Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?: A Review


It's hard to tell when watching Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? whether it is either a parody or a very long in-joke that everyone (contemporary audiences included) is in on.  It makes things (complicated/bizarre) when you think that at certain points, the film appears to be almost documentary-like in terms of the line between reality and fiction rather than just straight feature film.   Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? at times looks like what it was meant to be: a comedy that worked in its own universe.  Sometimes though, it plays less like a movie and more like a document to 1950s sexual mores, with some rather daring double entendres that even today might be a bit much.  Still, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is perfectly aware of what it is, and the fact that everyone is in on the joke (and sometimes perpetuate the joke) makes it an enjoyable, offbeat romp.

Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall) is an advertising executive who is facing the potential loss of a major client, Stay-Put Lipstick.  His fiancée/secretary Jenny (Betsy Drake) frets for him, while his niece April (Lili Gentle) is oblivious to anything wrong with Uncle Rock.  She is too excited about her favorite all-time star, blonde bombshell Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) coming to New York.  Ostensibly to get away to heal from a broken heart, Marlowe is 'in seclusion' to both secretly form her own production company and as a way to make her newest lover, television star/muscleman Bobo Branigansky (Mikey Hargitay) jealous.  Marlowe is especially furious when Branigansky suggests she'll come crawling back to him.

Rock accidentally sees the live coverage of Marlowe's arrival at Idlewild Airport, accompanied by her secretary/girl Friday Violet (Joan Blondell), and is shocked to see April had ditched school to serve her duties as President of the Rita Marlowe Fan Club to greet her.  However, when he sees Marlowe and her trademark "oh-so-kissable" lips, an idea comes to him: get Marlowe as a spokesperson for Stay-Put Lipstick.  However, since she's in 'seclusion', it will be next to impossible to get to her.  Fortunately, April overheard what hotel she was hiding out in, and Rock goes to her.

At the right time too, for Marlowe is on the phone with Bobo, and uses Rock to make him jealous, passing him off as her newest lover.  Bobo takes to the airwaves to reveal Rockwell P. Hunter as Marlowe's newest "Lover Doll", with an oblivious Rock unaware of the publicity.

Soon the media frenzy grows to outlandish levels. April dreams of "Aunt Rita", and Rock finds himself the object of unhealthy obsession among Marlowe's fans and the public at large, his ordinary looks apparently belying a great lover.  Soon, both strike a deal: in return for Marlowe's endorsement of Stay-Put, Rock will have to keep up this "Love Doll" shtick.  Rock is eager to go along with it to save his job, and his advertising partner Rufus (Henry Jones) as well as the President of the Agency, Irving La Salle, Jr. (John Williams) are thrilled the company is saved.

Not so thrilled is Jenny, who truly believes, despite Rock's constant protests, that he is fooling around with the uber-buxom movie star.  Viv for her part is worried Marlowe is repeating history by taking on a new squire as a replacement for her one true love, George Schmidlap, the man who discovered her.  Both Marlowe and Hunter use each other to get what they want, but discover that neither is happy.  In fact, everyone pretty much discovers success isn't all it's cracked up to be, but in the end everyone discovers that true success is the art of being happy.

Rita and George reunite in a television special, leaving Rock and Jenny to fully reconcile (and Rock to become a chicken farmer).  La Salle, Jr. leaves his family's ad firm to become a horticulturalist (his great dream), and Viv and Rufus find love with each other.  All things work out well for everyone.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is fully aware of itself, which is why even nearly sixty years later (and nearly fifty years since Mansfield's tragic death in 1967 in a car accident) the film has an offbeat charm that is fascinating to watch.  I think this comes from the fact that not only is everyone in on the joke, but in some cases actually perpetuates the joke. 

Mansfield in particular is fully aware that "Rita Marlowe" is meant to be a wild exaggeration of both herself and THE main bombshell of the era, Marilyn Monroe.  Marlowe is by no means 'stupid'.  On the contrary: she's shrewd about her public persona and how to manipulate the press for her own ends.  At times Marlowe can come across as disinterested in others (such as when she calls April Rockwell "President Huntley) and other times as ignorant.  Take this exchange between Marlowe and Rock regarding "that Communist Queen".  A puzzled Rock tells her that Catherine the Great wasn't a Communist.  "She was a Czarina".  "I don't care what was wrong with her," an oblivious Rita replies.

Still, while Marlowe is meant as a spoof of blonde bombshells (particularly the dumb blonde), Mansfield was smart enough to be fully aware of what she was doing.  She actually makes Marlowe a sympathetic character, particularly when she insults Viv regarding Viv's past love life.  Rushing out of the bubble bath she was in, her sincere regret about hurting her friend's feeling is genuine, revealing a big heart beneath her...well, you know.

She is certainly in on the joke, as is the film itself. At times, it is as if the film is TOO aware of itself, as if Mansfield is not so much playing Marlowe as she is playing an exaggerated version of Mansfield.  There are her trademark squeals, her catchphrase of describing something wonderful as "Devuun" (as opposed to 'divine').  "Marlowe" has just come from "her" screen triumph The Girl Can't Help It (which was Mansfield's big film) and "Marlowe" has a new film coming up we're told by an off-screen reporter, Kiss Them For Me co-starring Cary Grant. In reality, Mansfield's next film was...Kiss Them For Me, co-starring...Cary Grant.    

Mansfield, who originated the role of Marlowe on Broadway has nice comic timing, never pushing a gag or forcing her lines to be funny.  "I have no romance.  All my lovers and I are just friends", she tells the press on her arrival.  Apart from the fact that this is a particularly daring line for the conservative 1950s, it is amusing in her delivery of it. 

However, in terms of daring, nothing beats Randall's description of himself on his way to a fake elopement (where Marlowe 'faints' at his kiss just before the justice of the peace can legally marry them).  "You've never been in the majors", she says.  He replies, smirk emerging, that he hasn't.  "I guess until now I've been a...bush leaguer".  I had to replay that a few times to confirm I'd heard perhaps one of the most bold double entendres in the Eisenhower era.

Randall plays his everyman persona so well, making Rock's 'seduction' into the good life amusing (as is his terrified flight from Marlowe's fans at the sight of "Lover Doll"). His flummoxed nature, his efforts to convince Jenny that he has eyes only for her and not the blonde bombshell is typical Randall, but done so well.

Director/writer Frank Tashin (freely adapting the original George Axelrod play) was wise to use strong actors in supporting roles.  Of particular note is Blondell as the wisecracking secretary.  When April says she's going to see The Girl Can Help It again, Blondell stage whispers to her, "Brave girl".  She even manages to make gentle moments funny.  As she talks about her own lost true love, she comments how her milkman was lost to a silent film star who failed when sound came in.  "She couldn't speak English, being from Texas", she laments.  Her straight face about it makes it all the more hilarious. 

Drake has a particularly funny moment when she tries to 'vamp it up' as a Marlowe knockoff, using the walk, the squeals, and the "Devuun" catchphrase to great comic effect.  About the only one I wasn't pleased with was Gentle's April, who both tried too hard to be 'funny' and who was sometimes pretty much forgotten for long stretches.

The film can also be a bit dated with its spoof of advertising and television (at one point, there's an 'intermission' as a commercial break where the differences between the large screen and the 21" television is made.  Little did they know...). Still, that makes for curious viewing now, a record of how things were back then. It gives it again a slight charm in its way.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? works as a spoof of advertising and Hollywood and as a long in-joke about the screen personas of its stars.  It is funny (particularly Blondell) and Mansfield is a delight as she caricatures herself.  It's a nice film that does what it set out to do: laugh and laugh at itself.  


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