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- Published on Amazon.com
This long overdue collection deserves a place on your DVD shelf as much for archeological as entertainment value. The two Frank Tashlin-directed films ("The Girl Can't 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 Can't 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, 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 soaring above and beyond the sum of its parts. Sentimentality is held in check by the adept lunacy of the script and the strategic inclusion of then-embryonic Rock acts, and perhaps it's 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 isn't one of those low budget, black and white, Alan Freed-mentored Rocksploitation vehicles so common at the time. While the acts are presented in a traditional manner for popular musicians in movies (similar to the way, say, Glenn Miller or Harry James were in the `40s), they're 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.
Or at least in the cases of Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and Fats Domino . . . the same can't be said for 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, they saw no difference between Little Richard and The Chuckles. On the other hand, the naivete of those otherwise long forgotten performers being included on the same bill as bona fide immortals adds a certain charm to the film, as well as a sense of time and place of an increasingly distant, innocent past.
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 the minutiae is an ongoing annoyance. As an example of the latter, he doesn't seem to realize that the nickname of Edmond O' Brien's character is Fats - not "Fatso", as he calls him at least a dozen times throughout the course of the commentary. And that's NOT Phil Silvers delivering milk in the sequence of cartoon-like reactions to Jayne Mansfield's contour assets. Silvers was a big enough star at the time (he had been a well-known comic since WWII, and "Bilko" was in the works in 1956) to require a close-up in a cameo appearance (not to mention at least one line, or a quick wisecrack). If you're still not convinced, click the pause button and take a good look.
The (British) commentator is also oblivious to the "sock hop" phenomenon in the America of the era in which the film was made; he strains to find deeper meaning in the fact that 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 sock hops, or informal dances, were often held in high school gyms (as is the one in the film), and that a participant would be obliged to adhere to the enforced prerequisite of removing his or her shoes in order to dance in stocking feet, thereby sparing the floor from scuff marks - or else suffer the wrath of the principal.
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 satire of the excesses of postwar affluence, the `50s advertising boom, 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 undeniably scathing satire. There's palpable warmth permeating the former film, as well as a sense that the director wants us to feel some affection for the principles (beautifully played by Mansfield, the magnificent O'Brien, and "Seven Year Itch" alumnus Tom Ewell), which we do, and which is somewhat lacking - with few exceptions - in the latter film; in it Tashlin has bigger fish to fry.
As in TGCHI, the acting is vital to "Hunter's" success; as over-the-top as many of these performances are (by necessity), they are subtly 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", also shines, this time as Randall's co-worker, despicably shameless ad-man Henry Rufus. (In "Girl" Jones was ingeniously understated - here he goes brilliantly for broke.) Joan Blondell is also memorable as Mansfield's girl Friday.
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 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.