(Click here for information on the 2017 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the August selection, Sylvia Tate’s The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown.)
This is the very definition of a Lost Classic: upon its publication 60 years ago, Sylvia Tate’s satirical look at Hollywood’s declining star system inspired both a feature film from the production company of the star who could have served as inspiration for the novel AND a copycat crime-slash-hoax from different starlet whose biography could have also provided inspiration.
But we’ll get to that in a minute.
As the book opens, Laurel Gold, blonde bombshell star of radio, TV and song-and-dance films “with the accent on sex”, is on her way to a Christmastime benefit performance, resentful that her agent has booked her yet again as fundraiser for a bunch of orphans. Laurel, a former big band singer and mash-up of Monroe, Mansfield, Betty Hutton, and Doris Day, is proud of her reputation as a hard-as-nails businesswoman, who exerts control over her own career in a man’s world.
So, when she’s kidnapped by a couple of amateurs, charming David Daniel “Dandy” Kern and brooding hunk Mike Valla, she’s more put out over their incompetence than anything else- except perhaps the fact that they plan to ransom her for ONLY $50,000.
While the kidnappers insist they mean her no harm and claim to have a foolproof plan, things immediately go awry when the media takes no notice that she’s been snatched; Mike and Dandy are baffled, but Laurel knows what’s up: a kidnapping coinciding with the release of her latest musical extravaganza, The Kidnapped Bride, is a little too on-the-nose. She concludes, correctly, that both her agent and her studio are sitting on the news, knowing that it will be viewed a cheap publicity stunt, and it will be the death of her career. With the three of them ensconced in a remote beach house trying to figure out how to make the best of the situation, a love triangle and comic hijinks will of course ensue.
Speaking of on-the-nose, the novel seemed like a natural choice for actress Jane Russell, who chose the film as her second starring vehicle for her own newly-formed Russ-Fields Productions:
The film vastly simplifies the plot of the book, but Russell shines as Laurel, her comic abilities given their best showcase since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Dean Martin was the original choice for the role of Mike, and that would have been something to see; instead B-movie star Ray Danton got the part… at least until Russell’s co-producer (and husband) Bob Waterfield decided that 25 year old Danton looked too young to be the romantic lead for 35 year old Russell. Danton was replaced by Ralph Meeker, the method actor who had played the original shirtless drifter role in the Broadway production of Picnic, then got typecast as a series of dumb hunks in Hollywood films (of which he reached the zenith as Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly). Supporting him as Dandy is the always-reliable Keenan Wynn.
Uncharacteristically blonde, Russell seems more annoyed than anything else- don’t these dum-dums realize that this is a career killer? Were they born yesterday? Sheesh. The film should be best known for the moment when the police come sniffing around the beach house asking questions and the glam blonde emerges from the bedroom, sans wig, as a butch brunette, averting suspicion and man-handling her baffled captors for good measure.
Coming in at a swift 87 minutes, the movie is much more of a conventional romantic comedy, although it ends on an ambiguous note, with Mike and Laurel caught and cornered, bickering over who will gallantly take the fall: Mike and go to jail for a kidnapping, or Laurel for fessing up to the “hoax” and ruining her career.
The book is much longer, more complicated and bitingly satirical. Mike is given a lengthy, hard-luck backstory about having been fingered for a manslaughter charge shortly after 18th birthday, ending a promising football career and sending him up for 10 years; his share of the $50,000 ransom is his last grasp to start his own business and go straight.
The making of Laurel’s on-screen image and off-screen reputation is also viewed with a much more jaundiced eye, as the traffic cop who pulls them over mid-kidnapping assumes, like the rest of the country, that’s she’s a nymphomaniac and doesn’t think twice about her being in a clinch with man in the back of the car… except to gawk:
It had to be her; she was wearing sunglasses, and nobody but a movie star would wear sunglasses at night. And considering what she was doing, it couldn’t be anyone else but her.
“Wow,” the cop said. “She’s just as hot in real life, ain’t she?”
This also results in one of the funniest, smuttiest, lines in the book, after Dandy returns the “borrowed” car to lot that employs him as a mechanic and his boss discovers some shedded sequins in the back seat:
A Clancy car was a clean car, he said. Then Clancy told him which car he was talking about. “And if that blue Packard had sequins all over the back seat,” Clancy said, “I hate to think what else it has!”
It is also a source of much comedic misunderstanding, as the kidnappers treat her like a nun, despite Laurel’s attempts to expedite an escape by seducing them. In reality, Dandy thinks of himself as so irresistible that it is up to him to exercise some self-control; meanwhile Mike is embarrassed to admit that he is a virgin.
There are a lot of late-breaking complications, as a number of opportunists and publicity seekers try to claim responsibility for the kidnapping, to the point that Mike’s actual ransom demand is written off as another jokester. When Laurel takes it upon herself to write a note that her agent has to take seriously, her studio double-crosses her: insinuating that Laurel and her agent are both just big softies (true, but deadly to her image) who paid off the ransom themselves, the head of the studio instead offers a $100,000 reward for delivery of the kidnappers.
The ending includes a late arrival from the middle-west of a police officer friend of Mike and Dandy’s, who put two and two together when the story hit the papers, and a baffling plot by a nosy neighbor, an insurance salesman who had been planning on merely blackmailing Mike and Dandy into purchasing a very large policy. He sees his chance to cash in for the full $100,000, but Dandy, realizing that he’s drawn the short side of the triangle, lets Mike and Laurel get away before driving himself and the meddling neighbor off a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway: with two presumed-kidnappers dead but accounted for, Laurel’s reputation is saved and Mike is free to start life over with her.
Odds and Ends:
Between the publication of the book and the release of the movie, blonde starlet Marie “The Body” McDonald was apparently inspired to pull off a kidnapping hoax herself; she was found out when investigating detectives found a copy of the novel at her home and noticed the details lined up a little too closely.
So I was delighted when my used copy of the book arrived and I found this inscription on the title page:
Another opportunity to plug the podcast You Must Remember This, and its episodes about the quixotic career of Jane Russell, from Howard Hughes contract-starlet, to independent producer, to noted political conservative and moralizer.
Keenan Wynn had one of the most durable supporting careers in Hollywood, so I also recommend the episode on Van Johnson, whose wholesome blond image was preserved by basically ruining the life of Wynn, his alleged BFF.
The book is long out of print, but used copies are pretty easy to find.
The movie was a flop upon its initial release, sinking Russ-Field Productions, but was in heavy rotation on TV in the 60s, and seems to have acquired a new appreciation with the advent of streaming services. It is currently available on Amazon.