Frank Tashlin’s delightful comedy starring Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield gets the Masters of Cinema treatment
In addition to being one of the most delirious American comedies of its era, Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? has a perfect title. Read as a question, the name implies that this Rock Hunter will achieve “success” and then asks whether said attainment will spoil, or, presumably, alter in the negative, the character. It wonders if Mr. Hunter can balance such success with whatever life he’d enjoyed prior to obtaining it. What’s hidden in the title but waiting in the film is the mocking of not only success but the idea of someone else’s definition of it. A major theme in the picture is how there are forces in society, and often insincere ones, that attempt to tell others what they should want, hence defining success. It’s the 1950s but gosh if it doesn’t feel intensely modern in this idea. All that’s really dated is the specific goal, be it consumerist or careerist or any of the other various -ists worthy of being envied.
Tashlin’s cartoon background is always a major focus of any writing on him. (He directed a number of Looney Tunes shorts, including several black and white Porky Pig entries, and worked with Ub Iwerks.) This is both tiresome, especially since it’s been beaten to death at this point, and also understandable. His films do indeed, perhaps more than any other director’s, have the feel of live-action cartoons. But as much as that’s worth mentioning, it’s also necessary to set it aside sometimes. Tashlin proved capable of bringing much more to Rock Hunter than just the sensibilities he learned at Termite Terrace. The slam-bang comedic qualities of those shorts should not be undervalued but Tashlin captured, with a modicum of help from George Axelrod’s source play, a Mad Men-, The Apartment-eque ennui without really using any pathos. Rock Hunter is comedy through and through, committed to getting laughs in ways few other films would ever or could ever imagine, yet it has a resonance that, while still secondary, seeps into the viewer’s consciousness effortlessly.
Even as a cinematic artifact, having Jayne Mansfield in her best movie and best role seems important. She’s not exactly the lead character but she gets the most headlines. It feels like she’s channeling her public image and, maybe more so, Marilyn Monroe’s. The cult of celebrity is the target and Mansfield is completely in on the gag. Her Rita Marlowe is a movie star, and a shrill and shrewd one at that. She jets off to New York City after a tiff with boy toy Bobo Braniganski (Mickey Hargitay, Mansfield’s contribution to art imitating life). Soon after arriving, she’s on the phone with Bobo while loyal assistant Violet (Joan Blondell) stands by and someone knocks on their hotel room door. Rita wants to make Bobo jealous so she insists that any man who enters will be her new pawn. As it happens, the man who enters is Rockwell P. Hunter (Tony Randall), advertising man and future lover doll. He’s trying to save an account with the agency’s main client Stay-Put Lipstick by getting Rita’s endorsement.
If you’ve not experienced the comedic performances of Tony Randall then you’ve missed the creation of an archetype. In film and, later, television Randall embodied someone who wasn’t an everyman at all. He wasn’t Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart. He was a more confident yet still somehow neurotic version of Lemmon. Randall’s characters tended to have lots of drive and sophistication but they were always trying to eke out a little more. Here the more is, basically, a key to the executive washroom. Rock would very much like to be a vice president so that he can be more financially secure and marry his girlfriend and co-worker Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake). His idea to involve Rita Marlowe comes from Rock’s niece April, who also lives with him. The eventual attachment to Rita finds Rock in a strange place. He’s (humorously) shown to be world-renowned as the famous “lover doll” of Rita’s, and he seems to both get a kick out of and be frightened of such fame.
The plot of Rock Hunter is essentially perfected by Tashlin. It’s paced incredibly well, and done so at quite a fast clip. The performances seem impossible to be improved upon and done, particularly on Mansfield’s part, with endless winks. The wide CinemaScope framing savors one shot after another, and even makes room for a delicious shrinking to accommodate those accustomed to their smaller, squarer television sets. That’s one of Tashlin’s tricks. There are so many of these clever asides. From the start, the 20th Century Fox logo opening is interrupted by Randall playing a variety of instruments and introducing the film (wrongly, at first). That leads to an ingenious titles sequence where the motif of being sold something that’s essentially defective begins.
Just as these fake advertisements ostensibly try to convince viewers that the products shown are things that absolutely must be added to everyone’s household, the “success” alluded to in the film’s title is teased as the ultimate aspiration. This is Rock’s feeling, represented by the washroom key, and it matches well against both the advertising and movie aspects explored. Advertising is primarily concerned with convincing consumers that such and such product must be purchased while the movie industry and its various leeching entities are in business to entice ticket buyers that each and every new picture is the ultimate of its sort and, thus, something that can’t be missed. Both rackets are selling you (the 1950s version and the modern one) things you really don’t need but they’re doing so by claiming that anything and everything else comparable is clearly inferior. It’s a clear scam, and the film is brazenly attempting to equate the advertising hucksters with their movie studio brethren.
Throughout, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a brilliant satire on modern living and trying to figure out what we want versus what we need. It swings at a great number of targets, usually hitting them to sly effect, but without any hint of a mean or acerbic streak. Tashlin, unlike my beloved Billy Wilder, didn’t need acid to deliver his comedies. He instead tended to layer the films and laughs in something that might initially be misleading but ultimately can be appreciated now for the level of wit and charm that was used. What I especially like about Rock Hunter is that it’s always in on the joke without coming across as smug. I don’t know, honestly, whether there was a better American comedy released in the 1950s.
The great news is that Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series has brought Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? to Blu-ray. The bad news, for some, is that the single-layered disc is locked to Region B (plus there’s no DVD equivalent). At this point, it seems impossible to imagine Fox releasing this title on Blu-ray disc in Region A. It only emerged on DVD as part of a Jayne Mansfield box set in R1 and still hasn’t had an individual release. I guess the moral would be to invest in a region-free player if you haven’t already. The Criterion Collection and MoC are, probably through no real fault of their own, forcing savvy consumers to be able to play both Region A and Region B discs in order to enjoy the best of what can be had in the marketplace.
The transfer is simply spectacular and immaculate and other beautiful superlatives. It’s an amazing watch. Tashlin’s colors burst forth from the screen in such vivid clarity that it’s difficult to believe this film is well over fifty years old. Transitions from scene to scene can be a little uneven but this is an issue relating to the materials rather than this presentation. I believe this marks the third Fox-licensed Blu-ray from MoC (after Sunrise and City Girl) and they’ve all looked just incredible. Now how about a noir, like an upgrade of Nightmare Alley? No damage is evident here. Really, no complaints period. A beautiful transition into high definition. The wide Scope image is respected, with the aspect ratio here at approximately 2.35:1.
Audio also gets a boost to an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. It’s a clean and impressive listen that ups the clarity on even the Fox DVD. Dialogue is emitted smoothly and at a consistent volume. The “You’ve Got It Made” song sounds quite nice. One potential quibble is that the Fox disc tried to reproduce the original four-channel audio that the film played with in cinemas while MoC opted not to use the extra speakers. A second audio option is the alternate music and effects track. It has a few differences from the final version, including the opening music, and apparently exists as an earlier work-in-progress. That too is in DTS-HD audio. There are optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired provided.
The extra features on the disc are not plentiful but they do include an exclusive introduction (6:42) by filmmaker Joe Dante, shot at his office in Los Angeles. It’s in HD, as are the short Movietone piece (0:57) with Jayne Mansfield and the original theatrical trailer (2:23).
Regarding the booklet for this release, I can only repeat what MoC list as its contents because I haven’t been able to view it for myself. The insert is billed as a “44-page booklet featuring two new essays by film writer David Cairns, and an exclusive 2003 interview about the film with Tony Randall, conducted by Ethan DeSeife.” Because this clearly makes up a significant portion of the supplemental material I’m omitting a score for that section. If the booklet is later provided for review I will update accordingly.
Possibly the best American comedy of the fifties, looking better than ever.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum