Rocky and his Femmes

A Blu-Ray dream come true, Frank Tashlin’s 1957 masterpiece WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? sweeps onto a High-Def trendex limited edition, thanks to the hucksters at Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

I don’t know where to begin to discuss this gem, ‘cept it’s (in my humble opinion) one of the funniest and greatest comedies ever transposed to celluloid.  Director-Writer-Producer Tashlin, freely (and I mean freely!; see below) adapting George Axelrod’s Broadway smash turned this pre-Mad Men riot into a culture-shock CinemaScope pip.

The movie recounts the tale of Manhattan ad agency drone Rockwell Hunter, who slaves away at LaSalle, Raskin, Pooley & Crocket, but to no avail.  An accident of being at the right place at the right time turns him into Lover Doll, a teen heart-throb – all due to the oversexed machinations of buxom Hollywood starlet Rita Marlowe, who wants to make her latest paramour jealous.  Rocky agrees to go along with Rita’s ruse, if, in return, she agrees to participate in an ad campaign for Stay-Put Lipstick, his company’s biggest account.  Along the way, every type of American “keeping up with the Joneses” freakazoid product and fad (ca, 1957) is lampooned and harpooned.  And we’re not kidding.  Even the famed Fox logo isn’t spared, as star Tony Randall shows you how it’s (fanfare is) done.  The credits themselves are a genius mini-lambasting of TV commercials, featuring smarmy salesmen, trapped housewives (“if you’re like me with six dirty children and a big filthy husband…”), and lethal items guaranteed to ruin your lives and the planet’s (WOW! Detergent, with Fallout).

The play opened on the Great White Way on October 13, 1955, running over a year and costarred Orson Bean and Jayne Mansfield, the latter who brilliantly reprises her role here.  Axelrod parodied culture, too – the name itself “Rock Hunter” skewered the immensely popular soaps starring Rock Hudson and often produced by Ross Hunter.  Rita, of course, was a thinly disguised rendition of Marilyn Monroe.

Fox (and, at one early point, Tashlin) wanted Monroe for the movie, but she considered every Tash project a lowlife exercise (reportedly, she faced suspension for turning down The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, then The Girl Can’t Help It – the rock ‘n’ roll classic that put Mansfield over on the screen).  Methinks Tashlin was better off; while Monroe was certainly the bigger star, she never quite had the sense of humor Mansfield had.  Self-parody was likely unthinkable for MM, whereas Mansfield seemed to live for that kind of thing. Long story short, Jaynie was the female equivalent of the director’s favorite male live-action cartoon (Tash began in the Looney Tunes division at Warner Bros.), Jerry Lewis. Suffice to say, she and Randall are terrific together.  In fact, the entire cast of ROCK HUNTER is fantastic; the men: Henry Jones, John Williams, and Mickey Hargitay (the TV jungle man who can’t keep his hairpiece on…the one on his chest) and, natch, the women: Betsy Drake in her finest screen moment and the always wonderful Joan Blondell, who gets many of the best lines (her pining for a milkman, she tells Rita, was shattered when he ran off with another woman:  “She must have liked his brand of cream”).  Then there are the thousands of nubile teens, who covet a piece of Rock for themselves (“the future mothers of America,” as Randall frighteningly relives a recent female attack).  Tashlin considered ROCK HUNTER the pinnacle of his success; the director’s-writer’s-producer’s unbridled creative powers had at last, according to him, properly come into conjunction.  Earlier, in Son of Paleface (1952), Tashlin admitted to throwing everything in but the kitchen sink – one gag after another; by ROCK HUNTER, he felt more assured, counting maybe twenty main gags in the picture.  “I’m most satisfied with WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, said the director in a 1962 interview for Film Culture. “They had to buy the play…to get Mansfield. I tried to get out of using the play and then decided to reverse it and make it into something else entirely.  I only kept maybe one or two [original] speeches…”  He credits his being left alone to Fox suit Buddy Adler. “…there was no compromise…He let me do it my own way.”

As much as I loved Mansfield’s turn in The Girl Can’t Help It, ROCK HUNTER is her crowning achievement (she and Randall would be reunited six years later on Hangover, an episode of The Hitchcock Hour, sadly not the sardonic humor romp viewers might have expected, but a rather somber drama about alcoholism).

To reiterate, Tashlin was certainly given carte blanche, and as the pic’s writer-director-producer, he took full inventive advantage of the op.  Along with  the aforementioned pokes, the entire (then current) Fox schedule is bashed, including Love Me, Tender, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, A Hatful of Rain,plus all the Mansfield titles (Girl Can’t Help It, Kiss Them for Me), most famously, The Wayward Bus, wherein Mansfield’s/Marlowe’s life-sized standee is knocked over by rampaging teenagers…and bodaciously bounces back up.  Rita is later seen reading Peyton Place (the studio’s biggest hit of the year) in her bathtub, while her ever-present poodle is named “Shamroy,” an homage to Fox d.p. Leon Shamroy.  Movies aside, ROCK HUNTER rips into TV quiz shows, juvenile delinquency, rock ‘n’ roll, psychiatric therapy, fan magazines and, basically anything related to the ludicrousness of “celebrity.”

Tashlin’s greatness was not merely his humor, but the means to an end; he wasn’t merely a fine director, but a fine MOVIE director, with an artistic flair for composition, especially when it came to the new widescreen dimensions of CinemaScope (the equally talented Joe MacDonald, who shared the Fox title for top cameraman with Shamroy, expertly lensed ROCK HUNTER in 2.35:1).

Even the music gets the Tashlin treatment, with a sprightly score by Cyril J. Mockridge, and a standout Calypso number (another late Fifties craze) via an original, wacky tune “You Got it Made,” composed by Bobby Troup (and performed by Georgia Carr), presented by Tashlin in what is essentially a sight-gag precursor to a rock video.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? is “simply divoon,” to quote Rita.  After decades of unwatchable pan-and-scan TV prints, or Deluxe Color faded-to-pink alternatives for surviving scope copies (which may have pleased Mansfield, but not really anyone else), the acceptable DVDs have now been put on the back-burner.  This new rendition is the one to own.  Aside from the sensational looking images, the audio has been cleaned up too, offering viewers the option of 2.0 stereo, the original 4.0 stereo, or a remastered 5.1 surround track (the music is available as an IST).  Extras include commentary by Dana Polan, related Fox Movietone newsreels, and the original trailer, the latter being a bit of a curiosity, as it gives away the final gag surrounding Rita’s long-lost and only true love.  Oh, well.

In concert with this extraordinary Blu-Ray release is the publication of Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It, by the likewise extraordinary Eve Golden.  Any reader of celebrity bios knows quite well Eve’s (dare I say?) golden touch, and her latest work is no exception. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read/referenced her fantastic book on Kay Kendall, and this depiction of the life and career of Mansfield may top that.   Mansfield books have always been a two-fingers-down-the-throat affair for serious movie historians (usually scissor-and-paste jobs or gushy gossipy garbage).  This is an exhaustive, superbly researched account, containing Eve’s enviable style and wit.  The fact that she obtained interviews with survivors close to the late star is proof enough of how cool this volume is (they generally run like hell from “writers” seeking an audience).  The book is available from The University Press of Kentucky, Amazon, Barnes & Noble (or wherever the Hell you get your reading material from), and makes a perfect twofer purchase with the above platter.

WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1/4.0/2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment.  SRP: $29.95

JAYNE MANSFIELD: THE GIRL COULDN’T HELP IT. 502 pages/Hardcover. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN: 978-0-8131-8095-3; CAT # 9780813180953.  SRP: $34.95.

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