50 years ago this summer, one of the most unusual entertainment careers of the 20th century came to a sudden and shocking end.
Jayne Mansfield, the faded 1950s blond bombshell known as the “Cleavage Queen” who was only second in popularity and notoriety to Marilyn Monroe herself, was driving to New Orleans when her convertible was involved in a multi-car accident caused by a cloud of insecticide. Her bizarre death was consistent with Manfield’s larger than life career of exhibitionism, publicity stunts, and outrageous performances, epitomized by her appearance as Rita Marlowe in Frank Tashlin’s live-action cartoon “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” screening next Tuesday at Cline Library on the NAU campus.
While Monroe may have been the more popular and memorable star, Mansfield took the basic paradigm of the breathy big-bosomed blonde and pushed it into the realm of the abstract and the absurd. Reportedly sporting a genius IQ and speaking five languages fluently, Mansfield created a larger than life character that competed with Monroe through sheer outrageousness. Although details can’t be shared in a family newspaper, let’s just say that Mansfield’s notoriety came as a result of having invented, as well as having perfected, the term “wardrobe malfunction.”
Mansfield, Monroe, Diana Dors, and other well-crafted female stars of the era spoke to a post-war generation who, after the trauma of World War II and its disruption to family structures, was intent in crafting a vision of gender relations that billed itself as “traditional” but in fact was as engineered and as fake as plastic, tailfins and the H-bomb.
The assumption by women during the war of many of the jobs typically assigned to men since the industrial revolution led to a backlash when men returned to the economy, fostering a cultural environment. where sexual difference was celebrated, promoted and enforced. Female images were not the only focus here; the '50s also saw interest in the cult of the male bodybuilder. When Manfield married Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay in 1956, they instantly became the paradigm couple for male and female physique.
“Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” is a burlesque on Manfield’s rise to prominence that contrasts her and Hartigay ‘s extreme physiques against a putatively “normal” couple played by Tony Randall and Betsey Drake. The plot of the film defies easy summary or logic, but has to do with a scheme to promote Randall’s ad man character, the titular Rockwell Hunter, as Manfield’s “lover boy.”
Director Frank Tashlin, who had come up through the ranks directing Bugs Bunny cartoons before making some of Jerry Lewis’s early films, rewrote George Axelrod’s Broadway play into a send up of advertising and publicity that ends up as a celebration of the same, a pop culture symphony of color and excess. And just when things apparently can’t get any more surreal, Groucho Marx shows up to serve as the film’s deus ex machina.
Although many would-be stars today cite Marilyn Monroe as their inspiration, one can argue that Jayne Mansfield is really the icon that points the way to our anything for publicity world of today, and “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” presents Mansfield at her outrageous best.