In a lot of ways, Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? presupposes Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, just taking Tashlin’s Looney Tunes background into account.
Like the Wilder film, Rock Hunter is a takedown on corporate-ladder industry, includes (not so subtle) jabs at television, and has a frank view of sex. Both films also have some great one-liners, though Tashlin’s film really plays up the sexual innuendo (“that was bush league,” and “you polished his Oscar,” certainly have more than one meaning).
That animated background comes through in Rock Hunter loud and clear. Jayne Mansfield’s Rita Marlowe (a composite Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Jean Harlowe, though her impression is all Marilyn) is basically a foreshadowing of Jessica Rabbit and various Mickey-Mousing whistles follow her movements.
Tony Randall really hams it up as Rockwell Hunter, talking to the screen like Bugs Bunny might address his audience, and Tashlin uses several set pieces and gags that feel like they should be hand-drawn. Here’s one of them. Rockwell, mistaken by the public for “Lover Boy,” Mansfield’s beau, runs from his adoring fans and attempts to find shelter under a nearby manhole:
The manhole itself – like the anvil – is emblematic of slapstick cartoon. The saturated reds in the frame above and the end of the joke – more girls wait for him in the sewer – also play as cartoonish.
Here’s another one from later in the film. Rockwell and Jenny (Betsy Drake) kiss in silhouette behind a screen in Rockwell’s new office:
Their lips meet and Rockwell’s pipe starts smoking (get it?):
But that’s not the end of the joke. In true Looney Tunes style, Tashlin extends the gag beyond its narrative qualities. He cuts outside of the room and to a long hallway. All we see at the end is a few puffs of smoke erupting from around the corner:
The above look also speaks to the overarching style of the film. It’s partially an overt romanticism, like the silhouette and steam of this composition-
-the moody blue lighting and heavy shadow of this one-
-or the lurid red here (the colors here make this film feel like a comic Sirk, as do the various fades to red and blue patterned throughout):
It’s also partially a world of pastels and brown tones that vary depending on whose location we find ourselves in. Whether it’s Rockwell’s tame bachelor pad, extremely neutral and bland with only a Van Gogh on the wall to add a hint at anything beyond the mundane:
Or Rita’s temporary digs in a hotel, which have a similar scheme, though full of cold surfaces and not nearly as pale and flannel:
Or Jenny’s apartment, which is much warmer, though still careful to avoid red as that warming color (Jenny is, after all, not the sexual goddess that Rita is). Different than Rockwell’s place in terms of hue and saturation, Jenny’s place still feels lived-in and homey, down to the similar couches, painting, carpet and curtains:
Then there’s Rockwell’s boss’ Irving’s (John Williams) office, which is brown and manly…except for those red roses that hint at something beyond the starched collar we see on-screen:
The most fun of Rock Hunter are the various takedowns of television. Some are smaller than others, like this frame, where the TV colors are just a bit dimmer, the slight high angle emphasizes the awkwardness of the box, and the tight framing emphasizes its smallness in the otherwise 2.35 frame:
Then there are bigger moments. Like this intermission in the film, where Tony Randall comes on-screen as himself and talks to the audience as though they’re a TV audience:
The screen shrinks to “TV size,” and the framing is either awkward-
Most of Rock Hunter exists in long 2-shots, and those really work. When Tashlin goes into shot-reverse-shot he almost feels bored. Maybe it’s because he can’t show as much of his set. Or because the animation world doesn’t rely as heavily on reaction shots as it does on sight gags. But either way, his medium-shot and close-up-heavy sequences are rarely ever L-cut (meaning: the sound, particularly the dialogue, hardly ever bleeds over from one image to the next) and feel a bit choppy.
The wider 2-shots are always nicely composed, like this one, which features a tacky TV background, but more importantly, a cameo from Groucho Marx: