One of cinema’s funniest comedies, starring one of its biggest stars
Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” illustrates the artistry of an expert filmmaker at the top of his game. Wilder’s ingenious producing, directing and writing are at the heart of what is considered one of the finest and funniest films ever made, and is ranked at #1 on the American Film Institute’s “The 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time” list. This man knew how to make movies! His skill, heart and humor translated effortlessly into classic after classic, including this one. Like almost all his films, “Some Like It Hot” contains an accessible sophistication unique to Wilder. From the surface it looks like just plain fun, but at a deeper glance you’ll see a very smart film. All the perfect ingredients are in place - an engaging story, clever dialogue, mesmerizing performances, stunning costumes, beautiful cinematography, and priceless hair and make-up. And on top of that are the laughs. There are so many hilarious situations and lines of dialogue, you can never quite digest them all in one viewing. I’ve seen “Some Like It Hot” umpteen times, and it still makes me laugh out loud. If you ever need cheering up, this is a film equipped to do it!
Don’t be fooled by the dark opening of “Some Like It Hot”. It is a masterful ploy to raise the story’s stakes to life or death. The set up is simple: two musicians witness 1929’s infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and have to hide from the Chicago mob in order to stay alive. Out of desperation, they join and all-girl band posing as women, and become enthralled with the band’s beautiful singer. What ensues is a mad-cap escapade which playfully touches on how men treat women, and how innocence can overpower dishonesty. All of the characters in “Some Like it Hot” have flaws and weaknesses, which makes them engaging and plausible - after all, nobody’s perfect! But none of that actually matters, as the magic of this film is in its execution. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Director, but funny enough not Best Picture. That could be due to the film being somewhat controversial at the time and pushing the boundaries of the Motion Picture Code. I’ll talk more about that in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section.
The idea for “Some Like It Hot” was based on a 1951 German film "Fanfaren der Liebe”, in which two musicians disguise themselves to get work - including dressing up as women. Wilder and screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond took the idea and ran with it. Crossdressing isn’t used just for laughs, but as a device for exploration of the sexes. As "Joe" says to "Jerry", while both in drag, “now you know how the other half lives”. The script was co-written with Diamond, who became Wilder’s writing partner in 1957. The two would write twelve screenplays together, including “Love in the Afternoon”, “The Front Page”, “The Fortune Cookie”, “Irma la Douce”, and “The Apartment” (for which they each won an Oscar). They both received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of “Some Like It Hot”, their first of three as a team (including their “The Apartment” win). I wrote more about Wilder when I wrote about “Double Indemnity” - a dark film which also contains that unmistakeable sharp-witted Wilder charm. For “Some Like It Hot”, Wilder received one of his eight Best Director Oscar nominations, of which he won two (“The Lost Weekend”, and “The Apartment”). He always thought of himself as a writer first and director second. In fact, on his tombstone it reads, “Billy Wilder. I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect”.
“Some Like It Hot” stars three glorious actors, each giving arguably their best career performances. Top billed is Marilyn Monroe, an actress, singer, model, legend, and the most famous icon of classic cinema. People from all over the world recognize her face and name, though it’s my guess a minority of them have actually seen her in a film. Marilyn Monroe was voted number 6 of the women on AFI’s "50 Greatest American Screen Legends” list. She carried no shame about her body or her effects on men while oozing sex, was never vulgar, and was the sex symbol of the conservative 1950s. Her life was fraught with mental illness, foster homes, three failed marriages, miscarriages, suicide attempts, addiction, a father she never knew, and a mother in a mental institution. More books, articles, dramatizations, and songs have been written about her life, death, and mystique than just about anyone. She has become almost mythical.
With a breathy voice, an overt sexuality, and a child-like innocence, Monroe portrayed mostly “dumb blondes”, a niche from which she could barely escape. She is brilliant as “Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk”, the band’s singer and ukulele player in “Some Like It Hot”. Only Monroe could bring such an enticing mix of sex and innocence in a believable manner. When she agreed to do “Some Like It Hot”, she requested that Wilder and Diamond add to the script, making sure “Sugar” was part of the film’s comedy, and not just “straight-man” to her costars. One of the superb bits Wilder and Diamond added was “Sugar’s” now iconic entrance in the film. She is seen, with ukulele in hand, walking to catch a train. Not only does it showcase Monroe’s famous walk, but her reaction while smoke blows at her curvaceous body tells us from the start that “Sugar” is in on the jokes and the film’s fun. Although Monroe played dumb blondes so authentically, she was anything but one. She had some degree of control over many of her films, and had a clause in her contract for this one to be shot in color. After she saw color screen tests of her co-stars in drag looking slightly greenish from their make-up, she relented and allowed the film to be shot in black and white (which proved good news for cinematographer Charles Lang, who received a Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination for his gorgeous work). In “Some Like It Hot”, Monroe’s onscreen innocence is artfully key to the film. “Sugar’s” driving force to marry a millionaire is heartfelt and understandable - a complexity denied Monroe in almost all her other roles (including one titled, “How to Marry a Millionaire”). If you can get past her spell (which is no easy task) you will find a truly gifted actress. Monroe had her own style and persona, and I can’t think of anyone else who put their entire body and soul into their work so thoroughly.
An easy scene in which to spot her genius is the kissing scene with “Shell Oil Junior”. During that scene, focus on Monroe's acting, reacting, how in the moment she is, her flawless comic timing, and how she uses her body is an expression of her pure and deep emotion. Even when singing (and she sings three songs), she completely sells the lyrics with her voice and body, while dripping with sex. She can portray a pure child-like joy and excitement better than anyone, which was a massive task during this shoot, as it came at a difficult time in Monroe’s life. She had a hard time being back at work (not having worked for two years), was suffering from an ear infection, was addicted to pills, had trouble concentrating, had recently lost a pregnancy, and was having marital problems with her current husband, playwright Arthur Miller. She even took an overdose of pills at one point during the shoot. Monroe was pregnant during filming, which is why she looks a bit heavier than usual, and her face was superimposed over the bodies of stand-ins for the press photos. Sadly, Monroe would have another devastating miscarriage shortly after filming completed. She was notoriously late to the set, while everyone waited around for her arrival (including Curtis and Lemmon in dresses, heels, and make-up), slowing shooting for hours and days. Highly insecure, she would lock herself in her dressing room and not come out for hours until she was psychologically ready. According to the fabulous Michelle Morgan biography “Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed” , Marilyn became known on the set as “MM: Missing Monroe”.
Wilder was a stickler for his lines being said exactly as written, including every “and” and “but”. Because of her mental state, Monroe would forget lines as simple as "It's me, Sugar" (which took 47 takes for her to say correctly), and “Where’s that bourbon?” (which took over 70 takes for her to say correctly and had to be written in every drawer she opens of a bureau for her to read). It all made for a very stressful shoot for everyone. Her co-stars always had to give their best, since Wilder told them that when Marilyn gets it right, he will print that take regardless of their performances. Wilder knew, to some extent, what he was getting into by casting Monroe and believed the payoff would be worth the cost. He had previously directed her in the classic 1955 film, “The Seven Year Itch”, and they got along, although she did show up repeatedly late. He had Monroe in mind when writing “Some Like It Hot”, but didn’t think he could actually get her, and settled on casting Mitzi Gaynor. Wilder showed Monroe an unfinished script and said if she was interested he would tailor the rest of it to her. She loved it, and Monroe was now the star. Wilder knew the camera would capture her rare magic, and it did. “Some Like It Hot” is largely considered Monroe’s best film, and best performance. Wilder publicly criticized her behavior at the time (and apparently was so stressed he had to take sedatives to sleep), but seemed to soften when speaking about her later in life. In a 1999 “Vanity Fair” magazine interview, Wilder had this to say: “...she was very tough to work with. But what you had, by hook or crook, once you saw it on the screen, it was just amazing. Amazing, the radiation that came out. And she was, believe it or not, an excellent dialogue actress. She knew where the laugh was. She knew. But then again, we would have 300 extras, Miss Monroe is called for nine o’clock, and she would appear at five in the afternoon. And she would stand there and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I lost my way to the studio.’ She had been under contract there for seven years!”. Marilyn Monroe would appear in only two more films before her untimely death in 1962 at the age of 36 from a barbiturate overdose. I’ll talk more about her in upcoming posts.
Tony Curtis stars as “Joe / Josephine / Shell Oil Junior”. Known for his pretty-boy looks, black hair and blue eyes, he was the epitome of a movie star. “Some Like It Hot” gave him a chance to show his comedic side to new proportions. Perfectly cast in this film, he slips seamlessly between “Joe”, “Shell Oil Junior”, and right into “Josephine’s” dress. Curtis fashioned “Shell Oil Junior” after a mix of a New York gangster, and his favorite actor, Cary Grant. As “Josephine” (who was was based on a mix of Grace Kelly and his mother), Curtis had trouble maintaining a high pitched voice, so his voice was dubbed with a mix of his own and that of actor Paul Frees.
The son of two immigrants, Tony Curtis grew up in the Bronx, New York, living in the back of his father’s tailor shop with his two brothers. His childhood was touched by poverty, a brief stay in an orphanage, being part of a street gang, and tragically losing his closest brother when he was 12. He first acted in a high school play. After serving in the Navy during WWII, he went to college and studied acting. Discovered by Hollywood, he was put under contract to Universal Pictures and began appearing in films in 1949, gaining success with his first starring role in the 1951 swashbuckler, “The Prince Who Was a Thief”. Subsequent successes included “Houdini” in 1952, and “Trapeze” in 1956 opposite Burt Lancaster. He worked again with Lancaster in 1957 in “Sweet Smell of Success”, for which Curtis earned his first glowing reviews. The following year he had a major success in “The Defiant Ones” opposite Sidney Poitier, and they both received Best Actor Oscar nominations (Curtis’ one and only). Curtis was now a full-fledged Hollywood star at the height of his popularity, and “Some Like It Hot” came shortly after. He would continue to appear in films and TV until 2008, and his other notable films include “Spartacus”, The Boston Strangler", “The Great Race”, “The Vikings”, "Sex and the Single Girl", and “Sextette". In 1951, against studio wishes, he married actress Janet Leigh, which boosted both their careers. The two became one of Hollywood’s most famous couples, and a favorite of gossip columns and movie magazines. They appeared in five films together - "Houdini", "The Black Shield of Falworth", "The Vikings", "The Perfect Furlough", and "Who Was That Lady?”. They had two children, actresses Kelly Curtis and Jamie Lee Curtis. He and Leigh divorced in 1962, and Curtis had five more marriages, including one to actress Christine Kaufmann. In the early 1980s he began painting which became his main focus towards the end of his life. Tony Curtis died in 2010 at the age of 85.
Jack Lemmon is outstanding as “Jerry / Geraldine / Daphne". A major star and respected actor, he enjoyed a film career spanning just over forty years. He often played working-class men who were down on their luck, and became the ultimate “everyman”. His high energy performances were always filled with personality, emotion and passion, yet no matter how funny or high-strung, he was always truthful and honest, never playing for laughs. In an AFI interview, Lemmon said, “I think 'Some Like It Hot' is the best comedy script I ever read”, and he certainly made the most of it. As the neurotic double bass player “Jerry”, Lemmon lets us know from the start this film is a comedy. He takes it to a whole new level as “Daphne”, bringing an almost over-the-top looseness just shy of being a tart. Lemmon's comic timing and physicality are uproarious. Take notice of the way he slaps “Osgood” in the elevator. He’s hysterical! And their give and take chemistry and double-talk is another of the film’s jewels. The two are so fabulous together they should be a couple! “Daphne’s” floozy-type energy is also in great contrast to “Josephine’s” air of aloofness. Lemmon and Curtis put their drag to the test in the Studio’s ladies washroom to see if they could actually pass as women. Standing by the sink, they applied lipstick and powder. No one paid them any mind, and a few women even said “Hi girls”, giving them confidence that their drag looked OK. As for their mannerisms, Wilder hired a renown female impersonator to coach them. A clue to Lemmon’s brilliance can be found in the scene when “Daphne” is in bed shaking maracas. Wilder wanted pauses in the scene to give the audience a chance to laugh without missing any jokes, so he came up with maracas. If you carefully watch how and when Lemmon uses them, you will see an effortless combination of truthfulness and precise comic timing. Lemmon received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for this film, one of eight career nominations (including two wins). Wilder thought so much of Lemmon (and vice versa), that they made six additional films together, including “The Apartment”, “Irma la Douce “, “The Front Page”, and Wilder’s final film, “Buddy, Buddy”.
Jack Lemmon was born in an elevator in a Massachusetts Hospital (a fitting beginning for such a gifted comic). When he was about eight years old, he replaced a boy in a school play, got a laugh, and immediately knew he wanted to be an actor. He continued acting in school plays, and eventually moved to New York where he was one of the first students of renown acting teacher Uta Hagen, at HB Studios (I briefly studied there as well, decades after Lemmon). In addition to summer stock, he began to work on radio and Broadway, and became a prolific TV actor in the late 1940s and early 1950s, appearing in between 400 and 500 shows. He was given a contract at Columbia Pictures and cast in his first film as the male lead opposite Judy Holliday in the 1954 comedy “It Should Happen to You”. For his third film, the 1955 classic “Mister Roberts”, he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. He would go on to play almost exclusively comedic roles until the 1962 classic about two alcoholics, “Days of Wine and Roses”, opposite Lee Remick. In 1966, Wilder paired him with actor Walter Matthau in the film, “The Fortune Cookie”, and their chemistry was so infectious they became a screen sensation, and would appear together in a total of eight films, including “The Odd Couple” and "Grumpy Old Men”. Lemmon appeared in many classic films through the 1990s, others of which include “The Out-of-Towners”, “The China Syndrome”, “Missing”, “Glengarry Glen Ross”, "JFK", "The Great Race" (also featuring Cutis), and “Save the Tiger”, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. He was married twice - to actresses Cynthia Stone and Felicia Farr. Jack Lemmon died in 2001 at the age of 76. When I was a kid he was my favorite actor. A fun footnote: Lemmon is buried in the same cemetery as Billy Wilder (if I remember they are two graves apart). Lemmon’s tombstone reads: “Jack Lemmon in”. Marilyn Monroe and Walter Matthau are buried there as well.
Like many Hollywood classic films, “Some Like It Hot” is filled with unforgettable performances by supporting and bit players who add tone, humor and depth. Practically everyone’s performance in this film is noteworthy, from the bellboy to “Sweet Sue”. That being said, I will limit my writing to two supporting actors who were both formerly major stars. The first is George Raft, who plays the Chicago gangster “Spats Colombo”, a man who loves his spats (a spatter guard covering footwear accessory). Wilder used actors associated with gangster films in many of the gangster roles in "Some Like It Hot", and Raft was one of the largest. He became a star in the 1932 classic film, “Scarface”, as the coin-flipping gangster “Guino Rinaldo”. “Some Like It Hot” contains multiple Easter egg gangster film tributes. One of them is when "Spats" sees a young mobster flipping a coin (a la “Guino Rinaldo”) and exclaims, "Where did you pick up that cheap trick”! The young mobster flipping the coin was none other than Edward G. Robinson’s son (you can read about Edward G. Robinson in the “Double Indemnity” post). Raft is a wonderful combination of tough and funny in this film. The fact we believe he will kill our two leads if given the chance is what makes this outrageous film plausible. George Raft started as a dancer, known for his Tango and Charleston. After making it to Broadway, he began a film career in 1929, starting in musicals, comedies and dramas. His immortal success in “Scarface” typecast him as a tough guy gangster, although he did play other characters. He grew up poor and became a real life tough guy, having association with several mobsters, including Bugsy Siegel. There were always rumors Raft was a mobster himself. He appeared in over 80 films and TV shows (playing himself in ten), including "They Drive by Night", "Each Dawn I Die", "Johnny Angel", Stage Door Canteen", "Casino Royale ", and “Sextette”. Raft was married once, and was known to have affairs with several major Hollywood actresses including Norma Shearer, Tallulah Bankhead, Carole Lombard, and Betty Grable. George Raft died in 1980 at the age of 79.
The powerhouse performance by Joe E. Brown as “Osgood Fielding III” is one of the film's many treats. He more than holds his own every time he's on screen. The chemistry between “Osgood” and “Daphne” (even while dancing) alone is worth the price of admission. With his likable persona, incredible comic timing, and larger than life mouth, Brown is remembered today almost exclusively for “Some Like It Hot”, although he was a major star in his day (so big his name was billed above the tittle in many films). Joe E. Brown began in the circus, vaudeville, and was even a professional baseball player before making it to Broadway. He was asked to join the New York Yankees baseball team but declined, wishing to focus on show business (he would often play athletes in his films). He started appearing in films in 1927, and became a star in 1929 with the film “On with the Show”. He made over 50 films, and appeared on television in the 1950s and 60s. Classics in which he appeared include "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Hollywood Canteen”, "Show Boat", "Around the World in 80 Days", and "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”. He was one of the top ten box office stars in both 1933 and 1936. His unique face was often the inspiration for cartoon characters, including several by Walt Disney, such as “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood” in 1938. He was never nominated for an Oscar, but won a special Tony Award for his role in the touring company of “Harvey”. Brown was a family man, married once for almost 60 years, until his death. In 1939 he supported a bill allowing 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children entrance into the US, two of whom he and his wife adopted. In addition, they had two biological sons. A street was named after him in his hometown in Ohio. Joe E. Brown died in 1973 at the age of 81.
I must mention the Academy Award winning costumes by Orry-Kelly. His Oscar for "Some Like It Hot" was the film’s only win out of six nominations. The costumes are breathtaking, and Monroe’s dresses from this film have become iconic. When she sings “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, she looks naked with strategically placed sequins, and a very, very low cut back - both adding to her vulnerability and sexiness. To get that “nude” look, she was literally sewn into her costumes. Curtis and Lemmon were originally given off-the-rack studio costume dresses, but both asked Wilder to have dresses specifically designed for them by Orry-Kelly. Wilder agreed, and their characterizations are solidly enhanced by their dresses. The openly gay Australian born Orry-Kelly moved to New York in 1921 to become an actor, and lived with then unknown Cary Grant, with whom he was said to have an on-again off-again nine year relationship. Orry-Kelly moved to Hollywood in 1932 and became Warner Brothers Studio’s chief costume designer until 1944. He was an expert in shape, silhouette, color, having his clothes fit the story’s needs, and enhancing any body type. His remarkable designs earned him three Best Costume Design Academy Awards (for “An American in Paris”, “Les Girls”, and “Some Like It Hot”), with an additional nomination for “Gypsy”. He designed costumes for 300 films, including such classics as “Casablanca”, "Jezebel", “42nd Street”, “The Maltese Falcon”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Oklahoma!”, “Auntie Mame”, "Gold Diggers of 1933", "Sweet Bird of Youth", and many, many more. Unlike most of his closeted gay and lesbian co-workers, he never married. Orry-Kelly died in 1964 at the age of 66. Among his pallbearers were Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder, and Cary Grant.
This week you are in for a film that is pure, unadulterated fun. This mix-up of sexes, gangsters and millionaires, will keep you fully entertained while constantly laughing. It is truly one of the classics. Enjoy “Some Like It Hot”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
“Some Like It Hot” works successfully, because of its nonjudgmental point-of-view. It matter-of-factly depicts men in drag, hints at homosexual relations and sex outside of marriage. Even if only implied, these were all taboo subjects according to the Motion Picture Production Code. This film was rated “B - Morally Objectionable in Part for All” by the Roman Catholic Church Legion of Decency, and was banned in Kansas because of the kissing scene between “Sugar” and “Shell Oil Junior”. At the time this film was made, the Production Code was beginning to weaken, and because of its overwhelming success, “Some Like It Hot” is noted as being one of the films that helped kill the Code (which ended in 1968). I explained more about the Code in the “Red Dust” entry.
The film’s last line, “Nobody’s perfect”, is one of cinema's most famous last lines. It is ranked at #48 on AFI's “The 100 Greatest Movie Quotes Of All Time” list. That line of dialogue was not supposed to be in the final film, as it was a “placeholder” in the script until Wilder and Diamond could think up something better. Thanks goodness they never did!