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Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) is a live-action comedy directed by a man who specialized, for 15 years, in Porky Pig cartoons, and the relationship between Frank Tashlin's long career as a gag animator and his later blooming as an auteur who used real actors and real spaces is almost unique in the history of movies. Without being overly cartoonish, his features always feel on the edge of collapsing into two dimensions, and of existing in a contrived ether that is as self-conscious and manufactured as a puppet show. There's always a comic distance with Tashlin - there's no need to empathize with these characters, anymore than there was with Porky. They are pure, silly spectacle, personas erected as paradigms of our own folly, and their travails roll out before us like a circus choreography of acrobats and dancing bears.
This artificiality reverbs beautifully in Rock Hunter, because the story is about television advertising - a heinous form of culture unrivaled for its trafficking in pure prevarication. Tony Randall, as the titular ad exec, must save a big lipstick account, along with his own job, by securing the endorsement of Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield), a bazooka of a movie star parody in high heels and push-up bra, and gets himself embroiled in her publicity scheme as her new lover. The scenario, from the George Axelrod play, practically oozes with mock advertising, mistaken appearances, visual lies, gossip spread and misunderstood, characters gone insane trying to synch up reality with its fabricated media representation, and on and on. Anything could appear to happen in a Porky Pig cartoon without ever "happening" at all, but in Rock Hunter, "happening" is a depleted and pointless quantity to begin with, a non-starter beside whatever baloney appears, or is made to appear.
The film is frothily content with the advertising-ization of America, or at least fiercely amused, but its ire is saved for the movie-threatening medium of television, using its widescreen compositions to spite the pan-&-scan boys at the networks, mocking fourth-wall-decimating direct address common on TV then and now, and even lashing out at the boob tube in a deft intermission, where Randall extols TV's virtues even as the screen shrinks and the vertical hold runs amok. There may not be another American film made in the '50s that has such lacerating things to say about the entire infrastructure of modern culture, as it had recently coalesced as a nexus of Hollywood, publicity, advertising, gossip, television and materialistic youth culture. The whole shebang takes a shellacking, if with a smirk and a wink, and the film is nothing if not stone cold proof that Hollywood and its audiences were far, far more cynical about celebrity than we are today.
Tashlin's primary weapon here is not Randall - who never quite achieved in films the comic timing and character esprit that he managed so beautifully on The Odd Couple, 13 years after Rock Hunter. No, the film's arsenal is led by Mansfield, who is a monstrous caricature of the Monroe/Hayworth/Gardner/Ekberg matinee goddess, while at the same time a wide-open lampoon of herself as well, heaving her bust and hips around in Tashlin's tightly composed frames like a jack-in-the-box with a stuck lid. There's no question, Mansfield was a skilled comedienne, and her Marlowe is a blast, blathering in babbling-brook monologues like a hyperactive schoolgirl and punctuating every paragraph with an overdubbed squeal that could weaken pane glass. (As Hunter gets deeper and deeper into the gossip morass, Betsy Drake, as Hunter's skinny, unglam fiance, begins imitating her with beluga-like squeaks.) Mansfield never quite had the opportunity to display herself as a comic force again; exploited for her figure and her sex-doll fame, she appeared as a walking joke in films and in nightclubs for another decade, before famously dying on Route 90 between Biloxi and New Orleans, when her car slammed into an insecticide truck, shearing the top of the car, and most of Jayne's head, off.
No one mourns for Mansfield the way they do for Marilyn Monroe or even Elvis (who didn't die young or tragically), but in Rock Hunter her performance has more self-knowing wit and irony than, say, Monroe's in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959) - for one thing, Rita Marlowe is not the idiot her stereotype suggests, and her irrepressible zeal in manipulating her public and living it up in the limelight makes her a wise and hilarious creation. For another, Mansfield was obviously ripping through her own persona, making something crafted and sharp out of her mess of a life and embarrassing public profile, in the same spirit of what Mickey Rourke brought to The Wrestler (2008). Just as Rourke seemed more like a documentary found object than a calculated "character" - more Grey Gardens than Method - so does Mansfield here, ditzy and vavoom-y, orchestrating an utterly unreal life like a film director herself.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is not quite the whole-package entertainment it wanted to be, and maybe that's because of its metafictional slippages and the fact that Mansfield is so commanding and lushly riotous that she seems larger than the screenplay. It is, in any case, a wildly inventive piece of all-out social satire, and an acidic antidote to those of us romantically besotted with the '50s ad world as portrayed in AMC's Mad Men series.
Producer: Frank Tashlin
Director: Frank Tashlin
Screenplay: Frank Tashlin (screenplay and story); George Axelrod (play)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Film Editing: Hugh S. Fowler
Cast: Tony Randall (Rockwell P. Hunter/Himself/Lover Doll), Jayne Mansfield (Rita Marlowe), Betsy Drake (Jenny Wells), Joan Blondell (Violet), John Williams (Irving La Salle, Jr.), Henry Jones (Henry Rufus), Lili Gentle (April Hunter), Mickey Hargitay (Bobo Branigansky), Georgia Carr (Calypso Number), Dick Whittinghill (T.V. Interviewer).
C-93m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Michael Atkinson