Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) * * *

Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall), is a writer of TV commercials and low on the ladder at the company he works for: LaSalle, Raskin, Poole, and Crocket. He's planning to marry Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake), who's a secretary at the firm. He gets the inspiration of using Hollywood's reigning sexpot Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) to endorse "Stayput Lipstick" from his teenage niece April (Lili Gentle), who is the local president of the Rita Marlowe fan club. Marlowe is in fact spending some time in New York to recuperate from a bad affair with jungle-man actor Bobo Braniganski (Mickey Hargitay), with her companion Violet (Joan Blondell) in tow.

Rockwell Hunter: I'm not a failure. I'm the largest success there is. I'm an average guy. And all us average guys are successes. We run the works! Not the big guy behind the big desk.

Hunter goes to the apartment of the blonde bombshell to get her endorsement. In order for Marlowe to endorse the lipstick, however, Hunter has to pretend to be her boyfriend to make her real boyfriend Branigansky, the star of a TV Tarzan show, jealous. It will also reap publicity for her studio and career. She tells Bobo that Rockwell is the president of the firm. Bobo leaks the news of Marlowe's new romance to the tabloids and Rock Hunter is suddenly famous. He becomes a world-famous symbol of "Lover Doll". His life then takes a tailspin for the better and wilder. He is mobbed by bobbysocksers in the same way the Beatles would be seven years later. Women are crazy about him and he moves steadily up the ladder at work, becoming company president, only to find it is not what he really wants.

Rock Hunter: That's right Sweetie, I'm president of Rita Marlowe Productions, Incorporated, but Miss Marlowe is the titular head.
Rita Marlowe: I picked him up, I can pick him down.

However, things with Jenny become strained as he and Marlowe become an item, and it's clear that Marlowe genuinely falls in love with him. Hollywood's reigning sexpot reads "Peyton Place" by Grace Metaliousin in the bathtub. The book eventually became a feature film and a popular TV series that is claimed to be the forerunner of prime time soap operas, and that the buxom characters in the book were inspired by Mansfield. Meanwhile, Hudson comes home one night to find both his niece and his fiancée paralyzed from overdosing in bust-expanding exercises.

Violet: What you need is a drink.
Rock Hunter: And how!
Violet: Maybe two drinks! What'll it be?
Rock Hunter: Something simple. A bottle and a straw.

There is a half-time intermission, where Tony Randall speaks on the wonders of TV, which back then was a 21" screen with a "wonderful clean picture".
Hunter: Ladies and gentlemen, this break in our motion picture is made out of respect for the TV fans in our audience, who are accustomed to constant interruptions in their programs for messages from sponsors. We want all you TV fans to feel at home, and not forget the thrill you get, watching television on your big, 21-inch screens. Of course, the great thing about television is that it lets you see events live as they happen, like old movies from thirty years ago.

At the behest of his agency, Rock is forced to propose to Rita on a coast-to-coast TV show, which breaks the heart of his Jenny, but she takes him back in the end. Both Hunter and Marlowe are saved from a marriage neither one wants by the last-minute arrival of Rita's hometown boyfriend, George Schmidlap (Groucho Marx).

Rita Marlowe: George, how come you never tried to kiss me before?
George Schmidlap: I never could get close enough.
(turns his head to the camera and raises his eyebrows up and down)

Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield have perhaps their best roles ever in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? This devastating film satirizes the advertising business, Hollywood, American culture, male-female relationships, television, and just about every other available target. It skewers its first victim immediately after the 20th Century Fox logo, where Tony Randall is seen playing the drums and cello from the Fox fanfare with Cinemascope extension. After Randall briefly explains the plot of the movie, the credits continue with some satiric commercials on products that obviously don't cut the mustard. Examples: "Pour yourself a full glass of that heavily-brewed, clear swamp water, Shelton's Beer", and "Wow Soap contains fallout, the exclusive patented ingredient".

Breakfast Food Demonstrator: Each little Crunchie contains energy, contains pep for your growing youngsters, builds strong legs so that when they're older they can stand the long waits in the unemployment lines.

Based on the successful Broadway play by George Axelrod, WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is an entertaining film reminiscent of a Doris Day-Rock Hudson film. The play ran from 1955-1956 with Jayne Mansfield recreated her starmaking stage role, for which she received a Tony. In this film adaptation of the comedy, it manages to pack a lot more punch. Marlowe's best takes: Seclusion and Catherine the Great. Mansfield's depiction of a Hollywood sex symbol is somewhat mannered but still relevant. Her love interest in the film, the neanderthalian Bobo Branigansky, is played by her real-life husband of the time, Mickey Hargitay, a former Mr. Universe. Jayne Mansfield's "Rita Marlowe" character is based on Marilyn Monroe during the 1950s and is quite funny. It's also a dig at her own image.

Tony Randall hogs the center of this show and grabs out wildly in any directon for a gag, be it popping his eyes at Miss Mansfield's chassis or smoking three pipes at one time. He even has a little sequence in which he steps out of the scene and calls for a "break" in the proceedings to accommodate the commercial-minded TV viewers in the audience. The jokes are not always in the best of taste. Joan Blondell as Miss Mansfield's pal and Henry Jones as muddle-headed huckster Henry Rufus are put through some shameless routines, and Betsy Drake and John Williams are directed to act only slightly less insane. In for a bit is Mickey Hargitay as Marlowe's jealous boy friend. He gives an imitation of a monkey-cluttered Tarzan.

Vibrating with comic energy, the Cinemascope screen is a playpen of joyous brassiness, compounded by superb performances. We may loathe the fact that the characters sell their souls, yet we can't help but admire the enthusiasm and creativity with which they do it, like the ravenous force with which Rock embraces his new stud persona or the slippery glibness his associate Henry Rufus employs in navigating Madison Avenue's polluted waters. Lured and trapped by consumerism, the characters yearn for a return to Nature. Hudson dreams of a chicken farm, while the company president Irving La Salle Jr. (John Williams) would rather be tending to roses than clients. The tragedy of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is that the cartoon surfaces are closer to the entrapping gloss of Douglas Sirk than is first apparent. The ending is happy, yet the characters remain frozen in their rigid roles, becoming, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, "abstract Brechtian commentators on their own dilemmas." Our laughter explodes only to dissipate.

The cast also includes: Lili Gentle (April Hunter), Georgia Carr (Calypso Number), Dick Whittinghill (TV Interviewer), Ann McCrea (Gladys), Alberto Morin (Frenchman), Louis Mercier (Frenchman), Robert Adler (Mailman), Majel Barrett (Hair Spray Ad), Phil Chambers (Mailman), Don Corey (Ed Sullivan voice), Richard Deems (Razor Demonstrator), Minta Durfee (Scrubwoman), Barbara Eden (Miss Carstairs), Larry Kerr (Mr. Ezzarus), Edith Leslie, Carmen Nisbet (Breakfast Food Demonstrator), Lida Piazza (Junior's Secretary), Patricia Powell (Receptionist), Benny Rubin (Theater Manager), Edith Russell (Scrubwoman), Jay Sayer (Reporter), Sherrill Terry (Annie), and Mack Williams (Hotel Doorman). Cyril J. Mockridge composed the original music. Frank Tashlin wrote the strory and screenplay based on George Axelrod's stage play. He used little more than the title and the character of Rita Marlowe from the play. Tashlin also produced and directed.

WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? received a nomination for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor: Musical/Comedy (Tony Randall) and a nomination for the Writers Guild of America, East WGA Award (Screen) for Best Written American Comedy (Frank Tashlin). French critics enjoyed this picture immensely, and Jean-Luc Godard had it on his 10-best list. In 2000, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". For some reason the video of this gem is not easy to find.

Blog Archive