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Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?(1957)

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You can split movie buffs into two groups based on their reaction to the newly released The Jayne Mansfield Collection, a set of three films previously unavailable on DVD. The first group would look at this and think "Wow, a Jayne Mansfield collection" while the second would think "Wow, a Frank Tashlin collection." Mansfield, of course, was one of the Fifties' string of famously bountiful blondes that ran from Marilyn Monroe at the top to Mamie Van Doren down to Cleo Moore. As such Mansfield will always have her fans but Frank Tashlin was a different matter. A former animator (boasting Disney and Warners' infamous "Termite Terrace" under his belt), Tashlin was addicted to speed, bright colors and uncontrollable comic twitches. Whether he learned this from his time in the cartoon trenches or was driven to animation by innate tendencies doesn't much matter; Tashlin was American cinema's gut-bucket satirist and a direct, openly acknowledged influence on the French New Wave. He directed many of Jerry Lewis' wildest films (such as Artists and Models) and possibly for that reason has often been dismissed. If you want to know why Tashlin deserves full respect then just watch two of his best films that are included in this set.

For a start check out the opening to The Girl Can't Help It (1956). Tom Ewell (The Seven-Year Itch) walks "on stage" and directly addresses the audience inside a movie image that's an almost-square black-and-white box. He seems a bit dissatisfied then uses his fingers to flick the sides of the box until it expands to wide CinemaScope proportions. Ewell then calls for color by DeLuxe and sure enough a vibrant wash of color spreads across the image. Gimmicky? Perhaps but played with lightness and a wink that perfectly sets the tone for the film.

In The Girl Can't Help It Ewell is a washed-up talent agent hooked by a washed-up mobster (DOA's Edmond O'Brien) to turn his girlfriend into the newest singing sensation. The girlfriend (Mansfield of course) is a strictly hands-off proposition for Ewell but of course nothing turns out quite as planned. Not the most promising story and it was pretty threadworn even at the time (even echoed decades later in Pulp Fiction). But that's hardly the point. The studio apparently saw the film as an opportunity to cash in on the newest musical fad (some now-forgotten style called rock 'n' roll) while Tashlin and his script collaborator Herbert Baker took the opportunity to unleash their imaginations, most famously on a string of quasi-vulgar sight gags when Mansfield first walks to Ewell's apartment. But it avoids both crudeness and post-vaudevillean schtick because of the lack of bitterness in Tashlin's view; his sentimental streak poked through from time to time and he was never able to condemn any character to a fated doom, however comic.

For rock fans, the movie is simply required viewing. A string of greats make appearances including Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran, at the top of their powers and mostly playing songs uninterrupted (one unfortunate exception being brief dialogue in the middle of a Little Richard performance.) Half a century later you can still feel the transgressive energy powering them and that in fact becomes a plot point in the film. Even the now partially forgotten The Treniers turn in one of their best songs and though she's not remotely rock 'n' roll Julie London's singing is, well, unforgettable. It's interesting in hindsight how much the film gets right about early rock but there are still a couple of ringers such as The Chuckles (formerly The Three Chuckles), a pre-rock Italian combo that featured an accordion! By the way, that is indeed Little Richard's theme "The Girl Can't Help It" currently sampled by pop singer Fergie in her song "Clumsy."

However amazing The Girl Can't Help It is, Tashlin was just warming up. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, released the following year, is an astonishing free-for-all against pop culture and celebrating it: advertising, fan clubs, television, sex symbols, media manipulation and even Tashlin's own films (The Girl Can't Help It is mentioned twice and not necessarily favorably). Originally Rock Hunter was a Broadway play by George Axelrod (The Seven-Year Itch again) but apparently that source wasn't followed very strictly so that in some ways the film resembles The Girl Can't Help It. This time it's Tony Randall who encounters Mansfield. He's a low-level advertising writer happily engaged to be married who decides that the best way to save his company's chief money-making account (Stay-Put lipstick) is to enlist movie star Rita Marlowe (Mansfield). He manages to sneak a meeting to discover that she's more interested in creating a fictional romance to create jealousy in her boyfriend (Mansfield's real-life amour and future husband Mickey Hargitay) but is willing to play along with Randall's game.

Again nothing goes quite as planned. Everybody in Rock Hunter is pursuing their own version of the American Dream: a key to the private executive washroom, celebrity, money, a quiet home life. That they don't all agree on the Dream is part of the point; they're all frantic and driven towards something they may or may not really want. And it only gets more complex when you realize that pretty much everybody in the film is also manipulating everybody else's idea of the Dream. Again a more cynical filmmaker would have created a different, darker film (see Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole for an example) but for Tashlin it's almost like he was kidding members of his own family. Maybe that's one reason Tony Randall's common-guy likability and open confusion works so well. He has just the right plausibility as he swings from meek writer to a temporary Great Lover to just a conflicted man. Rock Hunter is farce but with a human heart.

What about Mansfield in all this? She was nearly perfect for Tashlin's purposes, a celebrity mostly famous for being famous, and not her fairly routine talents. She was always excessive and not entirely respectable, "sexy" but never sexy. So Tashlin never uses her straight but makes twists to her characters. In The Girl Can't Help It Mansfield may appear to be a blonde bombshell but deep down she really just wants to be domestic. Ewell shouldn't be attracted to her but, well, can't help it. In Rock Hunter she may be a media-circus film star but slowly decides maybe that's not right for her (though this strand isn't really resolved in the film). Randall should be attracted to her but the film's most charming aspect is that he's so deeply in love with his fiancee that Mansfield's character registers only as an abstraction.

Rounding out the set is a non-Tashlin film Mansfield made in 1958, the Western-comedy The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw. Directed by a past-his-prime Raoul Walsh and supposedly the first Western filmed in Spain, Sheriff is practically a catalog of anything you'd expect to see in a Western including a range war, Indian attacks, poker game, saloon shootout, tenderfoot pistol training and of course a crash course in sheriffing. Throw in some song-and-dance numbers (Mansfield is a saloon keeper) and it's a somewhat entertaining but completely lightweight outing.

The DVDs in the Jayne Mansfield Collection have clean transfers of the films and even more importantly are properly letterboxed. Nobody quite makes 'Scope films like these anymore; they probably wouldn't even be worth watching panned-and-scanned. The extras include a few trailers and an interesting but predictable A&E Biography episode about Mansfield. The two Tashlin films have commentaries, both a bit too professorial to be particularly interesting if you're not getting class credit.

For more information about The Jayne Mansfield Collection, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order The Jayne Mansfield Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson