In the annals of film comedy, there are a select few films that truly withstand the test of time-that are just as funny now, if not funnier, than they were when first released-and Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot is right at the top. Named the number one comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, Wilder's wise-cracking, gender-bending farce is a perfectly pitched comedy of romance and masquerade, with its outrageous scenario constantly kept in check by the finely tuned performance from its stars: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe.
Curtis and Lemmon play Joe and Jerry, two struggling musicians trying to make ends meet during the Prohibition Era of the late 1920s. After witnessing a brutal mob killing that looks suspiciously like the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which a Chicago gangster named Spats Columbo (George Raft) and his heavies machine-gun seven men in a car garage, Joe and Jerry have to get out of town. Since they're flat broke (Joe even sold their overcoats for money to bet at the racetrack), they have no means to travel except one option: Disguised as two women, they join up with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, an all-girl jazz band traveling to Miami for a three-week, all-expenses-paid gig.
So, for two-thirds of the movie's running time, Curtis and Lemmon play their roles in quite convincing drag as Josephine and Daphne. Just pulling off the ruse that they're women isn't enough to fuel the entire movie, so things are made more complicated with the introduction of Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane (her last name having been changed from the more unwieldy Kawalchick), the band's lead singer and ukulele player who has a penchant for getting into trouble and drinking too much. Monroe is at her best in this role, both utterly alluring and slightly sad. Her Sugar is a delightfully upbeat screen character who is hiding a great hurt inside, just as Monroe was in real life (the late 1950s, when the movie was made, were some of the hardest years of her life emotionally).
The plot thickens as Joe/Josephine falls for Sugar and adds another character to his repertoire by impersonating a frigid young millionaire on vacation in Florida with whom Sugar will fall in love. Jerry/Daphne has his own problems when he catches the fancy of an aging, seven-time-married-and-divorced playboy named Osgood E. Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who has a devious grin and a wandering hand. And, if that weren't enough, the Chicago gangsters (almost all of whom are played by grizzled character actors who specialized in playing such roles in 1930s Hollywood) just happen to be having a convention in the same Miami hotel, so it isn't long before Spats shows up to throw the whole scenario into utter turmoil.
Some Like It Hot succeeds largely because it constantly pushes the envelope of good taste, always threatening to fall over into utter absurdity, yet never does. It is that tightrope-balancing act that gives it its pizzazz. It is both silly and sexy, and it thrives on twisting expectations and setting up scenarios that seem hopelessly irresolvable. The jokes are sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious, but they are always impeccably timed and perfectly delivered. Just watch the way Lemmon and Curtis react to Monroe when she makes her first entrance and the way Lemmon delivers the line (in drag, of course): "Look at how she moves. She's like Jell-O on springs!" It's a moment of classic male voyeurism, but it's balanced by the fact that Lemmon and Curtis's characters have just been bemoaning the difficulties involved in being a woman, whether it be wearing uncomfortable clothing (the heels are wobbly, the dresses are "drafty") or enduring the constant unwanted advances from various men.
Interestingly, given its highly sexualized content, frequently ribald dialogue, highly revealing couture (one of Monroe's dresses appears to be designed primarily to trick the eye into thinking she is topless for a significant portion of the film), and story involving not only men dressed as women, but a man pretending to be frigid (which, at the time, was largely read as gay), it is quite surprising that Some Like It Hot moved through the Produce Code process as easily as it did. Of course, by the late 1950s the Production Code Administration had been worn down by a series of challenging films that had tested the limits of Hollywood's self-censoring body, beginning with Howard Hughes's The Outlaw (1947), followed by Otto Preminger's The Moon Is Blue (1953) and The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), among many, many others. One of Wilder's original titles for the film was Not Tonight, Josephine, which was nixed by the Production Code because it was understood to be the punchline to a dirty joke (according to Murray Schumach's The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, Wilder asked the censor board what the joke was, and "No one knew it as anything more than an apocryphal quote attributed to Napoleon in saying there would be no sex that night). Of course, one could argue that the title Some Like It Hot is even more explicitly sexual, which makes it particularly fitting (sure, it is also a line from the children's nursery rhyme "Pease Porridge Hot," but I think we can all agree that "It" does not refer to porridge). The Catholic Legion of Decency, which still held some sway in Hollywood at the end of the 1950s, was not as comfortable with the film, and the Very Reverend Monsignor Thomas F. Little very nearly condemned it outright before allowing it to be rated "B," which meant it was "morally objectionable in part." According to Little, "The dialogue was not only double entendre' but outright smut. The offense in costuming was obvious."
While the Very Reverend Monsignor was clearly not amused by Wilder's boundary-pushing farce, audiences certainly were, and the film has since been elevated to canonical status. Inspired by the 1935 French comedy Fanfare of Love (Fanfare d'amour), Wilder and his cowriter I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he would collaborate on another 12 projects, including their follow-up, the multi-Oscar-winning The Apartment (1960), took what was essentially a one-joke idea (two guys dressed as girls vying for romance) and used it as the launching board for a comedy that is both completely irreverent and utterly innocent. Much of the humor in Some Like It Hot can be directly attributed to Wilder and Diamond's screenplay, which is sharp, tight, and filled to the rim with hilarious one-liners, double entendres, and memorable put-downs. It is the very essence of precision comedy writing, and the actors pull it off with the kind of charm and energy that never ages, much lest gets old.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © MGM / The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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