With his exaggerated visuals, eye-popping color and frantic characterizations, Frank Tashlin has been promoted to a genuine ‘fifties icon. This freewheeling comedy hits on the Top Tashlin fetish subjects: Hollywood glitz, Madison Avenue neurosis, dynamic women, wimpy men and… and… bosoms, dammit. As the bubbly yet calculating sex symbol Rita Marlowe, Jayne Mansfield places career issues way ahead of anything to do with sex. Tony Randall receives his first leading film role as a Mad Man who’ll jump through hoops to keep an account. But the surprise is Betsy Drake, who more than anyone represents the conflicts facing the pre-feminist ’50s woman: she defines success her own way.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 93 min. / Street Date Feb 19, 2019 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, Joan Blondell, John Williams, Henry Jones, Mickey Hargitay.
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Film Editor: Hugh S. Fowler
Original Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Written, Produced and Directed by Frank Tashlin
One bizarre aspect of the 1950s was the graphic focus placed on buxom actresses, an equal but opposite reaction to conservatism. Marilyn Monroe did heavy lifting in this department, but as her star rose, she became less interested in brainless playgirl roles. 20th Fox promoted a pair of replacement understudies in the foolish belief that Marilyn could be made more cooperative. Critic Richard Corliss charted this unworthy activity through the films of director Frank Tashlin, ex- humorist and successful cartoon producer at Warner Bros.. Using Marilyn’s George Axelrod/Billy Wilder hit The Seven Year Itch as a springboard, Fox and Tashlin tried to fit two starlets into the Monroe mold. The more shameful attempt was with capable actress and comedienne Sheree North, in Tashlin’s awkward role-reversal comedy The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. She had broken through in Jerry Lewis’s 1954 Living It Up, performing a wild, almost vulgar jitterbug dance number. North was a real talent, but Fox didn’t keep their part of the bargain and offered her only less promising roles.
At the same time, Fox tapped the less accomplished Jayne Mansfield, a hopeful sex goddess with a knack for getting photo publicity. The deal was a perfect match for Jayne, as she was more than willing to personify the extremes of the public’s infatuation with va-voom Hollywood sexpots. Frank Tashlin transformed her into a walking cartoon character for his bizarre satire The Girl Can’t Help It. Jayne adopted the ‘can’t help it’ bubblehead persona, and Fox supported her through a string of well-publicized vehicles. If she had acting ambitions, they were secondary, as Jayne’s real talent was for self-promotion. Her photos showed up everywhere — always with an upturned face in open-mouthed rapture and framed by waves of platinum blonde hair. What everyone remembers, of course, were her breasts, that forever promised to spill out from whatever low-cut dress she was wearing.
Like Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is adapted from a George Axelrod stage comedy. The title may have been inspired by Budd Schulberg’s raw Hollywood exposé What Makes Sammy Run? Frank Tashlin completely rewrote it to change the satirical target to Madison Avenue. The superficial show-biz jabs that remain are aimed at star publicity shenanigans. While Rock Hunter definitely has its laughs, it hasn’t dated quite as well as the less complicated, broader The Girl Can’t Help It. Rock’n’Roll is here to stay, but the dated jokes about commercial jingles seem tame… the reality was more twisted than what Tashlin presents.
In The Girl Can’t Help It Jayne Mansfield had been directed to behave like a life-sized blow-up doll. This time she receives top billing playing a spoiled movie star; her real-life boyfriend Mickey Hargitay plays a TV Tarzan actor. The main character is again a man, this time Tony Randall in his first starring role.
Advertising jingle writer Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) is told by his hypochondriac boss Henry Rufus (Henry Jones) that the agency will lose the Stay-Put Lipstick account because TV ad jingles have gone out of favor. But Rock’s niece April (Lili Gentle) gives him the secret Manhattan address of the glamorous movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), which he uses to secure a Stay-Put endorsement from the woman with the “Oh so kissable lips.” Fortunately for Rock, Rita happens to be anxious to get a jealous reaction from her musclebound boyfriend Bobo Branigansky (Mickey Hargitay). By kissing Rock in public, she instigates a splashy news furor of a New York fling with a new beau. In exchange for the endorsement Rock must pretend he’s Rita’s ‘Lover Doll,’ and submit to additional public indignities that do not sit well with his patient girlfriend Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake). The agency loves Rockwell’s initiative, and the big boss Irving La Salle Jr. (John Williams) finally shows him some courtesy. But Jenny can’t handle the notion of her fiancé kissing the bombshell Marlowe. The cultural neurosis affects women too — poor Jenny decides that Rock will only love her if her bust measurement increases.
Did Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, et. al., study this picture? Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is amusing and entertaining, even if its satirical target is so generic. Unlike the total cartoon stylization of Tashlin’s first Mansfield film, this one looks more like other Fox Color-by-Deluxe studio pictures of the day — brightly lit and bland. Director Tashlin decorates the show with his concept humor, mostly in blackout sketches. The movie opens with parodies of TV ads of middling inspiration. The narrative takes a break in the middle for more comic Tashlinesque asides. Rock Hunter steps out of character to become a fuzzy B&W head in a TV box, to allow more ridicule of the inferior TeeVee experience. When movies of the ‘fifties go out of their way to slam television, it always seems a defensive gesture — TV was drinking Hollywood’s milkshake, so to speak. The same thing happened last week, with Steven Spielberg throwing down the gauntlet before Netflix.
Tashlin’s story and script put the show firmly in the popular sub-genre of office-hopping corporate fables that would crop up in the next decade, all about Organization Men and Steno Pool Women trying to get ahead without compromising their ideals. Keeping one’s job while seeking a way to rise in a closed corporate hierarchy are the main concerns of The Best of Everything, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. As in those shows, a big deal is made about becoming a VeePee. A heavenly choir cues the ritual of Rockwell being given his own key to the executive washroom. The cultural thread of corporate ethics sagas eventually leads to TV’s Mad Men, in which the satire becomes an analysis of the greater American character.
Reversing what we heard in Joe versus the Volcano, being able to Do the Job is irrelevant: the important thing is to Get the Job. To survive Rock Hunter must become a media gigolo, a charade that eventually earns him the top slot in the company. As advises the pill-popping Rufus (a really great turn by Henry Jones), doing nothing and having no talent is a sure path to success. But when it comes time to really deal with the corporate world, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? wimps out. Tashlin ends the picture with meek nonsense about executives finding their true happiness by cultivating roses and raising chickens.
The film’s sexual politics are scattershot as well. In Tashlin’s view, 1950s America has a sexual identity crisis that borders on mental illness. Women are women but men are confused little boys. Rock wants to marry his faithful secretary Betsy, but their romance is limited to discreet kisses on her third floor landing. Some of Rock’s gestures are so effeminate, we wonder if he might be fooling himself about what he wants in life. Both Axelrod and Tashlin take many of their comedy cues from Burlesque: the women are oversexed, and the funnymen are harmless twerps that merely glom the girls and waggle their eyebrows.
Very little in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is sexy. Rockwell gives Rita a wham-bam greeting kiss to convince her that he can play Lover Doll for the news cameras. But when he visits her during her afternoon massage, it’s like he’s talking to a beached pink whale. Mansfield in a bubble bath might as well be a puppet with a platinum blonde wig — the only reason she’s ‘sexy’ is because the male cast members act as if she is. The fans of the overblown, image-driven Rita Marlowe appear to be youngish girls, which is not the demographic we’d expect to see idolizing a woman who makes living by exaggerating her bra size.
The supposed sexpot Rita only wants to sell an image of irresistible glamour: a boyfriend is only good to the degree that he helps her generate tabloid publicity. Helping Rita do this is her worldly-wise secretary Violet, played by Joan Blondell. Both women pine for simple romances left behind in the past — Rita lost a Mr. Right named Georgie Schmidlap.
Rock Hunter’s scattershot satire does score one direct satirical hit, when it reveals the cruelty of the sexual status quo. The insecure Jenny Wells starts doing exercises to increase her bust, and stares unhappily at a lingerie display window stocked with various kinds of bustline enhancement appliances. This message of inadequacy remains a major issue — more women than ever have themselves surgically altered to indulge male fantasies. If cultural image-makers decided that tiny toes were sexy, women might well bind their feet as was once done in China. The reason for Jenny’s anxiety is made abundantly clear: competition. Her peers in the office watch carefully for signs that she and Rockwell might be breaking up. Rock’s new secretary sizes him up and announces that she’s available for service … anytime. The secretary is none other than Barbara Eden in her first Fox bit part.
Reviewers naturally approach Rock Hunter from the Frank Tashlin angle, but it can also be seen as the last of a grouping of Betsy Drake movies that bracket the ‘woman’s crisis’ of the 1950s, when America’s women were presented as aggressive hyper-consumers seeking to redefine themselves in light of new social opportunities. In the pre-feminist Every Girl Should be Married (1948), Betsy’s perky go-getter wants to marry a doctor, and decides that any deception is justifiable. The doctor was played by Cary Grant. In Pretty Baby (1950) Betsy Drake is a secretary who plays a game with a baby doll toy, and ends up being mistaken for an unwed mother. (That’s as serious as the Production Code would allow a film to get about real unwed mothers.) 1952’s Room for One More takes the next step. Betsy is now part of a perfect American family, as a housewife married to Cary Grant. They are so happy, they decide to adopt an orphaned child. The real life Betsy Drake married Cary Grant early on. Just like one of her goal-oriented characters, she took a huge payout when they divorced 13 years later. In Rock Hunter Betsy’s previous progress hits a wall. Jenny Wells is back at square one again, and with a distinct disadvantage: an insane culture has convinced her that success can only be found with larger breasts. The aggressively perky go-getting postwar woman is now being made the butt of jokes.
Viewers will likely remember 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, when the comedian Terry-Thomas put a comedic cap on two misogynist subjects in ‘fifties America. The first is the notion of Momism, as delineated in an acid essay by Philip Wylie from his book Generation of Vipers. But more germane to Rock Hunter is Terry-Thomas’s pronouncement on the breast fixation:
“In all my time in this wretched, godforsaken country, the one thing that has appalled me most of all is this preposterous preoccupation with bosoms. Don’t you realize they have become the dominant theme in American culture? In literature, advertising and all fields of entertainment and everything. I’ll wager you anything you like: if American women stopped wearing brassieres, your whole national economy would collapse overnight!”
Terry-Thomas’s diatribe perfectly describes Tashlin’s viewpoint. But Tashlin has it both ways, ridiculing and celebrating the great breast fixation.
Just when we are thinking that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is going to transcend its predictable ‘woo hoo’ jokes, it slips up. Tashlin ends the various conflicts with cartoon capers that resolve nothing. (spoiler) After the corporate story ends happily, Rita Marlowe’s secret love Georgie Schmidlap returns. He turns out to be Groucho Marx, who says he never kissed her because he could never get close enough! The movie ends with more silly jokes about the CinemaScope aspect ratio. Remember, this was the year that an MGM musical featured a Cole Porter song & dance about Technicolor, CinemaScope and ‘Stereophonic Sound.”
Standouts in the cast are the delightful Henry Jones and the plummy John Williams. Joan Blondell was at this time twenty-five years and a number of pounds past her Warner pre-Code heyday, but her magnetic personality is undiminished. It says something that in the ‘sexy’ massage scene, we’re more drawn to the interesting Blondell than we are to Ms. Mansfield.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter gives us Frank Tashlin’s most popular joke-book movie in a fine widescreen presentation. It’s presented in ‘CinemaScope, Deluxe Color and Stereophonic Sound’, in three audio configurations.
Cyril J. Mockridge’s film score is given its own isolated music track, and a newsreel and a trailer are present. From thirteen years ago comes a fine audio commentary by scholar Dana Polan, who breaks down Rock Hunter’s social satire, hidden meanings and lost historical context. Julie Kirgo’s insert essay pegs the movie’s satire and identifies Tony Randall’s Rockwell as being just as much of a cartoon as Ms. Mansfield. She points out Frank Tashlin’s ‘meta’ inventions, reflexive gags folding back on filmic ‘givens,’ like sober main titles. We’re told that Jean-Luc Godard cited Rock Hunter as an influence on his color-‘scope pictures of the 1960s, which makes sense to me.
Julie, really! Rita Marlowe comes “complete with a constantly twitching bodacious bod and a signature squeal that sounds like a dolphin in heat.” Now I have to go back and sex-up my copy text.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, commentary with Dana Polan, newsreels, trailers, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: March 7, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson