Some Like It Hot
29 March 1959
The Best Comedy Ever Made
In accordance with the 18th constitutional amendment, Prohibition went into effect on January the 17th in the year 1920. Within five years, by some estimates, New York City proclaimed the existence of about 100,000 illegal watering holes, commonly known as the speakeasy. By the time the 21st constitutional amendment repealed the 18th in 1933, prohibition had been deemed a spectacular failure. Even though Prohibition promised to eliminate the consumption of alcoholic beverages and reduce crime, it resulted in the exact opposite, spawned an increase in sales and consumption through a highly organized black market which itself spawned gangland style bootleggers and criminals who were brutally ruthless. The most infamous of these was Chicago’s Al Capone, but there were others. Prohibition failed for several other obvious reasons, like inconsistent enforcement for one: the public officials who wrote and enacted the laws violated them. It had a deleterious effect on the U.S. economy and farming, not to mention that prohibition drained tax revenues. The main reason the federal government ended prohibition was the Great Depression and the need to tax alcohol at the local, state and federal levels. Of course, the obvious fact that morality cannot be legislated played a part, albeit a small one, in ending the moronic and idiotic social experiment known as Prohibition.
Imagine, if you will, please, two well-known male musicians, Joe and Jerry, working in prohibition Chicago during the Roaring 20s. They are employed by an illegal speakeasy, the front for which is a funeral parlor owned and operated by Spats Colombo, notorious mobster and whiskey runner. On the very night that Joe and Jerry are expecting to be paid, after months of living on borrowed money and credit, the filthy coppers, led by Federal Agent Mulligan who has been tipped-off by Toothpick Charlie, raid the joint and arrest everyone except Joe and Jerry. They escape; but, unfortunately, they are also left penniless.
In hopes of finding a paying gig, they head to Sid Poliakoff’s talent agency where receptionist Nellie Weinmeier, one of Joe’s many girlfriends, reveals an opening for both an upright bass player and a saxophonist. The gig is essentially an all-expenses paid vacation in Florida. The musicians clamor into Sid’s office and eagerly question him, only to learn the gig is with an all-girl band. Jerry tries to convince Joe, and Sid, they could masquerade as girls with appropriate make-up, wigs and pads. Unconvinced, Sid tells them about a $12 gig at an Illinois University party and dance in Urbana and sends them packing.
Joe schmoozes Nellie into the use of her car, which she stores in a nearby garage owned by the one and only Toothpick Charlie. While the musicians are there, Spats Colombo and his mob arrive to Tommy-gun massacre Mr. Toothpick, along with his mob, those dirty rotten rats, for fingering Spat’s funeral parlor speakeasy. This all occurs on the day for hearts and love and is, of course, the Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Although the musicians are seen by Spats, they escape death by Tommy-gun. Joe then telephones Sid, imitates a female with a falsetto voice and accepts the gig with the all-girl band. That night, Joe and Jerry, now wearing make-up and lady’s clothes, bluff their way onto the train and become new members of Sweet Sue and the Society Syncopators.
Thus, two virile male musicians dressed in women’s clothes travel to Florida on a passenger train filled with young and beautiful female musicians. Joe and Jerry, now Josephine and Daphne must remain in character at all times or risk discovery by Spats and his Tommy-gun-toting hoodlums. Imagine that, if you can, and you will have imagined the plot of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
From what I’ve read, the consensus is this: Some Like It Hot is undeniably a magnificent movie, perfect, absolutely the best comedy ever made in Hollywood, according to the American Film Institute. It moves at a frenetic pace and is not afflicted with even one slow or dull moment. The dialogue is well written and delivered; the frequency of jokes and double entendres match the movie’s pace; the sets are realistic and well decorated; the music fits perfectly within the end of the Roaring Twenties time frame while the black and white cinematography adds to the realism of the gangster movie genre, which Some Like It Hot satirizes. OK. I’ll go along with most of that. I draw the line at AFI’s contention that Some Like It Hot is the best, meaning the funniest, movie ever made in Hollywood. Certainly Mr. Wilder’s farce, in which gender norms become pretzels, is one of the best, one of the funniest comedies ever made in Hollywood. Even fifty-eight years has not dulled its luster. But there are several comedies that I would rank above Some Like It Hot. Pardon me if I do not reveal which comedies: that is not the point of this review.
The movie garnered favorable reviews in 1959. Most reviewers complained about its unusual length, one minute over two hours, unusual for a comedy; and several reviewers noted that Mr. Wilder and Mr. Diamond, the co-screenwriter, milked the old man-dresses-as-woman joke for all it was worth. As Variety noted in its review of February the 24th in 1959: Pictures like this, with a sense of humor that is as broad as it can be sophisticated, come along only infrequently … Even so, the film has its faults. It’s too long, for one, being a small joke milked like a dairy … Maybe, but it’s how they milk the small joke that’s interesting.
Using parallel relationships, or goofy courtships if you prefer, involving deception and bogus identities, Billy and I.A.L. create a tangled but humorous world in which men court and propose to men posing as women, and the men posing as women accept! In this convoluted world, a woman offers sexual healing to a man claiming he is afflicted with erectile dysfunction who is posing as a woman posing as a man. The practically experienced sexual healer is simultaneously passing herself off as a wealthy and sophisticated collegian to connubially ensnare the sexually impaired impostor posing also as a millionaire. But then, all he really and only wants is a roll-in-the-hay, initially, that is. It’s all twisted, turned around, upside down and funny. The preposterous, funny nature of the entanglements apparently rendered the sophisticated vulgarity of the movie’s overt sexuality acceptable to the late fifties audiences. As Variety also noted in its 1959 review: … one or two scenes skirt the limits of good taste. But who’ll care? Correct: few cared in 1959 and even fewer will care now, because in Some Like It Hot, nothing is exactly as it seems. So much so, in fact, that the very beginning of the movie functions as the bait leading to the switch.
I’m not a Tony Curtis fan, primarily because of the many odious and dubious things he said about Marilyn during the years following her tragic death. But since Tony himself recently joined the multitude of the nonliving, I’m not going to turn this review into a bash Tony Curtis session, as I have done in the past.
Leonard Maltin interviewed Tony about making Some Like It Hot for its DVD re-release several years ago. Tony was charming and funny. He maintained in that interview that he never said kissing Marilyn was like kissing Hitler. Of course, we know he lied because Paula Strasberg testified that she overheard him say it; but I’ve often preached that a considerable amount of the myth regarding Marilyn’s on-set difficulties should never be spoken, should be forgotten, primarily because that mythology is now insignificant. What did or did not happen on those sets fifty-eight years ago is now meaningless. What really matters are Marilyn’s movies and her amazing performances. Maybe the same applies to Tony Curtis. Besides, it’s simply gauche to talk ill of the dead.
And I will give the Devil his due: Tony Curtis delivers a fine performance as the triple personality Joe, Josephine and Junior. His imitation of Cary Grant is nearly flawless, if not slightly eerie. Tony credited himself with the idea of imitating Cary and I have no real reason to doubt him. If that was his idea, it must have come to him during a moment of sublime inspiration. He claims to have used his stern and reserved mother as inspiration for Josephine. No word regarding who Tony used as a template for Joe. Maybe he was just being himself. Apparently Tony could not maintain Josephine’s high pitched timber for an entire take, so her voice contains over dubs by Paul Frees.
Tony claimed he was the first actor signed to a Some Like It Hot contract. Originally, his cohort was going to be Frank Sinatra and for the part of Sugar Kane, Wilder anticipated Mitzi Gaynor. Later, Wilder altered the cast to include Jack Lemmon and Marilyn after Sinatra withdrew his name from consideration and Marilyn expressed an interest in the movie.
Like Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon delivers the personalities of Jerry and Daphne adroitly and vigorously. Some reviewers accuse Jack of overacting, but that seems unusually harsh: Jack had a tendency in all of his movies to accentuate the physicality of the characters he portrayed. This tendency works well in a silly-nonsensical-comedy-farce and particularly well in the scene during which Daphne announces her engagement to Osgood III while dancing around and shaking maracas. Originally as filmed, that scene did not include the maracas; but in test screenings, the dialogue produced a considerable amount of laughter that was in conflict with the scene’s pace. The dancing and the maracas were added to slow the dialogue delivery and to allow the audience enough time to laugh without conflicting with what the actors said.
George Raft, because of his history in such roles, brings weight and depth to the otherwise two-dimensional character of Spats and likewise, Pat O’Brien, the quintessential hard-nosed Irishman, brings the same qualities to Federal Agent Mulligan. Joe E. Brown is, well, Joe E. Brown; and the actress who plays Sweet Sue, Joan Shawlee, renders her character with a zany hostile bitchery.
As difficult as it may be to anoint a scene from Some Like It Hot as its best or to pick a favorite, I want to note two seemingly insignificant scenes in which both Tony and Jack are particularly effective.
During the sleeping berth scene, which precedes the party scene, when Sugar snuggles up to Daphne and then begins to rub her obviously warm feet against the female impersonator’s cold ones, bouncing around and jiggling her more than ample chests, Jack is particularly funny and effectively transmits his arousal along with his need to stay in character, as he repeats, in pain: I’m a girl; I’m a girl. His body language, his facial expressions, the tone of his voice reveal a man on the verge of losing control and one who desperately wants to be, at that very moment, a non-girl.
Tony’s scene comes near the end of the movie when Joe as Josephine is standing off stage at the proscenium curtain, partially concealed by shadow, watching a pained, saddened Sugar as she sings “I’m Through With Love”. With a pained facial expression that matches Sugar’s, and sadness in his eyes, Tony deftly reveals a man who suddenly recognizes how appalling his behavior and his treatment of Sugar has actually been. He steps onto the stage, out of the shadows and into the light, visually signifying that he is now a different person, revealed later by his confession to the ingenuous Sugar.
Why did I select these scenes? Well, because God lives in the details.
A genius is a person who understands what the rest of us only know about. In that regard, Billy Wilder was truly a genius. He understood story and dialogue. His sense of humor and his sense of the dramatic were unequaled. But then, he also understood the humor and the drama that is human nature, an understanding that some filmmakers seem to lack.
He has been unjustly criticized for a pedestrian use of the camera, eschewing what he considered to be the use of cinematography in an altogether unrealistic manner, employing camera set-ups and odd angles that only served to call attention to themselves and distracted from the story. For Billy Wilder, the story, the dialogue that revealed his characters, were the paramount aspects of movie making, not showing just how ingenious he could be with a camera. In spite of this odd criticism, Billy Wilder received twenty-one Academy Award nominations during his lengthy career: eight for best directing, twelve for best screenplay writing and one as the producer of a Best Picture winner.
With eight best directing nominations, he is the second most nominated director in Academy history, along with Martin Scorsese; William Wyler is first. Wilder is the second most nominated screenwriter in Academy history; Woody Allen is first. He won six Oscars: two for best directing, The Lost Weekend and The Apartment; three for best screenplay writing, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd and The Apartment, which also won the Best Picture Oscar in 1961. In addition, he received AFI’s Life Achievement Award in 1986 along with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1988.
No doubt, an artist is most often judged by his impact on those who follow him. Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba said during his 1993 Oscar acceptance speech: I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder. So, thank you Mr. Wilder. According to Trueba, Wilder telephoned him the following day to say: Fernando, it’s God. French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius said, during his Oscar acceptance speech: I would like to thank the following three people: I would like to thank Billy Wilder; I would like to thank Billy Wilder; and I would like to thank Billy Wilder.
By all accounts, Billy and Marilyn suffered with an odd relationship, love-hate some contend. Billy once called her the meanest woman in Hollywood and expressed incredulity over the religious cult that was developing around her. He alternately praised and denigrated her, not uncommon in Marilyn’s canon.
After her death, Billy softened. Gary Vitacco-Robles reports in his Marilyn biography that Billy once cried during an interview when Marilyn entered the conversation. We just happen to miss her like hell (Vitacco-Robles 161), he reportedly said while admitting the sun never set on a day that did not include a thought about Marilyn. I’ve seen many photographs of Billy with Marilyn. Trust me on this one: he loved her. But she was, after all, The Agony and the Ecstasy. It should be no surprise that two of Marilyn’s most memorable movies were directed by Billy Wilder.
Despite Marilyn’s interest in Sugar Kane as a character, she was reluctant to take the role, fearing she just might appear incredibly stupid and unperceptive: how could Sugar not realize that Josephine and Daphne are men in drag. I appreciate her fear because even the dumbest of blondes and the goofiest of millionaires, not to mention the movie’s other sundry characters, would have known immediately that Josephine and Daphne are men in drag. Marilyn took the role due to necessity: the Millers needed the money due to Arthur’s legal problems.
The lengthy character introductions and plot set-up that opens Some Like It Hot only delays the actual start of the movie. That occurs with the entrance of Marilyn and Sugar Kane. Some Like It Hot is a movie with more than a few unforgettable moments; but Sugar Kane’s entrance into the flick is perhaps one of the most unforgettable and Marilyn got what she wanted: when she enters, not a person is even thinking about the wretched image of Tony Curtis playing Joan Crawford. Neither Tony nor Joan are actually in the scene with Marilyn but that matters not: when Marilyn enters, all eyes are on her, regardless.
Her entrance functions as a self-reference by Billy Wilder and a homage to the most famous movie scene in the history of famous movie scenes, the White Halter Dress Billowing Scene from The Seven Year Itch. I justifiably capitalize the title of that scene because of its historical and cinematic importance, in recognition of its incredible status and fame. I have to point out, too, the above quotation should dispel any belief that Marilyn was in any way a retiring victim on her movie sets. When her foot went down, there it stayed.
I absolutely love The Seven Year Itch; and if I’m pressed, I will admit that it is my favorite Marilyn movie. Her comic performance is nothing short of genius. Her portrayal of Sugar matches her portrayal of the unnamed girl but Sugar is more melancholic, more vulnerable than TheGirl and Sugar’s humor is founded on the melancholy of her mistakes; and she realizes that she will certainly repeat them in the not too distant future. In spite of Sugar’s weariness and her worldliness, she has retained some of her girly naïveté and her girly innocence.
Marilyn possessed a unique ability to control her eyes and her face, allowing her to transmit joy and sadness with a unique magic. She reveals this magic through Sugar’s happiness and pain.
Her comic delivery is, once again, impeccable; and once again, she is female sexuality and innocence personified and both at the same time. Her soliloquy about her saxophonist-man-troubles and her womanly worldliness, adroitly delivered as she chips ice for an upper berth drinking party, does nothing to diminish her innocence; her admissions serve only to heighten it. As she seduces Junior aboard Osgood III’s yacht for the purpose of ensnaring him as a husband, kisses him repeatedly, causing his erectile foot to rise in the background, she is unabashed but also unvulgar and unselfish: she’s only engaged in that activity to help, to save poor Junior from a sexless life. Believe me, transmitting such guileless altruism in that absurd situation requires talent. In the hands of a lesser talent, a lesser actress, Sugar Kane would have been reduced to the level of a carnival character. Instead, Marilyn creates an oddly sexy, oddly sad woman for whom we feel empathy and pathos.
And finally, the reported difficulties on the sets of Some Like It Hot have reached legendary and mythic status. I doubt “most” of what has been proclaimed. However, it seems as if Marilyn’s recalcitrant and reportedly belligerent behavior has only made this movie more legendary than it otherwise would have been. Most critics and reviewers appear preoccupied with Marilyn’s psychological problems. They either don’t know or don’t care that she was pregnant during filming and struggling with the female ailments that often accompany that condition and hers were aggravated by years of reproductive issues. Still, the alleged rancor and personality clashes did not adversely impact the cast’s performances, including Marilyn’s, her illnesses notwithstanding. That in and of itself is remarkable.