A cartoonish look at Madison Avenue

Jim Lundstrom

Tony Randall as ad executive Rockwell Hunter and Jayne Mansfield as the vapid but "oh so kissable" movie star Rita Marlowe.

If you don’t know Frank Tashlin, now’s the time.

Cartoonist, animator, gag writer, screenwriter and, finally, thanks to Bob Hope, film director who let his former selves run rampant in his films, Tashlin at his best is pure pleasure.

I’d seen many of his early ‘60s films when I was a kid because I was a fan of Jerry Lewis movies and Tashlin directed five post-Dean Martin Lewis movies, as well as two Martin & Lewis films (Artists & Models, 1955, and Hollywood or Bust, 1956).

Just last Friday I got an email from the Criterion Channel, suggesting a number of excellent films for weekend viewing. I liked all the suggestions, but one in particular went to the top of the list – Tashlin’s 1957 satire of Madison Avenue and celebrity, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Why? Because I’d never seen it before.

I wished I could have first queued up the movie that preceded this, the 1956 The Girl Can’t Help It, because like Rock Hunter, is co-stars Jayne Mansfield, and that previous movie is referenced several times in its successor. But The Girl Can’t Help It is not currently offered for streaming.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? had me right from the opening credits, with star Tony Randall performing the 20th Century Fox fanfare on drums, trumpet and double bass. Upon finishing, he breaks the fourth wall by introducing himself as actor Tony Randall, performing the theme due to an overlooked contractual obligation. With the help of his three female co-stars, he names the film we are about to see, and then continues to bow on the bass as we are treated to a series of failed TV commercials, setting the tone for this bright, loud yet ultimately dark satire on advertising, celebrity, fandom and the emptiness of modern American life.

Randall plays the titular character – a word Tashlin uses for a gag in this film with buxom co-star Jayne Mansfield. Mansfield had previously played the same role on Broadway, but the play was a Faustian tale that Tashlin completely rewrote.

The only thing I can recall seeing Mansfield in before this is a rare dramatic role in the 1957 film noir version of the David Goodis novel The Burglar. Here she plays Rita Marlowe, a vapid bottle blonde movie star sexpot (ala 20th Century Fox stablemate Marilyn Monroe – seems the studio was poking fun at its biggest and most difficult star).

One of Rita’s main attributes is a most annoying, high-pitched screech she issues when excited, which is quite often. For example, in a scene where Rock Hunter is, at Rita’s behest, trying to make her hairy-chested actor boyfriend jealous (Mickey Hargitay as “adult” jungle star Bobo Branigansky) by pretending she is in business with Hunter. Hunter tells Bobo “That's right Sweetie, I'm president of Rita Marlowe Productions, Incorporated, but Miss Marlowe is the titular head.” Mention of her being “titular head” causes Rita to squeal. (Mansfield and Hargitay married several months after this film was released.)

Randall’s Rockwell Hunter is an advertising executive who is tasked with coming up with an idea to keep the Stay-Put Lipstick account from going to another agency. This is happening just as Rita and her personal assistant Violet (Joan Blondell) leave Los Angeles in order to upset Bobo. Hunter catches her arrival on TV, where it is announced that the world’s most kissable star is about to make a movie with Cary Grant with kissing in the title (a little in-joke here – just as this line is uttered, Hunter’s girlfriend Jenny enters the room, which is funny if you know that the actress playing Jenny, Betsy Drake, was married to Cary Grant at the time.

Hunter plans to get Rita to endorse Stay-Put Lipstick, thus saving his career with the agency. The problem is that Rita is in seclusion and can’t be found. However, Hunter’s teenage niece, who lives with him, happens to be president of the local Rita Marlowe fan club and while greeting Rita at the appear, heard where she was staying. She shares that with her uncle, and the plot thickens.

Before feature films, Tashlin worked as an animator with Disney, then as a Looney Tunes artist. He did a lot of Porky Pig ‘toons and was responsible for the last black & white cartoons Warner Bros. produced in the mid-1940s. The bright Colors by Deluxe colors and wide-screen shooting of this film is gorgeous, and the cartoonish, almost surrealistic approach works.

About mid-way through the movie there is a break allowing Tony Randall to take a few punches at the emerging medium of television, which was a concern to studio executives who wanted to see butts in the seats of movie theaters (while color TV had been available since 1954, the cost was prohibitive. A 12-inch color TV was $1,000 while a 21-inch black and white was $300). “Ladies and gentlemen, this break in our motion picture is made out of respect for the TV fans in our audience, who are accustomed to constant interruptions in their programs for messages from sponsors. We want all you TV fans to feel at home, and not forget the thrill you get, watching television on your big, 21-inch screens,” Randall says.

The film then cuts to showing Randall on a 21-inch monchromatic TV screen lost within the giant movie screen, and he reminds us, “Of course, the great thing about television is that it lets you see events live as they happen, like old movies from 30 years ago.”

Besides a bunch of in-jokes, Tashlin also liked double entendres, such as this line from PA Violet to her too-easily smitten star: “Now, you listen to me. You've got to stop going overboard for every man who makes you tingle. First there was that English actor who wore the sunglass monocle, and then the Academy Award winner who had you polishing his Oscar.”

Another standout performance comes from Hunter’s glib, tranquilized and drunken immediate boss Henry Rufus (Henry Jones), who has a habit of adding a y or ie to words that don’t need them. Now I can’t wait to get my hands on The Girl Can’t Help It.