Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Will Success Spoil Rick Hunter, directed by Frank Tashlin

Here’s something many of us thought we would never say: “Damn, I miss going to the office.”  Well, there are myriad ways of vicariously rejoining the workforce, not the least of which could include bingeing on Mad Men or The Office yet again. 

On the other hand, now might be a good time to remind yourself of why you were looking forward to missing the office in the first place.  If so, welcome to Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

Back in the 50’s, the movies were rife with tales about the big, bad office.  The Hucksters, Executive Suite, The Best of Everything, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Patterns of Power and The Apartment all seemed to be saying the same thing:  It’s a jungle out there.  It was Peyton Place on the 23rd floor.  People were stabbing each other in the back, ignoring their loved ones, and sleeping with more partners than there were points on a flow chart.  By mid-decade, it was time to satirize not just Big Business, but movies about Big Business as well.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? began as a hit Broadway play by George Axelrod, the man who would later give us The Seven Year Itch and The Manchurian Candidate.  When it came to the movies, though, it was the director Frank Tashlin who made it his own.

For those who don’t remember him (and, sadly, most don’t), Frank Tashlin was to the 1950’s what the Marx Brothers were to the 1930’s and Mel Brooks was to the 1970’s.  He approached comedy directing the way an anarchist approaches a monument: with bombs lit and ready to be lobbed.  It was Tashlin who gave both Bob Hope and Martin & Lewis their best vehicles.  To give him the right context, before directing live actors, Tashlin worked as an animator at Disney and, more importantly, at Warner Brothers where he was responsible for the hilariously vulgar “Private Snafu” cartoons meant only for the eyes of soldiers.

“Hilarious” and “vulgar” are two good words to use when describing Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, but “sharp” and “smart” also have to enter the discussion. 

Rock Hunter (Tony Randall, never better) is a downtrodden ad exec about to be shown the door.  To save his job, he needs to come up with a surefire endorsement for Stay-Put Lipstick.  His plan to get film star and “sex bomb” Rita Marlowe’s name on the poster goes awry when she decides to trade favors:  She will endorse the product if he will pretend to be her lover.  Before he knows it, this little nebbish has become the biggest male sex symbol on the planet.

Tashlin never used a scalpel when a sledgehammer would do and this is no exception.  In the fast-flying 92 minutes that this one lasts on the screen, Tashlin eviscerates the American dream, its work ethic, our preoccupations with consumerism, youth, glamour and big boobs, and best of all, the ways in which we objectify everything we crave. He even stops the movie halfway through for a brilliantly savage attack on television (and our short attention spans) then finds room for one of the strangest and funniest breakout dance numbers ever committed to film.  There are so many ideas zinging off the walls of this film that future viewings only yield more pleasures.

And yes, Joan Blondell’s comment about the producer’s Oscar means exactly what you think it does.