Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler
Directed, produced, and written by Frank Tashlin; based on a play by George Axelrod; cinematography by Joseph MacDonald; art direction by Leland Fuller and Lyle R. Wheeler; edited by Hugh S. Fowler; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; starring Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Betsy Drake, and Joan Blondell. Blu-ray, color, 92 min., 1957. A Eureka Entertainment release.
The most prevalent cultural stereotypes about the 1950s in America are largely negative. The Fifties were rife with racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. The Fifties had class hierarchies and strict social-role expectations. The Fifties were full of secretaries sleeping with their bosses, deeply square men just discovering the work “OK.”
What gets lost in this easy demonizing is that we’re reacting to perceived images of an era more so than to the era itself. The Truman-to-Kennedy period was an amazingly self-reflexive one in American media, during which the culture produced images of itself with unprecedented quantity and speed. The period opened with the best-attended year in American movie history (1946), but this apex immediately preceded the rise of television, whose stars would soon be appearing in magazines, in newspapers and on billboards. The country literally became an empire of signs, and one reason so much art made during and about the period focused on Manhattan advertising companies is that they dictated the terms by which Americans lived. The Fifties was a self-creating brand name.
One can indulge in that first age of branding through Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a dizzying 1957 metatext recently released on a shimmering Masters of Cinema Blu-ray that captures its candy colors. The disc offers a few enticing extras, including vintage promotional material and a video introduction by filmmaker Joe Dante (Gremlins) discussing director Frank Tashlin’s career, but the treasure is the film itself, which, ironically, critiques merchandising. Its first several minutes consist mainly of mock commercials involving products gone haywire. A man pouring a headless beer watches foam explode out of the glass; a handy-dandy electric razor loses itself in a beard; a new laundry machine devours its owner.
The folks these products confound are all cheery Caucasians—our hero has told us that, “This picture is about advertising agencies and television commercials,” which means we’ll see only people that could appear on TV. They include Rock Hunter, a meek little ad man of gray-flannel dreams who over the course of the film will nearly trade in his beloved fiancée-secretary for a high-pitched-speaking film star, as well as Tony Randall, the actor playing Hunter, who introduces himself in the opening credits, and who was then best known to audiences from television appearances. The movie star, Rita Marlowe (the name a Doctor Faustus joke), who’s plucked up Rocky at random to get back at a beau, has starred in films such as The Girl Can’t Help It and Kiss Them for Me—and so, coincidentally, did Jayne Mansfield, the actress playing her.
To watch Mansfield act stupid in this picture (her former guy, she says, is “with another bleached blonde—I mean another blonde”) is to watch an actress brilliantly burlesque her own image; a TV special once called Mansfield “the ultimate dumb blonde who had a 163 IQ.” The hip shakes, the “ooooooh” in her voice, and yes, the blonde hair, further suggest Marilyn Monroe (not surprisingly, George Axelrod, the author of Rock Hunter’s source play, had also written The Seven Year Itch). Yet the particular quality of Mansfield’s knowingness calls to mind less 1955’s Itch, a deeply cruel and ugly movie in which men slobber over Monroe without her doing much to counteract it, than it does 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Monroe’s Lorelei Lee acts just dumb enough for men to throw themselves at her, and get blackmailed doing it. Monroe (with help) invented her own cooing image precisely and carefully, without necessarily being bound to it—just catch the anger in her eyes as she rails against Robert Mitchum in River of No Return. Mansfield (with help) invented herself as a Monroe parody in The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Hunter well enough to become a star in her own right. She wasn’t as controlled a performer as Monroe was—the exactness with which Monroe manages small gestures in Blondes is startling—but the strength of her Rock Hunter performance lies in its awareness that she’s not Monroe. What Lorelei Lee gets from men with helpless, hapless vulnerability Rita Marlowe gets by ordering them around. While Marlowe’s moments of weakness and uncertainty feel insincere, her moments of calculation, as when she tells Hunter what a good kisser he is so that he’ll keep up the ruse of their romance, are brilliant. Watching Mansfield play ironic distance helps one realize that a parody of a parody is unfolding. Mansfield is simultaneously playing Marlowe, herself, and Monroe, who played at being herself as well.
All these copies may lead the viewer to think that there is no such thing as an original self. The movie develops this thought with the scene of a Marlowe/Mansfield/Monroe imitator asking Hunter to sign her back, and of Hunter’s fiancée walking and talking like M/M/M in the hope that she’ll attract him back. The film fills itself with women trying to measure up to an image, expending great intelligence in an effort to play dumb. But the men are the same way. Rock Hunter’s image of success (and this is important—it is an image) is a key to the executive washroom, a hallowed quarter accompanied by an angelic choir each time he steals a glimpse inside. His boss’s secret image of success is winning the prize in a gardening competition, far away from the metropolis, but that isn’t any more or less pure than the dreams characters have of other kinds of material triumph—each vision of success in this movie is made up of big, tall, flashy stuff.
With all the worrying over success that Hunter’s characters do, it’s worth asking how exactly the film defines success. At film’s end the characters state harmoniously and homogenously that, “Success is just the art of being happy. And being happy is just the very living end.” But a more accurate definition might be that success (cribbing from Joseph McBride on Capra) is a catastrophe, in the sense that it’s random and chaotic and can come or go at any time. A junior executive might win a promotion as easily and as surprisingly as an actress might win an audition, or as easily and as surprisingly as a man might love a movie star—capitalist culture thrives on such dreams of getting rich quick, and the image culture, an important component, pushes these fantasies hard.
Success comes and goes as does fame or fortune, or as a person’s definition of success changes, whichever comes first. Certainly Rock Hunter’s definition changes as he realizes that the celebrity (and higher pay checks) he’s earned from being Rita Marlowe’s boytoy don’t satisfy him. The speech he ends up giving is a marvel of invention. The new company president with a Harvard degree finally decides:
“I’m an average guy, and all us average guys are successes. We run the works. Not the big guy behind the big desk. He’s knocking himself out trying to figure out how to please us—how to please you and me and all the other us’s like us. Who do they try to sell with advertising? Nobody but us. Who gives a television series a good trendex? We do. Who elects the presidents? Nobody but us.”
It’s worth noting that Rock Hunter works as a writer of TV commercials. This power-to-the-people stuff is exactly what advertising companies have always used to sell their products, both in the 1950s and now, telling consumers that they have the choice not to buy a mass market good when really their other option is to buy another mass market good in its stead. The product can be a new soap, a new film, or a new politician.
Yet the speech does have a weird poignancy that keeps one from rejecting it completely, which a reference to another cultural product might help explain. Rock Hunter’s director, Frank Tashlin, was the best director of slapstick that Hollywood had seen since Preston Sturges, perhaps because both filmmakers’ views of slapstick were closely tied to their views of capitalism—a man might get clonked on the head as suddenly as he might lose all his money in the stock market, and then might as suddenly leap up and get it back. In Sturges’s great 1940 film, Christmas in July, a man thinks he’s won a contest, spends his winnings accordingly, learns the company made a mistake, and has to return all the money until, in the film’s final thirty seconds, he wins the contest for real. This rise-and-fall drama plays out before the eyes of an older man, long tenured, who says he knows he’s a success because he can’t fathom living in a country where most people fail. The next day, we know, he’ll simply go back to his desk.
Sturges’s man has probably created this rationalization himself, whereas Rock Hunter’s rationalization feels like it’s come from TV. But both men could very well be right in exalting what they view as their average qualities, though Rock Hunter presages YouTube by suggesting that, as soon as a camera falls on someone, he or she isn’t average anymore. Maybe Rock Hunter would be happy living with his secretary, Jenny, herself played by Cary Grant´s real-life wife, Betsy Drake; maybe he would be happy sitting at home watching TV, a small, black-and-white, fuzzed-out circle with which the movie occasionally interrupts the action of its gorgeous CinemaScope plot. Tashlin was a dazzling graphic stylist who directed some of Jerry Lewis’s greatest hits; Fox was a major studio. Maybe Rock Hunter would be happier as a pig farmer. But—and this is the critic, as well as the movie, talking—Rita Marlowe’s world looks like more fun.
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Aaron Cutler’s film writings can be read at aaroncutler.tumblr.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.