Years before Kenneth Anger, Frank Tashlin located the decadent Babylon in Hollywood and found it not that different from the splashy Looney Tunes bonanzas he used to fashion during his salad days as an animator. The Girl Can’t Help It, arguably the director’s most characteristic film, kicks off with a passage that, in its blithe avant-gardism, might have first originated as a blot of animated ink during his formative Warner Bros. studio days: A bow-tied Tom Ewell solemnly steps up to the camera to introduce the feature and, with proscenium-squashing ease, stretches the boxy, black-and-white screen into the Cinemascope rectangle, vibrating with lurid jukebox hues. Little Richard’s cyclonic rendition of the title tune storms through the abstract credits, and Ewell’s Tom Miller, a talent agent bottoming out, is first spotted amid the contortions of rock ’n roll. Tashlin was always obsessed by America’s pop frenzies, yet this appreciation was laced with ambivalence; the energy of the musical phenomenon (sampled here via invaluable glimpses of The Platters, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Abbey Lincoln, and Eddie Cochran, among others) is seen as having its transgressive potential drained for the easy consumption of the masses, a neutering commoditization explicitly illustrated in the connection drawn between slot-machines and jukeboxes by has-been gangster Fatso Murdock (Edmond O’Brien).
Taking a cue from the decade’s manic consumerism, Murdock orders a bit of manufacturing of his own: Shaping his blond bombshell fiancée Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield) from a “nobody” into a star, an assignment that naturally falls to Tom. Mansfield’s still-underrated comic disposition lies at the center of Tashlin’s live-action cartooning, placed as a lynchpin for his most elaborate gags: Her voice cracks a nearby light bulb when practicing her do-re-mis, and her ass-swirling walk down the street precipitates a series of justly celebrated visual jests, from the melting ice block to the ejaculating bottle of milk. That Jerri turns out to be not a ravenous vamp but a marital marshmallow (“I’m domestic,” she confides to a flabbergasted Ewell) attests to Tashlin’s awareness of the potential dangers of pop culture, of how success hinges on images constructed and imposed onto people. (The theme doesn’t apply solely to Mansfield’s character: Murdock, for all his gangland cigar-chomping, reveals himself happiest when belting a tune to a crowd of teenyboppers.) As with most Tashlin films, The Girl Can’t Help It functions as both an exultant example of American vulgarity and a leveling thrashing of it, with jokes that cut surprisingly deep: When a record magnate gets to know his audience by waving his hand in front of a blankly bopping young concertgoer, the grim sense of a generation’s political docility all but anticipates the zombified Yardbirds fans in Blowup.