(Originally posted on 22 February 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted by permission.)
Director Frank Tashlin’s background was as an animator at Warner Brothers, and this was reflected in his best work. The principal cast of his film Hollywood or Bust might’ve stepped out of a cartoon -- Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Anita Ekberg (as Bust?) were all outsize personalities, well-suited to Tashlin’s world. So too Jayne Mansfield, who serves as both the eye candy and the emotional center of Tashlin’s classic The Girl Can’t Help It.
In this film, Mansfield plays the mistress of a high-level gangster (played by Edmond O’Brien), who wants to turn her into a singing sensation. He enlists -- no, pressures -- has-been talent agent Tom Ewell into grooming her and making her a star. Ewell is the right man for the job, insists O’Brien, not only due to his previous professional successes, but his professionalism as well. Ever since his last successful singer and the love of his life (Julie London, playing herself) moved on for reasons left unstated, Ewell’s policy has been to keep his hands off the talent. However, there are complications. Not only does Mansfield demonstrate herself both unwilling and unable to pursue a singing career, but she also takes a shine to Ewell herself, and Ewell, despite himself, finds he isn’t immune to her charms either.
After a long night of taking Mansfield to various clubs in order to get the attention of the owners, Ewell returns home to his apartment. Tipsy and lonely, he puts on a record of Julie London singing “Cry Me a River,” and as the song plays he has a vision of her in his apartment, singing to him. He stumbles from room to room, trying to escape her, but Julie just keeps appearing- on the couch, reclining in his bed, in the hallway outside his apartment. Finally, after the song is over, Julie disappears down the stairs and Ewell is alone again.
Fans of classic animation might recognize this as a oft-repeated motif in Warner Brothers cartoons. However, in ‘toon form, scenes like this are played as comedy -- a hungry Bugs might hallucinate various objects around him as carrots, for example. What makes the scene in The Girl Can’t Help It so effective is how straight it’s played. The song that Julie London sings is slow and mournful, and the look on her face is full of longing and regret. Likewise, Ewell is tortured by the vision, but he never goes over the top. When it’s all over, all he can do is hang his head and slump off to bed.
However, the scene gets a happy payoff later in the film. In a bar one night, Ewell sits alone, three sheets to the wind, when the jukebox begins playing “Cry Me a River.” Ewell turns to the barfly who chose the tune and berates him for choosing it, and tries to explain his problem. When he points to the seat next to him, to show the other guy where Julie London is, there’s no one sitting there, and the other man tells him as much. But when Ewell takes a look himself, it’s not Julie sitting there at all, but Jayne Mansfield, her face beaming with a loving smile. As cinematic expressions of getting over an old flame go, this one’s hard to beat.