In a scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld dated October 8, 1957, a typical suburban America family is engaged in typical suburban American activities. Dad’s in the driveway, working on the Ford Fairlaine; Mom’s in the kitchen, making Jell-O chicken mousse, and as for Junior:
“Eric stroked his dick in a conscientious manner, somber and methodical. The condom was feely in a way he’d had to get used to, rubbery dumb and disaffecting. On the floor between his feet was a picture of Jayne Mansfield with her knockers coming out of a sequined gown. He wanted to sandwich his dick between her breasts until it went wheee. But he wouldn’t just walk out the door when it was over. He would talk to her breasts. Be tender and lovey. Tell them what his longings were, his hopes and dreams.”
The joke here is the juxtaposition of an intimate act and the artificial, the plastic (this section of the book is called “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry”): the condom, of course, and Jayne Mansfield’s natural but exceptionally commoditized tits. It’s the joke you can make about the fifties —like how the juxtaposition of the intimate and the fiber optic, or wireless, is the joke you can make about today, or how the juxtaposition of the intimate and rigid, codified morals was the joke Jane Austen could make about the early 19th Century. But the impediments that every era establishes between itself and intimacy is a pretty dire subject for a joke, which is why Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which starred Mansfied and opened in late July of 1957 (and plays at Film Forum on the 1st and 2nd), is such an acid-coated bit of candy-colored farce.
Hunter (Tony Randall) is an ad man who agrees to fake a tabloid-sensational affair with bombshell Rita Marlowe (Mansfield) in exchange for her endorsement of the lipstick he’s shilling — never mind that he’s already engaged to the B-Cup next door, or that his climb up the corporate ladder isn’t dissuading him of the suspicion that he’d actually rather be a chicken farmer. The movie’s all about the replacement of the real with the manufactured: a sham romance constructed for public consumption instead of the genuine article; a gray flannel suit and key to the executive washroom instead of the satisfaction of working with the land; advertising instead of content (the opening credits run alongside live-action Mad Magazine-style commercial parodies). Intimacy impeded.
That the impediment is a woman whose anatomy was frequently compared to a car’s front bumpers defines Tashlin’s funhouse mirror crassness; he exults in Mansfield’s top-heaviness while skewering the slackjaws who can’t tear their eyes away (when she first embraces Hunter, the popcorn in his pocket starts popping). But the girl can’t help being desirable in a society where desirability is bought and sells (she’s branded “the girl with the oh-so-kissable lips”— perfect for selling lipstick). So she’s granted a reunion with her long-pined-after love, Groucho Marx (a she’s-still-hung-up-on-him? gag that may have inspired Wallace Shawn’s cameo in Manhattan). Mansfield asks, plaintively, why he never even kissed her; Groucho responds, ogling: “I couldn’t get close enough.” How could anyone?