Every decade has the icon it deserves, and Jayne Mansfield was as emblematic of the brazenly consumerist 1950s as Shirley Temple was of the faux-naïve 1930s. Even during her short-lived heyday undulating across the Fox backlot, however, the abundant starlet was scarcely booked for the studio’s prestige releases; as far as stacked, blonde bombshells went, she was relegated to the netherworld between the A-list mainstream of Marilyn Monroe and the Hollywood Blvd. zone of Mamie Van Doren, a widely derided fetish-object whose amble proportions could not cushion her from the darts of critics both contemporary and revisionist (to Dwight MacDonald, Mansfield suggested “a bureau with the upper drawer pulled open,” while to Richard Corliss she all too perfectly illustrated the decade’s emphasis on “quantity over quality”).
So Mansfield was a studio creation, manufactured in a laboratory from the same tits+hips+wiggle equation that studio heads deduced from Monroe. Yet her Hollywood sojourn is a no less pungent blend of parody and pathos; no Great Writers went to shed crocodile tears over her casket upon her untimely demise, but hers was a career ultimately as complex in its tragic suggestions and escalating tackiness as that of her more famous sexpot-sister. Cinema encourages the mutually carnal relationship between image and viewers, but, though sex symbols can be recipients as well as purveyors of desire, most audiences are more comfortable when the reflections of their fantasies passively yield to their gaze. Treasured by buffs, Garbo, Dietrich, and Louise Brooks were hardly audience favorites: Their refusal to be pinned down as docile objects of contemplation challenged and complicated how characters designed for mass arousal could be viewed. Mansfield, meanwhile, offered herself for lustful consumption eagerly but far from simplistically: Her cartoony fleshiness, molded from the start as an outsized lampoon of womanhood, was both her passport to fame and the entrapping, desolating image that she could revolt against only through self-parody.
Indeed, it is mostly through the grid of sardonic caricature that Mansfield is remembered nowadays, through such derisive declarations as David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film entry (“Jayne was never sexy, but monstrous and pathetic; her own willingness to walk through so many cruel jokes makes her pitiable”). The beauty of the three pictures sampled in Fox Film’s Jayne Mansfield Collection is that it refutes such reductive views by showing how, under the tutelage of sympathetic directors, her humor could bloom and neutralize the mocking around her.
Frank Tashlin was a filmmaker made for Mansfield, just as her figure could have been the product of a particularly salacious funnies session from the former cartoonist; both as comic raw material and a sign of the times, Mansfield’s 40-inch bust was as fascinating (and as repulsive) to Tashlin as Jerry Lewis’s monkey grimacing. In The Girl Can’t Help It, Mansfield’s Jerri Jordan—gangster moll and reluctant singing sensation—is, like the various raucous rock ‘n roll acts included throughout, an alarming, specifically American cultural eruption, and Tashlin surveys her with similar ambivalence. She’s repeatedly referred to as a product (“A sort of girl-type gadget” is how Tom Ewell’s washed-up press agent describes her), and one of the film’s most trenchant jests braids two samples of the decade’s rampant mechanization by having her buy an apple from a fruit-o-matic. Yet at every turn her character’s image is enforced as one imposed onto her: Cigar-chewing sugar daddy Edmond O’Brien insists on a humid chanteuse, though Mansfield would much prefer to ditch clingy gown for kitchen apron. The dark streak running through Tashlin’s exhilarating jamboree is one related directly to its star’s indication of the isolation of success; the celebrated gag of Mansfield holding two bottles of milk to her bosom can get our laughter caught in our throats because, under all the ogling, the milk her character (and, possibly, of the actress herself) seeks is more of humanization than of titillation.
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is both a less searching analysis of the Mansfield persona and a more merciful enjoyment of it. A western-comedy with the actress as a tough-talking saloon owner who falls for a mild-mannered English aristo (Kenneth More) traveling the American West, it is a minor work, neither as beguiling a portrait of fish-out-of-water inclusion as Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap nor as wild a spoof of genre tropes as Tashlin’s Son of Paleface. What director Raoul Walsh displays, however, is a warm, relaxed understanding of his star’s modest appeal and limitations, treating her no differently from Jane Russell and Barbara Nichols around the same time, or, for that matter, from Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde almost 20 years earlier. The result is an unexpectedly successful integration of the decidedly mid-1950s Mansfield into the good-heartedly boisterous Old West, where Walsh, whose own image as an action director too often obscures his taste for behavioral charm, helps bring out Mansfield’s sweetness.
While the America of old is fondly re-imagined in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, the America of the Now is devastatingly evoked in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? As Rita Marlowe, the Hollywood glamour queen modeling Stay-Put lipstick for Madison Avenue adman Rockwell P. Hunter (a superb Tony Randall), Mansfield cavorts through another writhing Cinemascope playpen for Tashlin. Though the satire of American ‘50s mores is even more savage here than in The Girl Can’t Help It, Tashlin’s treatment of Mansfield is more humanizing. The inanity of the advertising world, where people can often literally communicate through slogans, embodies the director’s most damning view of a culture where everything can be packaged and sold as a commodity, yet he can’t help admiring his characters’ sheer brazenness, for Tashlin understood that his own films belonged inescapably to the culture he was skewering. Boasting Mansfield’s best performance as well as Tashlin’s masterpiece, the film may not fully reconcile the celebratory/inquisitive pop impulses of its creator, but it succeeds in offering Mansfield’s joyous burlesque of fame as one of its sweetest creation, self-mocking and self-exorcizing and, through its unabashed humor, ultimately liberating.
Though a little haziness occasionally creeps around the edges, the colors remain crisp and vibrant on all three films, brassy in the Tashlins and subdued in the Walsh. The stereo sound is just what the rock 'n roll interludes call for.
Disappointingly square, considering the bracing vulgarity on display. The commentaries by Toby Miller and Dana Polan are treasure chests of information and interpretation, though both sport a certain stuffiness that's occasionally at odds with their material. An A&E Biography episode is less lip-smacking than its E! True Hollywood Story counterpart, predictably mining Mansfield's life for the old small-town-girl-lost-in-the-Hollywood-jungle arc. An old "Movietone News" snippet and trailers round off the package.
"If that's a girl, then I don't know what my sister is."