After a few weeks off, Not How It Seems is ready to pick up in 1956, the same place we left off. This time however, we’re going somewhere we’ve never been before: to the world of rock ‘n’ roll musicals.
It’s strange to think about rock music evolving in a parallel motion with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. But as great musicals were whisking us off to Thailand and the South Pacific, rock music was becoming such a “thing” that it was used as the subplot for The Girl Can’t Help It, a movie mainly meant to be a vehicle for Jayne Mansfield. Since rock music was still fairly new, the plot was initially supposed to mock teenagers and their rock music. However, the result was not only a celebration of rock, but basically created an entirely new genre of musical.
The Girl Can’t Help It opens on alcoholic press agent Tom Miller. He receives a call requesting that he meet “Fats” Murdock. When Miller meets Murdock, Murdock outlines his past as the king of the slot machines and his time in jail, explaining that he used to be a somebody. Murdock wants Miller to make a somebody out of the nobody girl he’s met. At first, Miller refuses. That is, until he sees the girl. Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield) is a lovely, curvaceous girl who attracts the attention of all the men around her.
Jordan visits Miller at his home and discovers his drinking problem. She is able to offer not only a hangover remedy, but an excellent breakfast. She explains that she loves doing domestic things: cooking, keeping house, etc. Jordan doesn’t really want a career, she just wants to be a wife.
Nonetheless, Murdock wants her to have a career, so Miller sets about taking her to nightclubs to get the attention of wealthy club owners.
Jordan asks him why he’s an alcoholic, and susses out that it’s because of a woman, possibly his old client Julie London. Miller denies it, but goes home and puts on “Cry Me a River” and sees London everywhere he turns.
Murdock has had Miller and Jordan tailed, and is displeased with what he hears. But Jordan has become the talk of the town. The next morning she is already in the papers and has the paperboy reeling.
Miller and Jordan are set to meet with Murdock, but stop off for a picnic. The duo get along very well, and Jordan reveals that her real first name is Georgiana. She also tells Miller that she met Murdock while he was in prison, since he was a friend of her father’s who helped him keep from getting as much jail time as he may have done otherwise. She felt like she owed him something.
At the dinner with Murdock, Miller tells Murdock he doesn’t want to make Jordan a star, since that’s not what she wants. Jordan wants to cook, even Murdock says that. But recanting on the deal gets Miller a death threat and a reminder about the situation with Julie London. Julie had wanted a family life too, but Miller took her talent and forced her to be a singing sensation even though she was reluctant. It obviously drove them apart.
Miller goes to a bar and “Cry Me a River” is put on the jukebox. He wants it turned off because, as we saw before, the song only makes him visualize Julie London. This time, however, London is nowhere to be seen. All he sees now is Georgiana.
The new realization and threats in tow, Miller and Jordan head for the studio to rehearse. It’s evidently the same one Gene Vincent uses.
The catch is, Jordan can’t sing a note. They rush to Murdock, hoping to get out of the contract now that they know his star has no talent. Murdock refuses to believe them even after another display of the “voice.” He tells them to watch Eddie Cochran on TV.
Murdock theorizes that all Jordan needs is a “new sound” and offers up some of the songs he wrote while in prison. They decide on “Rock Around the Rockpile” and move on with the recording.
Miller meets with Jordan after the recording session and tells her he is preparing to take the record to Chicago, to try to get it into jukeboxes. They start talking about Jordan’s many brothers and Jordan mistakenly says something about wanting a large family, a goal she realizes can’t come to fruition with Murdock. She invites Miller for Thanksgiving dinner and he rushes out of the house, both a little afraid they are becoming too emotionally attached.
Instead of Miller making it for Thanksgiving, Murdock sweeps Jordan away for Thanksgiving dinner, and has someone tap her phone while she’s gone. The man who taps the phone feels sorry for Miller and Jordan after a passionate phone call, and edits the tape so it sounds like strictly business.
Meanwhile, Miller’s success with the jukebox man is cut short when he name-drops Murdock. The two had been rivals in the slot machine days. Not one to let anything get in his way, Murdock decides to make a hit the same way he took over the slots empire: by pushing out the competition. In this case, he pushes the competition out a window and replaces the old jukeboxes with his own, containing “Rock Around the Rockpile.” It becomes an instant hit. Murdock tells Jordan to prepare for the wedding and she is scheduled to perform at the Rock and Roll Jubilee. Jordan is tearful as she is fitted for her wedding dress.
On the way to the Jubilee, Murdock seems as though he doesn’t want to go through with the wedding either. His right-hand, the man who tapped the phone admits that he edited the tape, freeing Murdock from having to marry Jordan. Miller visits Jordan in her dressing room to say goodbye, and the two end up in a passionate kiss.
Jordan takes the stage and performs a song for those who “know how it feels to lose somebody you’re crazy about.”
And her voice is as beautiful as her figure. So it’s now clear the inability to carry a tune was just a ploy.
Miller decides to confront Murdock about being in love with and having kissed Jordan. To his surprise, Murdock is relieved. Not for long though, as the jukebox mogul and two cronies are coming after Murdock for destroying their machines. Miller hides Murdock in the last place they can kill him: onstage!
As a result of the crowd’s reaction to his performance, they decide not to kill him, but to sign him as an act, because they think Murdock has talent. So Murdock is a success and Miller and Jordan are free to start a family away from show business.
Not only was this film the first rock ‘n’ roll musical, but its influence was massive. A year after the “Rock Around the Rockpile,” Elvis Presley performed “Jailhouse Rock” in a similar set. The film inspired John Lennon to become a rock star, because he was able to see the musicians he idolized performing as real people. Also, Paul McCartney won him over with a performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” like the one Eddie Cochran did in this film. The Beatles later stopped the recording of “Birthday” to go watch the movie at McCartney’s house the first time it aired on British TV.
That’s not really why we’re here though. So let’s talk about the implications of this film where women are concerned. Obviously, Jayne Mansfield was a sex symbol similar to Marilyn Monroe. Yet the film doesn’t make her ditzy or stupid, as Monroe was often portrayed. The character of Jerri Jordan is a very reasonable girl. She might be a little bit innocent, but she doesn’t leave her open-ended comments for others to fill in the blanks, she corrects them immediately so there is only enough misunderstanding for the audience to get a tiny chuckle or for Miller to get more discouraged about his situation. Jordan is a skilled cook, so she isn’t presented as a “talentless bimbo” who gets along on her good looks. In fact, she has great skills as a songstress too, despite her pretenses. She’s also not marrying Murdock for his money, to prop up a gold-digger stereotype. She’s marrying him because she believes she owes him for keeping her father out of life in prison. While we don’t learn a lot about Jordan’s feelings outside of where the men are concerned, they certainly created a well-rounded character, something not always the case in such films.
The main argument I’m going to rebut however, is that Jordan is reinforcing negative stereotypes about women. She and Julie London, really the two female driving-forces in the film, share the wish to just settle down and have a family. London wanted to have a family but Miller drove her to be a singer when she didn’t want to be. As such, the two split ways and she became a singing sensation anyway. Then it just so happens that Miller becomes acquainted with Jordan, a woman with the same aspirations, but who is also being driven into stardom by her significant other. Miller even comments to Jordan that “most pretty girls want careers.” Keep in mind, this was 1956, still in the post WWII era of women struggling to get into the working world alongside men.
Three years after How To Marry a Millionaire, however, one could argue that the gold-digging profession was going strong. Jordan isn’t looking for a man with money though. In fact, she would be much happier without a maid. She just wants to do her own housework and cooking and wants to raise a family. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, part of feminism is accepting that different women have different aspirations, hopes, and dreams. The fact that Jordan’s dream happens to be family life is completely acceptable. In fact, it’s more troublesome that people are trying to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Miller does this to London before the film begins, and his lesson over the course of the film is that you have to let women be the people they want to be, that you can’t force them to be something they aren’t. He is forced to see a little of himself in Murdock, who screams at Jordan for wearing an apron.
That brings me to another great point about Jordan: she doesn’t let Murdock treat her poorly. She does as he wants, tries to become a musical sensation because she feels she owes him something, but when he’s really accusing her of infidelity and yelling at her in her home, Jordan gets very angry with Murdock and ends up dumping a pot of bullion base on his head. She isn’t a victim because she doesn’t feel she can stand up for herself, she becomes a victim because she feels she’s repaying a debt for her father.
And in the end, Jordan gets the life that she wanted with Miller. Murdock also gets the life of fame he had hoped for.
So in the end, the film satirizes fame, not rock music, offers an awesome showplace for Fifties rock musicians, and showcases the lovely Jayne Mansfield without turning her into a gold-digger or an anti-feminist archetype. The film inspired rock musicians for years to come and created an entirely new genre of rock musicals, some of which we will explore in the coming weeks.
“Not How It Seems” (usually) attempts to support the argument that favorite movie musicals aren’t really the dated, anti-feminist films some people perceive them to be.