Will Success Spoil Jerri Jordan?
She's Got It March 12, 2021
On The Girl Can't Help It
n writer-director Frank Tashlin’s biting showbiz satire The Girl Can’t Help It
(1956), aging mobster Fats Murdock (Edmond O’Brien), once famous for being
the “King of the Slot Machines,” decides that his new girlfriend, Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield), should be a star. You can see why he thinks she has potential. This woman is a freakishly beautiful Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde with an impossibly hourglass-shaped figure. She has such presence that when she does something as innocuous as step into a room, an onlooker’s head will almost unwittingly turn toward the doorway. It’s as if her aura carried a lasso.
To really drive in Jordan’s presence, Tashlin centers one early scene in The Girl Can’t Help It around her simply walking — more so shimmying — down a city street toward an acquaintance’s apartment. As she ambles closer to her destination, she marks her
progress by causing all the ice in a tray someone’s carrying to spontaneously melt; a milkman’s cartons to explode by themselves like unscrewed cans of freshly shaken Coca Cola; and by somehow shattering a bespectacled onlooker’s frames. Her looks could plausibly kill. Murdock hires Tom Miller (Tom Ewell) — an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck talent agent who hasn’t had any successes since jumpstarting Julie London’s singing career — to fashion Jordan into some kind of celebrity.
But what kind of celebrity? Jordan, she makes clear, doesn’t have any one singular talent; she doesn’t have any vested interest in learning to sing, act, or dance, either. (If born a few decades later, Jordan would have been well-suited to Instagram influencing.) Miller understandably balks at Murdock’s pitch before he lays eyes on Jordan for the first time. Is this an all-too-familiar case of a heart-eyed man hyperbolizing the abilities of the woman he loves the most?
“You can’t just take any girl and make her a star!” Miller frets to Murdock in a plea to bring his potential client back down to Earth. He invokes Rome — a city that is of course considered magnificent but also didn’t get to its present state overnight — as a point of comparison. Maybe give Jordan some time to develop in whichever field she eventually gravitates toward. But Murdock is confident that Jordan is fully formed — a woman who was born to be not just the talk of the town but of the world. “She ain’t Rome — what we’re talking about has already been built,” he assures the agent.
Inevitably, the struggling Miller will grudgingly take Jordan on as a client. But the more he spends time with her, the more the two find themselves at a loss. This level-headed woman who clarifies she doesn’t have any interest in celebrity feels like she is being pushed into a sex-symbol role she doesn’t exactly want to embody. Jordan and Miller half-heartedly approach star-making; they seem to better enjoy getting to know each other as buddies (then something more). This reluctant agent-talent partnership can’t stop giggling when, in one scene, it tests out Jordan’s singing chops and finds out that when she lets out a “mi!” in a standard vocal scale, her out-of-tuneness has the power to shatter a glass. It’s so ridiculous that it’s almost a relief — more so for Jordan, who might subversively consider having no great gifts itself a gift. It's one less thing to be
Is it that imperative for Jordan, who is just fine with the idea of a future as a homemaker (she really loves to cook), be venerated by the masses? Can’t she be a woman who spends most of her time baking while sometimes making briefly big impressions strutting through local nightclubs in bodycon dresses? Jordan seems to be going along with Murdock’s quest to make her a somebody almost to humor him. But she’s never not aware that if you live life in the mold someone else wants you to fit into, then you might as well not live at all.
Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield in 1956's The Girl Can't Help It.
s an actress and performer, Mansfield has often unfairly been put down as something of a Monroe manqué — the bombshell who never fully detonated. But in The Girl Can’t Help It, Mansfield proves herself
a funny and winsome performer. She complements the meta casting — she isn’t squashed by it. (The Girl Can’t Help It also marked the first time she had a leading role in a movie.) Clearly conscious of inevitable Monroe comparisons, and lucidly capturing Jordan’s frequently taken-for-granted humanity, Mansfield makes this character an understatedly touching figure. She seems so aware at all times of how she is being perceived without losing sight of what she wants for herself. (To be fair, the film’s exclamations that she wants more than anything to be a housewife strike us as a little false, as does the development that she and the cynical, bland Miller would start to develop feelings for each other; this character can shirk some expectations but not push boundaries.)
The movie’s happy ending — spoiler alert — has Jordan
closer than ever to the ordinary destiny she’s always desired. She doesn’t get trapped by the image she knew could become an albatross if reinforced enough. This is the rare movie where overnight success is more or less defined as a nightmare. Normalcy is a dream. Tashlin’s writing sympathetically ponders the plight of someone confined to sex symbolhood. The Girl Can’t Help It just as much proves sex sells it as it does thoughtfully consider the convoluted machinations that allow it to be quickly and affordably purchased en masse.
Tashlin has made an acerbic comedy about the absurdity of (and in many cases scary claustrophobia that comes from) the star creation inextricable from celebrity. The film is certainly a reflection of its time. The kind of celebrity being lampooned is particularly attuned to the classic Hollywood period, during which actors and crooners and others in their cohort were more often associated than they are now with a specific, generally limited image. (More perniciously, modern stardom arguably most extolls never-clearly-defined “realness.”)
The Girl Can’t Help It also sharply probes the deadening effects of commodification more broadly. One of the main conflicts in the film, of course, is whether attempts to commodify Jordan as the next major blonde bombshell will succeed. But Tashlin additionally incorporates several musical performances from burgeoning rock acts in the movie; their presence has a pointedness. Little Richard (who performs the movie’s inexhaustible title tune), Gene Vincent, the Platters, and others make scattered appearances throughout the movie. Tashlin films them almost flatly; they have a general feeling of disconnectedness from the rest of the film.
Rather than come across to us as cameos for a cameo’s sake, though, the inclusion of these acts subtly underscores Tashlin’s ostensible misgivings with the ‘50s music industry. Some are era-specific; others are timeless. Tashlin’s fundamental critique in The Girl Can’t Help It (oft-repeated in music-industry satires) is that the more something is capitalized on, the less interesting it becomes. Here it’s the Elvis effect. (Though Little Richard, who is after all an originator rather than a rock 'n' roll facsimile, remains impervious to Tashlin’s apparent critique.) A performer’s individuality is muddied the more they’re publicized to resemble, or at least be able to be readily categorized alongside, another. None of these ideas are particularly novel, but they also aren't made to jut out, either. One could plausibly watch The Girl Can’t Help It and see it as a mostly positive spotlighting of rock 'n' roll in its nascence; but the monotonous shooting style of these acts suggests how too much commercial capitalization can rob a performer of their luster.
The movie can look and feel like a cartoon. One can thank the lush Cinemascope photography, overabundance of sight gags and goofy supporting characters, and Tashlin’s own background in animation for that. Despite its superficial goofiness, though, this spirited movie regularly has the tenor of a bad dream. Its narrative is an extended close call — an unnerving brush with toxic fame. Beneath the glossy images that come out from the other side of the star-making machine, and the overwrought, frequently dehumanizing celebrations that spring from resulting fame, what is lost? The Girl Can’t Help It persists in part because of its essential dubiousness — its general distrust, rather than bald celebration, of stardom. A