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Stars Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, Lisa Gaye.
Refashioned and directed by Frank Tashlin from a George Axelrod play whose Hollywood slant Tashlin then modified toward Madison Avenue, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is of a piece with Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It — minus, of course, that immediate predecessor’s showcasing of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Edmond O’Brien’s timeless vocal of Rock Around the Rock Pile. Returning, though, in CinemaScope is Jayne Mansfield, again parodying herself and Marilyn Monroe in roughly equal measure as a buxom movie star recruited to headline a struggling agency’s commercials for Stay-Put Lipstick.
Both of these romps from 20th Century-Fox were and are of additional piece with Tashlin’s Martin & Lewis duo Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust at Paramount, making for a remarkable satirical quartet that must have kept the onetime Warner Bros. animator as personally bonkers as anything he put on the screen during a remarkable frenzy of mammaries, mugging, electric pigments and garish art direction spanning late 1955 through mid-1957. In consecutive big-screen order, Tashlin managed to spoof the ’50s comic book craze, movie mania/fan culture, the then recent rock-and-roll explosion and, here, the New York ad biz. In terms of overall attitude and visual style, all four comedies suggest a family picnic of unbridled adolescent siblings, though even with DVD (Rock Hunter is the first to get a Blu-ray release), one can easily discern the embarrassing superiority of Paramount’s VistaVision and Technicolor over Fox’s CinemaScope and DeLuxe.
Putting all this aside, RH is an engaging romp and one of Tashlin’s best, though it’s also true that he made more funny movies than a lot of stick-in-the-muds will tell you (check out his cruelly undervalued black-and-white directorial debut The First Time just to prime the pump). As has been been noted before — and NYU film prof Dana Polan gets into this some on his rather academic commentary carried over from the long-ago DVD release — Tashlin both gooned on ’50s pop cultural vulgarity while also seeming to wallow in it. Depending on one’s mindset, this was either a sign of creative confusion or a brilliant conceit, but suffice it to say that were RH a car, its tail fins would rival those on a ’58 Caddy. The keenly nuanced “Mad Men” this isn’t, but I still snorted a lot of chuckles on this new go-round.
As an even more manic version of the kind of college-graduated postwar go-getters that the young Jack Lemmon sometimes came to typify, Tony Randall plays a struggling agency copywriter named Rockwell Hunter who gets the idea to go after — that is, professionally — Mansfield’s “Rita Marlowe.” The creative impetus is Randall’s live-in teenaged niece (Lisa Gaye), who, as a Marlowe fan club president, joins the mob of fans greeting the star’s splashy plane arrival at New York’s Idlewild (before its name-switch to JFK) — an airport where my 10-year-old self spotted John Huston standing around in conversation about six months after this movie came out. As Polan notes, these scenes anticipated the Beatles’ circus-like JFK landing by seven years, so substantial pop-culture credit is due here. (In a simpatico coincidence, RH — which previously saw a Masters of Cinema Region B release in Britain — is getting its American Blu-ray premiere just as Criterion is issuing Robert Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand for its own high-def consumption.)
Akin to Dean Martin’s “Dino” characterization in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid, Rita Marlowe isn’t playing precisely Jayne Mansfield but a celebrity who has still somehow starred in all of the Mansfield movies of the day: The Girl Can’t Help It (which had come out the previous Christmas); The Wayward Bus (which had been out about two months); and the coming Christmas’s Kiss Them for Me. All get on-screen plugs here, as does Fred Zinnemann’s grimly earnest A Hatful of Rain, which Polan’s commentary pegs as an attempt to show the Gaye character suddenly taking on uncharacteristically lofty intellectual ambitions by attending “pretentious” fare at the movies. Though one of Zinnemann’s few underperforms of the period, I’ve never before heard imperfect Rain referred to as pretentious; it’s merely the film that Fox was shipping out to theaters in July of ’57, though I suppose RH could have plugged Island in the Sun instead. Hell, even studio contractee Debra Paget gets an on-screen shout-out here, possibly because she was actress Gaye’s real-life sister.
In any event, this is one of those relatively rare movies where product placement is less irritating than ticklish (and now nostalgically ticklish); after all, advertising is the theme of the day here. The story’s other main concern is the way Hunter/Randall’s wholly concocted romance with a Hollywood sex symbol affects his engagement to a co-worker (Betsy Drake, seen here in the middle of her real-life marriage to Cary Grant). A key subplot is the intimidated attempt of Drake’s character to exercise her way into a bustier appearance closer to that of a love rival who really isn’t. Ironically, Drake’s trim figure is now far closer to the ideal of femme physical attractiveness than yesterday’s va-va-voom.
This said, Mansfield was a more skilled comic performer than anyone said or thought at the time. Polan is very astute on the commentary when he talks about how the actress was savvy and smart enough to play along with pretending to be someone more vapid than she really was (but with a wink) — though maybe not smart and savvy enough to realize that she was still being exploited by a cruel industry that didn’t take very long to throw her away. About two months before this movie came out, Mansfield was on a memorable “Ed Sullivan Show” that was even more cornucopia-like than usual: Jack Webb promoting The D.I. for gyrenes; Dolores Grey for gay guys; Sam Snead for golfers; and even unearthed vocalist Gene Austin (father of ‘B’-movie actress Charlotte) whose Victor recording of “My Blue Heaven” had been one of the biggest waxings of the 1920s. On it, the classically trained Mansfield played violin — a far cry from her twilight screen appearances in the likes of Panic Button, The Fat Spy, Las Vegas Hillbillies and Single Room Furnished before her grisly death at 34 in a Louisiana auto/tractor-trailer mishap.
One pop-culture bonus here is the appearance of muscleman and onetime Mansfield husband Mickey Hargitay in funny scene, thus affording viewers the chance to see the real-life parents of “Law & Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay’s in the same movie, though not in the same frame. Cast as a big-screen jungle he-man who’s Rita’s boyfriend before she meets Rockwell, Hargitay goes one better on the speculative jokes people used to throw out about Sean Connery’s supposed chest toupee in the James Bond movies. In this case, Hargitay’s Tarzan clone sports one for real — and even yanks out some of the hairs when being interviewed. Apparently, he doesn’t care about selling his image, which puts him at amusing odds with many of this comedy’s supporting go-getters.