Movie of the Month: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Alli watch Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).

Brandon: Maybe it’s time to let Marilyn Monroe rest for a bit.  After decades of simmering her legacy on the backburners of dorm room posters & TCM reruns of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, we’ve been wringing Monroe’s memory pretty hard for its few remaining drips of glamor & despair.  Andrew Dominik’s torture-porn biopic Blonde recently gave Monroe the full Passion of the Christ treatment; Ana de Armas has claimed that Monroe’s ghost has been haunting her since taking on that role; and Kim Kardashian has been raiding & altering Monroe’s actual, real-life wardrobe for an especially morbid version of red-carpet cosplay.  It’s too much.  Monroe does not need her legacy to be refreshed, revamped, or reexamined on a regular basis; her eternal icon status has been secure since as far back as Andy Warhol screen-printing endless matrices of her face to commemorate her death over a half-century ago.  Unless we’re going to bring Monroe up to praise her acting talents—which are still too often outshined by praise for her beauty—there’s really no reason to bring her up at all.  Let her rest.

Someone who could use a modern reassessment is the far less respected but equally tragic Jayne Mansfield, who has mostly been remembered as a cheap imitation of Monroe, when remembered at all.  Mansfield was often cast and marketed as the Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe alternative even in her time, but she did manage to push her screen persona beyond that rigid typecasting to become her own distinct, wonderful thing.  I always thought of Jayne Mansfield as someone who starred in a couple minor roles before her life & career were abruptly cut short in a horrific car accident, but she’s got a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb—ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies—most of which have nothing to do with her designated place in Marilyn’s shadow.  Obviously, few people are as eager to devour Mansfield’s dozens of acting credits as they are to devour Monroe’s, but at the very least I think more attention should be paid to her two most iconic performances: her collaborations with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin. 

Mansfield & Tashlin’s first film together, the 1956 rock-and-roll comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, is the ultimate example of a movie studio pigeonholing Mansfield as a Monroe stand-in instead of allowing her to be her own thing.  Monroe made her secretly-smart-ditz schtick look so easy that you can only tell how tricky it is when someone else bungles it.  Mansfield is adorable as the drag club caricature of that archetype in The Girl Can’t Help It, though, and it’s amusing that her … questionable talents are essential to the plot of that starring-role debut.  She plays the reluctant girlfriend of a gangster who’s forcing her into a nightclub-singer career she does not want (or even have the talent) to pursue, which mostly just allows Tashlin to interject the story with standalone concert performances from Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, and the like.  Mansfield looks fantastic in her snatched-waist wardrobe—an effect wonderfully compounded by the endless supply of horndog men who make cartoon wolf-eyes at her, milk boiling out of their bottles & popcorn popping out their bags like premature ejaculate—and her breathy obliviousness is a delightfully absurd exaggeration of retro femininity.  It just sucks that the comparisons to Monroe’s similar not-so-ditzy ditzes are so unavoidable, since Mansfield’s character & performance are not allowed to have the same depth & nuance as Monroe’s most iconic roles.

It wasn’t until her next Tashlin collab, the 1957 ad industry satire Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, that Mansfield really came into her own as a screen persona.  Her drag-club Marilyn caricature is adorable enough in The Girl Can’t Help It, but she pushes the act to such a transcendent extreme in the next film that the comparison is obliterated entirely.  Mansfield is pure bimbo mayhem in Rock Hunter, turning every inhale of breath into an orgasmic squeal and every costume change into a mind-blowing reveal.  Instead of playing an exaggeration of Monroe, she’s playing an exaggeration of herself – complete with verbal, metatextual references to her Girl Can’t Help It stardom.  It’s like watching a pro wrestler get assigned a go-nowhere, mood-killing gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a cartoonish extreme.  Even the teen girls of Rock Hunter have a crush on Mansfield, not just the men passing by, and you feel that lasting Ultimate Bimbo legacy influence future women who’ve played that same archetype (notably including Elvira, whose pet poodle in Mistress of the Dark was likely an homage to Mansfield’s here).  Tashlin matches Mansfield’s nuclear zaniness in his direction of Rock Hunter too, firing off rapid-fire sex jokes and TV commercial parodies as if he were consciously bridging the temporal gap between The Marx Brothers and ZAZ.  In retrospect, The Girl Can’t Help It feels like a trial run for the film where they really set out to cut loose, which tracks with the knowledge that Rock Hunter started as a Broadway stage play (also starring Mansfield) before The Girl Can’t Help It was developed.  I could recount the details of its barebones sitcom plot here, in which a movie star babe (Mansfield) fakes a tabloid-friendly romance with a schlubby ad executive (Tony Randall) in order to make her beefcake boyfriend Bobo jealous, but plot is far beside the point.  The entire film only exists in service of celebrating Mansfield as a unique screen persona and allowing Tashlin to stage chaotic, live-action Looney Tunes gags.

I understand, logically, why The Girl Can’t Help It was the Tashlin-Mansfield collaboration that landed a spiffy new Criterion restoration.  There’s a distinct pop-art iconography to it that is undeniably potent, as indicated by the homage of its titular, eye-popping strut in Pink Flamingos (which also got a Criterion polish last year).  It’s very proud of its technical beauty, bragging about its indulgences in “the grandeur of Cinemascope” and “the gorgeous, lifelike color of DeLuxe” in its William Castle-style intro.  It’s clear to me, though, that Tashlin & Mansfield were at their absolute best in their latter collaboration, which exaggerates everything that’s great about The Girl Can’t Help It to a beautifully ludicrous extreme.  Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? taught me how to appreciate Jayne Mansfield as her own distinct persona, breaking her out of the Marilyn Monroe impersonator box I used to store her in (despite her Rock Hunter character being written as a spoof of Monroe’s performance in The Seven Year Itch).  Did y’all have a similar experience?  Did y’all also walk away from Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? ready to worship at the altar of Jayne Mansfield, giving Monroe’s much-visited gravestone a much-needed break?

Boomer: You’re probably not going to like this answer very much. I thoroughly enjoyed Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but for me, Mansfield’s performance was the thing that I liked least about it. Every time she did a new outfit reveal or va-va-voomed into the scene with her poor dyed dog in tow, I got very excited about the scene to come, but as soon as she let out one of her distinctive nail-on-chalkboard squeals the effect was ruined for me, as every goose pimple on my body swelled and my teeth ground together of their own will. For my money, the worst scene in the entire movie is when Rock’s girlfriend Jenny (Betsy Drake) does her own impression of that dolphin-in-mortal-pain screech, since it’s clear that it’s just a recording of Mansfield played out of sync with Drake’s mouth movements, making it doubly painful. 

Don’t let my description of that hellish, blood-curdling, hellish, glass-shattering, hellish noise in the above paragraph fool you, though; I really enjoyed this one. For some reason I’ve always thought that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? was queer somehow, and not just because it seemed to name the main character for the two great closet cases of Hollywood’s golden era, Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. When I was old enough to spend the day at home alone as a kid but was still too young to get into any real trouble, I spent my unmonitored days completely engrossed with television: wake up and watch Lost in Space on Sci-Fi, then The Carol Burnett Show on The Family Channel, then the USA morning block of syndicated sitcoms that started with Wings and included various short-livers like Something So RightThe Naked TruthWorkingJesse, etc., then over to Law and Order on A&E, followed by an hour-long block of The Odd Couple before One Day at a Time came on E! (explains a lot, doesn’t it?). I really enjoyed The Odd Couple, because I saw something of myself in Tony Randall’s iconic performance as the obsessively clean Felix Unger, who was counterposed with the filthy laziness of Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison. Even though the show’s concept was that both men were living as roommates after their mid-life divorces and many plots revolved around one or the other going on dates with girlfriends both short and long term, Randall portrayed Felix in a playfully effete way that always made me feel like the show was dancing around its subtext for reasons of censorship. This did make it a little difficult for me to buy Rock Hunter as a hetero leading man in this, which is doubly surprising given that I looked him up and discovered that he was straight in real life (so straight, in fact, that he had a son in the late nineties at the age of 78, the old dog). 

I don’t have any hard and fast rules about whether or not I read the prompts for these MotM roundtables before I watch the movie we’re going to discuss; there’s often value in seeing what one of the other critics thought about the film (especially if it’s their submission) so I have that framework going into the screening, but I also (in general) like to go into most movie viewings with as little knowledge as possible, since I think it’s more fun that way. Discovering that Brian Jordan Alvarez was in M3GAN by seeing the movie (my friend: “Caleb Gallo is in this?!”) was a lot more fun than going in with the expectation that he’d show up. For this one, I’m glad I watched the movie first, since I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much or had the same experience if I had gone into it with Mansfield so firmly lodged in the forefront of my mind. To be honest, if this hadn’t been the prompt, I might not have mentioned her at all (already, my mind is suppressing the memory of her scenes so try and get that nightmare audio down into the dark recesses of my mind alongside my various other traumas). Other than her appearance in the opening credits, it takes ten minutes for her to reappear on the television that Rock’s niece April (Lili Gentle) is watching. This scene is also her best, as she engages in effortless, oblivious wordplay via misunderstanding the meaning of the words that her attendant Violet (Joan Blondell) exchanges with local media. Rita is actually very funny and Mansfield does a great job with the material (her non-advertising advertisement for Stay-Put at the end is a perfect capstone), but she wasn’t what drew me into the picture most. As funny as she was, I much preferred the sight gags that lend this movie its cartoonish feeling – not just exploding bags of popcorn and smoking pipes, but bizarrely-bent arms as the result of too many push-ups and a water cooler that gurgles along with a song in a psychedelic office sequence. I am curious enough about The Girl Can’t Help It to check it out, though, although I might have to turn it off if there’s more of that trilling hell sound. 

Britnee: I’ve known about Jayne Mansfield for a long time. Not because of her acting career, but because of her iconic photos where she’s either holding her precious chihuahua or letting her areolas slip out of her low-cut silk dress while catching side-eye from Sophia Loren. She is an obvious major influence on the modern day bimbo aesthetic (which I am fascinated by), and I’m so glad to get to know her more by dipping into her short-lived acting career. I absolutely loved Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? I had a lot of laughs and gasped for breath every time Jayne appeared in a scene. Her presence is so bold, and her wardrobe is absolutely stunning. I’ve been re-watching earlier seasons of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and there’s such an obvious connection between Jayne’s form-fitting gowns in the film and what Ru wears on the runway. Not even just the gowns, but Ru’s hair, silhouette, and catwalks are spot-on to Jayne’s Rita Marlowe character.

I could gush on and on about Mansfield’s look and stage presence, but she’s so much more. She’s a comedy queen! I love that she elevated the character of Rita into an over the top cartoonish bimbo. She leaned into the campiness of Rock Hunter and stole the show. I can’t help but think of the scene where she’s on the phone while getting a massage as a perfect example of how she is really smart at being ridiculous. Rock Hunter is desperately trying to get her to endorse a lipstick brand, while she’s trying to make her boyfriend jealous by over exaggerating his success. She doesn’t skip a beat, and each word flows so naturally. It’s such a shame that we lost her so early. Can you imagine what sorts of films she would’ve made in her 70s? Another Mae West for sure!

Also, I love that she was reading Peyton Place in her iconic bubble bath scene, which is the novel our previous Movie of the Month was based on. Everything in the Swampflix world is so connected!

Alli: I agree that we should give poor Marilyn a break. I love her as an actress and as a bi-con (an iconic bisexual), but society has been fairly ghoulish about her lately. I have to admit that while I’ve been familiar with her name and style I haven’t had as much experience with Jayne Mansfield as an actress, but I very much enjoyed this. I love her exaggerated bimbo act. It was just bubbly enough while also not being overly polished, so it just seemed like she was having a good time. It’s very infectious and cute as heck. Her performance perfectly fit in with the self-aware tone of the movie.

I like that nothing about this movie takes itself seriously. From the beginning we’ve got an outrageous opening with Tony Randall introducing the film as himself and then switching over to in-character narration. Then there’s the string of parody commercials overloaded with wonderful visual gags. Not to mention Jayne Mansfield’s performance, a break in the middle so that TV-watchers don’t feel left out, suggestive popcorn popping and, as Boomer mentioned, the surreal celebration Hunter has in the middle of the night in his office at the movie’s climax. Just an amazing spoof throughout. Yes, Jayne’s comic performance takes the cake here, but no one else is a slouch, especially not Tashlin’s writing. 

Piggybacking off of Boomer again, I was also surprised that this movie is mostly straight. I was expecting some queer coding given the title, and that might have been my only disappointment. I started out with some hope given the niece’s absolute obsession with this total babe of a movie star, complete with the wall above her bed being covered in photos of Mansfield. Nothing about that bedroom decor screamed straight to me at all, but alas, it only amounted to a jab at teenage obsession with celebrity. 


Alli: I really loved the dance scene in the club. It was so great. Oftentimes in club scenes, everyone is a graceful and wonderful dancer, but not here. Here they are a bunch of realistic white people who have no clue what they’re doing. They’re giving it their all, though, so B for effort and enthusiasm.

Brandon: To preserve our friendship, I’ll be brief in rebutting the despicable things Boomer said about Mansfield’s vocal performance above. I’ll concede that it’s absurdly shrill, but I believe that was very much the intent, and it was used to brilliant comedic and, in a roundabout way, feminist effect. I wouldn’t change an impossibly high note of it.

Britnee: Apparently, there’s a made-for-TV movie called The Jayne Mansfield Story starring the one and only Loni Anderson as Jayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mickey Hargitay. I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like my kind of train wreck. It’s only a matter of time before it lands on Tubi.

Boomer: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Tres Chic shampoo girl seen in the film’s opening is played by none other than Majel Barrett, aka Mrs. Gene Roddenberry, aka Nurse Chapel, the voice of the Enterprise computer, and Lwaxana Troi. This was apparently her first role and she went uncredited. I’ve never actually seen (or heard) her in anything that wasn’t Star Trek related, so this was a very pleasant surprise and immediately endeared me to the film. I also have a fondness for John Williams, who plays the would-be-horticulturist for whom Rock works; he appeared in ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including some undeniable classics like “The Rose Garden,” “The Long Shot,” and “Banquo’s Chair.” 

Next: Boomer presents A Night in Heaven (1983)

-The Swampflix Crew

One thought on “Movie of the Month: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

  1. Pingback: Bonus Features: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? | Swampflix

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