Starting with the film podcast that should hopefully be with you by the end of this week, we’re introducing a new feature to both film and music episodes, wherein having dealt with one or two of the month’s big new releases we then give a predetermined classic the same level of attention. Besides talking about them on the podcast I’m hoping to get blog posts about these classic films and albums up on here, at least for my own choices, as a kind of introduction for anyone who isn’t familiar with the subject at hand in advance of the podcast – liner notes, if you like, to guide you through a first time viewing or hearing and prep you for the subsequent discussion. First up: Frank Tashlin’s incredible 1957 comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
A wild satire of television, advertising, consumerism, Hollywood, celebrity, careerism, office politics, teenagers – of essentially all aspects of affluent US life in the late 1950s – and an effective companion piece to Tashlin’s earlier rock’n’roll hurricane The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), also starring Jayne Mansfield, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is, first of all, Really Fucking Funny. Tashlin’s exquisite visuals – comparable in a sense to the work of Jacques Tati, both in betraying their director’s fascination with evolving technology and in being some of the most beautifully composed comedy ever shot – belie a tone more in the proud tradition of narrative-wrecking smart-arses, guys like Bob Hope (star of Tashlin’s 1952 Son of Paleface), the Marx Brothers (Groucho cameos in Rock Hunter) and Bugs Bunny, who always gave a sense of having somehow tunnelled into a film by mistake and decided to amuse themselves with the straights while they waited for a way out.
The difference here is that rather than the stars disrupting proceedings seemingly of their own volition, Rock Hunter makes plain that it’s the writer/director himself who delights in turning the fabric of the film inside-out, almost as if Tashlin had stumbled upon a pre-existing workplace comedy of the era and sat with it thinking of how many ways he could undermine it (which he kind of did – the film is based on the stage play of the same name by George Axelrod but keeps very little of its source material). Catch it flicking channels on TV, you could mistake it for The Seven Year Itch or one of Rock Hudson and Doris Day’s collaborations (not least for the presence of Hudson and Day’s regular co-star Tony Randall). Actually sit and watch the thing, there’s no way to mistake it for anything but the work of a madman who may actually be the sanest man in an insane world.
The sheer density of gags is remarkable. The first joke arrives even before the 20th Century Fox logo does: as the familiar drum beats start the studio’s fanfare, Randall appears on screen beating a drum along with the music. As the logo fades in behind him, he proceeds to blow a trumpet and bow a double bass. When he’s finished playing, standing alone against a black backdrop, he deadpans ‘Oh, the fine print they put in an actor’s contract these days. Well, be that as it may, I’m Tony Randall’. We’re less than 35 seconds into the film at this point. Whilst talking directly to camera, Randall proceeds to snap his fingers to make the opening credits appear, explicitly references The Girl Can’t Help It and forgets the name of the film in which he’s currently appearing. As Tony Randall. Once the credits are through, he begins narrating with the words ‘This is me again, Rockwell P. Hunter.’ Only it isn’t Rockwell P. Hunter again, because Rockwell P. Hunter is played by Tony Randall, and thus far Tony Randall has only played himself. We’re little over four minutes into the film at this point.
And that’s without having mentioned the delirious, psychotic fake ads that play underneath the intervening credits, selling beer made with swamp water, shampoo that tears out hair and cereal that builds strength in your kids’ legs ‘so that when they’re older they can stand the long waits in the unemployment line.’ A mother begins her washing machine pitch with ‘if you’re like me with six dirty children and a big filthy husband’ before being eaten by the washing machine (that one plays under Tashlin’s own credit).
It’s too easy to read Tashlin’s live action aesthetic as having been informed by his animation experience, but really, comedy this anarchic married to visuals so lush is rarely found contemporaneously outside of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. In wedding the two to a coherent narrative, Tashlin accomplishes something even the Marxes themselves couldn’t, fitting the pure, untramelled lunacy and freewheeling, scattershot satirical swipes of their Paramount days into the more polished, structured madness of their post-Duck Soup MGM films without sacrificing comic momentum for exposition, anodyne romantic subplots or musical window dressing, yet still able to pass it off as a compelling piece of storytelling for anyone who, for whatever reason, needs more than sustained displays of comedic virtuosity. When a musical number of sorts does, in fact, arrive (twice) towards the film’s end, it feels not gratuitous but like a natural outburst of the controlled chaos of the preceding 80 minutes, providing Randall’s titular ad man with an exuberant moment of characterisation and, in keeping with the rest of the film, remaining Really Fucking Funny.