This 1957 comedy might seem an odd entry on the Masters of Cinema series on face value – this is, after all, lightweight, fluffy commercial cinema. But you’d be wrong to dismiss it – this is as deserving as any arthouse classic of being part of the series.
Set in the world of advertising (all you Mad Men fans will be drooling), the film stars Tony Randall as the slightly clutzy mid-level New York ad-man Rockwell P. Hunter, who needs to come up with a new way to sell Stay Put lipstick before his company loses the account. Catching glamorous movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) on TV, he quickly realises that the star noted for her ‘kissable lips’ is the perfect spokeswoman, and crashes her hotel suite to try and sign her up. But Rita turns out to be trying to make her muscle-bound boyfriend (a cameo for the real-life Mr Mansfield, Mickey Hargitay) jealous, and soon, she and Rock are caught up in a publicity-spinning fake relationship, Hunter rebranded as ‘Lover Doll’. As his fame and success increase, Rock has to decide what is really important in life, while Rita finds herself genuinely falling for him.
Fifty-five years after production, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? feels remarkably fresh – and is possibly more relevant now, with its take on celebrity culture, than it ever was. It’s a particularly biting satire on television (there’s a great bit when the film suddenly stops “to cater to television fans who are used to having their entertainment interrupted for commercials”), fame and the way people are manipulated into the world of celebrity, wealth and power, sometimes unwillingly, and there’s a deeply cynical underbelly to this story. But it’s also a lot of fun – you can take it at face value and enjoy it thoroughly if you want.
Frank Tashlin directs with his usual flamboyant style – his years in cartoons gave him a flair for the visual and the ridiculous, and both are in full flow here. That includes star Jayne Mansfield – not the world’s greatest actress, she nonetheless had a flair for comedy knew how to send herself up (she’s effectively playing herself here), and no-one does Jayne like Jayne – and no-one directs her as well as Tashlin, who had shot the classic The Girl Can’t Help It with her a year earlier. She may have been a Monroe imitator – but she was the best Monroe imitator out there, and few movie stars have had more blatant sex appeal.
Tony Randall is, as you might expect, excellent as the hapless ad man who begins to enjoy the success he suddenly finds, and brings more depth to the character than it deserves. The rest of the cast – including Joan Blondell and a cameo from Groucho Marx – are excellent. Even Hargitay is perfectly cast as a dopey muscle-bound star of a Tarzan-like TV show.
Sharp, smart and witty, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is one of the seminal comedies of the 1950s, and still feels fresh. Every home should have a copy, especially of this gorgeous-looking edition that comes complete with an alternate music/sound effects track, newsreel footage of Mansfield promoting the film (scenes that could easily be taken from the film itself), an introduction from Joe Dante and a tasty 44 page booklet.