Sunday 12 April 2020

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by George Axelrod

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a fun title, but Who the Devil is George Axelrod? might be another good one.

Although it's not a question I would need to ask myself — I've always taken a keen interest in screenwriters, and Axelrod is one of the best, with credits including The Manchurian Candidate and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But it was as a playwright that he first made his name. In 1952 Axelrod had an enormous hit with The Seven Year Itch — another good title, and a phrase that has since passed into the language (meaning the point in a marriage when infidelity is likely to set in).

The success of Seven Year Itch swept Axelrod to Hollywood. It was such an overwhelming triumph that he feared it would paralyse him, and he'd never write another play.

However, his experiences in the surreal world of movie-making soon provided him with rich material for an inspired follow up...

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter was Axelrod's second outing on Broadway and another big hit, in 1955. It may surprise you to know that no one called Rock Hunter appears in the play.

That's because the title alludes to the kind of dumb, anodyne headlines you would get in those days in magazines for movie fans.

In fact, Axelrod's original title was Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson, a real movie star of that era. But threat of a lawsuit resulted in the (minor) name change.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is a gorgeous, hilarious, wild satire about Broadway and Hollywood. 

It concerns a blonde bombshell of a movie star called Rita Marlowe, played by Jayne Mansfield in the original play.
And based on Marilyn Monroe, who had become a friend of Axelrod (there's a nice photo of the two of them hugging, which I'll include here). 

Also involved with Rita is a playwright named Mike Freeman who has just had a Broadway hit and is bound for Hollywood, where he fears he'll never write another play...

But most of all this sardonic fable is about a little nerd of a journalist called George MacCauley, who has come to the beautiful Rita's hotel room to interview her, for one of those magazines I mentioned...

And suddenly he discovers that he has the power to make this gorgeous star fall hopelessly in love with him and, what's more, in the blink of an eye he has a million bucks in the bank and a stellar career as a screenwriter (adapting Mike's play for the silver screen).

These goodies are all provided for him by a literary agent named Irving "Speedy" LaSalle... at the cost of ten percent of George's soul for each wish he makes come true.

Yes, to my surprise and delight, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is not just a comedy, it's a supernatural comedy — a boisterous and merciless reworking of the Faust legend.

Through the agency (no pun intended) of Speedy LaSalle, George the nerd is swiftly en route to La La Land...

Where he will soon have one hand on Rita's shapely thigh and the other clutching a Best Screenplay Oscar, and only ten percent of his soul left...

George Axelrod — not to be confused with George MacCauley, the nerd on his way to Hollywood and damnation — writes like a dream. 

The quality of his work is divine, or "divoon" as Rita Marlowe might put it, "Absolutely divoon." Axelrod's parody of show-biz types is spot on, and remains accurate today.

And recasting the devil as a hustling agent is just one of the many touches of genius that characterise this play, and indeed much of George Axelrod's work.

Here is the devilish Irving LaSalle pitching a movie: "Picture if you will, a world gone mad — sipping vodka martinis and dancing the mambo in the very shadow of the H-bomb." 

Actually, when asked point blank if he is the devil, Irving replies "Nothing so exalted as that. I am merely the head of the Literary Department." 

This Irving "Speedy" LaSalle is inspired by — perhaps minus the whiff of brimstone — a legendary but very real literary agent called Irving "Swifty" Lazar who represented George Axelrod.

Indeed, the published version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter contains the wry notation: "Ten percent of this play is dedicated to Irving Lazar."

But while Axelrod had his revenge on Hollywood here, Hollywood soon had its revenge on him...

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter was duly made into a movie, and they threw out Axelrod's play completely. Suddenly Rock Hunter, who was merely a name mentioned in the original, became a central character.

The only thing they retained from the play was Rita Marlowe, again played by Jayne Mansfield. Who could throw her away?

The movie, directed by Frank Tashlin, has its moments, but none of the ruthless, hilarious brilliance of this play.

(Image credits: The dust jacket of the Random House hardback and the inner cloth cover with the photo of Jayne Mansfield inset on it are both scanned by me from my own prized copy of the play. The drawing by William Auerbach-Levy of Walter Matthau as Mike Freeman, Jayne Mansfield as Rita Marlowe and Orson Bean as George MacCauley is from the Museum of the City of New York. The photo of Walter and Jayne on the couch is from Pinterest. The green program cover is from Amazon. The inner title page from the same program is from Collectors dot com. The photo of Jayne smooching Orson Bean is from the Hollywood Reporter. Orson looking worried and holding a notebook with Jayne on the massage table smiling is from IMDB. The (somewhat crooked, sorry) Bantam paperback cover is from My Book Heaven at ABE. The portrait of Jayne in the white dress is by Lou Jacobs Jr. and is © 1978 Lou Jacobs Jr. and is from MPTV Images via IMDB. The Blinn Theatre Arts poster is from their YouTube trailer. George hugging Marilyn is from the Divine Marilyn blog. The movie poster is from a little known site you might nonetheless have stumbled across called Wikipedia...)

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