The Beatles Probably Wouldn’t Exist Without This Movie (2023)

In the age of concert videos so high-definition you can see individual beads of sweat, nothing seems especially unique about The Girl Can't Help It. Billed as "blonde bombshell" Jayne Mansfield's first starring role, the 1956 musical-comedy features a string of rock and roll icons performing their hearts out in vivid, widescreen technicolor. It's a delight for modern audiences to see Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and Abbey Lincoln in one place, but nothing revolutionary when we have YouTube at our fingertips.

For 1950s audiences, however, The Girl Can't Help It was a literal cultural reset. Since full-length concert movies didn't exist and Elvis Presley had just one film credit under his belt, this otherwise mediocre comedy was the only way rock and roll fans could see their idols in the flesh. The disembodied voices emerging from a record player suddenly had faces rendered in loving cinematic close-up, their physical mannerisms radiating charisma as dynamic as their volcanic vocals. The Girl calls itself "a story about music," and although the plot satirizes the industry, it's also a celebration of rock and roll so visceral it metaphorically brings down the house. It's a film so powerful, it birthed The Beatles. But, how?



RELATED: From ‘A Hard Days Night’ to ‘The Wall’: What Happened to the Band Movie?

What Is ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ About?

From a structural standpoint, The Girl Can't Help It qualifies as two different movies shoved together. It's 50% a comedy and 50% a musical montage, and the two never overlap. The comedic narrative follows Jayne Mansfield's Jerri Jordan, a socialite whose mobster boyfriend Marty "Fats" Murdock (Edmond O'Brien) schemes to make her a famous musician. The trouble is, Jerri can't sing for love or money. Murdock, wielder of the world's most exaggerated New York accent, doesn't care. He hires down-on-his-luck talent scout Tom Miller (Tom Ewell) to manage Jerri's career on the condition Tom doesn't get romantically entangled with Jerri. Hands off the mobster's girl, or there'll be consequences! Tom, for his part, is an alcoholic grieving his career lows and a failed romance. Tom and Jerri (insert joke here) break the rules by catching feelings, but not before endless jokes about Jerri's sex appeal. (More on that later.)

Then, there's the musical half. Most musicals of the 1950s were MGM-produced gold standards like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. The characters sang their way through the story and were played, or dubbed, by qualified singers. The Girl distinguishes itself from tradition by letting established musicians handle the performances while the actors stay in their lane. The numbers take place in nightclubs with lavish backdrops and meticulous cinematography while Jerri and Tom watch. Jerri doesn't take to the stage until the second-to-last scene. Keeping the qualified musicians separate from the musically disinclined actors is an interesting choice and highlights each singer's overwhelming talent. The Girl's plot could exist without these performances, but it would be a far lesser film for it.

So, how do icons as giant and influential as The Beatles come into play? Well, John Lennon was sixteen years old when The Girl Can't Help It reached Liverpool, England in the summer of 1957. Like every famous artist, Lennon was a fan first and a musician second. He worshiped the likes of Little Richard and Fats Domino. Seeing them as living, breathing figures in The Girl inspired Lennon to follow his musicianship dreams and form The Quarrymen, a rock group consisting of Lennon and his classmates.

Lennon wasn't the only future member of The Beatles who was captivated by the film's music. When a youthful Paul McCartney auditioned for The Quarrymen, he imitated Eddie Cochran’s rhythm guitar technique on "Twenty Flight Rock," a song written for the film. Suitably impressed, Lennon recruited McCartney. History was made, and The Quarrymen later evolved into The Beatles, a little band you might have heard about who rewrote the rules of the music industry.

Focusing on Musicians Makes ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ Unique

The Beatles Probably Wouldn’t Exist Without This Movie (2)

Next question: what made The Girl such an electrifying experience for these Liverpudlian kids? Writer-director Frank Tashlin milks the widescreen Cinemascope aspect ratio for all it's worth. He uses long takes, slow tracking shots, and close-ups throughout the film's musical numbers. Each performance lasts the length of the song with the singers maintaining maximum eye contact with the camera, and there are few interruptions. Tashlin either revered the musicians or wanted to give them their proper due. Either way, his intentionality lets the singers burn up the screen with these showstopping musical numbers. Little Richard's first onscreen performance is the definition of fire, while Abbey Lincoln's passionate magnetism pours off the celluloid. Tashlin doesn't get overtly flashy with fancy camerawork or frenzied editing; he lets the music sing for itself, and that makes all the difference.

Moreover, Black musicians created rhythm-and-blues, which evolved into rock and roll, which white culture then appropriated. At least half of The Girl's featured artists are Black pioneers of the genre. One socially dated film from 1956 isn't some magic solution to racism and capitalist inequality, but The Girl immortalizes unshakable onscreen proof that Black singers invented and defined what we know colloquially as rock music.

As for The Beatles, the four worshiped Little Richard and emulated his chord progressions. But their career might have been quite different if they hadn't opened for Richard on his 1962 tour. Richard even coached McCartney's developing vocals. In McCartney's words, "We [idolized] these people and we always thought they were given crummy treatment - until The Girl Can't Help It."

The Girl also doesn't unfairly posit that enraptured teenager fans are "juvenile delinquents." Rock was popular enough to make a movie capitalizing on its success, but a group of very loud adults scandalized by Elvis's dance moves was still convinced the genre was evil, and they stereotyped its fanbase. The Girl Can't Help It embraces rock and roll's natural energy, including the sexual undertones (or overtones), but doesn't layer an agenda over it. The music just is.

1950s Sexism Strikes Again

The Beatles Probably Wouldn’t Exist Without This Movie (3)

Circling back to that plot — Mansfield was undoubtedly beautiful, but the cringe-inducing gags are predicated solely upon Jerri's exaggerated good looks. Do we really need a montage of her sashaying down the street while men exhibit ludicrous, slapstick-level reactions? Likewise, Tom parades her throughout the clubs and men ogle her in droves. Jerri receives contract offers aplenty, so the jokes are on those creeps, but the tired "hot woman very wow" routine is browbeaten into the floor. Other films objectify women in far more insidious ways, and so The Girl's humor needn't be taken as malicious. It still raises the age-old difference between appreciation and exploitation, however.

To the film's credit, Jerri sneaks past the dumb blonde caricature in surprising ways. Her breathy, soft voice is an affectation, and she's under no illusions about her relationship with Murdock. She feels she owes the older man for his past kindnesses. Jerri doesn't seem disturbed by this fact, just resigned, but neither is she oblivious to its connotations. Jayne Mansfield wanted roles that didn't reduce her to a sex symbol but couldn't escape the box Hollywood put her in, which makes The Girl's vapid material extra smart.

Overall, Jerri has plenty of interiority. The other glaring problem is the fact she doesn't want a career. Jerri longs to be a homemaker complete with the whole shebang of a husband and kids, and it's actually Murdock chasing fame by proxy. Jerri's sad others view her as a "sexpot" and therefore ill-suited to motherhood, which is a load of malarkey the film actually calls out when Jerri gets her happy domestic ending. She chooses what she wants, and what she wants isn't wrong, but it also feels suspicious for the plot of a 1950s movie to revolve around a woman resisting a career in favor of being a home-focused caretaker.

Art Inspires New Art

The Beatles Probably Wouldn’t Exist Without This Movie (4)

The film's impact didn't stop there with The Beatles. Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Eddie Cochran also inspired rock giants Led Zeppelin. Their concert film The Song Remains the Same owes its existence to The Girl, while Paul McCartney shared an anecdote that all four Beatles rushed through composing their song "Birthday" so they could go home and watch The Girl Can’t Help It’s BBC premiere in 1968.

Media has no shortage of artists paying homage to their inspirations, but The Girl Can't Help It crystallizes the importance of art. Something as small as a summer day at the movie theater can set off a chain reaction resulting in bands that revolutionized the music industry. Without access to art that inspires us, countless creatives might never have pursued their dreams — and the world would be lesser for it. The Girl Can't Help It's thesis statement is true: it's a story about music, but also one about love, marriage, and family...and sadly sexism.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Lidia Grady

Last Updated: 01/06/2023

Views: 5709

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (45 voted)

Reviews: 92% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Lidia Grady

Birthday: 1992-01-22

Address: Suite 493 356 Dale Fall, New Wanda, RI 52485

Phone: +29914464387516

Job: Customer Engineer

Hobby: Cryptography, Writing, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Calligraphy, Web surfing, Ghost hunting

Introduction: My name is Lidia Grady, I am a thankful, fine, glamorous, lucky, lively, pleasant, shiny person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.