December 29, 2013
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Frank Tashlin
Stars: Tony Randall, Jayne Mansfield, Joan Blondell

What it's about. Madison Avenue ad writer Tony Randall is engaged to his upstairs neighbor, Betsy Drake. She is a secretary at Randall's employer, run by disdainful millionaire John Williams. Randall's boss is droll and laconic Henry Jones.

All are about to be fired because the firm's biggest client, Stay-Put Lipstick, may change ad agencies. Fortunately for Randall, he saves the account by securing the lipstick endorsement of blonde bombshell actress Jayne Mansfield. The catch: Randall must pretend to be Mansfield's boyfriend, to exploit publicity of a split between Mansfield and her former beau, Tarzan actor Mickey Hargitay.

Also in the movie is Randall's hottie teenaged niece, Lili Gentle, and Mansfield's cynical confidante, Joan Blondell. Groucho Marx has a surprise cameo that paves the way to a happy ending for all except Tarzan.

Very loosely based on a long-running Broadway play by future Manchurian Candidate screenwriter George Axelrod. The film was directed by Frank Tashlin, a veteran of multiple cartoon studios. Tashlin also wrote the screenplay adaptation.

How others will see it. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? was well received and did well at the box office. Randall received a Best Actor nod from the Golden Globes. Proof of the film's lasting influence is its 2000 addition to the select National Film Registry.

However, at the user ratings are unexceptional given the film's one-time reputation. There are fewer than 2000 votes, and the ratings dwindle slightly from 7.3 to 6.9 as viewer ages advance. Naysayers complain about Mansfield's breathy imitation of Marilyn Monroe and consider the comedy dated.

How I felt about it. I have always enjoyed this movie. Part of the reason, I suppose, is that Leonard Maltin wrote it up highly favorably in his thick movie book. Also, I enjoyed Randall in the "Odd Couple" series and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, another must-see by the whiny but talented comic actor.

We also enjoy the predecessor film to Success, The Girl Can't Help It, which also starred Mansfield and was directed by Tashlin. That musical hardly had the best script or characters but it was a guilty pleasure stocked with A-list rock and roll performers, including Little Richard, who shrieked the title tune.

But will favorable thoughts overly influence my review of Rock Hunter? Noticing the film's curious obsession with Russia (there are references to kopecks, Catherine the Great, and faux Pravda headlines) and a few flat jokes, one has to wonder. Is the movie all there? Why would Betsy Drake (then married in real-life to Cary Grant) and young bombshell Mansfield both moon over the 5' 8" Randall, his excellent comic timing notwithstanding. Another problem is the incongruity of Tashlin's many other films, few of which are worth watching.

But I really do like the movie. I like the rich cinematography, the vintage costumes, the oversized poodle, Tony Randall, comely Lili Gentle, the always welcome Joan Blondell. I even like Jayne Mansfield, although her high-pitched sound effects drive those with dog hearing to distraction. I also like John Williams and the portrait of his sour father relegated to the greenhouse. I can't say I'm a big fan of droopy Henry Jones, a popular character actor who was also in The Girl Can't Help It. But no film is perfect.

Success is interesting for its relentless mocking of television, which in 1957 appeared to be winning a death struggle for audiences with feature films. After ridiculing its programs, writers, and ads, the movie moves in for the kill halfway through. Randall talks to the camera and mocks the little black and white box itself.

The film also comments on the aspirations of the corporation employee. Marrying the pretty secretary is nice, but it is better to have a big office, and especially, the key to the executive washroom! Or have a washroom all to yourself, just like John Williams does!