Until a couple weeks ago, there were exactly two things I “knew” about Jayne Mansfield: she was a cheap imitation of Marilyn Monroe, and she died in a horrific car accident. It turns out both of those bullet points were hazier & more complicated than I understood them to be. Yes, Mansfield died tragically young on a late-night drive to New Orleans but, no, she was not decapitated as the sensationalist urban-legend reports of her death would have you believe. Yes, Mansfield was often cast and marketed as a Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe alternative, but she managed to push her screen persona beyond that rigid typecasting to become her own distinct, wonderful thing. I always thought of Jayne Mansfield as someone who starred in a couple minor roles before her life & career were abruptly cut short, but she’s got a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb—ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies—most of which have nothing to do with her designated place in Marilyn’s shadow. I have a daunting curriculum ahead of me in parsing out exactly who Jayne Mansfield was as an onscreen persona, a too-long-delayed education I hope will override my initial, ignorant assumptions about her.
Since I’m not going to watch all three dozen of her acting credits in a single go, the best crash-course education in Jayne Mansfield studies I could figure was checking out her two most iconic roles: her collaborations with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin. Their first film together, the 1956 rock-and-roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, was my most obvious entry point, since it’s something I’ve seen lovingly referenced in several John Waters pictures. Not only do the rock-and-roll teens’ reaction shots in Hairspray pull direct influence from The Girl Can’t Help It‘s various concert performances, but Waters also lovingly parodied Mansfield’s title-song strut for one of the very best gags in Pink Flamingos. In the Frank Tashlin version, Mansfield struts down a city block in a form-fitting dress, while every man she passes on the street instantly overheats at the sight of her – milk boiling out of bottles & popcorn popping out bags in their hands like premature ejaculate. In the John Waters version, Divine recreates the exact same strut while bewildered Baltimoreans gawk at her in confusion & disgust, stunned in total awe of her filthy divinity. In case the connection isn’t clear, both versions are set to the Little Richard tune “The Girl Can’t Help It,” which made the Tashlin movie a must-see movie on my watchlist for years.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that The Girl Can’t Help It is the ideal Mansfield talent showcase. It’s fantastic as a rock-and-roll concert film, featuring a wealth of standalone performances from Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, and the like. It’s also the ultimate example of a movie studio pigeonholing Mansfield as a Marilyn stand-in instead of allowing her to be her own thing. Monroe made her secretly-smart-ditz schtick look so easy that you can only tell how tricky it is when someone else bungles it. Mansfield is adorable as the drag club caricature of that archetype, at least, and it’s amusing that her … questionable talents are essential to the plot of her starring-role debut. She plays the reluctant girlfriend of a gangster who’s forcing her into a nightclub-singer career she does not want (or even have the talent) to pursue. She looks fantastic in her snatched-waist wardrobe—an effect wonderfully compounded by the endless supply of horndog men who make cartoon wolf-eyes at her—and her breathy obliviousness is a delightfully absurd exaggeration of retro femininity. It just sucks that the comparisons to Marilyn’s similar not-so-ditzy ditzes are so unavoidable, since her character and her performance are not allowed to have the same depth & nuance as Monroe’s most iconic roles.
It wasn’t until her next Tashlin collab, the 1957 ad industry satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, that Mansfield really came into her own as a screen persona. Her drag-club Marilyn caricature is adorable enough in The Girl Can’t Help It, but she pushes the act to such a transcendent extreme in the next film that the comparison is obliterated entirely. Mansfield is pure bimbo mayhem in Rock Hunter, turning every inhale of breath into an orgasmic squeal and every costume change into a mind-blowing reveal. Instead of playing an exaggeration of Monroe, she’s playing an exaggeration of herself – complete with verbal, metatextual references to her Girl Can’t Help It stardom. It’s like watching a pro wrestler get assigned a go-nowhere, mood-killing gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a cartoonish extreme. Even the teen girls of Rock Hunter have a crush on Mansfield, not just the men passing by, and you feel that lasting Ultimate Bimbo impact influence future women who’ve played that same archetype (notably including Elvira, whose pet poodle in Mistress of the Dark was likely an homage to Mansfield’s here). Tashlin matches Mansfield’s nuclear zaniness in his direction of Rock Hunter too, firing off rapid-fire sex jokes and TV commercial parodies as if he were consciously bridging the temporal gap between The Marx Brothers and ZAZ. In retrospect, The Girl Can’t Help It feels like a trial run for the film where they really set out to let loose, which tracks with the knowledge that Rock Hunter started as a Broadway stage play (also starring Mansfield) before The Girl Can’t Help It was developed.
I understand, logically, why The Girl Can’t Help It is the Tashlin-Mansfield collaboration that’s getting a spiffy new Criterion restoration. There’s a distinct pop-art iconography to it that is undeniably potent, as indicated by the homage of its titular strut in Pink Flamingos (which is also getting a Criterion polish this year). The movie is very proud of its technical beauty, bragging about its indulgences in “the grandeur of Cinemascope” and “the gorgeous, lifelike color of DeLuxe” in its William Castle-style intro. It’s clear to me, though, that Tashlin & Mansfield were at their absolute best in their latter collaboration, which exaggerates everything that’s great about The Girl Can’t Help It (except the music) to a beautifully ludicrous extreme. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? taught me how to appreciate Jayne Mansfield as her own unique persona, breaking her out of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator box I used to store her in (despite her Rock Hunter character being written as a spoof of Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch). Now all I have to do is catch up with the thirty other Mansfield movies I haven’t seen so I can fully understand her surprisingly extensive career as an actress. So far, I’ve only read the syllabus and skimmed the highlights; it’s time to do the coursework.