Promises! Promises! Review
Promises! Promises! is one of those films better known for its ‘contribution’ to the history of cinema than it is for any qualities or artistic merit it may possess. This is the film in which Jayne Mansfield, in 1963, became the first Hollywood star to go nude in an American picture since the silent era. Admittedly this was in an independent picture - filmed in Hollywood, but outside of the studio system - and at a time when the Hays Code was coming to end but yet to be replaced by the MPAA. Nonetheless it still found itself banned in certain parts of the US and even saw Hugh Hefner in court as a result of pre-release publicity in Playboy magazine; all, in retrospect, simply because of Mansfield’s breasts. Indeed, watching the film as it finally arrives in UK, almost fifty years after its very first showings, it really is hard to see what all the fuss is about. In part because things have moved on drastically since then, but mainly because Promises! Promises! is an awful piece of filmmaking.
Based on a play by Edna Sheklow entitled The Plant, it was transferred to the screen by William Welch and Tommy Noonan. Welch would go on to script a number of episodes for Irwin Allen’s various fantasy series - Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel, et al - whereas Noonan was better known as an actor. Many reading this will immediately identify him as the man who played Marilyn Monroe’s fiancé in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a film which Promises! Promises! really strives to emulate. As with the Howard Hawks classic this is a cruise ship-set sex comedy with a rather famous blonde occupying its lead role. There’s even a musical number or two, but here all similarities end. Whereas Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had Charles Lederer lending the dialogue continual spark and wit, ably backed up by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson’s new compositions for the soundtrack, Promises! Promises! sees Welch and Noonan turning out limp line after limp line. Meanwhile the tunes by Hal Borne (not usually a slouch) are instantly forgettable.
To be fair we shouldn’t be expecting a secret masterpiece or indeed invoke Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in any way. The bottom line is that Promises! Promises! is nothing more than a cheapo sexploitation flick made using no more than a handful of sets and as much stock footage of cruise liners as it could muster. This was part of Mansfield’s gradual career decline, the one-time star of such Frank Tashlin classics as The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? reduced to making a nudie. In-between times there had been brief excursions into British and European cinema, initially on loan from Fox, which occasionally threw up an interesting role even if the pictures themselves weren’t always that great (I wrote about 1960’s The Challenge here). Still, they never exploited Mansfield which, in all truth, is exactly what it feels like Promises! Promises! is doing. This isn’t a star breaking the boundaries by going topless for a number of scenes - this is a star reduced to going topless for a number of scenes.
These scenes total mere seconds and all come towards the start of the picture: Mansfield in the bathtub; Mansfield towelling off; Mansfield in bed after a night with her husband (played by Noonan). Yet those seconds get repeated time and again, under the guise of flashbacks, which only goes to show just how tawdry Promises! Promises! is. There’s no genuine reason for these moments to be repeated other than, presumably, to appease the punter who bought his ticket following the Playboy coverage. Of course there shouldn’t be any issue with nudity in a sex comedy - the two should go hand-in-hand surely - but here the filmmakers simply make the affair come across as rather seedy. Had it been an unknown actress in the Mansfield role would the idea of a number of topless scenes have even occurred? The answer, more than likely, is a straightforward no. (The posthumous ‘documentary’ The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield - very much an exploitation pic - similarly got plenty of mileage out of the nude scenes alongside revealing production stills and even photos of her fatal car crash.)
Just as problematic, albeit for different reasons, is the rest of the picture. The cheap sets and dialogue-heavy approach make Promises! Promises! seem like nothing more than a particularly poor sitcom complete with strained situations (the central premise is that Noonan has gotten Mansfield pregnant despite being declared impotent… so someone else must be the father) and a reliance on stereotypes. With regards to the latter here we find Noonan as the nervy, whiney white male, Mansfield (of course) as the dumb, giggly blonde, Mickey Hargitay as the equally dumb foreign bodybuilder and T.C. Jones as a shockingly broad collection of camp characteristics. The sheer simplicity of each invites complete non-performances from each with Hargitay arguably coming out on top in terms of awfulness. Of course he and Mansfield (who were also husband and wife) had previously appeared together in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a film that knew how to deal with such cartoon-ish personalities and, more importantly, dealt with them extremely well. Promises! Promises!, on the other hand, has no such quality, indeed no qualities at all beyond a certain perverse fascination such is its cheap, tawdry nature.
Promises! Promises! is gaining a UK DVD release on October 3rd courtesy of Odeon Entertainment. Part of their ‘Hollywood Collection’, it comes in a fashion now typical of the company: dual-layered disc with decent if unexceptional presentation and rather light on the extras. The film itself is presented uncut (according to the BBFC for the first time in the UK; previous submissions, in 1963 and 1967 respectively, were rejected outright) and at a ratio of approximately 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. The print used is in mostly good condition, although the transfer does demonstrate moderate ghosting and some compression artefacts. Nevertheless, for a cheapo black and white production from the early sixties, it still looks fairly decent. The soundtrack fares a little worse and isn’t quite as crisp as we would hope, though this never really impacts too heavily on the viewer. Optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are not available. As for special features here we find a two-minute trailer, which emphasises the nudity more than the laughs and makes special mention of the film’s Playboy coverage, and an animated photo gallery consisting of 40 lobby cards, production stills and posters alongside some CGI bubbles no doubt intended to ape the opening credit sequence.