Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Comedy;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
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.

Let’s Make Love

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Marilyn Monroe, Yves Montand, Tony Randall.

Justifiably taken seriously by then husband Arthur Miller but also by director John Huston, Marilyn Monroe was able to “go out on” that collaborative duo’s The Misfits (speaking in career terms, that is) — just as co-star Clark Gable’s did in service of that onetime critical-commercial flop whose fan base has grown in subsequent years. It was the kind of ambitiously dramatic undertaking that likely would have become more familiar in Monroe’s later career (and would have had to) had mass audiences permitted it — though, yes, she was making the fluffy Something’s Got to Give when she died.

But to backtrack: Five months before The Misfits’ release, in 1960 20th Century-Fox released Let’s Make Love, which makes it the last completed pure MM “vehicle” — though one mostly done because Fox demanded a movie to satisfy a minor little thing like Monroe’s contract, which the now freelancing superstar had been ignoring. A pop culture curiosity for sure, Love is worth seeing but not for the usual reasons: With even the vestiges of youth having disappeared from Monroe’s face, there’s a melancholy pall over the entire outing that’s hard to shake when you’re watching it. Thus, it’s at least somewhat memorable as a kind of prelude goodbye to the kind of screen outing that had made her a star before the real goodbye came a couple years later.

The great George Cukor was hired to be something of a Monroe shoulder amid the fashioning of an apparently much-altered Norman Krasna script, though as Julie Kirgo notes in her Twilight Time backgrounder for the company’s new Blu-ray Love release, the director said he just couldn’t get through to her. Though there’s nothing solid to go on here beyond viewer intuition, MM does seem a bit disengaged, while co-star Yves Montand — uncharacteristically stiff here, as he’d later be with Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever — struggled some with English in his first American film (though, as ever, he’s an agreeable presence). Basically a rack on which to hang a full array of hats, the script concerns an Old Money French billionaire secretly posing as an actor to lampoon himself in an off-Broadway satirical revue whose personnel isn’t aware that it has the real thing in its midst. Somewhere in all this, there’s a way to include 974 vocals delivered by Brit Frankie Vaughn, who must have studied at the Keefe Brasselle Institute of Tough-to-take belters. Take it, Frankie, and then say hi to Tony Newley on the way out.

Meanwhile, Monroe is the featured femme star who takes pity on one she perceives to be a struggling and mostly out-of-work performer, which naturally melts the heart of a guy to whom others automatically defer because he has so much green. Beyond looking tired, Monroe is the heaviest she ever was on screen, but as Kirgo suggests, it’s all relative; were the Monroe of this picture seated sans companion opposite most guys I know at a dinner party, their chins would still fall into the finger bowl. Her garb is, shall we say, a lot more revealing than anything Greer Garson wore the same year playing Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello, and the Jack Cole choreography further pegs this as a Fox production through and through.

There’s a commercial gimmick here, and its gives Love something of an energy boost in hour two. Because Montand’s character is so out of his element as an entertainer — and about as natural on stage as John Wayne was playing Genghis Khan on screen — he hires a trio of “experts” to show him the show biz way. This provides the excuse to give us Milton Berle (as the joke expert) in 2.35:1 DeLuxe Color; it also gives us a near-miss (though missed opportunity is more like it) to see him teaching Wilfrid Hyde-White how to walk on he sides of his feet. You can almost hear Montand thinking to himself, “Talk about the wages of fear.”

Then it’s Bing Crosby — prototypical hat and pipe soldered to his face — possibly strolling over from the set of Fox’s High Time, figuring it would be easier to teach Montand than Fabian how to sing. For dancing, it’s Gene Kelly, and in more comfortable surroundings than those provided by the same year’s Inherit the Wind (at least he didn’t have to do his scenes here sweating under a ceiling fan). A potent added touch might have been John C. Holmes for instruction in Step No. 4, but the historical chronology was off and Fox shareholders would have likely balked.

Love was, for those who remember, the lead-in for a real-life Monroe-Montand fling, and it’s been noted that Montand looked a little like pre-Miller husband Joe DiMaggio. Somewhat surprisingly, the two don’t exhibit a whole lot of chemistry on screen, yet their characters are likable enough individually, which is just enough to carry something of a high-profile oddball whose Blu-ray rendering is more successful than not at fighting DeLuxe limitations of the period. (I’ve noticed that the very earliest color Scope movies from Fox — say, ’53 through ’57 — always look better than expected in high-def, but not so much the ones from later in the decade and early in the next). The picture was kind of a hit but just not a very big one — an indicator, perhaps, that ’50s taste was showing hints of waning as a new president (and Monroe fan, matter of fact) was about to take the reins.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Let’s Make Love’ and ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’

No Down Payment

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Sheree North, Barbara Rush, Cameron Mitchell, Pat Hingle, Patricia Owens. 

A time-capsule movie that also captures the members of its large cast at interesting career junctures, No Down Payment is based on a John McPartland novel that used to stare at me regularly from the library shelves, daring me to take it out when I knew the librarian would shoot my fifth-grade-or-so self one of those “who do you think you are?” frowns. Its characters, divided into a quartet of couples just getting started after one war or another interrupted their youths, live in a homogenous California development full of “starter” homes — wondering if they’ll ever move beyond their current fortune or if this start is also the end. They drink a lot, flirt a lot, and sometimes (a syndrome that seems to be on the upswing and getting out of hand) push these habits too far. So, what: the librarian thought I was going to read John R. Tunis and Freddy the Pig forever, even if Freddy remains a deity in my life?

The always socially conscious Martin Ritt directed, and not too far removed from the Blacklist: Payment was, in fact, just his second feature. The first was onetime flop d’estime Edge of the City, which I’ve always want to like more than I do — given its (for the day) grown-up subject matter and potent Poitier-Cassavetes casting dynamics, but which, in fact, is pretty heavy-handed. This one, though, I kind of like in that slick, Jerry Wald kind of big-studio way — and in this case, I mean slick as more than even a backhanded compliment, given that the combined casting, production values and subject matter of Wald’s productions were usually seductive marquee magnets with a keen eye on the current Zeitgeist even when they turned out to be unsuccessful. Payment, too, was grown-up for the time; when it played first-run at my downtown Loew’s Ohio, the Loew’s Broad was playing Mr. Rock and Roll with Alan Freed and Chuck Berry, while the RKO Palace was actually trying to meet its monthly mortgage nut with Richard Denning and Mara Corday in The Black Scorpion (which, coincidentally, Warner Archive just brought out on Blu-ray).

Though James Wong Howe gave Ritt a humungous cosmetic assist when he photographed Hud on his way to a cinematography Oscar, Ritt never had much of a visual style — though his pacing was usually strong, and he was often marvelous with actors. Probably my No. 1 revelation re-looking at Payment for the first time in years (and never in a print this crisp) is how good Tony Randall is as an alcoholic used car salesman who isn’t above gouging financially humble customers with shady finance companies who like to charge the kind of 38% interest rates that Michael Cohen might float if he had an auto loan business (think a desk, lamp and half-empty jar of instant Maxwell House) about a block from the lot. Randall’s character is desperate, and the actor memorably conveys his multiple dimensions, while his wife (Sheree North) suffers and pro-cons the ramifications of leaving him.

Payment’s studio (Fox) had kept North in the wings mostly as substitute casting for Marilyn Monroe whenever the latter indulged her exasperating work habits, but North was actually better than that. Her career was on the downswing, with Randall’s slightly on the up — though except for his incomparable work as the perfect foil for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, he wasn’t the easiest big-screen actor to cast, Doctor Lao’s seven faces notwithstanding. Jeffrey Hunter plays this residential unit’s college-grad techie, and I could never figure out how his career lost so much of its momentum right after he was so great in The Searchers (though John Wayne is so titanic that Hunter’s contribution is still overlooked). Patricia Owens, who plays Hunter’s proper but dangerously flirty spouse who gets in over her head, never caught on despite being more than adequate here — possibly because she seemed bit chilly or maybe because being the female lead in The Fly was no one’s idea of a career-maker. Cast as a good-old-girl boozer is Joanne Woodward, who was definitely on the upswing, with her Three Faces of Eve Oscar winner about a month from release. As her husband, Cameron Mitchell has one of the best roles from a screen career that wasn’t much of a grabber: a Tennessean who was the kind of war hero with Japanese souvenirs all over the garage but is now all too conscious of his educational shortcomings. This leaves Pat Hingle, in the most sympathetic role of his limited screen career, as an appliance store proprietor liked by all (which is a problem) and Barbara Rush as his wife.

Rush, too, is suffering — though it’s true that she was an actress who probably ran the premier unhappy-spouse franchise of any screen peer at the time. Maybe “frustrated” is the better word re the character here, and even this isn’t due to any shortcomings on her husband’s part beyond his resistance to church attendance (Hingle knows hypocrisy when he sees it) and would rather attain spiritual sustenance by washing his car. As a member of the town council, Hingle keeps getting leaned on to help solve other people’s problems, and it’s a treadmill that affects his home life — though it’s more a case of sheer volume than a disinclination to help in individual cases. One of these involves Mitchell, and when the situation goes as south as the latter’s formative geographical region, the movie turns ugly and melodramatic (albeit more dainty in presentation than that of the not dissimilar domestic sexual attack in Hud from a time when the screen was a little more liberated).

With The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, Sweet Smell of Success, 12 Angry Men and A Face in the Crowd pacing the top, I’m always amazed to see how underrated an English-language movie year 1957 still is (my favorite list would even go much, much deeper than this, even before we get to foreign releases). As a result, Payment isn’t exactly an undiscovered world-beater or even the year’s best Wald production (I’d go with Peyton Place or An Affair to Remember). But it is rather undiscovered on a lesser but respectable level and holds up remarkably well: conveying claustrophobia without paying for it via storytelling monotony, in part because it knows when to occasionally transpose the narrative into the community’s bustling business district (which will likely evolve into urban sprawl). Thanks to the kind of nugget that Julie Kirgo always seems to come up with in her Twilight Time liner notes, we learn that David Bowie was apparently a fan of this movie. My normal reaction to this would be, “Well, you never know” — but actually, I learned never to assume anything after once reading, to intense delight, that Bob Dylan loves Johnnie Ray.

Mike’s Picks: ‘No Down Payment’ and ‘Moonrise’