|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful critic, after having exhaustively examined this week's main title, is overwhelmed with the nagging feeling that he may have overinflated his tires. (And yes, he is aware that is an old joke, though an entirely appropriate one given the circumstances.)
The idea of a DVD box set honoring 1950's bombshell Jayne Mansfield may strike some people as an odd idea. Those old enough to remember her are likely as not to recall her only as a second-tier Marilyn Monroe–minus the vulnerability but with even more pronounced curves–who only made a couple of decent movies before becoming a parody of herself in a series of increasingly shabby exploitation films before her untimely demise in a 1967 car accident while younger viewers probably only know her because of that accident (especially the since-debunked rumor that she was decapitated) or through the fact that she was the mother of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” star Mariska Hargitay. And yet, because she had the good fortune to appear in one of the finest and funniest Hollywood comedies of the 1950's–“The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956)–and because the film makes its long-awaited DVD debut in a beautifully-restored special edition, “The Jayne Mansfield Collection” goes from being a mere curiosity for auterists and breast fetishists to one of the must-own sets of the year.
“The Girl Can’t Help It” is unusual because it was perhaps the only major film of the 1950's that dealt with the subject of rock music, then in its early days as a phenomenon, that wasn’t aimed at the teenage exploitation market. Instead, it went for a more adult audience with a storyline that blatantly borrowed from the Judy Holiday hit “Born Yesterday.” In the film, Tom Ewell (who may have been cast to subliminally remind audiences of Monroe because of his appearance in “The Seven Year Itch”) plays Tom Miller, a down-on-his-luck talent agent–one whose life and career fell apart after making Julie London a star, falling in love with her and having his heart broken–who is hired by ex-mobster Fats Murdock (Edmond O’Brien) to transform sexy fiancee Jerri Jordan (guess who) into a singing sensation. There are two flaws to the plan. First, Jerri has no interest in becoming a star–she would rather stay at home and be a wife and mother (leading to the classic moment where she leans over in a low-cut outfit and says, with a straight face, “People don’t think I’m equipped to be a mother”). More importantly, she cannot sing to save her life–much glass is shattered whenever she begins to carry a tune. However, she feels indebted to Murdock and goes along with Miller’s plan for making her an instant sensation before doing anything other than walk through a room in a sexy dress.(Some things never change.) Before long, the two begin to fall in love but Tom does everything in his power to resist–he is afraid that Jerri will eventually break his heart like Julie (who he still sees in his dreams crooning “Cry Me a River”) and that Murdock will eventually break everything else.
The film was co-written and directed by Frank Tashlin, who, before becoming the director of some of Jerry Lewis’s best non-self-directed films (including “Artists and Models,” “Hollywood or Bust” and “The Disorderly Orderly”), got his start as an animator at Warner Brothers. Even if you didn’t know that particular detail of his biography, you might suspect something along those lines because the film is one of the closest things to a live-action cartoon ever made. Right from the start, Tashlin mocks the rules of conventional filmmaking–Ewell comes out and single-handedly transforms the picture from a black-and-white Academy ratio to the full dimensions of CinemaScope and Eastman Color. Later on, in the most famous scene, Mansfield walks down the street and inspires cartoonish reactions from every man she comes across–giant blocks of ice melt, eyeglasses shatter and, in a moment so suggestive that I still cannot believe that it made it past the censors, the bottles held by a milkman pop their tops and spew their contents forth. Throw in O’Brien’s over-the-top gangster, a frenetic conclusion in which a musical number is performed by the least-likely character and the very sight of Mansfield, who oddly resembles what Bugs Bunny would look like when he got up in drag, and you have what is essentially a flesh-and-blood Looney Tunes cartoon.
And even if you somehow don’t respond to the wacky visual humor, the winning performances or the cheerfully silly double entendres strewn throughout (“Things take time–Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “She ain’t Rome–what we’re talking about is already built.”), “The Girl Can’t Help It” is still worth a look because Tashlin lucked into capturing some of the hottest musical acts of the time delivering killer performances. Little Richard rips through both the electrifying title tune and “She’s Got It,” Fats Domino does “Blue Monday,” Gene Vincent sings “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and Eddie Cochran turns in a killer rendition of “Twenty-Flight Rock.” Add in appearances from The Platters, Ray Anthony, Julie London, Abbey Lincoln and where-are-they-now? subjects like The Treniers, The Chuckles and Nino Tempo and you have a film so bursting with good cheer and great music that it deserves to be ranked alongside “A Hard Day’s Night” as the greatest rock-n-roll film ever made.
Though it is worth purchasing “The Jayne Mansfield Collection” just to own a copy of “The Girl Can’t Help It” (since none of the titles in this set are being sold separately), the other parts of the set are nothing to sneeze at either. 1957's “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,” which reunited Tashlin and Mansfield, was a funny adaptation of the 1955 Broadway hit in which an ambitious ad man (Tony Randall, in one of his best screen performances) is forced to pose as the lover of a popular screen goddess (Mansfield, who originated the role on stage) in order to convince her to lend her face (among other things) to promote a new lipstick–if nothing else, you need to see it to see who plays the part of Mansfield’s long-lost childhood sweetheart. 1958's “The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw” is the weakest film in the set but this weird comedy-Western, in which refined Englishman Kenneth More, accidentally stops an Indian attack on a stagecoach and winds up being named sheriff of the rough title town and Mansfield plays the local showgirl who shows him the ropes, has its fair share of laughs as well and would wind up being the last A-list film of Mansfield’s career. Additionally, “The Girl Can’t Help It” has a commentary track from historian Toby Miller and an “A&E Biography” segment on Mansfield’s life, “Rock Hunter” contains a commentary from historian Dana Polan and newsreel footage of the film’s premiere and the set even includes reprints of the original lobby cards from all three films.
THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT: Written by Frank Tashlin and Herbert Baker. Directed by Frank Tashlin. Starring Tom Ewell, Jayne Mansfield, Edmond O’Brien and Julie London. 1956. 97 minutes. Unrated
WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?: Written and directed by Frank Tashlin. Starring Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake and Joan Blondell. 1957. 92 minutes. Unrated.
THE SHERIFF OF FRACTURED JAW: Written by Arthur Dales. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Starring Kenneth More, Jayne Mansfield and Henry Hull. 1958. 103 minutes. Unrated.
A Fox Home Entertainment release. $49.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
ADAM & STEVE (TLA Releasing. $24.99): Unashamedly borrowing from the likes of “When Harry Met Sally,” this gay comedy follows the misadventures of two guys (Malcolm Gets and ) who begin dating without realizing that they spent a disastrous evening together eighteen years earlier. Although some of the jokes are a little too gross for what is essentially a standard-issue rom-com, the film does have some laughs, mostly courtesy of Parker Posey and Chris Kattan (yes, Chris Kattan) as the best pals who fall in love themselves.
THE BRAK SHOW: SEASON TWO (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Okay, this silly Cartoon Network series, a spin-off of the great “Space Ghost–Coast to Coast” featuring second-bananas Brak and Zorak going through typical sitcom absurdities, is mildly amusing but could someone please explain to be why this has already been given a second-season DVD set when I have to wait until fricking October for the second-season set of the brilliant “Harvey Birdman–Attorney-at-Law”?
BRICK (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Imagine Alan Rudolph, in “Trouble in Mind” mode, tackling an episode of “Veronica Mars” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this brilliant noir spoof/homage that takes the trappings of a Philip Marlowe story–a loner detective (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doggedly pursuing a case involving shady criminals, sexy femme fatales, lovestruck goons, by-the-book administrators and plot twists aplenty–and places them in the environment of a contemporary high school. Amazingly, it works not only as a gimmick but as a genuinely crafty mystery in its own right. One of the best films of the year.
BRING IT ON–ALL OR NOTHING (Universal Home Video. $29.98): If there is anything out there more exciting to the average DVD fanatic than a direct-to-video sequel to a film that wasn’t all that spectacular (save the car wash sequence) in the first place, it is a direct-to-video sequel to a direct-to-video sequel to a film that wasn’t all that spectacular in the first place.[br]
CSA–CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (IFC Films. $24.95): Though it starts off funny enough, this faux-documentary that speculates on what America might be like today if the South had won the Civil War eventually grows a little tiresome as it stretches its premise beyond the breaking point. Stick with Spike Lee’s brilliant, uncompromising and wildly misunderstood “Bamboozled” instead.
DON’T COME KNOCKING (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Twenty years after combining their talents on the extraordinary “Paris, Texas,” director Sam Shepard and screenwriter Sam Shepard reunite for this dazzling, funny and touching work about an aging Lothario actor (Shepard) who flees the set of his latest film and hits the road in search of an old flame (Jessica Lange, in one of her best performances in a long time) and the now-grown son (Gabriel Mann) that he never knew he had. Also featuring wonderful supporting performances from Eva Marie Saint (as Shepard’s mother) and Sarah Polley (as a young woman carrying both the ashes of her recently deceased mother and some secrets of her own), haunting cinematography (courtesy of Franz Lustig) and a typical-for-Wenders killer soundtrack (including a title tune from Bono and Andrea Coor), this is one of the best films of the year and since I can almost guarantee that you didn’t see it in theaters, now is your chance to catch up with it.
HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH (Paramount Home Video. $14.95): Trust me–if you don’t watch this one, parts 4-8 make no sense whatsoever.
THE INSIDE MAN (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Like Oliver Stone, Spike Lee found himself in a position where he had to do an impersonal studio film in order to reestablish his commercial credibility after one bomb too many. Unlike Stone, Lee took this standard-issue crime thriller–following a bank robbery/hostage situation where nothing is quite as it seems–and, with a nifty cast (including Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer), turned it into his most exciting and entertaining work in years.
LARRY THE CABLE GUY: HEALTH INSPECTOR (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): Those hoping for a commentary track from Lewis Black are sure to be disappointed, along with virtually everyone else who comes across a copy of this inept attempt at turning a comedian who has based an entire career on one catchphrase into a movie star. Brought to you by the same home-video division that won't release Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" or Bertolucci's "The Conformist."
THE LAST MOGUL (Kino Video. $24.95): Although hardly definitive, those of you interested in the behind-the-scenes machinations in past and present-day Hollywood should check out this moderately interesting documentary on the life and career of Lew Wasserman, the powerful talent agent who eventually became the CEO of the MCA entertainment empire.
MANDERLAY (IFC Films. $24.95): Although moderately better than “Dogville” (mostly because it is 40 minutes shorter), Lars von Trier’s latest Brechtian experiment in social commentary–a quasi-sequel in which plucky heroine Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) stumbles across a plantation where slavery is still in effect seventy years after the Civil War and tries to set things right with disastrous results–is just as silly and pretentious as it sounds. Those with a passion for being endlessly beaten over the head with one idea might want to try this on a double-bill with “CSA.”
PRISON BREAK–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98): All I’m gonna say is that if my brother is inexplicably framed for a crime that he didn’t commit and sent to jail, I will write letters on his behalf and maybe even send a cupcake or two. However, I draw the line at getting elaborate body tattoos and getting myself thrown into the very same prison so that I can break him out–especially if I could be spending that time and energy canoodling with Robin Tunney.
SEALAB 2021: SEASON IIII (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Although the later episodes of this Cartoon Network show, an insane riff on the half-forgotten 1972 animated show “Sealab 2020,” never came close to matching the inspired lunacy of its early years (especially after the death of lead voice Harry Goz), this set–comprising the show’s final season–still contains its fair share of laughs.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1910
originally posted: 08/11/06 14:05:43
last updated: 08/25/06 05:45:32