Friday, May 6, 2011

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

Frank Tashlin had a major hit in 1956 with The Girl Can’t Help It so making another film the following year with star Jayne Mansfield must have seemed like a great idea. And it was. In fact Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is possibly even better than The Girl Can’t Help It.

Rockwell Hunter (Tony Randall) is a Madison Avenue advertising man. He’s a fair way down the pecking order. He writes lyrics for singing commercials but his boss is convinced that singing commercials have had their day. In fact he is convinced that the agency has had its day since it’s on the verge of losing its biggest account, the Stay-Put Lipstick account. That means Rockwell Hunter will soon be out of a job, unless he can come up with a sensational idea.

And he does. His teenage daughter is president of the local branch of the Rita Marlowe Fan Club. Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) being the biggest movie star of the moment. Rita’s second most spectacular assets are her famous kissable lips, so a campaign featuring her might well save the agency and Rockwell’s job. Of course the difficulty is that Rita is currently in hiding in New York, but Rockwell’s teenage daughter happens to know where she is. But will she agree to be the Stay-Put Lipstick girl?

As it happens, at the exact moment Rockwell walks into her hotel suite Rita Marlowe needs a man desperately. She needs a man to make her boyfriend Bobo (Mickey Hargitay, soon to become Jayne Mansfield’s real-life husband) jealous. Bobo is the star of a jungle boy TV series, but he walked out on her, and nobody can walk out on Rita Marlowe. So, in exchange for her doing the lipstick campaign, Rockwell pretends to be her new love. This turns out to be a rather exhausting occupation. Apart from the fact that after kissing Rita Marlowe’s famous kissable lips he really needs a week in intensive care there’s the added hazard of Rita’s fans who now pursue him in the street believing him to be the world’s greatest lover.

There’s also the problem of the nice girl at the office Rockwell is intending to marry. Rockwell, or Rock as he is no universally known in keeping with his world’s greatest lover reputation, is now internationally famous as Rita’s Lover Doll.

Rock has now achieved success. Not only has he saved the agency and gained a vice-presidency, he has achieved the goal that he has always dreamed of - the key to the executive washroom, the ultimate symbol of success. But strangely enough, success isn’t what he expected. And he discovers that success isn’t the guarantee of happiness for anyone. Even the owner of the agency, Irving La Salle Jr himself, has found success to be a disappointment. He just wanted to grow prize roses. Could it be that success is not all it’s cracked up to be?

What makes writer-director Tashlin’s satire work so well is that while he is appalled by the vulgarity of Madison Avenue he is also clearly fascinated by it. He has a love-hate relationship with popular culture and with America in the 50s. But even the hate part of the equation is untainted by vindictiveness. And the love part is a string as the hate part. He doesn’t hate his characters. They’re all quite nice people. They’re living crazy lives, but they’re not monsters.

Tashlin started out in the film business making cartons and he has an extraordinary knack for capturing a cartoon feel in his live-action feature films. It’s not just the garish colours and the general zaniness, it’s the way he structures his visual gags. And given the right subject matter, as in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It, it’s an approach that works superbly.

Tony Randall is perfect casting and handles his role every bit as well as you’d expect. He considered this movie to be the funniest he ever made. Joan Blondell and Henry Jones provide great support.

But it’s Jayne Mansfield who steals the picture. Her talent may have been a very limited one, but within those narrow limits she had few equals as a comic actress. She plays Rita like a cartoon character which of course is exactly what Tashlin wants. And of course she’s also essentially playing herself, or an exaggerated version of herself (arguably she spent her whole life playing an exaggerated version of herself).

Very few film-makers captured the feel of the 50s as sublimely as Frank Tashlin. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is very funny and it’s a delight from start to finish.

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