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‘Mad Men’: How to Gear Up for Season Five

While you're waiting, here's another perspective on the Madison Avenue milieu

The long-awaited fifth season of Mad Men will finally kick off with a two-hour episode on March 25, and man, does it look heavy. Those posters! The falling man! Doomy Don Draper peering into that shop window at the faceless mannequins evoking the Hollow Emptiness of Pre-Counterculture American Life! The show is only just making its way out of the early ’60s, but a pretty bad trip seems in the offing. Which is, of course, historically inevitable. As series creator Matthew Weiner let drop in a recent interview, “the word ‘Vietnam’ will be mentioned.”

So you might want to try somewhat lighter fare as a sort of palate cleanser before you get started. May I recommend a satire of the advertising world made in the period just before Mad Men takes place? I’m thinking of the 1957 movie Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? One of my favorite American films from the ’50s, it depicts the Madison Avenue milieu from what was then a contemporary perspective. Who knew at the time that 1957 represented such a pivotal cultural moment? But indeed, Rock Hunter anticipates Mad Men even before the notion of the ’60s, swinging or otherwise, was fully formed in anyone’s mind.
Adapted from a hit Broadway comedy, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a broad, cartoonish farce whose titular hero saves his New York firm and finds unwanted fame by luring a movie bombshell (played by that most exaggerated of bombshells Jayne Mansfield) to endorse a client’s lipstick. Not surprisingly, our humble hero (Tony Randall) learns that making a splash isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The ad-making culture the movie portrays — replete with martini-swilling frauds downing tranquilizers to steel up for pitch meetings and carrying on shameful furtive affairs with their secretaries — isn’t hugely different from that of Mad Men. Yet the tone is cotton-candy light. Director Frank Tashlin did, after all, get some of his training making Looney Tunes cartoon shorts.
Even so, the movie scores some pertinent satirical points. In one scene, Hunter’s best friend and office mentor Henry Rufus (played by Henry Jones) lectures Hunter on his guilt complex concerning the promotion of mediocrity. The lecture quickly stretches into a rant:
“We’re not talking about talent! If talent had anything to do with success, Brooks Brothers would go out of business. Television studios would be turned into supermarkets. We are talking about success. A world where fancy foreign cars replace subways and bus transfers! Where all women are beautiful and willing! A world created, designed and running like a charm … for those few who have scaled the heights, broken through the sound barrier, by whatever fashion, but invariably by being at the right place at the right time, when success, like a crock of cherries, comes crashing down, on the head of fortune’s child. …”
Going over that particular speech, I couldn’t help but think of the blowback over Mad Men star Jon Hamm’s recent “controversial” pronouncements about Kim Kardashian and the rewards of being an “idiot” in our culture. Again Rock Hunter seems ahead of its time. Pay close attention and you’ll find the movie isn’t as altogether light as its tone suggests.
Not surprisingly, Rock Hunter eventually settles into a series of “do what you love” bromides, and this ethos is all well and good, if you can afford it. In the movie, the head of the ad agency chucks it all, the better to cultivate his garden a la Candide, which presumably a bag of inherited wealth helped him afford. He sends off Rock with a stinger: “Success will fit you like a shroud.” In the Hollywood tradition, Rock rejects the shroud for a life of (economically poorer) integrity.
Season five of Mad Man — which promises to be darker and nastier, almost David Lynchian — may well find its characters in too deep to accomplish any similar kind of self-rescue. Still, I’m betting it will have been worth the wait. We’ll see soon!

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