Our current Movie of the Month, 1957’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, finds Jayne Mansfield at the height of her manic bimbo superpowers. Mansfield already strutted her outrageous proportions & bubbly-ditz persona to great comedic effect in her first collaboration with Looney Tunes legend Frank Tashlin, 1956’s The Girl Can’t Help It, but she wasn’t allowed to step outside her usual cultural designation as the Great Value™ Marilyn Monroe in that picture. In Rock Hunter, Mansfield finally strayed far enough outside Marilyn’s looming shadow to pioneer her own territory in high-femme comedic vamping. 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, bad-vibes gimmick and then somehow win over the crowd by playing it as a ludicrous self-caricature. It’s the film where she out-Marilyned Marilyn to such an absurd extreme that the comparison is obliterated entirely.
No viewing of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is complete without also having seen its rock ‘n roll sister film The Girl Can’t Help It, but if you’ve already graduated from The Frank Tashlin School of Jayne Mansfield Studies, there’s still plenty more of Mansfield’s career left to explore. Mansfield has a few dozen credits to her name on IMDb, ranging from dead-serious noirs to ribald slapstick comedies. None that I have seen can compete with the sublime silliness of her collaborations with Tashlin, but there’s still more to Mansfield’s screen persona than those two consecutive roles. So, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to bask in more of her weaponized bimbo glamour.
The Wayward Bus (1957)
In 1957’s The Wayward Bus, Mansfield plays a famous stripper on the run, dodging unwanted nudie magazine notoriety on a bumpy bus trip down to a Mexican hideout. That makes the film sound a lot lighter & sillier than it is in practice, which is evident as soon as the title card announces its literary prestige as “John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus,” a serious drama for serious adults. Mansfield stars opposite several character actors running away from their problems on the titular Sweetheart bus (including a young Joan Collins as the bus driver’s violently alcoholic wife), but much of the drama revolves around how difficult it is for her fellow passengers to avert their eyes from her striking figure. It’s both the only movie I’ve seen where Jayne Mansfield was actually asked to Act, and the only one where her outrageous silhouette was treated as a liability instead of a superpower. A sordid little stage drama set in motion by the magic of rear protection in the bus’s windows, The Wayward Bus suffered a long line of production delays that eventually made room for Mansfield in the cast after cycling through bigger-name actors like Marlon Brando, Gene Tierney, Joanne Woodward, Robert Mitchum, and Shelley Winters, despite being a relatively standard-issue studio picture. That delay was a blessing in giving Mansfield some space to test out her dramatic chops, but also a curse in that it pushed its release to one year after Monroe’s similar roadside noir Bus Stop – to which it was inevitably, unfavorably compared in the press.
Too Hot to Handle (1960)
Mansfield also plays a jaded, troubled stripper in 1960’s Too Hot to Handle (alternately titled Playgirl After Dark), but she’s not asked to be as dramatically vulnerable here. Her character has graduated from stripper to stripper-manager at the seedy nightclub The Pink Flamingo, run by her doomed gangster boyfriend (and Christopher Lee as the gangster’s disturbingly young, handsome, mustachioed right-hand man). In genre terms, this film finds Mansfield working in the sex comedy realm that made her famous, but its British sensibilities afford it more of a dry martini-soaked sarcasm than what you’ll find in Tashlin’s sugar-addled farces. With underplayed zingers like “That’s a very nice dress you’ve nearly got on,” it’s not a knee-slapper so much as it’s a muted chuckler, and so Mansfield gets a chance to tone down her absurd femme-caricature persona to a smokier, more detached register. Even if not consistently hilarious, it’s shocking that this day-drunk British noir bothers to be as wryly funny as it is, since its main attraction is obviously the opportunity to watch Jayne Mansfield model outrageously tight, see-through outfits while puffing on the world’s longest cigarette holder. Self-billed as an “expose of sexy, sordid Soho, England’s greatest shame,” the film relies heavily on her physical presence to attract an audience, going as far as to rile up censors with completely transparent gowns that got it harshly edited in America. The fact that it manages to land a few one-liners on top of that drunken burlesque act is just lagniappe.
Promises! Promises! (1963)
It turns out see-through gowns are not enough to keep your horndog audience coming back forever. Eventually, you’ve got to take off the gowns entirely. While Mansfield reached her highest artistic peaks in her Frank Tashlin collaborations, she might be better known for her starring role in the mainstream nudie cutie Promises! Promises!, which delivered on its Playboy-publicized promise to become the first sound-era Hollywood film to feature a nude female star. In the very first scene of Promises! Promises!, Mansfield is introduced taking a bubble bath, making sure to rise above the suds just enough to give the audience a full look at her outrageous, unclothed figure. In the next, she disrobes of that pretense, going shamelessly topless as if Russ Meyer were leering behind the camera. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture does not have the magic Russ Meyer touch. You might wonder what this cornball sex comedy is going to do with its remaining 70 minutes after it gets Mansfield’s publicity-stunt nude scenes out of the way in the first 4. The answer, apparently, is shamelessly repeat those same images in clunky dream sequences to milk them for all their worth. The schticky German psychologists, sissy hairdressers, and stock footage of cruise ship shuffleboard players that pad out the rest of this farce are desperate & dire, and the only genuine fun to be found in the entire picture is in Mansfield’s two brief, breathy musical numbers. Still, being the first actress to go nude in a mainstream, post-Hays Code Hollywood is a major distinction Mansfield could claim that her professional superior Marilyn Monroe could not (if not only because Monroe’s own attempt at that ground-breaking achievement, Something’s Got to Give, was derailed by the star’s tragic death). Unfortunately, that only helps relieve some of the sting of Marilyn’s own boat-ride farce Gentlemen Prefer Blondes being one of the most beloved comedies of all time while Promises! Promises! is mostly just a giant pile of ship.