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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Episode 46 - The Girl Can't Help It


"...Here's a song from a movie called, "The Girl Can't Help It." In that movie you can see technicolor footage of Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and many other fabulous performers. But it's not just a music movie. It's very funny, stars Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield and was directed by Frank Tashlin. Frank directed Bugs Bunny cartoons in the `40s, and directed movies by Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the `50s. His films had an amazing full-color, animated quality, even when they were starring real actors. And "The Girl Can't Help It" is one of his best. This song is sung by Edmond O'Brien in the movie, and it's all about whiling away the hours in the "Gray Bar Hotel"... I mean prison.

"You'll hear a siren on this record. It's not really a siren, it's Jayne Mansfield screaming. You have to see the movie to understand. Performed by Ray Anthony who was married to another sexpot, Mamie Van Doren. Here's Ray... "Rock Around the Rock Pile." - Bob Dylan, "Classic Rock," Theme Time Radio Hour


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If you decide - as I did - that you need to know exactly why Jayne Mansfield is screaming like a siren on "Rock Around the Rock Pile," your best bet is probably the three-DVD set, Jayne Mansfield Collection, that includes "The Girl Can't Help It," and the equally funny Frank Tashlin-directed movie, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" The third movie of the set, "The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw," isn't anywhere near the quality of the other two, but two out of three ain't bad, especially since with a little judicious shopping, you can pick up the Jayne Mansfield Collection for around $35 bucks. You'll probably find, as I did, that it's still money well-spent just for the first two movies.

Released on the 1st of December, 19 and 56, "The Girl Can't Help It" has a plot that goes all the way back to Damon Runyon: Mobster has knockout no-talent girlfriend who he's determined to make a star. Mobster muscles unwilling citizen with show biz connections into making it happen. In the course of events, knockout girlfriend and unwilling citizen fall for each other and hilarity ensues.

Heck, give that story to any half-decent writer, and you'd get at least a half-decent movie in return. But, "The Girl Can't Help It" is something else. Part of it is Frank Tashlin's direction. As Dylan mentions, Tashlin came out out of the animation biz, and he loves sight gags above all things. There is one scene with men reacting to Mansfield walking down a city street in all her pneumatic glory that is just one cartoon shtick after another - melting ice, shattering eyeglasses, and a bit that is tame by today's standards but one that will make you wonder how it got by the 1956 censors. A milkman holding a very phallic bottle gazes on as Mansfield sways by, and the bottle erupts in a pure milk orgasm.

Another piece of the puzzle is the music. Some people might hold out for 1955's "Blackboard Jungle" as the first rock-and-roll movie, since it had the first airing of Rock Around the Clock, although you can make the argument that since it only featured a rock song, it wasn't really a rock movie. "Rock Around the Clock" the movie is a better contender, shot in January of 1956 and released just two months later to capitalize on Bill Haley and the Comets blockbuster single. While not a very good movie, "Rock Around the Clock" did have The Platters, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, and, of course, Bill Haley and the Comets doing the title song three different times... although never in a complete performance.

But, you can make the case for "The Girl Can't Help It," released about nine months after "Rock Around the Clock," as the first good rock-and-roll movie. It had a plot loosely - very loosely - based around the music business, plus a strong cast. And, as Mr. D. noted, the movie had a crew of "fabulous performers," including Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (pre-Tommy Facenda by about a year), The Platters, who seemed to show up in all rock movies of that era, and Gene Cochran. With rock-and-roll still in its infancy, the film also had a few strange selections, such as Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles. To add a touch of class, Abbey Lincoln, the great jazz stylist, also makes an appearance, plus a Theme Time sweetheart, Julie London, who shows up in a dream sequence singing Cry Me a River.

It's a funny movie, and a good movie, and a movie with good music. Annnnnnnnnnd it's got Jayne Mansfield.

In the strange male world where some of us are Superman guys and others are Batman guys, and some of us are Mary Ann guys and others are Ginger guys, I'm in the minority when it comes to blonde bombshells, being more of a Jayne Mansfield guy instead of a Marilyn Monroe guy. I've got nothing against Monroe, but I kind of like the idea of Jayne Mansfield a bit better. Monroe is - I dunno - unattainable when I think about her. You'd figure her to end up with ol' Joltin' Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller or JFK, but not with an average schlub like me. Mansfield is more like the girl next door, given that you knew a girl next door who fit into a 40D cup.

And like the old Avis commercials, Mansfield, always running second to Monroe, tried harder, sometimes too hard, and because that drive often got her into trouble, she seems more human to me than the iconic Monroe.

Born with the plain-Jane name of Vera Jane Palmer in 1933, Mansfied seemed to have only one thing on her mind from age 7 on - to become a star. By age 17 she was married and already had several beauty queen titles under her belt... titles that included "Miss Photoflash," "Miss Magnesium Lamp" and "Miss Fire Prevention Week." Mansfield once said the only title she ever turned down was Miss Roquefort Cheese, because it "just didn't sound right."

Following in the steps of Monroe, Mansfield was the Playmate of the Month in February 19 and 55 at age 21, and would go on to appear in Playboy more than 30 more times. Unlike Monroe, whose first Playboy nude pictures were unauthorized, Mansfield happily posed for the Playboy spread.

Mansfield had a few bit parts in various movies during the early `50s, but her career didn't pick up traction until her Broadway role as sex siren Rita Marlowe in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Wearing only a towel, Mansfield would rise to answer a telephone each night, flaunting as much of herself as she could get away with without closing down the show. Although it was her breasts that garnered most of the attention, Mansfield was also a better-than-average comedienne and received the 1956 Theatre World Award for her work in the play.

That gave her enough street cred to come back to Hollywood and get the role of Jerri Jordan in "The Girl Can't Help It," the voluptuous tone-deaf girlfriend of a retired mobster who just wants to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. While her comic talents weren't put to as much use as they were in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Mansfield does more more than a good job as Jordan, especially when playing against Tom Ewell.

And what's with her making like a siren? To paraphrase Our Host, you'll have to go see the movie.

Mansfield would go on to reprise her Rita Marlow role in the 1957 movie version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? another movie directed by Frank Tashlin, and probably Mansfield's best picture. But by the early `60s, her movie career was essentially over, at least in big budget films. By 1962 Marilyn Monroe had died, making herself an ageless legend in the process. Mansfield would go on for another five years, her looks coarsening, losing her audience as the public taste for big-bosomed platinum blondes withered. In an uncharacteristically savage - or honest - moment, moptop Paul McCartney called Mansfield an "old bag" during a 1965 Playboy interview of the Beatles, claiming that while he had never met her, she was "a clot."

PAUL: "Yeah, Some of those American girls have been great."

JOHN: "Like Joan Baez."

PAUL: "Joan Baez is good, yeah, very good."

JOHN: "She's the only one I like."

GEORGE: "And Jayne Mansfield. PLAYBOY made her."

PAUL: "She's a bit different, isn't she? Different."

RINGO: "She's soft."

GEORGE: "Soft and warm."

PAUL: "Actually, she's a clot."

RINGO: "...says Paul, the god of the Beatles."

PAUL: "I didn't mean it, Beatle People! Actually, I haven't even met her. But you won't print that anyway, of course, because PLAYBOY is very pro-Mansfield. They think she's a rave. But she really is an old bag." - Playboy interview of the Beatles, 1965


Paul may have been having a bit of a tweak of his mate, John Lennon, as Lennon reportedly spent an evening canoodling with Mansfield during the Beatles first U.S. tour in 1964. How that happened is lost to history: various reports have it that McCartney mentioned that the one film star he wanted to meet in Hollywood was Jayne Mansfield. Other reports say that it was Lennon. More likely is the story that the never publicity-shy Mansfield set up the meeting. Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer claimed, "...I got a phone call from the actress Jayne Mansfield, who wanted to meet the Beatles and be photographed with them. She hassled me and she very badly wanted to meet them, at her place, then our place, at any place. I told her that we had a ‘no photographs with celebrities’ rule, and that I had already turned down even my own friends. She was most annoyed."

Annoyed but not defeated, Mansfield somehow ended up at the Whiskey a Go Go at the same time as at least two of the Beatles, John and George. Some reports have her necking with John at the Whiskey, others with the two in a tight embrace during a limo ride to the club. George Harrison would later report, "... John and I were sitting either side of her and she had her hands on our legs, by our groins – at least she did on mine." George would later get annoyed at an obtrusive photographer, and throw a glass of water, missing the paparazzi, but soaking the third of the fabulous M's - Mamie Van Doren, who just happened to be passing by.

In later years, Sir Paul apparently mellowed on Mansfield a bit, citing "The Girl Can't Help It" as one of the Beatles favorite movies, to the point where the Fab Four took time off from a recording session in order to catch the movie on T.V.

It wasn't Mansfield's only brush with rock gods. In 19 and 65 Jimi Hendrix played bass and lead guitar for Mansfield on two songs: a ballad called As The Clouds Drift By, and a B-side titled Suey, which included the memorable lyric, "he makes my liver quiver." According to Hendrix historian Steven Roby, the Jayne/Jimi summit took place because they had the same manager.

As I noted earlier, by 1962 Mansfield's movie career was essentially over, although she'd appear in over a dozen more flicks - most low-budget - until her death. But even with her movie career on the rocks, Mansfield still commanded an audience, and big bucks for live appearances. With husband and ex-body builder Mickey Hargitay in tow, Mansfield headlined at the Dunes in Las Vegas in an act called The House of Love, picking up a cool $35,000 a week for her efforts. The act proved such a hit that 20th-Century Fox Records came calling and recorded the show for an album called Jayne Mansfield Busts Up Las Vegas, in 1962.

[The House of Love excerpt - Jayne Mansfield and company]

Probably the best thing about Mansfield's House of Love show is that it perfectly captures a moment in time - a B-level Las Vegas lounge act of the `60s. It's not very good: you can imagine Mansfield flouncing around stage surrounded by a chorus line of bodybuilders and exchanging one-liners with what sounds like the world's worst female impersonator, Arthur Blake, who apparently got most of his laughs by appearing in drag. But hell, in Vegas in the `60s the show probably played like a dream to the rubes in town for the faucet convention. Not a big enough fish to get comped in for a Sinatra or Martin and Lewis show? Not to worry, bubbie. We can get you ringside seats to The House of Love at the Dunes and you can spend the night staring at Jayne Mansfield's knockers.

Mansfield essentially spent the remainder of her life working clubs, still commanding serious money: between $8,000 and $25,000 a week. She'd release one more album too, a novelty thing called Jayne Mansfield: Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me, on which she recited Shakespeare's sonnets and works by various other poets: including Robert Herrick's appropriate Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast.

[Upon the Nipples of Julia's Breast - Jayne Mansfield]

Possibly the most memorable thing about Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me is the album cover, which illustrates one of the eerie things about Mansfield as she entered her 30s and neared the end of her life. There are dozens of photos of Mansfield where it's obvious she's still a good-looking woman, in fact, still close to the knock-out who posed nude for Playboy at age 21. But there are also dozens of photos taken around the same period where she looks - in the memorable words of Sir Paul, like an "old bag." It's hard to believe that either Mansfield or her publicist would let the cover for Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me out on the street: except for the fact that her breasts are just barely covered by a fur stole, the blowzy Mansfield looks like a guy in drag doing a bad Carol Channing imitation.

I mentioned earlier that most guys can be separated into either Mary Ann or Ginger guys: the two lasses from Gilligan's Island. If you're a Lovey Howell guy, you're way too weird for me. In 19 and 64, Mansfield was actually offered the role of Ginger Grant. She turned the part down, publicly claiming that Ginger embodied the stereotype she was trying to leave behind, which is a little hard to believe since Mansfield was happily playing that stereotype each night in her stage act. It's more likely that the "stereotype" which annoyed Mansfield was the fact that Ginger was obviously based on Marilyn Monroe, and the idea of playing a Monroe clone on a TV sit-com was too much for Mansfield to stomach. The role was given to Tina Louise, an unprepossessing actress who did a a journeyman Marilyn Monroe during the show's run. It's one of those forks in history where you wonder what the outcome would have been. Louise wasn't a particularly inspired actress who had no comic talent at all. She reportedly hated the role, later claiming that she had been sucked in by her agent who had told her the show would be centered around her. One would think that since the series wasn't called Ginger's Isle, Louise might have gotten a clue, but who knows? Mansfield had enough talent - aside from her native assets - and enough competitiveness to have made the part her own, and maybe the show would have become Ginger's Isle by its second season. We'll never know.

By the way, in the Big Scheme of things, I'm a Mary Ann guy. But I would have been a Ginger guy if Mansfield had played the role.

That winds up tonight's show. I'm going to take a pass on talking about Mansfield's death by car accident, except to note that the Rumor That Will Not Die - that she was decapitated in the accident - is false. There's more to the story, and some exceptionally ugly photographs, available on the Web if your curiosity gets the better of you. Me, I'd recommend you follow my lead, and take a pass. Ditto on her rumored affair with JFK, which seems to have one person as its source... and he may just have been pissed about Mansfield's dogs peeing on him.

It may have been true. It may not. But, as the poet says, it was another country, and the wench is dead.

The Dreamtime team is taking the month of December off from a podcasting standpoint. We'll see you again at the beginning of the New Year. However you celebrate the holidays, Curly, Bear, Jailbat, Joyride and her shyster boyfriend, Jailbreak, and me, Your Host, all wish you a happy and comfortable one. Thanks for your email, your comments and feedback, and making it a good and fun 2007 for Dreamtime. And, if you're in a gift-buying mood, remember to start your Amazon shopping at the Dreamtime store (that's right here!): dreamtimepodcast.com. Your purchases help to pay for cat food and Jailbait's bail.

See you soon, gang.

Sources/Further reading/listening: The bed music opening and closing the show is a spooky version of Que Sera Sera, performed by Pink Martini, and can be found on their album Sympathique. Most of the information on Jayne Mansfield came from her Wikipedia entry. The Beatles and Mansfield encounter is documented at the Mersey Beat site. What information there is on the Web about the Mansfield/Hendrix connection can be found through Google. Industrious searchers can find much of Jayne Mansfield music and/or poetry readings in digital form on the Web.

***

You've been listening to the Dreamtime podcast – occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour. Dreamtime is researched and written by Fred Bals and is a Not Associated With production. As the name says, we're not associated with XM Radio, Bob Dylan, or much of anything else.

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Remember that the Dreamtime team loves to get email. You can write us at dreamtimepodcast@gmail.com

The Dreamtime top cats are Curly Lasagna and Shaggy Bear. Our announcers are the notorious honky-tonkin' sisters, Jailbait and Joyride.

Until next time, dream well.

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2 comments:

almax said...

Fred

Thanks for yet another superlative episode - your podcasts jostle with Bob's shows on my mp3 player.

Happy Christmas when it arrives

Alastair

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it "The girl can't help it" that inspired the Beatles to R&R, after having taken a break during the "White album" sessions, and finally come up with the track "Birthday"? I think it was but I'm not sure... Bye Yann