Fascinating as film history and from a pop culture perspective but downright grueling as entertainment, Promises.....Promises! (1963) is famous as the first movie to feature a prominent Hollywood star baring all, in this case '50s blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield, whose best films, The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) are being released by Fox later this summer. Shot independently by an odd assortment of talent, Promises.....Promises! is cheap though not quite shoddy, just awesomely unfunny, and an air of tragedy hangs over the production. Within five years, three of its four young leads would be dead.
The entire film takes place aboard a cruise ship, the real-life S.S. Independence, then part of the American Export Lines' fleet, though nearly all the film was shot on cramped Hollywood soundstages. Noonan is seen running around the real vessel at one point, but that couldn't have taken more than an afternoon to shoot.
In any case, the screenplay follows two couples, with Sandy (Mansfield) and Jeff (Tommy Noonan, who also co-wrote and produced the film) anxious to conceive a baby, while next door Claire (Marie McDonald, replacing Mamie Van Doren) mostly watches her actor/bodybuilder husband King (Mickey Hargitay, then married to Mansfield in real-life) lift weights. Sandy gets it into her head that she's pregnant after a mix-up with the ship's doctor (Fritz Feld). Jeff spends most of the film drunk and whiny, eventually coming to the conclusion that Sandy has become involved with King, while in a drunken stupor he may have gotten himself mixed up with Claire. ("What's gotten into him?" King asks Sandy. "I'd say about a quart," she replies.)
Promises.....Promises! (no, not Promises! Promises! - let's be precise about such weighty matters) runs 74 minutes but feels like 174. Noonan could be quite good with the right material, such as his much funnier cruise ship antics with Marilyn Monroe aboard Howard Hawks' hilarious Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - made a decade before and an obvious inspiration. But here, more or less in the main role, Noonan is just insufferable, overacting every scene and utterly incapable of wringing out any laughs at all from the feeble material he helped write.
Of course, nobody came to see Promises.....Promises! for Tommy Noonan's comic drunk scenes: they came for the Hot Stuff with Mansfield which, in 1963 terms, was pretty sizzling - even a few seconds of exposed breasts was incredibly exciting for increasingly worldly, post-Eisenhower era audiences. In keeping with the film's general ineptitude, Jayne disrobes almost immediately with no build-up at all. Four minutes and twenty-five seconds in Jayne casually if awkwardly shows her stuff, at least from the waist up, prominent stretch marks and all. She was the mother of three children by this time, and possibly pregnant with Mariska Hargitay during filming so her general flabbiness is certainly forgivable.
Having shot their wad (so to speak) in the first reel, the filmmakers seem content to crudely burn up screentime until the minimum qualifiers of a feature-length release are met. Actor-turned-director King Donovan (Kevin McCarthy's pal Jack in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) flails about trying to generate some kind of interest to no avail, including coaxing wife Imogene Coca to make a cameo appearance in a beauty parlor sequence. Desperately, Mansfield's nude scenes are repeatedly shown again-and-again, in flashbacks prompted by the lamest of motivations.
There are various subplots and extraneous characters, including warhorse character actress Marjorie Bennett and Vic Lundin ("Friday" in Robinson Crusoe on Mars) as a rich, elderly matron and her gigolo.
The film digresses further with outrageous gay stereotype Babbette (T.C. Jones, memorable in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour called "An Unlocked Window"), the ship's hairdresser. His character dominates a lengthy sequence that would seem at odds with what would have been assumed to be a nearly exclusive heterosexual male audience: Babbette tries on various wigs and does Bette Davis imitations.
This, in turn, leads to the picture's oddest moment, an in-joke when Babbette imitates Jayne Mansfield, to which Jayne Mansfield enthusiastically responds, "Oh! I do her!" So she did.
Video & Audio
Part of an exciting new line of titles VCI is releasing via the Kit Parker library, Promises.....Promises! gets a pretty good 16:9 widescreen transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original theatrical aspect ratio. The image is quite good, above VCI's often inconsistent average, though the mono sound is on the murky side, though it's passable. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
Supplements include a lurid Photogallery (sic), mostly nudes and 8 x 10 stills but - VCI, enough already with the fully animated menu screens and extras. In this case it takes forever to go through what amounts to a handful of stills. Better are the stationary text Biographies of Mansfield, Noonan, and Donovan, slightly above average for this kind of thing.
A 4:3 Trailer froze up several times and appears to have been badly authored, though the trailer itself is in good condition. Obviously not intended for mainstream theaters, this adults-only preview features stills from Mansfield's Playboy spread, plus nearly all of her nude scenes from the film.
Also included are 4:3 trailers for 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (1964), Noonan's follow-up to Promises.....Promises!, this time with Mamie Van Doren which, like the film itself, alternates between black & white and full color (presumably for Mamie's nude scenes); Slightly Scarlet (letterboxed, 1956); and Blonde Ice (1948).
Those intrigued by the creeping permissiveness of Hollywood in the early 1960s, the cult of Jayne Mansfield, or lowbrow sex comedies will want to see out Promises.....Promises!, but if you're looking for a good cruise ship comedy, none is better than Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, while Carry On Cruising (1962), a farce quite similar to Promises.....Promises!, is also far superior.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.