It finally became clear why I wasn’t clicking with this cult favorite in the last five minutes, precisely when Groucho Marx showed up. I’m not the biggest fan of the pun-heavy wordplay and gong-show gags of the Marx Brothers films, and Will Success Spoil on Rock Hunter? largely relies on that same sort of vaudevillian approach.
Adapted from the George Axelrod play by writer-director Frank Tashlin, this spoof of Hollywood celebrity, fan culture and the television advertising industry surely had more bite at the time of its release. Satire can have a sell-by date. Yet it’s not the targets that failed to entertain me as much as the way the movie takes aim.
Tony Randall – an actor meant for the stage first, then the sitcom and, if no one else is available, the movie screen – stars as Rock Hunter, an ad agency writer desperate to save a crucial account: Stay-Put Lipstick. When his star-struck niece finds out where Hollywood starlet Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) is staying during a trip to New York, Rock seeks her out in hopes of convincing her to endorse the lipstick.
There isn’t a line, facial expression or gesture Tony Randall isn’t willing to give 110 percent.
Mansfield has decent comic timing (and gets some of the better lines), but her self-parody wears thin after a while. As for Randall, there isn’t a line, facial expression or gesture he isn’t willing to give 110 percent.
Perhaps this was encouraged by Tashlin, who was an accomplished animator before turning to directing and may have seen in Randall the qualities of a cartoon. Admittedly, Tashlin’s cartoonish touches occasionally make for good gags – I liked the cardboard cut-out of Rita that bounces back up after being knocked to the ground – but there are other times when his talents are challenged by the live-action medium. The lighting in the interior scenes in particular is so brutal that the actors’ shadows made me think I was seeing double.
I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who’s willing to forgive such things in exchange for the picture’s free-wheeling, anarchic spirit. But as I learned from the Marx Brothers films, it’s a lot easier for me to go with that sort of flow if I’m guaranteed to laugh.