Monday, August 25, 2008


When the late great Al Hirschfeld wasn't busy being one of the premiere caricaturists of the 20th Century, he also illustrated books and magazine stories for authors like S. J. Perelman, Ray Bradbury and others. One such assignment I particularly coveted was DO RE MI, a Garson Kanin novella published in 1955 with a generous helping of Hirschfeld magic.

This shows a rare but intriguing side of Hirschfeld--drawing characters from imagination instead of conjuring an uncanny likeness of a performer or celebrity. Not surprisingly, he excels here too. DO RE MI turned out to be as delightful to read as it is to look at, a Runyonesque tale of some aging gangsters who get mixed up in the pop music business as an adjunct to conquering the juke box racket. Their prime musical discovery is a talented young elevator operator turned songbird. This country girl turns out to be something of a recording industry one-woman gold mine, with her signature zither and "singing and whistling at the same time" vocals. Unfortunately for "Fatso" (the lead gangster) and his boys, their songbird also falls hard romantically for a rival recording agent named John Henry Wheeler and hijinx ensue.

Co-incidentally I got my hands on a copy of this book about 15 years ago, just as AMC was running THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT, a Frank Tashlin directed feature starring Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell. The plot involves Mansfield as the hapless corn-fed girlfriend of a gangster named "Fats" (Edmund O'Brien) who is pushing her into a career as a pop singer. She appears to have no talent whatsoever, except a strange siren scream that is featured on a rock and roll platter that becomes a huge hit. In the process, she falls hard for Ewell, who plays a top agent with a tortured past. The surface similarities (including a rival ex-con named "Wheeler") and dominant jukebox motif made me wonder if there was some connection between DO RE MI and this movie, although the credits don't mention any.

If anyone has any information, I'd be interested in finding out. I just re-watched the film and re-read the book and remain convinced it's more than mere coincidence. DO RE MI was a popular book written by Kanin, who was a respected New York writer with sterling Hollywood credits as well ( he co-wrote some of the Tracy-Hepburn movies with his wife, actress Ruth Gordon). My theory is that 20th Century Fox either legitimately obtained the rights to the book and then had it's merry way with the story, ultimately changing even the title; or they couldn't get the rights and gave Tashlin & co the task of "paraphrasing" the tale enough to keep it legally kosher.

Either way if the movie is derived from the book (legitimately or otherwise) the fact that the movie takes more than a few liberties with the plot seems to make sense on close inspection. Most of the charm of the book comes from the device of the prose: Damon Runyon often wrote in the first person "voice" of a street hood, but Kanin goes him one better. The text is a scrupulous re-creation of a written jailhouse confession penned by a low-level accomplice in the plot, complete with his naive syntax, woeful grammar, spelling and malaprops, and even a number of deliberately awkward hyp--henations. The character remains both dead-pan and dead serious throughout cataloging the absurd events of the story.

Those events however from a dramatic point of view are fragmented and mostly anti-climactic. The escapades are colorful but not cohesive and for the most part the characters exist in a limbo between cynicism and naivete. If Tashlin felt free to mess with the story, Kanin was not much more faithful to his own material when he adapted it into a Broadway musical (about five or six years after TGCHI was produced). A quick scan of the story's synopsis shows considerable shifts in emphasis and the roles of various characters moved around in the process. Unfortunately just about everything else got lost in translation as well: the show was so troubled in creation and previews that it was something of a legend. Although the score features the Comden and Green standard "Make Someone Happy" the show itself was a colossal flop. Ironically, the original book and stage show are long forgotten, while the derivative cult hit movie lives on.


Jaime J. Weinman said...

The answer is yes, The Girl Can't Help It is based on Do Re Mi. In fact, when it was first announced in the trades, the title was still Do Re Mi. (IIRC at that time the idea was that Bing Crosby would star.)

I recall reading, though I can't remember where, that when Tashlin threw out almost everything from the book, Garson Kanin asked to have his name and the source title removed from the credits -- perhaps hoping to adapt the story more faithfully in some other medium, which he eventually did.

Will Finn said...

Thanks Jaime.
Somehow I knew you'd know this.

What I Didn't Say... said...

I haven't started reading the book yet, but I am researching the musical DO RE MI for school. Can you tell me the significance of the title?

Will Finn said...

Because of the musical theme of the book the title I guess refers to the first three notes of the scale.

I also think there is a double meaning that relates to the criminal element in the story raking in lots of money (a.ka. "dough" as slang sometimes described it)

Sometimes slang also called money "Dough Re Mi"