Friday, April 19, 2013

Think Pink

When Jayne Mansfield strutted across the screen in The Girl Can't Help It (1956), accompanied by the wails of Little Richard, eyes literally popped and milk bottles exploded. She was the living embodiment of a cartoon image of sexist feminine perfection -- all 40-21-35 of her. She preened, she pouted, she filled the screen; it was the culmination of a life's dream of stardom. And it would be downhill from there.

For a brief moment, it seemed as if Jayne Mansfield really could be a serious contender as Marilyn Monroe's logical successor, rather than a mere imitator to the throne. Signed to 20th Century Fox as a threat to the recalcitrant Miss Monroe, who was prone to walk-outs and such displays of temperament as forming her own production company, Jayne was thrilled by the star treatment, especially on the heels of a disappointing tenure at Warner Brothers. At Warners, Jayne was given femme fatale roles in noir-ish dramas; by contrast, Fox wanted to capitalize on Jayne's success at parodying Monroe in the Broadway show Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and promised her a glamour build-up by promoting her as "Marilyn Monroe, King Size."

The Warners treatment, c. 1955
The Fox treatment, c. 1957
The initial results were promising: Jayne photographed spectacularly in CinemaScope; and if director Frank Tashlin used the widescreen process to (literally) milk every last visual joke from the staggering Mansfield chassis, it can't be denied that Jayne's face, expertly shaded, blushed, and contoured, also looked dazzling. And audiences responded well: The Girl Can't Help It was a bona fide hit, and if the screen version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) ultimately puzzled the critics and public with its darkly satiric bent, it still turned a nice profit. So did the reviled Kiss Them for Me (1957), which headlined Jayne with the legendary Cary Grant in one of his few critical failures. Profitable as it was, the asinine script pigeonholed Jayne as a one-note, double-D cup joke, while the icily elegant (and third-billed) Suzy Parker got Grant in the last reel. Coming at a lull in Grant's long career, and as the debut of supermodel-cum-actress Parker, it's not a stretch to suggest that the film's profit rested largely on Jayne's popularity and publicity, despite its many shortcomings.

Publicity portrait for Kiss Them For Me (20th Century Fox, 1957)
So what went wrong? Ultimately, Jayne was her own best press agent and her own worst enemy. Her unrelenting need to see her name and photograph in the papers every single day led to a publicity blitz unrivaled by nearly any celebrity to this day; yet her willingness to do anything -- anything -- for column space led Hollywood to brand her as a joke, rather than a viable actress.

The original wardrobe malfunction: Jayne at Romanoff's, 1957
Within a year, and in spite of their investment in her career, and her unquestionable success at the box office, Fox had washed their hands of Jayne. Her brazen publicity-seeking personality left the straight-laced Fox executives bewildered, and her fun, larger-than-life screen persona was the one area of her life which, sadly, went unexploited. Years before John Waters met his muse in Divine, Jayne Mansfield was purveying the same kind of ironic humor, but to no avail. Fox had wanted a Monroe clone; what they got was an altogether different animal: completely over-the-top and camp, a decade before Susan Sontag coined the phrase. Unsure what to do with her, Fox simply threw in the towel and used up Jayne's contract by loaning her out for increasingly obscure foreign productions.

Too Hot to Handle (Warner-Pathé, 1960)
Jayne had to call Fox, collect, for them to send additional funds to keep this British production afloat.
Fox decided to let Jayne's option lapse in the summer of 1962. Although the studio had long since thrown up their hands in disgust and more or less left Jayne to her own devices, there was still a measure of the prestige and protection which went along with being a contract star at a major studio. On her own, with her box office heyday several years behind her, Jayne Mansfield found herself adrift with no other studio calling for her services and a reputation as a foolhardy troublemaker. And then, on August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe died. It was the beginning of the end.

The girl can't help it? Jayne on the town, 1962.
Rather than ascending to the throne, the studio-less Jayne plummeted. Her first film away from Fox was a low-budget atrocity, Promises! Promises! (1963), which gave her the dubious distinction of being the first major star to appear topless in an American film. The publicity was enormous, of course, but it was the death knell for Jayne as a legitimate actress. By agreeing to go nude, and not in an "art" film, but a crude, leering comedy, Jayne had officially branded herself as off limits for any other major studio to seriously consider signing her.

Curiously, even as Jayne's film roles grew more unsavory and obscure, her image as a "movie star" remained more or less intact. That's the way she presented herself, and since "being Jayne Mansfield," 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was her most important role, Jayne really did believe in herself as an authentic movie star; and since she believed, and played the part to the hilt, the press and public went along with the gag -- even as Jayne slid down the rabbit hole of smaller and smaller club dates, aborted summer stock tours, and thankfully unseen "performances" in such Euro-trash features as Primitive Love (1964). Listen to her rapturous reception on a 1966 episode of What's My Line?, as if nary a second had passed since her halcyon days in The Girl Can't Help It, rather than an entire decade.

Jayne died in a horrific car accident on June 29, 1967; she was only 34 years old. When we watch her films, it's with a tinge of sadness -- she could have been so good, if only she, and those around her, believed in that talent enough to nurture it. We don't suggest that Jayne Mansfield was an unappreciated genius, but we do propose that she truly could have been a major comedy star, rather than the butt and bosom of the joke. But that sadness is also tempered by a smile; even in her worst films -- and we've sat through 'em all, folks, even Las Vegas Hillbillys -- Jayne seems to be having the time of her life. Whether it was on the Fox soundstage, or a cheapie probably filmed in the parking lot, Jayne Mansfield always gave the impression of being thrilled by the very idea of starring in a movie, no matter what it was. And for that, as well as for her awesomely good bad taste, we will always love and admire her.

April 19, 1933 - June 29, 1967


  1. It is probably no coincidence that one of Divine's first hits was titled "Native (Primitive?) Love", and that at various stages in her career she rather resembled Miss Mansfield reflected in a fairground mirror... Jx

  2. The thoughtful and sensitive analysis that Jayne deserves. I revere her as a comic creation.

  3. Great post, and well done. Thanks

  4. Wow, she really looks like MM in the "on the town" shot from 1962.

  5. One of the personalities, and famous beauties that inexplicably tantalized, and astonished American senses: Jayne Mansfield.


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