Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (1957)

The 1950s proved a challenging time in the movie industry as television became a full-fledged competitor for audience attention, and Frank Tashlin confronts the issue with satiric glee in his 1957 comedy, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which Tashlin wrote, directed, and produced with only the most superficial lip service to the original stage play of the same name. In fact, Tashlin has a wide range of targets for satire here, including the Hollywood film industry, American advertising, fan culture, and the mega stardom of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Hilarious at times, but a bit uneven thanks to its fractured focus, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? works largely because of Tony Randall's delightful performance as an advertising writer whose career ambitions land him in an unexpected - and very public - fake romance with a Hollywood sex symbol.

Randall plays the titular Rock Hunter, a rather average New York adman whose engagement to his assistant, Jenny (Betsy Drake), has dragged on while Rock tries to climb the company ladder enough to get married. When the company struggles to retain its top client, Rock hatches a plan to save the account by getting sexy star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) to endorse the product, but in return Rita demands that Rock pose as her new lover to make her ex (Mickey Hargitay) jealous. Jenny is understandably upset by this arrangement, and Rock finds his new notoriety as Rita's "Lover Doll" both rewarding and chaotic.

Having recently watched Randall play second fiddle to Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964), I enjoyed the chance to catch him as the lead here, although his Rock Hunter (a joke, of course, referring to Hudson) has much in common with the neurotic sidekicks he plays in those later pictures. Randall grounds this absurd comedy with his performance, which is played mostly straight but is still versatile enough to switch into breaking the fourth wall during the opening credits and the "intermission" that pretends to cater to the disrupted attention spans of television viewers. Randall's everyman character also balances the exaggerated persona of Rita, an obvious parody of Marilyn Monroe but, ironically, the single most powerful person in the story. Mansfield's squealing might wear thin - especially when the other women start to imitate it - but she's a platinum goddess at whose altar the lipstick company, the advertising executives, and the American public all worship with enthusiasm. Randall is perfect as the mere mortal who never has a chance against this dyed blonde deity, even though his devotion to the comparatively average Jenny never wavers.

A variety of supporting characters enhance our understanding of the protagonists and their approaches to life while underscoring the satirical points of the picture. At home, Rock is perpetually outmaneuvered by his teenage niece, April (Lili Gentle), who is also the president of the local Rita Marlowe fan club. At the advertising agency, Rock enjoys support from fellow Harvard grad Henry Rufus (Henry Jones) but struggles to get the attention of his boss (John Williams), who turns out to have his own long-denied ambitions. Although conflicted about his career choices, Rock yearns for the perks of status at the office, which leads to a very funny scene with Rufus and Rock weeping tears of joy over access to the executive washroom. Equally silly but somehow essential is Rita's desire to punish former flame Bobo Branigansky (Hargitay), a Tarzan type who boasts to the press that Rita will come crawling back to him. Rita's long-suffering assistant, Violet (Joan Blondell), astutely observes that Rita doesn't love Bobo or Rock, having long ago lost her heart to the mysterious George Schmidlap (whose eventual appearance provides a surprising cameo). Blondell is an especially apt choice for the role of the older and wiser Vi, who has worked for Hollywood stars since the silent era, and her scenes with Mansfield allow us to see Rita without her sex kitten schtick.

I won't spoil the George Schmidlap cameo, but pay close attention to catch brief appearances by TV icons Majel Barrett (in the fake TV ads) and Barbara Eden (as Miss Carstairs). Jayne Mansfield married costar Mickey Hargitay in 1958, and the pair would go on to star together in a handful of pictures before their divorce in 1964. She is better remembered today for The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which Frank Tashlin also wrote, produced, and directed, and Kiss Them for Me (1957), a romantic comedy costarring Cary Grant. Betsy Drake, who was married to Grant from 1949 to 1962, starred with him in Every Girl Should Be Married (1948) and Room for One More (1952). For more of Joan Blondell's work from this era, see The Opposite Sex (1956), Desk Set (1957), and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). In addition to his movies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Tony Randall stars in The Mating Game (1959), Let's Make Love (1960), and Boys' Night Out (1962). Frank Tashlin got his start directing cartoons, including many Looney Tunes shorts, but more of his live action directing efforts see Son of Paleface (1952), Artists and Models (1955), and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966).