If part of Hollywood’s appeal is the lure of the artificial—not the entirety of its appeal, but some—then Jayne Mansfield is irresistible. For everything unbelievable, garish, overdone, over-everything about her, there’s also something beguiling, funny, even touching.
Her story isn’t pretty (especially as told in the shallow, sensationalistic style of the A&E Biography—par for that series—included in the new Jayne Mansfield Collection). With an insatiable appetite for fame and a figure that seems to have sprung from the imagination of a dirty-minded cartoonist, Jayne (it would be heartless to call her Mansfield) parlayed pin-up work into a contract as a bit player at Twentieth Century Fox. Bigger roles came her way in the mid-’50s, accompanied by near-hysterical press coverage. But both petered out, and Jayne sank into European exploitation movies, cheapie American-made nudies, regional theater, third-rate nightclub tours—and alcohol and drugs on top of that. Her career was essentially over by the time, in 1967, she was killed in a car crash. She was 34.
You can feel the shadow of her decline in one of the three movies included here, 1958’s The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, a western spoof directed by Raoul Walsh that’s nearly unwatchable. It’s one of those pictures in which Hollywood, reacting to the encroachments of television, offers up a pretty good argument for its own demise—everything about it is cheery, forced, untouched by any genuine emotion, cleansed of any evidence that it was made by human hands.
Luckily, the other two movies in the collection are her best, 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It and 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, both of them directed by Frank Tashlin. It’s impossible to understand Jayne in them, how she succumbs to and escapes the director’s machinations, without understanding Tashlin.
An animator at Warner Bros., Tashlin brought something of the same absurdist sensibility to live-action films, adding an acceptable version of what used to be called “blue humor.” Visually, these movies give the impression of advertising graphics turned to satirical purpose. Tashlin was much admired by Truffaut and Godard, who saw his films as critiques of consumerist American culture. In Rock Hunter, Tony Randall making it as an executive is epitomized by being given a key to the executive washroom—success here is, literally, going to the john.
And yet, for all the jabs at advertising, television, rock ’n’ roll, movie stars and consumer culture, Tashlin’s pictures feel almost preliterate. The humor, even when it’s funny, is often crude, and the movies feel part of the same grotesquerie they are targeting, entertainment for an audience he regards as little more than a cacophony of yahoos. What keeps them from being snide and superior is Tashlin’s capacity for being amused at what he sees, at seeing the pleasures to be had from consumerism. (Which is a hell of a lot better than being tortured by it.) There is a moment in The Girl Can’t Help It when Jayne puts a coin in a vending machine and out comes an apple: She’s Eve for an age when the fruits of Eden have been mechanized.
Because Tashlin sees her as a personality manufactured for an era he disdains, Jayne is not always treated kindly by these films. In Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, re-creating the role she played in George Axelrod’s Broadway play, Jayne is Rita Marlowe, a movie star who pretends to be having an affair with a milquetoasty ad exec (Randall, whose character’s eyes droop from the effort of play-acting a great lover) in order to win back her muscleman boyfriend. References to Jayne’s past and upcoming Fox films, and the presence of her soon-to-be husband Mickey Hargitay as Rita’s boyfriend, make it pretty clear that Tashlin considers this publicity-hungry, man-hungry star a barely veiled portrait of Jayne.
Betsy Drake, as Randall’s plain, good-hearted fiancee, is meant to be the wholesome ideal. And yet Jayne has the last laugh. In the world created and embraced by the movie—a world of 50’s modern furniture, enticing cosmetic ads and abundant movie stars—Betsy Drake is the consolation prize. Tashlin may be ridiculing a culture that would prefer Jayne Mansfield, but if so, he’s also ridiculing the very notion of what the movies make us want.
In The Girl Can’t Help It, made the year before, Jayne is the embodiment of those homey values, a small-town girl who gets engaged to a has-been gangster (Edmond O’Brien) as a way of paying her father’s debt to the thug. Not wanting to marry a nobody, O’Brien hires an on-the-skids talent agent (Tom Ewell) to make her a star.
The joke of the movie is supposed to be that Jayne really wants to be a housewife, but everybody thinks she’s a sexpot. That sets up some of Tashlin’s crudest gags: Jayne entering Ewell’s apartment with two milk bottles clutched to her breasts, or her bust protruding into the frame as she complains, “Nobody thinks I’m equipped for motherhood.”
Despite—or maybe because of—Tashlin’s crudity, Jayne somehow manages to project vulnerability and sweetness. Part of it is the husk of longing in her voice as she begins to feel tenderly towards Ewell. And part of it is that she is shot so beautifully she takes your breath away. When Ewell first sees her, in a dazzling white evening gown, he literally stops in his tracks. So does the camera: We just want to drink her in. When she frolics in the Atlantic in a yellow bathing suit, it’s the closest that cheesecake has ever come to lyricism.
Tashlin sees the beauty of rock ’n’ roll as well. At a time when rock in the movies was relegated to quickies like Don’t Knock the Rock, The Girl Can’t Help It gave the music the sheen of big-studio production values.
And while Tashlin presents rock as little more than a novelty, the screaming manifestation of a screaming, plastic age, he shoots the acts—Little Richard, the terrific and forgotten Treniers, Abbey Lincoln, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, the Platters and others—with unalloyed pleasure.
The Girl Can’t Help It is pure trash heaven. And as happy as I am that it’s finally on DVD, it’s glorious on the big screen. Film Forum is kicking off its Tashlin fest with a six-day run of the film from Aug. 25 to 31. If Jayne Mansfield was an ersatz diamond, this setting is the closest she ever came to being treated like a real gem. The Girl Can’t Help It shows her more love than disdain. Considering the life that awaited her, that’s the least she deserved.