An Appreciation – Some Like it Hot
Billy Wilder’s screwball classic Some Like it Hot (1959) left such an impression on me that I can still remember the exact time and place where I first watched it. I was eighteen years old, attending my first year of college. In the main student building was a small theater that would replay two movies all day for a week. I usually used this area as an escape from the hardships of schoolwork, not so much a place to watch movies, but a place to rest or take a nap. One day, I sat at my usual spot, far to the left of the screen, and prepared myself for my usual daily routine. However, that Monday was different. As I watched the images displayed, and listened to the music and dialogue that came from this movie, I suddenly found myself wide-awake, sitting up in my seat, watching the screen intently. Soon after, I was smiling, and then laughing, and then laughing out loud during nearly every scene of the movie; I was hooked during each and every moment. From the beginning to the end, this became a film that has remained in my mind like a fond memory, something I can turn to again and again.
To me, this may very well be one of the funniest films of all time. The great filmmaker Billy Wilder, along with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, crafted a masterful screenplay. Each line of dialogue sparkles with wit, charisma, and charm. The punch lines come so rapidly fast that one may not be able to catch every joke or phrase that is uttered in one sitting. I remember watching this again in a film class, and the students laughed so loud and so often that they would miss a joke because they were too busy reacting to the previous one. Characters exchanged dialogue as if they were trying to outdo the other, in an almost jazzy riff of language. The situations and slapstick comedy work almost unexpectedly, in both clever and hilarious ways, like a pie to the face, but the pie being the best tasting pie ever baked. What makes the film so special is that it can only work within the time and place in which it was made. There is no way that a movie with a premise involving two musicians escaping the mob by dressing in drag and hiding in an all-girl band could possibly be made successfully today. Unfortunately, today’s movie audiences would never accept something like this now, which is what makes this movie so great, because it exists all on its own.
The plot is pure screwball. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are two down and out musicians working in prohibition era Chicago. Joe is clearly the craftier of the two, always trying to find a way to hustle a new opportunity, with Jerry begrudgingly tagging along. The film opens with their latest gig, a backroom nightclub inside of a funeral home, being busted by the local police. Soon after, they find themselves being witnesses to a mob hit, led by the gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft). The mob takes out the snitch that pinpointed their joint, Toothpick Charlie (George E. Stone), and then immediately sets their sights on the two witnesses. Interestingly enough, this part of the film was actually based on a true story, better known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. With the gangsters hot on their tails, Joe and Jerry do the only thing they can reasonably do in their predicament: dress in drag, call themselves Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-female band, led by Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee) on a train ride to Florida. Ahh, only in the movies.
In no way do Joe and Jerry look like actual women in this movie, which only adds to its hilarity. We watch as these two try to maneuver and fit into this band of females, talking in raised voices that sound more like they have a sore throat than having an actual feminine quality. They struggle as they walk around in high heels, complaining of the “draftiness” that comes with wearing dresses, and having to deal with the hoots and hollers of the onlooking males that pass by. Although this may be seen as a comedy, one can make a case about the underlying statement regarding gender issues of the day, and with a director like Billy Wilder, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were intended. The women (the real women) of the band are a loud, joking, fun-having bunch. They sneak out when they aren’t supposed to, drink alcohol when it’s against the rules, and party late into the night. In one comedic sequence of the film, the entire band sneaks out of their beds to join Jerry in his, and their gallivanting ways almost expose Jerry and Joe’s true identity.
The main member of the band is Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, played by that great movie star, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was perfectly cast for this film; she exudes so much sexuality and yet had such an aloof and naïve personality that it’s damn near impossible not to be hypnotized by her. It was as if she was completely unaware of her own charisma, or at least that is how it appeared on screen. She plays a character that has seen the fuzzy end of the lollipop one too many times in her love life, and is hoping to finally find Mr. Right in Florida. In every frame that she is in, she is the center of attention; she may be photographed with another actor but we don’t realize it. She was an icon of the movies, and Wilder captured her no other way. Take for example the scene where she sings “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” on stage. Wearing that white dress, the spotlight highlighting the curves of her body, her playful spirit hopping along to the song, the screen nearly sizzles with her seductiveness. We’re almost surprised that Joe is the only character that falls in love with her; we can only imagine how movie audiences reacted at the time. Which is probably the reason why Wilder put up with her. Monroe was notoriously hard to work with, showing up late to shooting, and constantly forgetting her lines. At one point she had so much trouble saying, “Where’s the bourbon?” while looking through a dresser that Wilder had the line taped inside every single drawer to prevent her from forgetting. The things she did off camera would have most other actors removed from showbiz entirely, but it was clearly all worth it at the end, because everything she did on screen was pure magic.