With Bob Dylan, JFK, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Ginger and Mary Ann too
“…Here’s a song from a movie called, “The Girl Can’t Help It.” In that movie you can see technicolor footage of Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and many other fabulous performers. But it’s not just a music movie. It’s very funny, stars Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield and was directed by Frank Tashlin. Frank directed Bugs Bunny cartoons in the `40s, and directed movies by Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the `50s. His films had an amazing full-color, animated quality, even when they were starring real actors. And “The Girl Can’t Help It” is one of his best. This song is sung by Edmond O’Brien in the movie, and it’s all about whiling away the hours in the “Gray Bar Hotel”… I mean prison.”
“You’ll hear a siren on this record. It’s not really a siren, it’s Jayne Mansfield screaming. You have to see the movie to understand. Performed by Ray Anthony who was married to another sexpot, Mamie Van Doren. Here’s Ray… “Rock Around the Rock Pile.” — Bob Dylan, “Classic Rock,” Theme Time Radio Hour
Rockin’ ‘Round the Rockpile
If you decide — as I did — that after listening to the Theme Time Radio Hour “Classic Rock” episode, you need to know exactly why Jayne Mansfield is screaming like a siren on “Rock Around the Rock Pile,” one pricey choice is the three-DVD set, Jayne Mansfield Collection, that includes “The Girl Can’t Help It,” and the equally funny Frank Tashlin directed movie, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” The third movie of the set, “The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw,” is nowhere near the quality of the other two, but two out of three ain’t bad.
You can pick up the Jayne Mansfield Collection for around $60 at Amazon, or, if you’re more price conscious, you can find the Blu-Ray Criterion Collection version of “The Girl Can’t Help It” solo for around $20.
Released on the 1st of December, 19 and 56, “The Girl Can’t Help It” has a plot that goes all the way back to Damon Runyon: Mobster has no-talent girlfriend who he’s determined to make a star. Mobster muscles unwilling citizen with show biz connections into making it happen. In the course of events, girlfriend and unwilling citizen fall for each other and hilarity ensues.
Give that story to any half-decent writer, and you’d get a half-decent movie in return. But, “The Girl Can’t Help It” is something more. Part of it is Frank Tashlin’s direction. As Dylan mentions, Tashlin came out out of the animation biz, and he loves sight gags above all things. There is one scene with men reacting to Mansfield walking down a city street in all her pneumatic glory that is just one cartoon shtick after another — melting ice, shattering eyeglasses, and a bit that is tame by today’s standards but one that will make you wonder how it got by the 1956 censors. A milkman holding a very phallic bottle gazes on as Mansfield sways by, and the bottle erupts in a pure milk orgasm.
The First Good Rock-and-Roll Movie
Another piece of “The Girl Can’t Help It” puzzle is the music. Some people might hold out for 1955’s “Blackboard Jungle” as the first rock-and-roll movie, since it had the first airing of Rock Around the Clock, although you can make the argument that since it only featured a rock song, it wasn’t really a rock movie.
The movie “Rock Around the Clock” is a better contender, shot in January of 1956 and released just two months later to capitalize on Bill Haley and the Comets blockbuster single. While not a very good movie, “Rock Around the Clock” did have The Platters, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, and Bill Haley and the Comets doing the title song three different times, though never as a complete performance.
But you can make the case that “The Girl Can’t Help It,” released about nine months after “Rock Around the Clock,” is the first good rock-and-roll movie. It has a plot loosely — very loosely — based around the music business, plus a strong cast. And, as Mr. D. noted, the movie has a crew of “fabulous performers,” including Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, The Platters, who seemed to show up in all rock movies of that era, and Gene Cochran. With rock-and-roll still in its infancy, the film also had a few strange selections, such as Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles. To add a touch of class, Abbey Lincoln, the great jazz stylist, also makes an appearance, plus a Theme Time Radio Hour sweetheart, Julie London, who shows up in a dream sequence singing Cry Me a River.
It’s a funny movie, and a good movie, and a movie with great music. Annnnnnnnnnd it’s got Jayne Mansfield.
That Other Blonde Bombshell
In the strange male fantasy world where some of us are Superman guys and others are Batman guys, and some of us are Mary Ann guys and others are Ginger guys, I’m in the minority when it comes to blonde bombshells, being more of a Jayne Mansfield guy than Marilyn Monroe guy.
I’ve got nothing against Marilyn Monroe; as far as talent goes, Monroe far outclasses Mansfield. But I kind of like the idea of Jayne Mansfield a bit better. Monroe is — I dunno — unattainable when I think about her. You’d figure her to end up with ol’ Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller or JFK, but not with an average schlub like me. As Mansfield once said in a moment of introspection, “I want to be the ordinary man’s conception of what a sexy, obliging, comradely, down-to-earth girlfriend ought to be.”
Mansfield is more like the girl next door, given that you knew a girl next door who fit into a 40D cup. But like the old Avis commercials, Mansfield, always running a distant second to Monroe, tried harder, sometimes tried too hard, and because that drive often got her into trouble, she also seems more human to me than the iconic Marilyn.
Monroe, as might be expected, was no fan of Mansfield, considering her a cheap, irritating knock-off. “All she does is imitate me — but her imitations are an insult to her as well as to myself.” Monroe told an interviewer. “I know it’s supposed to be flattering to be imitated, but she does it so grossly, so vulgarly.”
While Monroe had reason to be annoyed by Mansfield’s crude Xerox copying of her style, her nose might have been out of joint because Mansfield — taking the adage that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery to an extreme — had also taken up with Monroe’s once and future-boyfriend, John F. Kennedy, who made Jayne a regular second choice for a bit of slap-and-tickle when Marilyn wasn’t available.
Becoming Jayne Mansfield
Born with the plain-Jane name of Vera Jayne Palmer in 1933, Mansfield seemed to have only one thing on her mind from age 7 on — to become a star.
By age 17 she was married to her publicist, Paul Mansfield, and already had several beauty queen titles under her belt… titles that included “Miss Photoflash,” “Miss Magnesium Lamp” and “Miss Fire Prevention Week.” Mansfield once said the only title she ever turned down was Miss Roquefort Cheese, because it “just didn’t sound right.” Eventually she’d replace her first name with her second and keep Mansfield’s last name as her own after their divorce.
Following in the steps of Monroe, Mansfield was the Playmate of the Month in February 19 and 55 at age 21, and would go on to appear in Playboy more than 30 more times. Unlike Monroe, whose first Playboy nude pictures were unauthorized, Mansfield happily posed for her Playboy spreads.
Mansfield had a few bit parts in various movies during the early `50s, but her career didn’t pick up traction until her Broadway role as sex siren Rita Marlowe in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Wearing only a towel, Mansfield would rise to answer a telephone each night, flaunting as much of herself as she could get away with without closing the show. Although it was her breasts that drew most of the attention, Mansfield was also a better-than-average comedian and received the 1956 Theatre World Award for her work in the play.
That gave her enough street cred to come back to Hollywood and get the role of Jerri Jordan in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the voluptuous tone-deaf girlfriend of a retired mobster who just wants to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. While her comic talents weren’t put to as much use as they were in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Mansfield does more more than a good job as Jordan, especially when playing against Tom Ewell.
Jayne Meets the Beatles and Downs a Dirty Lennotini
Mansfield would go on to reprise her Rita Marlow role in the 1957 movie version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? another movie directed by Frank Tashlin, and Mansfield’s best picture.
By 1962 Marilyn Monroe had died, making herself an ageless legend in the process. Mansfield would go on for another five years, her looks coarsening, losing her audience as the public taste for big-bosomed platinum blondes withered. In an uncharacteristically savage — or honest — moment, mop-top Paul McCartney called Mansfield an “old bag” during a 1965 Playboy interview of the Beatles, claiming that while he had never met her, she was “a clot.”
PAUL: “Yeah, Some of those American girls have been great.”
JOHN: “Like Joan Baez.”
PAUL: “Joan Baez is good, yeah, very good.”
JOHN: “She’s the only one I like.”
GEORGE: “And Jayne Mansfield. PLAYBOY made her.”
PAUL: “She’s a bit different, isn’t she? Different.”
RINGO: “She’s soft.”
GEORGE: “Soft and warm.”
PAUL: “Actually, she’s a clot.”
RINGO: “…says Paul, the god of the Beatles.”
PAUL: “I didn’t mean it, Beatle People! Actually, I haven’t even met her. But you won’t print that anyway, of course, because PLAYBOY is very pro-Mansfield. They think she’s a rave. But she really is an old bag.” — Playboy interview with the Beatles, 1965
Paul may have been having a bit of a tweak of his mate, John Lennon, who did meet Mansfield in 1964 and reportedly spent an evening canoodling with her. But not before Lennon, annoyed with Mansfield tugging at his hair while asking if it was real, put a new spin on the Brit term, “taking the piss,” by surreptitiously peeing into a martini glass and serving the dirty Lennontini to Mansfield.
Both looking the worse for wear, the pair eventually ended up at the Whiskey a Go Go and were joined by George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Harrison would report, “John and I were sitting either side of her and she had her hands on our legs, by our groins — at least she did on mine.”
George would get annoyed at an obtrusive photographer and throw his drink at the paparazzi, missing him but soaking the third of the fabulous M’s — Mamie Van Doren, wife of Frank Castle, who performed “Rock Around the Rock Pile.” on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio “Classic Rock” episode some 43 years after three of the Beatles and Jayne Mansfield hung out together.
All these things are connected, as a certain deejay liked to say.
In later years, Sir Paul mellowed on Mansfield , citing “The Girl Can’t Help It” as one of the Beatles favorite movies, to the point where the Fab Four took time off from a recording session in order to catch the movie on T.V.
Meeting the Beatles wasn’t Mansfield’s only brush with rock gods. In 19 and 66 Jimi Hendrix played bass and lead guitar for Mansfield on two songs she recorded: a ballad called As The Clouds Drift By, and a rocking B-side titled Suey, which included the memorable lyric, “he makes my liver quiver.”
According to Hendrix historian Steven Roby, the Jayne/Jimi collaboration took place because they had the same manager. Sadly, the two never met in the studio. Hendrix recorded his instrumental tracks for both cuts in February 1966 with Mansfield adding her vocals a month later.
The House of Love and Upon the Nipples of Jayne’s Breast
Mansfield’s movie career was essentially over, although she’d appear in over a dozen more low-budget flicks until her death. But even with her movie career on the rocks, Mansfield still commanded an audience and big bucks for live appearances. With husband and ex-body builder Mickey Hargitay in tow, Mansfield headlined at the Dunes in Las Vegas in an act called The House of Love, picking up a cool $35,000 a week for her efforts. The act proved such a hit that 20th-Century Fox Records came calling and recorded the show for an album called Jayne Mansfield Busts Up Las Vegas.
Probably the best thing about Mansfield’s House of Love show is that it perfectly captures a moment in time — a B-level Las Vegas lounge act of the `60s. The show doesn’t sound as if it were very good, but as the silent clip below demonstrates, Mansfield sure does looks good.
You can imagine Mansfield flouncing around stage surrounded by a chorus line of bodybuilders and exchanging one-liners with a comedian/female impersonator, Arthur Blake, who apparently relied on getting most of his laughs by appearing in drag, including as Mansfield herself.
In Vegas in the `60s the show probably played like a dream to the rubes in town for the furnace and faucet convention. Not a big enough fish to get comped for a Sinatra or Martin and Lewis show? Not to worry, bubbie. We can get you ringside seats to The House of Love at the Dunes and you can spend the night staring at Jayne Mansfield’s knockers.
Mansfield spent the remainder of her life working clubs, still commanding serious money: between $8,000 and $25,000 a week. She’d release one more album too, a novelty record called Jayne Mansfield: Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me, on which she recited Shakespeare’s sonnets and works by various other poets: including Robert Herrick’s appropriate Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breast.
The most memorable thing about Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me is the album cover, which illustrates one of the eerie things about Mansfield as she entered her 30s. There are dozens of photos and film of Mansfield taken in the early ’60s where it’s obvious she’s still a good-looking woman, still close to the knock-out who posed nude for Playboy at age 21.
But there are also dozens of photos taken around the same period where she looks — in the memorable words of Paul McCartney — like an “old bag.” It’s hard to believe that either Mansfield or her publicist would let the cover for Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me out on the street. With her breasts just barely covered by a fur stole, the blowzy Mansfield looks like an overly tanned drag queen prepping for a Carol Channing imitation.
Mansfield, Dylan and Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric
t be born with choice
t be carried free out of cradled touch
In one of those weird instances of fake synchronicity, if you put the two lines above into a Google search, the first results you’ll get are links to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Othello.”
Do you remember writing the text?
Actually, no. — Bob Dylan, Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric
The lines are actually from Bob Dylan’s poem meditation on several Barry Feinstein’s photos, including one of Jayne Mansfield posing near a statue of Jesus, printed in “Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript.” Mansfield would make one more Dylanesque appearance in the liner notes of “Bringing It All Back Home.”
“Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric’s” subtitle is a bit of Hollywood rhetoric itself; it was more a shelved project than lost to history, as Feinstein notes in the introduction. But it’s a welcome piece of history that finally surfaced in 2008, giving a glimpse into Dylan’s creative process in 1964, with some of the rhyming-rap lines reminiscent of — or a precursor to — Subterranean Homesick Blues.
The Alternate Universe Gilligan’s Isle with Jayne Mansfield
If asked most guys my age will self-categorize into either Mary Ann or Ginger guys: the two lasses from Gilligan’s Island. If you’re a Lovey Howell guy, you’re way too weird for me.
In 1964 Mansfield was offered the role of Ginger Grant after the original character tested poorly with audiences and was changed from secretary to “a movie star.” Mansfield turned the part down, claiming that Ginger embodied the Marilyn Monroe stereotype she was trying to leave behind. That’s a little hard to believe since Mansfield had built a successful career as a Monroe clone and was playing that stereotype on stage each night.
Whatever the truth, the role was given to Tina Louise, not a particularly inspired actress with little talent for comedy. But what Louise could do was play the Marilyn Monroe the show’s producers were looking for, and she doggedly played Monroe by the numbers through the entire show’s run.
Although she later reversed her opinion, Louise reportedly hated the role, once saying that she had been sucked into auditioning for the show only because of an agent’s claims that it would be centered around Ginger Grant. Perhaps not coincidentally, Natalie Shafer also said that her agent had told her that the show would feature Lovey Howell as the star — although Shafer was more enthusiastic about getting the free trip to Hawaii where the Gilligan’s Isle pilot was to be filmed. Given that the series was never titled Ginger’s or Lovey’s Isle, one would think that the two actresses might have gotten a clue, but that’s Hollywood for you.
Mansfield had enough talent — aside from her native assets — and enough competitiveness to have made the Ginger Grant role her own, and maybe the show would have become Ginger’s Isle by its second season. We’ll never know.
By the way, in the Big Scheme of things, I’m a Mary Ann guy. But I would have been a Ginger guy if Jayne Mansfield had played the role.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
By my rough count, there are nearly a dozen biographical films about Marilyn Monroe. There’s only two about Jayne: including a heavily fictionalized made-for-TV movie starring Loni Anderson as Mansfield and Arnold Schwarzenegger as her bodybuilder husband, Mickey Hargitay. The film is listed in The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of “The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.”
Somehow, that’s appropriate.
I’m going to take a pass on talking about Mansfield’s death by car accident, except to note that the Rumor That Will Not Die — that she was decapitated — is false. There’s more to the story, and some exceptionally ugly photographs available, if your curiosity gets the better of you.
But I’d recommend you follow my lead, and take a pass. As the poet says, it was another country, and the wench is dead.