Ambiguity, Tashlin-style

When I set up this blog with WordPress, the site sensibly encouraged me to create categories for my posts; this I did: you can see them over there, on the right —>

What with Frank Tashlin on my brain lately, it occurs to me that two of those categories – Tashlin and Ambiguities – mutually reinforce each other to a certain extent. That is, when I stop to think about it, I realize that my now-decades-long interest in Tashlin is due, in part, to the fact that I admire the ambiguities that are essential to his work. Indeed, I believe that Tashlin’s best work is his most ambiguous, and vice versa.

I intend to use this website to expand on some of the ideas in Tashlinesque, so this seems like a perfect opportunity to do so, especially since the particular ambiguity that I wish to discuss, from Tashlin’s great 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, is one that I mention in the book only in a (lengthy) footnote. I am focusing on this ambiguous moment because I think it is especially incisive.

The Girl Can’t Help It is about a semi-reformed mobster, Fats Murdock (Edmond O’Brien) who hires a down-on-his-luck talent agent, Tom Miller (Tom Ewell), to make his protegée, singer Jerri Jordan (Jayne Mansfield), into a big star. Miller doubts that even his best efforts will ever make a singing sensation out of Jerri, for the very sensible reason that she has a singing voice that shatters lightbulbs. Miller tells Fats that he doesn’t think that Jerri will ever be a star. One evening, when Jerri, Miller, and Jerri’s maid, Hilda (Juanita Moore), are together at Jerri’s house, Fats calls them and angrily demands that they turn on the television so they can watch Eddie Cochran performing on a variety show. Fats’s point is that Cochran has an unusual voice, too, and he’s a big star; Fats irately rejects Miller’s claim that Jerri is unpromotable. Even though neither Miller nor Jerri “gets” why someone with so odd a presence and voice as Eddie Cochran can be famous and well-loved, they resign themselves to redoubling their own promotional efforts.

(As a side note, let me say that Fats was 100% correct about the unusualness of Eddie Cochran’s voice and performance style. I love the guy’s music, but it really was kind of odd. His vocal style, his guitar-playing, and his movements may all be aptly described as “herky-jerky” and/or “hiccupy.” He really did cut a strange figure. Knock yourself out on the YouTube.)

The scene only becomes ambiguous when we see Miller’s, Jerri’s, and especially Hilda’s responses to Cochran’s performance of “Twenty-Flight Rock. A clip of the scene is below.

This is how I describe the scene, and its ambiguity, in my book:

Tashlin makes a very ambiguous joke about the song’s racial origins. While Tom and Jerri watch Cochran with mild befuddlement, Jerri’s black maid, Hilda (Juanita Moore), demonstrates her enjoyment of the song by dancing around Jerri’s living room. When Miller looks at her questioningly, Hilda makes a smiling gesture of dismissal and leaves the room, still dancing.

The scene’s stance on racial matters is uncertain. Hilda, the only black person in the scene, seems to have a “deeper connection” to the music – arguably a version of the stereotype about the hypersexuality and “natural rhythm” of black people. But Hilda is also the only character to connect to the music on an authentic level: the song was made to be danced to, and she enjoys dancing to it. Jerri and Tom – both of whom are involved in the music industry – don’t know what to make of the song. For them, Cochran’s style is nothing more than a successful business model. This is precisely the kind of challenging, ambiguous cultural satire that Tashlin favors, as it reinforces the notion that rock music is both debased and authentic – a dynamic that was and is undeniably relevant to the American music industry.

 — Ethan de Seife (me!), Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012, p. 235).

The most challengingly ambiguous element of this scene is, as noted, its attitude toward matters of race. Complicating and related to this ambiguity is Tashlin’s double-edged attitude toward popular music, and popular culture in general. Two interlocking ambiguities for the price of one!

The problem is this: it is important for us to grasp that, of the three characters, only Hilda genuinely enjoys Cochran’s performance. This is important because the satire of the scene requires us to understand that for Fats, Jerri, and Miller – even though they are all sympathetic protagonists – popular music like that of Eddie Cochran is just a way to make a buck. (Though it should be noted that, as is apparent in the clip above, Fats enjoys the song, too.) The only character to treat the music as 100% artistically valid is Hilda: her dismissive gesture as she exits the room provides humorous visual confirmation that Jerri and Miller do not “get it,” a fact reconfirmed by their body language, and by the clueless looks on their faces. This is just one of many ways that Tashlin, throughout his career, uses satire to criticize the very popular-culture industries that provided his livelihood. This criticism gets at the central dilemma of popular culture: if it’s mass art intended for mass consumption and mass profit, is it still artistically worthwhile, or is it too “debased”? (The very existence of this website should demonstrate my position on this matter, but I do think that the question is still relevant and worthy of exploration.)

But: if Hilda’s response to “Twenty-Flight Rock” is genuine and authentic – and, again, it is important to the scene and the film that her response is genuine and authentic – then the scene raises another ambiguity: is this a scene of racial stereotyping? There is no easy answer, especially at nearly sixty years’ remove from the film’s release: a topic as vast and complex as racial attitudes of the mid-1950s are difficult to reconcile with modern perspectives on race – which are no less fraught, of course.

Is Tashlin suggesting that Hilda’s authentic reaction to rock music is somehow related to the fact that she is black? Maybe. The possibility exists for this reading, and seems to be confirmed in several of the film’s other scenes of musical performance (of which there are many): Tashlin generally presents the Caucasian musicians as silly and frivolous, and the African-American musicians as somehow more authentic or even ennobled. (Doesn’t matter if the stereotype is a “positive” one; it’s still a stereotype.) White musicians like Nino Tempo and The Chuckles sing extremely lightweight songs in The Girl Can’t Help It; black musicians like Fats Domino and Little Richard sing, frankly, better songs, and are presented far more reverentially. The best example of this latter tendency is surely Abbey Lincoln’s performance of “Spread the Word,” which for me is one of the visual highlights of the film.

Lincoln’s astounding beauty is presented in a terrific, symmetrical composition, a choice that grants a certain gravity to her performance. (As well, her song is about religion: rather a more serious [albeit more swingin’] subject than the “cinnamon sinner sellin’ lollipop lies” that The Chuckles sing about.) Especially when Tashlin cuts between the shots of Abbey Lincoln and Jayne Mansfield herself, we get a sense of the different attitudes he has to these two women and what they represent in the story of The Girl Can’t Help It. Lincoln and Mansfield are dressed in similarly figure-hugging dresses: Lincoln’s is deep orange, and Mansfield’s red. Their body-types are in fact fairly similar. But Lincoln looks distinguished as she stands quite still, undulating only mildly: it is primarily her hands that sway. Mansfield accentuates, for comic effect, each thrust of her hip and dip of her shoulder: at this point in the film, Miller is “building up” Jerri Jordan, having her sashay through every nightclub in town in order to attract attention to her outrageous curves. (He is cynical enough to know that Jerri’s singing ability has nothing to do with her ability to land a record contract.) In other words, Jerri/Mansfield is an emblem of tawdriness: she is literally selling herself, all for the sake of the pop-culture industry. Whereas Abbey Lincoln, playing herself, is more restrained and elegant, and seemingly represents the good that can result when popular music focuses not on commercialism but on authenticity.

But maybe these meanings don’t really have anything to do with race. Perhaps the key word really is “authenticity,” but not an authenticity that is necessarily grounded in racial identity. Tashlin’s principal interest seems to be the exposure of cheap, crappy, in-it-for-the-money forms of popular art. Abbey Lincoln’s song is treated reverentially because it is a great song that depends on and exceeds vernacular traditions; Eddie Fontaine’s performance of “Cool It Baby” makes Fontaine look silly because it is silly: at best, this is a featherweight song. Eddie Cochran’s performance itself shatters the idea that authenticity is based in racial identity: Tashlin’s presentation of Cochran’s number — similar in its starkness to the presentation of “Spread the Word” — imbues it with a certain elegance and praise. The song is great; it’s the carnival-barker-style variety-show host (Peter Potter, an actual 1950s TV host) who comes off like a huckster; so, too, do Jerri and Tom, for their inability to access the meanings in the song that have to do with anything other than making a profit. Cochran may be weird, but his song is actually pretty excellent.

Still, the answers here are not easy to come by, in part because Tashlin directs some of that same criticism toward himself. After all, he was making a film for Twentieth Century-Fox that was designed in large part as a promotional tool for the many musical artists who appear in it. Tashlin was selling out, too, and he knew it. He just happened to have good taste in music, and in art in general, and decided to use his not-insignificant filmmaking abilities to give us clues about which of the performers he felt had some talent, and which of them were just cashing in on rock and roll, the biggest and most current pop-culture fad of the day. Such meanings would not be as accessible to us – nor as compelling – were they not presented in an ambiguous fashion. Ambiguities such as these are useful and worthwhile precisely because they raise troubling notions, a fact that can give a text some serious power.

 

Postscript

This is the first of my posts to have been written largely from a moving vehicle. When I wrote most of the above post, I was on a bus to Boston, where I presented a paper at the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Apparently, they have the internet on buses now. Fascinating.

The paper I presented is unrelated to Tashlin, but it does concern an ambiguous text: Neil Young’s sprawling, utterly fascinating Greendale project, thoughts about which have been rattling around in my brain ever since I saw a performance of the Greendale stage show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in March of 2004. I am happy to report that, once that presentation is significantly revised, a written version of it will be published in Broken Arrow, the venerable (125 issues and counting!) journal of the Neil Young Appreciation Society. My writing is, I suppose, mostly scholarly, though not forbiddingly so, I like to think. At least, I always try to write in an accessible and engaging fashion, to the best of my abilities. I have long had an interest in “fan culture” (and in fact gave a lecture on that very subject just last week in my class on Hong Kong Cinema), but most of my writing has appeared in academic journals of various types. So I am really pleased that an essay of mine will appear in a fan journal, especially one whose focus is one of my favorite artists of any kind. I’ll write more about the Greendale presentation here soon. Until then, dig into that Greendale site a bit. Weird, compelling stuff.

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, "We're only in It for the Money"
Why? What are YOU in it for?

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Posted on March 28, 2012, in Ambiguities, Comedy, Film, Music, Tashlin and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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