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|
|Publicity portrait for Kiss Them For Me (20th Century Fox, 1957)|
|The original wardrobe malfunction: Jayne at Romanoff's, 1957|
|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.
|The girl can't help it? Jayne on the town, 1962.|
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