Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais is just about the best movie in town right now. The aged master gets another vote, far as I’m concerned, for his devoted partisanship of Frank Tashlin. I was just reading somewhere about Godard grousing about seeing Rivette standing first in line for the theatrical opening of a Tashlin picture. The PFA in Berkeley is in mid-Tashlin retrospective, and we caught Tashlin’s 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It on Friday night.
This is a movie that has to be seen on the big screen for maximum effect. CinemaScope was an unwieldy process, and Tashlin handled it like he was born to it, with his cartoonist-trained senses of shape and color. He was never a man trying desperately to fill in the empty spaces on the edges. Edmund O’Brien, usually a bleak Irishman, is uproarious as a farcical gangster with show-biz in his blood; he’s clad in a series of fantastical sports coats that are so loud they look like they could jam radar. (Henry Jones, another serious actor in a rare comic part, plays his long-suffering but secretly rebellious lieutenant.)
The gangster wants to be back on the front pages of the newspapers where he belongs. To get there, he decides to make a musical star out of his fiancee played by the one and only Jayne Mansfield. Often characterized as a dumb blonde, Mansfield’s character here is more simple-hearted than simple-minded; her desire in life is to be a mom and a wife, and she has no urge to be onstage, despite a physique so startling that its practically a superpower. Calling Mansfield’s shape “hourglass” is like calling Big Ben “clock-shaped.” This is the only movie that could double-bill with Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
The gangster hires a drunken publicity man (the slight, wizened comedian Tom Ewell) to bring Mansfield to the stage. But he’s a drunk, soul-wounded by his former thing with torch singer Julie London. London plays herself, materializing in like a double-exposure ghost to perform “Cry Me a River.” Redemption all around at the end.
While Mansfield serenely endures breast jokes that would make Dolly Parton turn pale, the music is one long rockabilly rebellion, with Gene Vincent doing “Be Bop a-Lula,” and Eddie Cochran doing “Twenty Flight Rock.” Fats Domino performs “Blue Monday” and there are two numbers by Little Richard—the perfect man to make a sonic portrait of Jayne Mansfield (“She’s Got It,” is the song in question).
What the hell ever happened to The Three Chuckles, this crazed accordion-based trio that were … uh, like The Three Suns on crack! (There’s a music description that not only has the forbidden “like X on X” locution, but also makes no sense to those who never heard Mamie Eisenhower’s favorite band.)
Magic, magic, total magic, and a lovely contrast to Apatowsville. Breasts are funnier than penises, Judd, and they always will be forever. There’s more Tashlin this week; Wednesday (April 16) night is a double-bill of Jerry Lewis: the comic-book-themed Artists and Models and It’$ Only Money. See you there. French people wince when you accuse them of Lewisophilia. Truth is that Tashlin is the one the French critics were praising in Cahiers du Cinema. As well they should have—Tashlin was the avatar of the cartoon movie. No Tashlin, no Tim Burton, no John Waters. the list keeps going on at this point.
Click here for PFA schedule.