ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
G.G. Graham is a cult film cryptid, horror hag, and exploitation film explorer of the dusty and disreputable corners of cinema history. The street preacher of Z-grade cinema can be found at Midnight Movie Monster, as well as writing for various genre sites and print publications, or on Twitter and Instagram @msmidnightmovie. Visit her Blog at www.midnightmoviemonster.com and Twitter @msmidnightmovie.
From The Pink Palace To A ‘Single Room Furnished’: Blonde Bombshells, Midcentury Celebrity And Jayne Mansfield’s Final Film
Jayne Mansfield occupies an odd place in film history, simultaneously dismissed as a cut rate Marilyn Monroe clone, and venerated as an icon of tragic kitsch. When she’s discussed, it is most often as a mascot, a bodacious blonde cocktail of the tackier excesses of the Atomic Age. A time capsule idea of feminine ideal and aspiration poured into a wiggle dress and sprinkled liberally with salacious rumors about her life and grisly urban legends of the circumstances of her sudden death.
The blonde bombshell archetype long predated Monroe, but she (and the actresses typecast in her wake) crystallized it in the popular imagination. Rather than a cheerfully vampish Jean Harlow, or the subversive sexual frankness of Mae West, the midcentury bombshells were a lighter, sweeter version of what had already proven to be a box office success. Curvaceous, cooing, and often cast in light comedies, their gleaming blonde beauty was meant to be a non threatening balm to an era marked by paranoia, post war panic, and the lingering fear of the larger scale repercussions of Rosie The Riveter. It also photographed rather gloriously in Technicolor, the bright blonde hair a built-in ring light.
Jayne’s public image was certainly built on the Monroe model, but so were a flotilla of other actresses, with varying degrees of success. It had long been standard operating practice for studios to sign on performers similar to their established contract players. It served as a warning to studio system stars that were becoming too “difficult” and rebellious (By the late 50s, Marilyn herself was firmly in that category), or as a ready made answer to another company’s successful formulas.
The women colloquially known as the “Three M’s” (Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Mamie Van Doren) may have been the most notable examples of the period, but every strata of the film business had their riff on the bombshell model. A few managed to escape into roles outside of the sweetly sexy, delightfully dizzy stereotype and build more lasting and individualistic careers (Carroll Baker, Kim Novak). Some carved out a journeyman’s living in B film and television, but never had much more than a brush with stardom (Sheree North, Carol Ohmart, Joi Lansing).
In addition to the ever shifting landscape of US studio starlets, several international fair haired sex symbols also tried their hand in Hollywood to capitalize on the trend. (Sweden’s Anita Ekberg, England’s Diana Dors, France’s Martine Carrol). To discount an actress for being molded in the Marilyn style would have been to disqualify a sizable portion of the women on the larger scene at the time.
It was becoming apparent that studio executives’ assertions that any actress with an hourglass figure could be made a star with a double process dye job and a screwball comedy script may have been a touch overly confident. By the mid 50s, Marilyn had already begun to struggle with the mental health issues and deep rooted insecurities that dogged her her entire life. She began showing up on set late, underprepared, or not at all. Sheree North had been 20th Century Fox’s hand picked successor, but her similar measurements had not produced similar returns at the box office.
Jayne was an immensely popular pin up model, had appeared in a few small films for Warner Brothers, and was the toast of Broadway for her run in show business spoof Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. The studio swiftly bought the film rights to the play, and signed Jayne to a long term contract. Fox hoped some competition on the home lot would bring their wayward star back into the fold.
Her first vehicle for the studio was Frank Tashlin’s punchy, visually punny rock and roll film The Girl Can’t Help It, and the film adaptation of Rock Hunter followed shortly afterward. While neither wowed critics, both films made money. The new blonde on the block showed up timely to set each day, with her lines and cues impeccably memorized. Jayne even won a “Most Promising Newcomer” Golden Globe at the end of 1956. For a time, it looked like Ms. Mansfield would succeed where so many other actresses typecast as the daft blonde had failed.
To paraphrase another fair haired icon, it was primarily because Jayne was neither dumb nor blonde. She had a knack for marketing herself that rivaled any studio flack, and a single minded devotion to publicity that makes researching her far trickier than it should rightfully be. Even generally reputable mainstream sources would print items carefully manufactured by Jayne herself, making objective accounts tricky to parse.
While her claims of a 164 IQ may have been studio folderol to contrast her sex symbol appearance, she had attended college at multiple points in her pre fame life, a very unusual feat for a married mother —a pregnancy had forced a wedding when Jayne was just 17 — in that era. She could play both piano and violin, skills that got her hired for one of her earliest screen appearances, a 1954 episode of television show Lux Video Theatre. She was also able to at least hold a conversation in multiple languages, if not exactly a fully fluent polyglot.
Correctly assuming that the numbers the public would be most interested in would be her 40-21-35 measurements, she kept her hair bleached, her skirts tight and her door open to the press. Be it delivering Christmas gifts to newspapermen as a sexy Santa, becoming one of the early Playboy centerfolds, or causing the side eye published around the world by upstaging Sophia Loren at her own welcoming party, Jayne was always game for anything that might keep flashbulbs popping and her name in the gossip columns. When she received a sizable inheritance from her grandparents, her first purchases were a collection of furs and a bright pink Jaguar convertible, in what would become her signature shade.
Jayne’s love of publicity was initially a boon for a studio used to battling with the more reserved Monroe. She never turned down an appearance, large or small, and would reliable sign autographs and take photos with fans for hours at every single one of them, giddy as a schoolgirl at the adoration. In contrast to her flighty roles on screen, she was an affable and quick witted guest on both game and talk shows. Reporters could always call her on a slow news day for a quick interview, a cocktail, and some pin up poses. However, soon Fox was fighting with Jayne’s refusal to take their counsel at all.
While still embroiled in a custody battle with her first husband, Jayne became entangled in whirlwind romance with bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. This was a clear violation of his contract as set dressing for Mae West’s nightclub act, which forbid him from being seen with other women in public. There was also the nagging detail that he too was in the process of dissolving his own early first marriage. The studio wanted their new sex symbol to appear available, and arranged a series of high profile dates for the press to cover.
Refusing to lay low until the studio could quell the coming controversy, Jayne went rogue. She used her many friendly contacts in the press to sway the public in favor of her impending marriage to Hargitay, cleverly undermining the studio’s attempt to paint her as an eligible bachelorette, and forcing them to accept the inevitable.
In terms of her public image, Jayne was simultaneously a throwback to the screen goddesses of early Hollywood, and an early progenitor of a more modern and approachable sort of celebrity. With her lavish furs, daring gowns, and dyed pink poodles, she would’ve fit right in with the excesses of 30s Hollywood. Film stars were positioned as a different strata, in a rarified air all their own. Josephine Baker walked her pet ocelots on jeweled leashes, and the champagne flowed freely for the illustrious roster of guests at Hearst Castle. Excess was both expected, and encouraged.
Jayne carefully curated an extreme burlesque of not just Marilyn Monroe, but the entire cinematic concept of a “sex symbol” up to that point, the caricature so oversized she could easily join Mae West in the ranks of assigned female at birth female impersonators. In this, Mickey Hargitay was her ideal partner, his outsized musclebound masculinity lying right on the edge of parody in the same manner as her cartoonish high femme glamour. Their shared Pink Palace mansion was a Pop Art Pickfair, a monument to movie star dreams.
For all of her throwback aesthetics, her mostly self designed approach to celebrity was much more forward thinking. The lines between “Jayne Mansfield” the persona and Jayne the actual person blurred into one pink wrapped package. When she didn’t have a film, nightclub tour or album to promote, she could entertain a public eager for details of her personal life. Her wardrobe, home, love life, and family were all part of the show.
Her famous wardrobe malfunctions are still standard operating procedure for celebutantes seeking quick hits of attention. When she purchased the mansion that would become her Pink Palace, she furnished it with product endorsements, companies providing free goods in exchange for the constant publicity and photo spreads Jayne was sure to generate. These sorts of tactics are still key parts of the playbook for reality TV stars and social media influencers, though neither concept existed at the time. The journey from the public perception of movie stars as untouchable icons to world where supermarket tabloids gleefully shriek celebrities are just like us (while running clearly staged photos of their “ordinary” activities) is a route that can’t be accurately plotted without Jayne.
While Jayne the personality still drew crowds (including a lucrative Las Vegas residency), her acting career had failed to follow suit. Despite appearing in a few minor financial successes (Kiss Them for Me, The Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw) and receiving some respectful notices on the rare dramatic role the studio had assigned her (The Wayward Bus), the blonde bombshell label was becoming an albatross. By the dawn of the 60s her popularity was beginning to wane, and she was being loaned out to low budget foreign productions.
The beauty queen once heralded as “the next Marilyn Monroe” became a fixture of department store openings, gracing small town parades with a bit of reflected Hollywood lemonlight. Short on the cash to maintain the lavish lifestyle her image and ever growing family required, she supplemented this income with sporadic Fox network affiliate television appearances and nightclub gigs. The film studio suddenly seemed uninterested in finding very many movie projects for her.
The cultural shift as the United States moved further into the new decade of the 60s would signal the beginning of the end of the era of the blonde bombshells. A new, more irreverent youth culture was taking hold, questioning the suburban ideal, rigid gender roles, and squeaky clean behavior espoused by Eisenhower era morality. The rock music got louder, the youth more anti-establishment. The short hems and narrow lines of mod fashion were a poor fit for the exaggerated hourglass figures of the previous decade’s sex symbols. Even the box office hold of the mighty Marilyn was slipping, with 1961’s The Misfits a critical success, but a commercial failure. Her stardom could no longer shield her from the nasty gossip regarding her personal life and erratic behavior. She lost her unfortunate battle with addiction in August of 1962.
Mamie Van Doren used her stronger singing voice and more authentic wild child leanings to stay afloat with roles in drive-in genre fare. Marilyn was deceased. Jayne became the last of the three Ms on the mainstream stage still carrying the banner of sugary sex kitten. This spotlight made her a prime target for the backlash against the naively girlish, endlessly available archetype. Her empire as a powder pink, working man’s fantasy of “companionable” femininity went from palace to prison almost overnight.
Marilyn’s death had allowed her to be frozen in amber as a fragile, tragic beauty unaware of her sex appeal, a tortured artist in the body of a bombshell, all of her complexities as a human being tamped down in the soft gauze of a socially acceptable memorial narrative. Her death spared her the indignity of making her worst mistakes on the public stage, avoiding the humiliation of a former feminine ideal falling to earth by daring to be imperfect, to grow old and grow beyond her initial screen persona.
This left the burden of the public’s changing tastes to Mansfield. For once her instincts failed her, and she struggled to find a viable alternative in the new landscape. Jayne’s famous determination began to waver, and she took to drinking to dull her emotions. Her ambitions as a performer were buried under an endless parade of broken bra straps and bizarre bouffant wigs. Her once healthy brunette curls were thinned and brittle from years of bleaching. What had once been seen as charmingly enthusiastic ambition was now derided as the desperate camera-mad flailing of a delusional actress past her prime.
An oddball poetry album (Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky & Me) failed to raise her profile, nor did her decision to do one of mainstream cinema’s first nude scenes in 1963’s Promises! Promises!, an utter joke of a comedy. 1964 pseudo mondo mess Primitive Love can’t possibly be explained as anything other than the collection of a check. Her personal life was also stating to crumble under the weight of her larger than life celebrity status, the marriage with Mickey Hargitay headed towards divorce. In a bit of history repeating itself, Jayne had openly moved on to other prospects before the ink had dried on the divorce decree. Unsurprisingly, this lead to another drawn out legal battle over finances and custody of the couple’s three children.
Familiarity famously breeds contempt, and Jayne’s constant barrage of publicity stunts wore thin over time. Once friendly press coverage became increasingly cutting, cynical, and tabloid. By 1965, The Beatles’ Paul McCartney — the band had had a by all accounts disastrous 1964 meeting with the actress at the legendary club Whiskey A Go Go — felt secure enough in Jayne’s status as a punchline to dismissively call the 31 year old “an old bag” in a Playboy interview.
It may seem a bit silly to expend this much energy (and some 2300 words) providing larger context on a fading star’s very minor film unceremoniously dumped onto a budget Mill Creek box set. Single Room Furnished is one of those movies where the narrative lies in how the film came to exist at all, rather than much of anything contained in the storyline of the film itself. Viewed in the middle of a box set binge, it doesn’t hold much of an individual impact. In the context of the personalities involved and specific cultural moment it resided in, the subtext gets gets far more interesting.
Initially hired to direct both Jayne and Mickey in a summer stock production of Bus Stop, a fast forwarded romance lead to director Matt Cimber — at that point still using his given name of Matteo Ottaviano — becoming her third husband. An experienced director on the stage, Single Room Furnished would be both his cinematic directorial debut and his love fueled attempt to get his new bride’s career back on some sort of viable track. A revival of Jayne’s screen career would be far more stable than the constant grind of supper clubs and small time nightclub tours.
Working with screenwriter/executive producer Michael Musto, Cimber acquired the rights to a four act play (originally titled The Walk Up) to adapt as a vehicle for Jayne. Shooting was done piecemeal in 1965 and 1966, working around Mansfield’s schedule of club dates and personal appearances.
Further interruptions to the shooting schedule were caused by the disintegration of the pair’s impulsive, ill-fated marriage. There is record of the film receiving an extremely limited release in 1966, but the project was quickly shelved. Only after Jayne’s fatal 1967 car crash did Single Room Furnished get a shot at wider distribution.
Executive producer Michael Musto claimed the film was unfinished, restructured with existing footage afterJayne’s passing. Matt Cimber reputedly claimed Musto spitefully shelved the film when the public focus and reaction was almost exclusively focused on Jayne’s dramatic talents rather than his screenplay. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
The 1966 screening didn’t make much of a splash, so the producer likely advocated for reshoots and a further polish before attempting a wide release. Jayne died before there was time or money to complete them. Both men wanted to capitalize on the posthumous public interest in Jayne, so they whipstitched together the existing footage with a pile of side characters, flashbacks and subplots.
The most commonly seen print of the film also involves a maudlin, borderline backhanded introduction from gossip columnist Walter Winchell —a man who had protection against libel lawsuits built into his newspaper contracts— who had made Jayne a pet target of his poison pen pretty much her entire career. The fact that neither man could be bothered to rustle up May Mann, Louella Parsons, or Jayne’s other friends amongst the press is perhaps indicative of a certain bitter tinge in regards to the entire doomed enterprise.
The wide release version of Single Room Furnished an attempt at at an omnibus film filled with simple slice of life dramas. In a New York City tenement, an immigrant mother fights with her teen daughter about her circle of friends, worried she might be growing up too fast. Pop, the building’s kindly old super, tells the young girl a trio of cautionary tales about the building’s various residents as she sulks in the stairwell. Jayne plays a central role in each vignette. To add confusion to what would otherwise be a pretty straightforward 3 act structure, each narrative thread has its own flashbacks within the larger framing device.
Frankie and Johnnie are a young married couple, Johnnie just out of high school, her husband just shy of drinking age. Their entire narrative is a long conversation on a fire escape on a hot summer night. They’re talking at rather than with one another. Johnnie is studiously trying to create the closest thing she can to happy domesticity in their tiny furnished room. Frankie clearly covets the freedom and adventure of a young single man. In voice over, we learn that Frankie deserts the pregnant Johnnie, never to be heard from again.
The second segment takes up the bulk of the runtime, documenting the budding late in life love affair between two working class middle-aged dockworkers, Charley and Flo. Their relationship is temporarily imperiled when Charlie impulsively agrees to marry a down on her luck waitress named Mae, to spare her the shame of an unwed pregnancy caused by a cad of a customer who abandoned her.
The relative inexperience of the writing and directing team shows. Very little actual adaptation has been done to the stage play to make it viable for the screen, structurally or visually. It is unclear if Jayne was originally intended to have a triple role, or if that decision was made later for either personal or practical reasons. While the framing narrative treats all of Jayne’s characters as different stages in the life of the same person, the individual segments don’t align with that idea.
Jayne might have not been the most experienced of dramatic performers, but she’s clearly attempting distinct characterizations with unique accents, mannerisms, and wigs. Had the various stories been presented to her as three phases of a single role, it’s doubtful she would have gone through the pains to so carefully separate them. The dialog also reveals background details for each woman that don’t align to a cohesive overall narrative.
Every character speaks in long monologs, with very few changes made to adjust these lengthy expository speeches into a more movie ready form of naturalistic conversation. Matt Cimber keeps his camera static, the locked in place framing making the intimate, primarily two person scenes borderline claustrophobic. Often one character in each pairing is left silently staring into the distance as another actor pontificates.
The ragged, jazzy score is of some atmospheric merit, but the shooting locations never feel like New York. The sets are so sparsely dressed they barely could be considered sets at all. None of Cimber’s visual choices are particularly dynamic ways to shoot a film, leaving the performers to basically fend for themselves to give the narrative any emotional weight.
The fact that the dialog is an overheated attempt at an Arthur Miller/Tennessee Williams style further slows an already talky and low stakes film. Inane conversations about kittens or clouds or fishmonger’s invoices are meant to drip with portent and meaning, the poetry in the minutiae of the working man. While a popular style at the time, it sounds quite dated to the modern ear, and in the hands of the lesser writing talents assembled, plays like a rather pretentious drama school practice exercise.
It would be tricky for even dyed in the wool dramatic actors to make this particular material land, but Jayne is doing her absolute best within the confines of the script she’s handed. The first segment is likely the roughest on her. While still youthful looking, and able to carry an exceptionally long and voluminous blonde wig, she’s openly miscast as a naive high schooler.
The uncanny valley effect is heightened by the fact that the girlish nightgowns and teenybopper fashions the character requires don’t suit her, and emphasize the oddness of a grown woman playing a child bride. Her only real task in the scene is to stare dreamily and sigh while her on screen husband reads a catalog of his personal hopes and dreams. The top billed star of the film deserves better than occasional interjections about linens, kittens, and egg salad sandwiches.
The second segment is the longest, and the roughest ride for the audience, because Jayne is barely in it. She disappears from the film for almost half an hour of runtime. Fabian Dean and Dorothy Keller do more credible New York accents than Jayne, but that is a damning with faint praise qualification when their turns as Charley and Flo are so decidedly low energy. What is supposed to be a sweet love story of two ordinary people finding romance later in life ends up being a showcase for all of the personal flaws that left them lonely in the first place.
When Jayne’s knocked up and knocked down waitress finally enters this narrative thread, it feels like a boon. For a sex symbol, she’s surprisingly at ease with the character of Mae, a decidedly unglamorous sort. Jayne’s trademark wiggle is swapped for a mousy slump, an ill fitting flannel shirt and a stringy brunette wig. What she lacks in nuance, she makes up for in presence that the other two sides of this ersatz love triangle lack. Quite frankly, when the alternative is watching the script attempt to wring sentiment out of Flo gifting Charley a day old fish she’s been carrying around in her handbag, Jayne’s shaky handle on a New York adjacent accent seems a pretty minor quibble.
Only in the final segment does Single Room Furnished really reach some viable drive in territory, floating into the liminal space between exploitation style vice picture and dime store gutter noir. Jayne is now the beautiful but doomed Eileen, a prostitute whose brittle surface cheerfulness barely papers over an ever deepening pile of heartbreaks and disappointments.
This is the only segment of the movie that actually moves, utilizing a better variety of shot types and angles as Eileen makes her evening rounds, before heading home.Unfortunately, she finds an over zealous customer waiting in her apartment. Jayne is on more familiar sartorial territory here, gliding across the screen in a towering stack of blonde hairpieces, form fitting cocktail dresses, and filmy negligees. Jayne abandons her signature breathiness for her lower vocal register. There’s a light tough of a Southern lilt, but that is more likely the remnants of a childhood spent in Texas than another full fledged attempt at dialect.
While none of the stagy quality is exactly lost, this time Jayne is actually allowed to carry equal weight in the scene instead of spending long stretches stranded at the edges of the frame. There’s a bit less of a dramatic stretch for Jayne in this final character, but keeping one foot in familiar bombshell territory seems to greatly bolster her confidence. While Billy, the obsessive white knighting client keeps insisting he loves and want to marry her, Jayne’s Eileen attempts to explain to him that he doesn’t know her at all, just the facade she puts on for the customers.
As she unpacks the heartbreaks and dashed hopes that lead to her character’s current downtrodden position, Jayne actually manages a surprising bit of poignancy in the midst of a tawdry little potboiler. Her career reversals and increasing dependence on alcohol had dulled Jayne’s usual sunny demeanor, the sheen of her Hollywood dreams no longer seeming quite so bright as they once did. Perhaps this is why Mansfield manages to turn in a surprisingly raw and honest portrayal of the hopelessness that comes from being haunted by the memories of a happier time. Both Jayne and Eileen were both briefly blessed with everything they ever wanted, then were doomed to live in the shadow of those heights.
Only in the final few minutes does the film manage to effectively convey the isolation of cities, the loneliness that follows you on a quiet street or right in the middle of the crowd. Mansfield’s Eileen puts on her make up in a dead eyed daze, striding down the now nearly empty street toward another night of too many drinks and the grubby hands of grabby clients.
Single Room Furnished is a wildly uneven whimper of a movie, but there’s a small scene in its last few minutes, that hums with an eerie foreboding. Jayne’s Eileen vamps her way around the corner, away from the street lights and the camera’s view, her bright blonde hair disappearing into a chasm of inky dark. It’s an apt metaphor for not just the fates of both Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, but an entire lineage of Hollywood tragedies, actresses who found even the larger than life persona of a sex symbol a woefully insufficient container for the people they were, let alone all they aspired to be.