Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

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From a corny title comes a  wonderfully corny opening complete with Tony Randall playing the opening notes of the 20th-Century theme and reading off a few cue cards to introduce the film.

What follows is much in the same vein. I sense this is all the doing of Frank Tashlin — the man who found his origins in the animated shorts of the 1940s and subsequently partnered with Jerry Lewis as well as Bob Hope in some of their best pictures.

Here he creates a zany world indeed. I feel inclined to play the comparison game: It’s part Bye Bye Birdie (1963), part Doris Day-Rock Hudson Rom-Com (contemporary numbers like Lover Come Back or  The Thrill of It All both spring to mind), and yet it manages to be a cut above of all of those subsequent contenders.

Tashlin in writing the script and directing has given the film a truly inventive lifeblood which is part satire, part romance, and all comedy in the traditions that he knows best — namely visual comedy. There’s the pomp and circumstance of getting a key to the executive washroom or the appalling unsightliness of some of the garish interiors, not to mention Jayne Mansfield’s prized poodle.

It seems important to start with Rock Hunter since his name is in the title of the picture. Rock (Randall) is a middle-range partner in a New York advertising agency. His aspirations aren’t too grand. He’s in love with his secretary and hopes to be wed soon and his niece lives with him. That’s important.

But everything changes the day that this little man has a big idea that could propel La Salle Agency to the top of the game. Why not get that beloved bodacious personality Rita Marlowe (Mansfield) to promote their “Stay Put Lipstick” brand with her trademark “Oh so kissable lips” and shrieking sigh?

The only problem is getting in contact with the clandestine star who has gone into hiding following a nasty breakup with her latest boyfriend. Although it doesn’t prove overly difficult as Rock has a key in — his niece is the president of the Rita Marlowe fan club and that means something.

Soon he finds himself face-to-face with the superstar lounging in the bathtub on the telephone with her old beau. At the behest of Rita, Rock masquerades as her boyfriend over the phone (as the first living, breathing male who walks through the door). Then she proceeds to give him a smooch on the lips that causes the already popped popcorn in his back pockets to pop again. Amazing.

Rock Hunter’s a little woozy from the experience bringing traffic to a standstill as if he’s just seen a goddess or something. Tabloids get a hold of it and the media frenzy kicks up the dust once the news breaks out about “Lover Doll” aka Rock Hunter who watches his stock skyrocket overnight. What makes it even funnier is the fact that this is no Conrad Birdie. This is a nobody middle-aged executive played by the always lovable often despondent-looking Tony Randall.

His new life involves being accosted in back alleyways by teenyboppers and a row of new public appearances with Rita in order to get her involvement in backing the company’s product. It’s all in a day’s work but to say it strains things with Jenny is putting it lightly.

The narrative is chock full of shameless plugs and bits of self-referential commentary be it Jayne Mansfield’s own The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Elvis’s “Love Me Tender,” and the romantic hit Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955). Meanwhile, Rita reads lurid Peyton Place in the bubble bath and the inimitable Groucho Marx makes a prominent cameo as Rita’s long lost love. The best phrase by far is the liberal use of “The poop!” It pretty much sums up what you are in for.

Undubitably this is Mansfield’s most notable role and it works because she’s really playing a version of herself, the tabloid icon that she was and one of the purported answers to Marilyn Monroe’s movie stardom. As such she does a fine job with the wacky comedy and it’s true that she too exudes that certain brand of innocent sexuality though she never was in the high caliber films that Marilyn could claim.

Wisecracking Joan Blondell is at it as well as Marlowe’s assistant who still finds a moment or two to wax philosophical about lost love. Tony Randall is just as enjoyable as he’s ever been except he’s a lead instead of a third wheel which proves to be a delightful change of pace.

Possibly the best gag involves an extended intermission or commercial break with Randall lauding the remarkable invention of television which subsequently turns him black and white and cuts off most of his face in its limited 21 inches before readjusting and being overtaken by static.

In just a few seconds of film Tashlin effectively shreds the industry that was slowly taking over for sheer convenience and making the picture shows of old a near dying breed. And of course, not to be outdone there has to be some lip service paid to radio enthusiasts who in themselves were all but dead. Here is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that plays to its strengths.

3.5/5 Stars

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