“That’s a girl, Barry,” Tom Ewell says to a gawky paperboy, both of them awed by Jayne Mansfield’s torpedo strut. But is Mansfield really a girl—or an impossible theory? Such questions will inevitably lead to madness, or at least an appreciation of the trashy beauty of Frank Tashlin’s most plasticine creation, Jerri Jordan. A vapid, almost vulpine stare, overripe lushness, a superhuman squeal: Mansfield was never used better. Few films have trod the puerile as fixedly; Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls and Starship Troopers come closest. Defiantly cartoonish, The Girl Can’t Help It was a total redefinition of studio product, for good and ill.
Truffaut, wearing his critic’s hat at the time, called it a parody; other highbrows, embarrassed by their lusty responses, have since called it satire. But as with Verhoeven, the terms don’t stick. What this really is is celebration, unchecked to a rare degree of tastelessness. You can tell by the film’s awkward, sloppy embrace of the dawning rock & roll moment, making room for fiery Little Richard as well as accordion-based nobodies like the Chuckles. The plot is 100 percent pre-rock, with alkie talent agent Tom Ewell (the poor man’s Sinatra) trying to turn Mansfield into a star to satisfy obnoxious gangster Edmond O’Brien. But the film transcends this clunkiness with tender audience shots of pimply teens sporting overbites about to launch into hormonal overdrive. Even if there weren’t such things as pituitary glands, the movie would have worked just as nicely. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.) — Joshua Rothkopf