Right away, Tashlin’s screwing with you.
Over the familiar Fox logo, the longer extended Cinemascope version of it, Tony Randall plays the fanfare, the snare drum and the upright bass, seated in the left-hand corner of the giant scope image.
And as the Fox logo fades out, Randall remains against black, and we cut in close, a distinctly theatrical interaction with the “curtain,” so to speak.
“Oh, the fine print they put in an actor’s contract these days…”
Well, hello, Daffy Duck.
Randall’s not just breaking the fourth wall, he’s doing it in a voice that, considering it was 1957 when “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” was made, belonged almost exclusively to cartoons or humor magazines… but rarely feature Hollywood movies.
It’s a sassy sort of ribbing of the idea of movies in general. It’s explosive deconstruction of form, the way the Looney Tunes cartoons used to do on a regular basis. Little surprise, then, that Frank Tashlin, the director of this live-action film, was one of those legendary Termite Terrace animation gods. This movie is as close as I can imagine to a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon in sensibility, and Tashlin pulls it off perfectly.
[more after the jump]
Do you watch “Mad Men”? Do you love “Mad Men”? Well, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” is one of the sharpest of the movies made during Hollywood’s almost embarrassing love affair with Madison Avenue ad guys, a satire of the world of advertising and of those who idolize the ad guys. It’s subversive, but it’s funny at the same time so people won’t notice. Everybody goes oooooh and aaaaah over “Mad Men,” and I get it. It’s a really solid show, well cast, well written, well played. That’s always welcome on TV. But the world of advertising was just as heavily mined as subject matter at one point as the Western. For some reason, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, people were absolutely fascinated with the notion of the Madison Avenue man. Go read MAD magazine, for example, from that era, and they use that character, that type, almost continuously, as a subject of both ridicule and transparent envy. This movie, from about a minute and a half in, mercilessly ridicules Madison Avenue language and culture and the rising idea of the media-circus celebrity. Tashlin knew what was up, and when he adapted George Axelrod’s play, he made it something gloriously, dizzyingly cinematic.
Randall plays Rockwell P. Hunter, ad man. Employed by La Salle Junior, Raskind, Pooley, and Crockett (“or as we say, LSJRP&C”). Rock lives with his neice April, and he’s in love with Jenny Wells, his secretary. He works directly under Henry Rufus, specifically on the Sta-Put Lipstick campaign. They both answer to Junior. La Salle, Junior, specifically. The boss. As impressive a man as you can be, basically. Everyone’s chasing the big promotion, the key to the executive bathroom, the step up the ladder.
At the start of the film, Rufus tells Rock that the jingle is dead. Singing commercials are dead. He tells him that they’re going to lose the account, and the agency will fold if that happens. Paints it as fait accompli, and then says they have one last meet with the client in the morning, so if there are any big idea hail mary ideas, now’s the time.
At home, April’s obsessed with movie stars and celebrity, and she watches as the architecturally preposterous Rita Marlowe (played with a joyous comic fervor by the architecturally preposterous Jayne Mansfield) speaks to reporters as she leaves California to go enjoy some time in seclusion in New York.
The big a-ha! moment for Rock comes when he connects the oh-so-kissable Rita to the Sta-Put problem, and comes up with the idea that all he has to do is get Rita to agree to endorse the product. Easier said than done, though, and Rock ends up stumbling into the solution to his problem when he manages to talk his way into Rita’s suite just as she’s on the phone with muscle-man Bobo (Mickey Hargitay, her real-life husband), her boyfriend, the reason she’s in New York and in hiding. She wants to make him jealous, so she invents a character, “Lover Boy,” who she presses Rock into playing on the phone. As long as he’s willing to help keep the Lover Boy character alive to keep sticking it to Bobo, she’s willing to work on the Sta-Put campaign.
And in that agreement lies a world of hurt for Rock.
It’s fun as a farce if you just judge the film on a surface level. Tashlin make gorgeous use of the scope frame, and he’s got a great knack for how to keep every moment of the film active and engaging. But what really makes this one of the greats is the way the film constantly subverts expectations and plays with reality and winks at the audience. It’s one of the great surreal comedies, and especially considering when it was made. There’s even a break in the film a half-hour before the ending, “for our television audiences,” making fun of the way attention spans were already changing thanks to commercial breaks and TV running times.
Tony Randall has never been better than he is here. It’s a perfect use of that mix of blistering sarcasm and flustered sincerity and stuffy stoicism. And Tashlin was the one director who knew what the hell to do with Mansfield. Maybe that’s because he was an animation director first, and she’s the closest thing to Jessica Rabbit that I’ve ever seen in the real world. Whatever the case, the cast gels perfectly, characters are constantly revealing quirks you wouldn’t expect, and like “The Apartment,” this 40-something year old film feels incredibly modern. The result is a cocktail that should prove irresistible to audiences who have had their taste for the subject matter re-ignited by “Mad Men,” or to anyone who loves the rhythm and sensibility of Warner Bros. cartoons, or to anyone who laments the lack of truly smart adult comedies out there.
“Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” is such an original, and such a great blend, that you may find it spoils you, because you’ll wonder why it is that more films can’t pull it all together this well.
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