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Energy and Counter-Energy in Tashlin

Sudarshan Ramani

The great “heroic age” (as described by Chris Fujiwara) of critical engagement with American cinema on the part of the men who would form the French New Wave has permanently enshrined the reputations of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller to name a few. But one name who has never quite achieved the same level of fame is Frank Tashlin. This is paradoxical because it can be argued that The Girl Can’t Help It! had a bigger immediate cultural influence than even Rebel Without A Cause and Psycho. The Girl Can’t Help It! is simply stated “a rock musical” with several celebrity cameos, a roll-call of 50s great rock music acts, including Little Richard (whose famous song gives the film its title), Fats Domino, The Platters, Abbey Lincoln, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and others. Indeed, Tashlin very narrowly missed out on getting Elvis Presley in the film. Put it simply, this film should have been an impossible pageant, of curiosity only to music aficionados. Instead the film is very strange, highly entertaining, funny, surprisingly emotional and always possessing a deep sense of visual invention and a warm generosity of spirit. It’s also surprisingly crude and impossibly tacky. The movie is aware of this and it manages to be simultaneously guilty and shameless of being crude and tacky.

Frank Tashlin hit his high period in the 50s, maintaining the great tradition of comedy film, as Preston Sturges did in the 40s, and Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch did in the 30s. More broadly, one can say that Tashlin was the missing link between his predecessors and his successors like Jerry Lewis (obviously), Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg and the Coen Bros. All these film-makers have little enough in common with each other and one wouldn’t necessarily call all of them comic all the time. What I wish to stress is that Tashlin broadened the dimensions of the American Comedy much like Lewis, Allen and Altman at their best did. More importantly, the chief criticism of comedy films, pointed out by Woody Allen, that the genre is less open to formal and cinematic inventiveness than a dramatic film, simply on account of its dependence on its performers’ skills is a challenge that Tashlin faces and defeats through the great formal inventiveness and visual achievement of his best films. Tashlin’s subjects were broad and their achievements depend on the way in which he engages with rock music (The Girl Can’t Help It!), advertising (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter) and comic books (Artists and Models), managing to be biting satires and terrific cinematic reflections on each medium. Moreover his films are filtered with the understanding that all three industries derive directly and indirectly from the movie business and the values of stardom and success created by Hollywood (the subject of Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust).

Little Richard -“Ready Teddy”

The Girl Can’t Help It! is more than a good film, more than a funny film, more than an excellent parody; it is a kind of masterpiece of the genre,” wrote François Truffaut in the first paragraph of his review of this film when it came out in France. The film is about the music business and is very attentive on matters of distribution. Rock music is filtered through jukeboxes and radio play. The jukeboxes are cornered by a big time company owned by a former 30s gangster. His business in the 30s was slot machines, shown in the newsreel flashback in the private theatre (the obligatory Citizen Kane reference back then) and his rival was a gangster called Fats Murdoch (Played by the usually staid Edmond O’Brien who has a blast in this most hammy of roles), exiled to France but who seeks to return to America on the hopes of making his mall, Georgiana (Jayne Mansfield) into a rock goddess. This brings in washed up agent Tom Miller (played by Tom Ewell) who is usually effective in getting his acts valuable airtime though he never quite gets to keep hold of them once they hit it big. Miller’s main interest is alcohol and cigarettes. Murdoch threatens Miller, succeeds and he lives and finds a new start, fails and he dies – A simple gauntlet. Of course Miller falls in love with his charge, that much is inevitable. This much plot is filtered through several numbers of rock music acts (by real artists) all of them staged in ways that are surprising and fairly modern.

A good example is Little Richard singing “Ready Teddy”. Wim Wenders said that, “the shot just shows Little Richard, and expresses no opinion about him other than that it’s really good to see him standing at the piano and singing”. What is shocking is the powerful close-ups of Little Richard performing on the piano while singing, his head angled above, possessed entirely by the music. These close-ups alternate with reverse crane movements as the camera moves away from Richard, in tune to the powerful rhythm section that follows the lead-in vocals. Another powerful staging is the almost hallucinatory depiction of the Abbey Lincoln number, introduced in a whirl of red and cobalt blue, burning the image of the performer into our minds as she sings a “Gospel” number that is anything but religious in effect.

Abbey Lincoln- “Spread the Word”

Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps – “Be Bop A Lula”

An aside – The Girl Can’t Help It! was a major success in America and in England. It was a favorite of Bob Dylan’s and Patti Smith in the States, and in England John Lennon was impressed at seeing for the first time many of his favorite performers on screen. In Bob Dylan’s recent Theme Time Radio Hour series, he played the ugly, awful, “Rock Around the Rockpile” parody at the end of the film, introducing Tashlin by reading his wikipedia page on the radio.

Eddie Cochran – “Twenty Flight Rock”

An anecdote – When John Lennon first met Paul McCartney, the latter was trying out to be part of Lennon’s band. Lennon was initially unimpressed until Paul McCartney performed Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock. Lennon immediately recognized the tune and the dance style as coming from Tashlin’s film. After the event, he praised McCartney and discovered that he too was a big fan of The Girl Can’t Help It! sparking their epochal collaboration in turn.

Fats Domino – “Blue Monday”

The Girl Can’t Help It is fascinating in the range of responses it has provoked. Seen today, the film seems like a celebration of rock music. However other Tashlin writers, such as Peter Bogdanovich, regard it as a satire and jape at rock music. The film contains this ambivalence. It is both a tribute to great rock performers and critical of the commercialization that the rock music craze eventually devolves into, with audiences reduced to apathetic consumers. The finale of the film, with a girl dancing indifferently to Fats Murdoch’s lousy “Rock Around the Rockpile” number even suggests Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, the famous scene of the club where Beck smashes his guitar to dazed watchers.

In fact, as noted by Jonathan Rosenbaum in his observations on Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Tashlin’s movies can be regarded as cheerily defeatist in that while his characters have some kind of success, they don’t entirely escape being part of the very thing they dislike. The fake happy ending at the end of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is a case in point. Artists and Models is more literal, it has a recurring song which has a refrain that says, “Life is full of happy endings/when you pretend.” And that’s Tashlin’s great honesty even in The Girl Can’t Help It! where all the great energy of rock music, seen and glimpsed in the great performances and the loose freedom of the barefoot dancers in the “Blue Monday” number, is still ultimately in the hands of old stodgy ex-gangsters from the 30s, made ridiculous but still powerful in the 50s. One can locate the anguish foundin The Clash’s “Complete Control”. However it’s leavened with a genuine formal wit and eye for beauty. The beautiful shot of Georgiana going for a swim in the Ocean, and the proto-music video “Cry Me a River”, the dark, haunting tune where Julie London, Tom Miller’s ex-flame haunts him in an alcohol-induced delirium. Unlike later films on rock music, which at times seemed compulsorily optimistic and youth-focused, Tashlin’s film transcends such restrictions, creating in the film itself, a powerful critique of cultural packaging and labeling.