The Girl Can’t Help It
In 1956, Frank Tashlin brought the talent for zany visual gags and absurdist pop-culture satire that he’d honed as a master of animation to the task of capturing, in glorious DeLuxe Color, a brand-new craze: rock and roll. This blissfully bonkers jukebox musical tells the story of a mobster’s bombshell girlfriend—the one and only Jayne Mansfield, in a showstopping first major film role—and the washed-up talent agent (Tom Ewell) who seeks to revive his career by turning her into a musical sensation. The only question is: Can she actually sing? A CinemaScope feast of eye-popping midcentury design, The Girl Can’t Help It bops along to a parade of performances by rock-and-roll trailblazers—including Little Richard, Fats Domino, Julie London, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, and Gene Vincent—who light up the screen with the uniquely American sound that was about to conquer the world.
Frank Tashlin finally enters the The Criterion Collection through their new edition for the director's The Girl Can’t Help It, presented here in Cinemascope, the aspect ratio of 2.35:1, on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from what I am assuming is a new 2K restoration (the notes don’t indicate the resolution) performed by Fox, which was scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
I’m going to go against what appears to be the general online consensus and furor around this releases’ presentation and say I think it looks damn good, and that goes right down to the colours, the aspect that appears to have riled everyone up. The uproar comes from how this new image pushes the blues (more of a teal maybe) in comparison to previous presentations for the film, including Fox’s own DVD release, and because it's a look that is common to most of Fox's newer restoration. This latter reason, that this look is a common theme across Fox's restorations, is more than likely the primary reason why the look is being questioned so fiercely; it does seem off when all of the restorations coming from one restoration house and/or studio all have similar looks and signatures, whether it be how all of Ritrovata’s restorations feature some ridiculous yellow-green hue, or how everything from Éclair offers a cooler teal push. It’s more than fair to question that, and I often question them, because it’s hard to believe all of the films respectively restored by them would look the same. But in the case of this Fox restoration I’m pretty sure it’s right, or, at the very least, closer to “right.”
My initial reasons for coming to this conclusion were based more on “feeling” than “hard facts” admittedly (though those would come eventually), but right off the film looks far more vibrant in comparison to the previous Fox DVD, which, I’m sorry to say, has always looked drab to me. Before watching his films, I had heard and read a lot about Tashlin’s bold use of colour in some of his work, including suggestions it came close to rivaling Technicolor. John Waters even says something similar in one of the archival features on here. Granted, subtlety isn’t really his thing, yet the DVD and its neutral colour tone has never elicited a feeling anywhere remotely close to that for me, the end results looking more like what I would expect from Eastmancolor: short of a few shots the film looked pasty and drab, despite the blues, candy pinks and oranges. In this new presentation the blues really pop, appearing far more vibrant, even carrying on through to Tom Ewell’s character’s drab apartment, which is more of a cool gray on the DVD. It’s also significantly more striking in how the oranges and pinks clash with the blues, the sequence around Abbey London’s performance (her orange dress against the blue backdrop) being a marvel unto itself. Other sequences, like the beach scene, also have a nicer pop to them, the sky and ocean in that beach scene coming off far more striking, less bland than what’s on the DVD. Even Mansfield’s yellow bathing suit comes out looking more vibrant. The word garish gets thrown around a lot when describing Tashlin’s colours, at least in the supplements on this disc, and the word is more than appropriate with this presentation.
The range in the shadows is also far more impressive, and this serves the films sequences that take place in the evening. The shadows are heavier here and the film ends up looking a bit darker because of it, but this ends up further aiding in the striking look the film now has. The scene where a ghostly Julie London (played by Julie London) appears especially benefits from this improvement, the whole sequence giving off a far more haunting feeling than the DVD's presentation ever achieved. On the commentary, recorded originally for the 2006 DVD, Toby Miller talks about the “noir” use of shadow in the film's photography and that noir-like look holds truer here compared to the brighter DVD.
And speaking of Miller’s track, some of his other comments also helped push my belief that the look here is truer to what was intended. He talks extensively about the film’s colours at one point, getting into the reds having a gray/brown look, which I took as meaning “rusty,” which isn’t really the case on the DVD. Though a red dress worn by Mansfield still looks red here, as do a couple of other jackets and such, without reaching the levels of what Leave Her to Heaven presented the reds do have a slightly rustier look to them, matching Miller's comments. But if there’s one thing that really did it for me, that just convinced me this is how the film should look, it’s a video essay created by David Cairns for this release, one that I don’t see getting mentioned much anywhere else.
In the essay Cairns talks about Fox’s Cinemascope and DeLuxe process, the latter being Fox’s in-house colour development process for Eastmancolor. Cairns reminds how Eastman's colour film stock could be finicky, but here, at least with how Fox processed their film, there was a blue bias leading to the final prints pushing that colour, meaning this detail had to be incorporated into the film’s colour design to either work with it or counter it. This called for every department that had anything to do with the visuals in the film having to work together to make sure that, for example, a teacup in the background wouldn't inadvertently pull the audience's focus from what was important. This all shows through in this disc's presentation, props and costumes complimenting backgrounds thanks to the bluer tint that we get here. I’d entertain the argument that maybe it pushes this aspect a bit too much, but the colours really pop now, and this more or less meets the expectations I would have had originally.
At any rate, opinions on colours aside, the rest of the presentation comes out looking solid. The source materials look to be in decent shape and the restoration work has cleaned things up wonderfully, the only things maybe impacting the final video presentation somewhat being aspects “baked” into the original photography, so to speak, like rear-screen projection (which still looks good itself) and optical effects, including one involving eyeglasses cracking (a still frame with an overlay). Film grain looks good, though may not be as finely rendered as I would have expected. I can't say if the occasionally clumpy nature of the grain is something inherent to Fox's supplied master or if it has anything to do with Criterion's encode but, as it is, I thought it looked fine enough on screen.
In all it’s a sharp looking presentation and it comes out looking closer to what I would have expected. Again, I understand why the colours are being so ferociously criticized, but I really thought this looked wonderful—bright, vivid, garish—and it’s a terrific upgrade over the previous DVD presentation.
The film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. Despite being isolated to a single-channel there’s an impressive level of range and fidelity to be found here, at least in the musical numbers. Dialogue also sounds clear with excellent fidelity. Clean-up has been thorough, no damage seeming to remain, and it doesn’t sound like any excessive filtering has been performed. It sounds great.
Criterion puts together an impressive special edition for their first Tashlin film, porting over material from previous releases while also adding their own new content. First, they carry over Toby Miller’s audio commentary from Fox’s DVD, recorded in 2006. It’s a well organized academic track with Miller getting into the careers of Frank Tashlin and Jayne Mansfield, touching on other performers as they pop up. He also gets into the dated aspects of the film, most notably its representation of women and the “blonde bombshell,” and he even talks a little about this particular period of Fox studios' existence, getting into the politics within. But he also does a nice job in going over the film’s construction and visuals, particularly the use of colour, and also notes the musical acts that pop up, even pointing out that Elvis Presley was supposed to appear in the film until the Colonel, Tom Parker, killed it. The track is not all that revelatory in the end, but it’s still cleanly put together, moving through topics at a good beat.
New to this edition is the David Cairns video essay The Grandeur of Cinemascope and Gorgeous Lifelike Color by DeLuxe, with Cairns going over the technical aspects of the two Fox “techniques.” It’s here that he gets into the disadvantages and picky nature of Eastmancolor film stock and the DeLuxe process that led to a blue bias in the end results before getting into how this aided in decisions when planning sets, costumes and more. When getting into Cinemascope, Cairns looks at how Tashlin used the widescreen format to compose his scenes, even using the wider format to carry on action without the need to edit. It’s a well-researched and nicely edited piece, making for an informative and entertaining 16-minutes.
Ported over from Second Sight’s 2004 DVD is a 21-minute interview with director John Waters. Waters has talked about the impact Jayne Mansfield has had on his work and Divine’s performances across numerous interviews through the years, but he focuses a bit more on that topic here, also explaining how this film struck him as a child and how aspects of it has appeared in his films, right down to the curtains. He then talks about Tashlin’s use of colour, the musical performances, and the campy aspects that he just loves. Waters is always fun but I find I prefer when he’s talking about other people’s work, his passion always coming off infectious. It’s a great inclusion and I’m more than happy Criterion managed to dig it up.
Criterion then includes a couple of new interviews including a 30-minute one with Dave “the Spazz” Abramson and Gaylord Fields, DJs at WFMU, who talk about the performances in the film, providing context around how Rock n Roll was seen at the time. Eve Golden also offers a 14-minute program around Jayne Mansfield and her career, explaining how she made her way up through Hollywood to finally land at Fox. Golden also works to clear up misconceptions and myths that have built up around her through the years. Her program also references an interview with Mansfield from a 1957 episode of the television program “Tabloid,” the whole 15-minute interview available on this disc under the “From the Archives” section. The interview proves interesting as it’s clear that Mansfield is juggling the personas she’s trying to give off, wanting to appeal to the audience but also not wanting to be dismissed as being just a “blonde bombshell.”
To expand on this Criterion also includes the complete 41-minute episode around Mansfield from Karina Longworth’s excellent Podcast, You Must Remember This. Golden’s feature does a decent job summarizing her career, but Longworth’s program delves far deeper into it and her life. Between the two inclusions I would push this one as the one to listen to (and for those that haven’t listened to her Podcast it’s well worth subscribing to).
On top of that Mansfield interview the “From the Archives” section also features 13-minutes’ worth of silent behind the scenes footage filmed by Leland Fuller during the production of the film. It was edited together by Fuller in a fairly whimsical way (he likes to throw in odd little cutaways) but it features footage from the beach along with footage around the scene with Mansfield walking down the street, leading to a lot of suggestive sight gags. There’s also 14-minutes worth of footage from a 1984 appearance of Little Richard on The Merv Griffin Show. The performer is there promoting his autobiography and he talks a little about his bouts with alcohol and drug addiction before turning things to more positive subjects, like his surprise at how his work is still influential to that day. He comes off about as genuine as he probably can be and the interview is all the better because of it, with Griffin seeming to be genuinely mesmerized by his guest.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer.
The release then includes a couple of inserts, including a foldout featuring a lengthy essay on the film, its satirical elements, and Mansfield. The second item is an especially fun little addition: printed excerpts from Tashlin's self-published How to Create Cartoons, which features examples and recommendations on how to draw cartoon heads and faces, and also how to capture action. The back of the booklet then features a short essay by Ethan de Seife, who offers more detail around the book before getting into Tashlin's visual sensibilities, which he of course carried over into his film work.
All around it's a substantial amount of material that does a masterful job covering the film, Tashlin, and Mansfield.
I found the presentation came closer to what I was expecting from a Tashlin film, the colours looking garish in a good way. Criterion's edition also packs together some excellent supplementary material around the film and Tashlin. An excellent release all around.