Hollywood way, where we’re used to seeing Hollywood movies that are about your ideal in looks, or with a movie star that everybody wished they looked like. Few wished they looked like Jayne Mansfield. Some of MY friends wish they look like Jayne Mansfield, but they’re in mental institutions… I mean, Jayne was hardly every-day. … She wasn’t Anna Nicole Smith because she was smarter than Anna Nicole Smith. She was a parody of Marilyn Monroe. She went beyond parody, she was an INSANE Marilyn Monroe. I think this is cartoonish in the best possible way. Jayne Mansfield is an animated character. She’s not a real person. She’s from outer space, basically.”
The whole movie is from outer space. It’s the kind of movie that, if you’re stoned, you think is so weird that nobody who isn’t stoned can appreciate it. But actually, no chemical enhancement necessary: The weirdness is as saturated as the color, and if you’re not too serious to appreciate great silliness and a slightly subdued but still electric Little Richard looking absolutely beautiful while he screams, seek it out.
The tragic part: As you probably know, Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car accident only 11 years after she made this film. Though she turned in several solid dramatic performances she was never able to escape her cartoon persona, and her career had stalled and then nosedived before her untimely passing. She was killed but was not, as commonly thought, decapitated.
The Girl Can’t Help It exemplifies the way rock’n’roll stars were used in movies until Elvis, and for that matter after Elvis (with the exception of the Beatles). TGCHI has scenes set in New York City nightclubs, rehearsal studios, and on TV shows where some of the greatest early rock stars perform their hits in a beautiful but sanitized setting far from the gritty reality of their actual venues. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, the Treniers, and non-rock’n’roll acts like jazz singers Abbey Lincoln and Julie London are glamorized but lovingly shot, their individual qualities and personalities revealed by director Tashlin, who seems to have been at least a little bit into it. That is, it’s hard to imagine a director totally tone deaf to the pleasures of this raucous new music shooting these acts with so much interest and affection.
And it’s hard to imagine from this vantage, almost 60 years later, how disturbing and foreign rock’n’roll was at the time. To the middle-aged middle class the frank carnality of the music was a threat to social order and an invitation for already rebellious teenagers to all kinds of wanton pleasures (mostly sexual; the drugs would come later). It’s a tad incongruous to see Little Richard killin’ it with “Ready Teddy” in all his ferocious glory but not breaking a sweat, but his fire comes through, as does the majesty and New Orleans funkiness of Fats Domino, and Gene Vincent’s indolence in his tranced-out sexual dirge, “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” There are a couple of lesser acts—the Chuckles are lame fare now and were no better, I suspect, in 1956), but most of the musical intervals are a great way to experience these acts, who are mostly unknown to younger viewers. The waters of popular culture close over stars and trends so quickly and so completely… Of course the biggest of these stars are still well known and much loved, but only by baby boomers.
And then along came Elvis, who had the goods to do more than just musical intervals in a movie he had nothing to do with. Elvis was so huge in the public imagination and so talented that with no background in acting you could build movies around him, make him the center of the movie’s universe instead of a fabulous satellite. And Jailhouse Rock, Elvis’s third movie, while campy and quaint to contemporary audiences, deserves to be seen as the cultural landmark that it was.
The plot involves young Vince Everett, who throws one punch too many in a bar fight (he’s defending his opponent’s date, who doesn’t deserve it) and accidentally kills the guy. Young Vince gets wised up in stir by his cellmate, Hunk Houghton, who runs things in the prison’s cigarette-based economy. Houghton was a working singer before he got busted for moonlighting in armed robbery, and he teaches new fish Vince the ropes. He also becomes Vince’s showbiz mentor, and signs him to a fabulously exploitative contract that gives him 50 percent of the kid’s earnings (remarkably similar to the one Elvis’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, signed Elvis to). Vince comes into the joint kind of soft and slouchy but a couple of tough breaks, notably the least convincing beating in any prison movie I’ve ever seen, converts him to Hunk’s philosophy: “Do unto others as they would do unto you—but do it first.” Vince gets paroled and heads to the (unnamed) city (Memphis, perhaps) to take a shot at stardom. Right out of the box he meets pretty Peggy (Judy Tyler, of whom more later), an “exploitation man” who checks jukeboxes to see how many plays her acts are getting. Vince is determined, rude, and clueless, and sexy as hell. Peggy takes him on, becoming his next mentor. She takes him into the studio to record his first song, but the label they try to sell the record to steals their arrangement and gets a hit (and the money) themselves. Undeterred, Vince talks Peggy into launching their own label, and after their freshman attempt becomes a call-in hit on a local station, it’s pretty much straight on till morning—in short order Vince takes records, radio, TV, and then movies by storm. Again, much like Elvis.
But his assholism starts to catch up with him. First he makes old Hunk, who screwed him on the contract but got him into the biz, into a factotum, reduced to walking Vince’s Bassett hounds and cleaning up after parties. He hooks up with a starlet and lives la vida Hollywood, performing at his own pool party. And he sells his and Peggy’s record label to the guy who stole his first record… Vince is due for a comeuppance, and it comes in the form of a fight with Hunk, who just can’t take it anymore, especially seeing Vince screwing Peggy out of their record label. Vince’s throat gets injured and there is some doubt whether he will ever sing again. Apparently this is all it takes for Vince to rediscover the softer Vince inside. And so he and Hunk and Peggy all make up, and he sings us out.
The character of Vince Everett was deliberately in the mold of Brando and Mitchum, actors Elvis loved. This is his third film and his first away from producer Hal Wallis. Elvis was serious about acting as he was about everything he did. But he generally had to prove himself as something more than a hick and a flash in the pan, once again in Jailhouse Rock to Brill Building songwriters Lieber and Stoller, who assumed Elvis was just a cream puff. But as he usually did, he won them over with his seriousness, talent, and professionalism.
A lot of people thought Jailhouse Rock was a fictionalized version of Elvis’s real rise to fame, but it’s not, though there are a number of moments that echo his real experience, like the ones noted in the plot synopsis (above) and the shot of him lying on his bed reading breathless fan letters from teen girls. And while the way Hollywood comes calling after Vince has only released two hit singles may seem like standard movie time-compression, actually Elvis did his first screen test just after the release of “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956—Hollywood was so eager to capitalize on the sensational popularity of rock’n’roll—so the way it happens in Jailhouse Rock is pretty much as it really happened in the crazy ride that Elvis’s life had suddenly become.
But Elvis and Vince are miles apart in their attitude and demeanor. Vince’s surliness and bad attitude were nothing like Elvis, who was, as Ed Sullivan noted in introducing him on those shows that changed everything, a strikingly polite young man—Elvis’s smoldering look, the heavy-lidded eyes and slight curl in the lip, the defiant lift of the chin, belied his actual personality and the good manners his mama had taught him.
But he plays Vince with conviction, never more so than in the scene when Peggy takes him to a party of middle-class intellectuals at her parents’ house. Steve Pond, author of Elvis in Hollywood, says that this is the signature scene in the movie and perhaps in Elvis’s movie career, a parallel to Brando’s in The Wild One. It defines him as Rebellious Youth.
Vince fails to shock Peggy’s parents when he announces that he’s done time, and Peggy’s mom, trying to make musician Vince feel at home, suggests they put on a modern jazz album (by one “Stubby Wrightmeyer”). The guests (the women in sleek black cocktail dresses, waving cigarettes and drinking cocktails) start talking high-brow stuff about Brubeck and Lennie Tristano and dissonance, and one makes the mistake of asking Vince what he thinks about the state of jazz.
“Lady, I don’t know what the hell you talking about,” replies beer-drinking Vince as he makes for the door.
Peggy follows and confronts him. The exchange that follows is perhaps the greatest moment in Elvis’s film career:
Vince [smoldering]: You ain’t gonna hate me. I ain’t gonna let you hate me. [He pauses, then lunges into her, kissing her roughly]
Peggy: How dare you think such cheap tactics would work with me?
[he kisses her again, passionately and a little less brutally]
Vince: They ain’t tactics, honey. It’s just the beast in me.
Whoa! Yes it is, and the silliness of the line doesn’t matter—there is real heat in the moment, and Elvis brings it. It proves that the vitality and sexual energy he first brought to his live performances could be channeled into film acting, and had his career trajectory been different I don’t think there’s any doubt he could have become a good actor. He’s wildly talented but that alone wouldn’t do it. But Elvis was willing to challenge himself, to be the beginner among pros, to rise to the demands of learning to act, and he was able to control his movements, so free and wild onstage, to condense them into gestures without losing their intensity. Acting is in the body as much as in the mind, and Elvis had the discipline to learn to direct his volcanic intensity and power. But Colonel Parker had other ideas, ideas more like Vince Everett’s: If you had an asset that was bringing in the dough, don’t mess with it, just milk it for every cent right here and now. Don’t worry about the long-term, about what will happen when times and styles change, don’t worry about developing new skills that will create revenue out of projects as yet undreamed of, just take what you’ve got to the bank, right now.
As far as the CinemaScope angle, it’s only relevant in a couple of scenes, most prominently the iconic title production number. This marked the first time a rock’n’roll song had been given the big-budget musical treatment, and it showed how far the new music had already penetrated the popular culture. It also gave it the respectability of A-picture production values. And this marriage of classic musical and rock’n’roll sensibilities was further expressed in the way Elvis’s own performance movements were integrated into the choreography rather than forcing him to learn a professional style of dancing for which he had no training. When Elvis told the choreographer that he wasn’t comfortable with the number’s original movements, he asked Elvis to put on some records and dance for him. Then he went back to his room and rechoreographed the number based on Elvis’s movements. He also gave Elvis the freedom to move freely within the set movements of the other dancers. Elvis showed his actor/dancer friend Russ Tamblyn his own movements, and Tamblyn gave Elvis tips on how to sharpen their impact for the number. It is possibly the number most perfectly tailored around its star’s own talents and personality ever produced. Lieber and Stoller’s “Jailhouse Rock” is of course catchy as hell, and while the striped-uniform dancers are silly, the whole thing is so much fun!—Elvis’s pleasure is evident in every shot, he’s smiling up a storm. And he got so into it that he knocked a cap off a tooth and swallowed it, necessitating a surgical procedure to remove it, which temporarily took his voice (like in the movie).
The tragic part: Judy Tyler, who played Peggy, was only 23 when she made this movie, and while she and Elvis were not romantically involved he considered her a friend. Only months after they completed shooting Jailhouse Rock and before its release, she was killed in an auto accident. It saddened Elvis so much that he was never able to comfortably watch the film.
Nothing rock’n’roll about Les Girls, a beautiful, sophisticated, adult musical in the classic mold, starring Gene Kelly in his final outing at MGM, which had been his home for the past 15 years. The musical was on its way out as the rock’n’roll generation came of age, but Les Girls is the kind of film that makes me wish the end hadn’t come so soon. It was directed by George Cukor, also a director from the era of classical cinema, with songs by Cole Porter, whose career had started in the 1920s and was almost over when this film was made. But there is one sequence in Les Girls that connects it to TGCHI and JR, and that is the “Why Am I So Gone About that Gal?” number, a parody of Brando in The Wild One. Also, like both of our other movies, one of the leading actresses died much too young.
MGM purchased the rights to “Les Girls,” a story by Vera Caspary. Caspary’s memoir lists Les Girls as one of her films, but she thanked the films producer for making her the movie’s highest-paid writer—she was paid $80,000 for two words (the title). The producer instructed the screenwriter not to read Caspary’s story before he went to work. Caspary’s story was based on an ex-dancer’s recollection of her days onstage that ran in The Atlantic in 1955, Caspary apparently used that as a scaffolding for a story about a dispute that examined the events in light of conflicting versions and the slipperiness of getting at the truth, thematic concerns she also worked with in the story she is best remembered for today, Laura, Otto Preminger’s great film noir.
Les Girls is not that well known but it should be. All I knew about it until last year was a still in a book about Hollywood musicals that I got when I was 13, the first of its kind for me, I pored over the photos for hours and hours and I still have it, somewhat the worse for wear. There was Kelly with Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg (a Finnish ballerina, very attractive and a beautiful dancer), and the sublime Kay Kendall, of whom more later.
The story is interesting—Les Girls is often referred to as the Rashomon of musicals bc of its multiple flashback structure. One of the alumna of Gene Kelly’s dance act, Kendall, has written a sensational memoir that slags Taina Elg (now married to a French baron). Elg sues for libel, and the trial provides the structure for the film. First Kendall testifies, then Elg rebuts, then finally Kelly, not named in the suit but certainly not only a witness but a participant, provides the testimony that (supposedly) gets at the truth. The only principal who doesn’t testify is Gaynor, but we find out why in the movie’s final moments…
Les Girls’ flashback narrative is perhaps unique among musicals. In classic Hollywood musicals narrative is usually the weakest element—most of the time the “story” is something we sit through between numbers. But Les Girls has an unusually adult book—the characters are much better fleshed-out than the cardboard cutouts we generally see, and since three of the four principals are women, Cukor’s legendary skill at directing women no doubt contributes to the level of performances and the way the three women are defined as unique personalities. Kelly’s rougher side, which is less-remembered than his genial side though he had played a heel in his film debut, Me and My Gal (1942) and had continued to do so between less-interesting nice guy types, is shown beautifully in Les Girls—he is terribly attractive but also self-involved, narcissistic, and tough—at least in Kendall’s and Elg’s memories. In his own testimony, of course, he comes off quite a bit better, which points up the weakness of all three of the stories in Les Girls: Each paints its unreliable narrator as a person of good will with no agenda, nothing to sell, and we are left knowing that while the trial has ended, the deciding testimony is probably as self-serving as the two that preceded it. As someone once said, each man’s a hero to himself.
And last, we need to talk about Kay Kendall. Kendall is astonishing as Lady Wren, a real marvel. She is stunningly beautiful and elegant, her comic timing is impeccable, she dances and sings with the best of them, and she has one of the great drunk scenes of all time. I fell in love with her in Les Girls and wondered why I hadn’t seen her before and why she had so few screen credits. The answer is that two years after Les Girls was released in 1957, when she was only 32, Miss Kendall passed away from leukemia. She made only a few movies, and almost none gave her the kind of opportunities her talent deserved. Her personal life was rther a mess; Eve Golden writes in The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall that Kendall’s indifference toward the pain she caused by poaching other women’s husbands and lovers might have been the result of growing up in London during the Blitz. That generation had a carpe diem attitude born of knowing that in the next moment they could be blown to bits, so they were less moral and more concerned with immediate gratification. That recklessness and lack of empathy, along with her great beauty and talent, made Kendall rather ruthless.
She was married to Rex Harrison in 1957 after being diagnosed. He left his wife Lilli Palmer to care for Kendall, supposedly to remarry Palmer after Kendall’s death, but by then Palmer had fallen in love with her lover, so she married him instead. Everyone who knew Harrison and Kendall swore she never knew her diagnosis and believed she suffered only from an iron deficiency. That’s kind of hard to believe… but perhaps a willful suspension of disbelief played a role.
The real events of Kendall’s life—marriages and infidelities and intrigues—are reminiscent of those depicted in Les Girls. If we were able to hear Kendall telling her version, then Palmer hers, and finally Harrison his, I bet their narratives would only occasionally intersect.
In any case, if Les Girls had no other pleasures to offer—and it has many!—Kay Kendall would be a great reason for seeing it. She’s jaw-droopingly beautiful and funny as hell, in a category of the greatest comediennes of all time, right up there with Carole Lombard and Madeline Kahn, two more great artists we lost way too soon.
This post was written for the spectacular CinemaScope blogathon sponsored by Rich at widescreenworld and Becky at ClassicBecky’s Brain Food. It runs through March 16 and you should go read some of the other fabulous entries!