On the Avenue, Madison Avenue…

I’ve been doing a crazy intensive catch-up on the first season of television’s new critical favorite Mad Men, which starts its second season tonight.  Episode after episode we see the sometimes glamorous, often cutthroat, bitterly intelligent world of 1960s-era Madison Avenue advertising executives come to life in the show, which recently received the most Emmy nominations ever for a basic cable television production.  It deserves it.  The movies have also been fascinated by the machinations of Madison Avenue since it existed.  Screenwriters were able exploit the fascination inherent in the conflicted personalities who toiled in the ad biz, urging their fellow men — mostly women – to buy, buy, buy just what they are told to buy. 

TV’s Mad Men is set in 1960 or so, but there are contemporary movies from earlier years set in advertising circles.  1947′s The Hucksters, from MGM, tells the story of a war vet (Clark Gable) who goes to work as an ad man and finds the ethics involved to be wanting.  The movie co-stars the ravishing Ava Gardner as Gable’s ex-girlfriend, Deborah Kerr as a slightly down-on-her-luck society woman, the dashing Adolphe Menjou as the head of the ad agency, and Sidney Greenstreet as a soap manufacturing mogul who needs some pizazz in his ads. 

The 1950s brought several ad-related films.  The raucous Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? from 1957, starring Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield (who had originated her role onstage), is the George Axelrod-written story of a frantic ad man who needs to get a sexy movie star to endorse his client’s lipstick.  It’s a frantic farce which obviously relied on Mansfield’s exaggerated good looks (and terrific comic timing) and Randall’s comedic chops.  Television was on its way to becoming the ubiquitous entertainment choice for many Americans, and the movie’s satiric jab at the medium — and Jayne’s figure — pleased audiences.

In a casting twist, 1950s television variety performer George Gobel, one of early TV’s biggest personalities, was cast as an ad man in 1958′s comedy I Married a Woman.  The British bombshell Diana Dors, a blonde in the Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield mold, was cast as Gobel’s vivacious wife.  The movie is more about marital troubles than advertising challenges, but the plot — beer account needs model, wife is the model, marriage fizzles — also lampoons commercials and the ad world.  I Married a Woman was Gobel’s second movie, and his second flop.  His tremendous television appeal did not translate to the screen at all.

In 1958′s Marjorie Morningstar, adapted from Herman Wouk’s novel, the charismatic summer camp composer Noel Airman, improbably played by Gene Kelly (in a role offered to Danny Kaye), tries to win the fetching Marjorie’s hand by going to work on Madison Avenue.  Natalie Wood as Marjorie is impressed and hopeful; Noel is a semi-talented vagabond and her first love, but happily exists without the necessary career trajectory to make a suitable husband.  Even lusting after the luscious Marjorie isn’t enough motivation to make Noel hang on to the job, though.

1961′s sparkling Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy Lover Come Back is also set on Madison Avenue.  As fierce rivals at competing ad agencies, Day and Hudson adroitly spar in this sunny comedy with a saucy edge.  Rock Hudson is an ad exec with a libertine streak, serious-minded Doris doesn’t like it one little bit.  After a plot propelled by a mistaken identity, the story of course ends up saying more about romance than advertising, but the witty repartee no doubt gave real ad men quite a model to live up to.

1962′s Madison Avenue, starring Dana Andrews, Eleanor Parker, Jeanne Craine and Eddie Albert, takes a more serious look at the ad biz.  Dana is an ambitious exec who loses his job and vows revenge by turning tiny runner-up Cloverleaf Dairy into a winner.  He spiffs up humble but talented account exec Eleanor Parker, and sweet talks journalist Jeanne Crain into writing good things about his campaign.  More like The Hucksters than the ad comedies, Madison Avenue‘s emphasis was on the business rather than the romance, though Dana Andrews’ character does fancy Eleanor Parker as his bride. 

In 1963, another Doris Day comedy entitled The Thrill of It All, with script by Carl Reiner, took a swipe at the world of commercials and advertising, as Doris becomes the spokeswoman for Happy Soap, much to the dismay of her OB/GYN husband James Garner.  The movie is a bright domestic comedy but with Reiner’s trademark wit and sass, though of course with a philosphy part and parcel of pre-women’s lib America. The Thrill of It All still charmingly amuses even though Doris’ character trades her commercial fame for another baby by hubby Garner.  Fair trade?  Well, it is James Garner, after all.  

I’d buy that.

8 Responses On the Avenue, Madison Avenue…
Posted By morlockjeff : July 27, 2008 6:45 pm

And of course the series references THE BEST OF EVERYTHING with Joan Crawford whose eyelashes look like “caterpillers” according to Don’s wife in MAD MEN. It’s an excellent series, great writing with fascinating and ambivalent characters and I love all of the period references to Ayn Rand, Exodus, Nixon/Kennedy and Yma Sumac (played in the background of a party scene). We just finished watching the entire first season too and anyone who loves classic movies will love this season. Really looking forward to tonight’s second season premiere. Don’t you think the slimy Pete character looks like Emily/Warren in William Castle’s HOMICIDAL? Love the other ad film references and you can add GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM and HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING too.

Posted By morlockjeff : July 27, 2008 6:45 pm

And of course the series references THE BEST OF EVERYTHING with Joan Crawford whose eyelashes look like “caterpillers” according to Don’s wife in MAD MEN. It’s an excellent series, great writing with fascinating and ambivalent characters and I love all of the period references to Ayn Rand, Exodus, Nixon/Kennedy and Yma Sumac (played in the background of a party scene). We just finished watching the entire first season too and anyone who loves classic movies will love this season. Really looking forward to tonight’s second season premiere. Don’t you think the slimy Pete character looks like Emily/Warren in William Castle’s HOMICIDAL? Love the other ad film references and you can add GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM and HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING too.

Posted By medusamorlock : July 27, 2008 9:05 pm

See, I knew there were so many other great ad movies that I didn’t mention. It’s a fascinating subject! And yes, that Pete is such a weird and unpleasant androgynous fellow, and he DOES look just like the character in “Homicidal” now that you mention of it. What a little slime Pete is! I also particularly noticed the great Yma Sumac song. It’s about an hour till the new season and I’m watching the last ep of season one as I write this — I’ll just about make it!

Posted By medusamorlock : July 27, 2008 9:05 pm

See, I knew there were so many other great ad movies that I didn’t mention. It’s a fascinating subject! And yes, that Pete is such a weird and unpleasant androgynous fellow, and he DOES look just like the character in “Homicidal” now that you mention of it. What a little slime Pete is! I also particularly noticed the great Yma Sumac song. It’s about an hour till the new season and I’m watching the last ep of season one as I write this — I’ll just about make it!

Posted By Al Lowe : July 29, 2008 10:31 am

I thought of three movie characters involved in the advertising world:
1) Dan Dailey, a Madison Avenue heel who does a drunken dance at a party in It’s Always Fair Weather;
2) Cary Grant struggling to come up with a slogan to promote ham in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; (Advertising is a perfect occupation for Grant.)
3) and Judy Holliday promoting herself on billboards for no good reason in It Could Happen to You.
Garson Kanin thought of Danny Kaye while he was writing It Could Happen to You but his wife Ruth Gordon insisted the project would star Holliday.
And Kaye was considered for Marjorie Morningstar. That makes three movies – including the unfilmed Huckleberry Finn that was to star Gene Kelly and Kaye – that Kaye didn’t get to make.
But as you pointed out in another blog, he was a last minute substitute in White Christmas because Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor were unavailable. Who would they have turned to next for White Christmas if Kaye had refused? Red Skelton? Gene Kelly?

Posted By Al Lowe : July 29, 2008 10:31 am

I thought of three movie characters involved in the advertising world:
1) Dan Dailey, a Madison Avenue heel who does a drunken dance at a party in It’s Always Fair Weather;
2) Cary Grant struggling to come up with a slogan to promote ham in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; (Advertising is a perfect occupation for Grant.)
3) and Judy Holliday promoting herself on billboards for no good reason in It Could Happen to You.
Garson Kanin thought of Danny Kaye while he was writing It Could Happen to You but his wife Ruth Gordon insisted the project would star Holliday.
And Kaye was considered for Marjorie Morningstar. That makes three movies – including the unfilmed Huckleberry Finn that was to star Gene Kelly and Kaye – that Kaye didn’t get to make.
But as you pointed out in another blog, he was a last minute substitute in White Christmas because Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor were unavailable. Who would they have turned to next for White Christmas if Kaye had refused? Red Skelton? Gene Kelly?

Posted By cam : August 8, 2008 7:54 pm

Nice article ill be checking back hopeing to see an update to this :)

Posted By cam : August 8, 2008 7:54 pm

Nice article ill be checking back hopeing to see an update to this :)

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