This posting is my contribution to the CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon which runs through Jan. 27th. You can find more contributors here.
Do you remember the first film you ever recorded? I do, it was Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” way back sometime in the 1960’s. “Wait a minute!” You say, “How can you have recorded it back in the 1960’s when VCR’s did not come out until the late 1970’s?” Well, it was simple, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I loved this film so much I recorded the entire soundtrack. I use to lay down in bed or on the couch with my headphones on and listen to the entire movie, visualizing all the scenes.
Crazy, weird? Probably, I am sure my parents thought so.
Needless to say, “Some Like it Hot” is one of my favorite movies, it has stood the test of time. Because of this film, I became a lifelong admirer of both director Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. It is a film I never get tired of watching.
Before and since its release in 1959, there have been many films that have used men in drag as a plot device (“I Was A Male War Bride”, “Tootsie”, “La Cage aux Folles”), even TV shows like “Bosom Buddies” got into the act, however none have come close or surpassed “Some Like it Hot” in its farcical humor. The well-known storyline is simple, it is 1929, two Chicago musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), witness The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre after which they decide it might be best for their health if they leave town. The only jobs available are as musicians in an all girl band heading for Florida. It is at the train station they meet Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) a ukulele player and singer with the band.
Wilder opens the film with an old fashion 1930’s Warner Brothers style shootout. The police are hot in pursuit of a Hearst packed with members of Spats Columbo’s gang. Firepower is exploding from both sides with no concern for innocent passerby’s. The battle rages until the police car skids and smashes into a poll. Losing the cops, the hoodlums, in the back of the Hearst, open up the damaged coffin to find the bullet ridden remains of hundreds of bottles of bootleg booze.
Inside Mozerella’s Funeral Parlor, a front for a speakeasy, we meet Joe and Jerry, the two musicians whose lives are about to change drastically. Within moments, they will be out of work after a raid by the police thanks to a snitch named “Toothpick” Charlie (George E. Stone). Evading the police during the raid, the now out of work boys make the rounds of various music agencies only to find out the two available jobs for a sax and bass player are in an All Girls Band, or a $6 a piece gig some one hundred miles away. The boys opt for the long snowy drive, borrowing Nellie Wymers car which is parked in a garage, unknowingly to the boys, a hangout for local hoods. It is here they innocently witness the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Suddenly, the job dressed as women in an All Girls Band, more than a thousand miles away in Florida, does not seem so bad.
As they join the band at the train station, Joe and Jerry have transform into Josephine and Geraldine, who is soon to become Daphne (Jerry never liked the name Geraldine). The new girls, “brand new!” as Jerry comments, meet the rest of the band on the train including Sugar “Kane” (Marilyn Monroe) the beautiful, vulnerable singer/ukulele player.
Once in Florida, Joe adds a second disguise as Junior, the wealthy son of a millionaire (Shell Oil), who quickly attempts to seduce the sexy though naive Sugar. Meanwhile Jerry, I mean Daphne, is pursued by octogenarian Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) who falls head over heels in love and wants to marry her.
Before long the Chicago gangsters show up for a “convention” of the Friends of Italian Opera and well, all hell breaks loose leading to the now classic closing line by Osgood after he proposes marriage to Daphne who reveals she’s a he!
“Well, nobody’s perfect.” Osgood responds.
At the time of its release, the Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a condemned rating (in Kansas, they actually banned the film); subsequently “Some Like it Hot” joined a flock of notable films ruled objectionable to viewing by all Catholics. This included films like “The Outlaw”, “Black Narcissus”, Fritz Lang’s “M”, “And God Created Woman” and “Baby Doll.” The big “C” rating usually meant the large Catholic population would stay away from these films and boycott them into oblivion. However, by 1959, the Legion, along with the Motion Picture Production Code was beginning to lose their grip. Audiences, both Catholic and non-Catholic went to see “Some Like it Hot” turning it into one of the biggest hits of the year. So why was “Some Like it Hot” condemned? One three-letter word…sex!
As Osgood would say, “Zowie!”
Billy Wilder and co-screenwriter I.A.L Diamond wrote a script that is not only funny but also loaded with sexual innuendo. The now classic train berth scene where Jerry/Daphne plans a private slumber party for just him and Sugar turns into an accidental wild bash with just about every female band member climbing into the berth ready to party hardy including one baby doll wearing blonde flaunting a large salami. The scene progresses into a sea of pajama clad female bodies climbing all over each other, reminiscent of the stateroom scene in The Marx Brothers, “A Night at the Opera,” with plenty of booze spilling, inappropriate hand movement and by the end of the scene a frustrated Jerry/Daphne in the middle of a male fantasy gone haywire. Later on, Joe’s seduction of Sugar aboard Osgood’s yacht where he pretends to be an impotent millionaire speaking with an obvious phony Cary Grant accent. Sugar’s attempts to “revive” the millionaire’s sleeping libido steams up not only his glasses but also the entire movie screen. Meanwhile on shore, Jerry/Daphne and lecherous millionaire Osgood Fielding III are steaming up the floor with a hot tango.
So where are we here? We have Joe posing as woman (Josephine) who then impersonates a guy (Junior) in an attempt to get Sugar into bed. Then there is Jerry as Geraldine who change “her” name to Daphne and is pursued by a dirty millionaire mama’s boy. Anyone familiar with Wilder’s work is aware that impersonation is a common theme in his films. In his very first directorial effort, “The Major and the Minor” he had Ginger Rogers posing as a 12-year-old girl. In “Irma La Douce”, Jack Lemmon is a French police officer who poses as an English Lord and then there was Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol, a hooker who poses as a married housewife in 1964’s “Kiss Me Stupid.”
Acting kudos belong to all three leads. Monroe was a limited actress but she had a gift for knowing what was right for Marilyn Monroe. A true movie star if not a great actress, she managed to offer a combination of strong overt womanly sexuality, yet maintaining a childlike innocence that manages to make the most explicit double entendres sound innocent. Sex with Marilyn is steamy and exciting but never threatening.
Jack Lemmon became a major star with this film and found a creative career partner in Billy Wilder with whom he would go on to make six more films. Lemmon was still under contract to Columbia when Wilder approached him for the role. In order to work with Wilder on this film, Lemmon had to agree to extend his contract with Columbia. Instead of the one film he then owed Harry Cohn, he agreed to make four more films for the studio.
Tony Curtis’ work as Joe has generally been overshadowed by Lemmon’s breakout performance, and Monroe’s sexuality, yet Curtis is an accomplished comedic actor who has been overlooked throughout his career, not just in comedy but in dramatic parts too (Sweet Smell of Success). His Cary Grant imitation in the film came about when Wilder asked him if there is anyone he could imitate. When Curtis said Cary Grant, Wilder was ecstatic; he always wanted to make a film with the debonair Mr. Grant, this would be as close as he would ever come. Curtis was also a victim of Marilyn’s bad work habits. Her performance would improve after multiple takes, while Tony was generally at his best in the early takes. Wilder usually went with Marilyn’s best sacrificing Tony’s performance. After all, most eyes were going to be on Monroe.
Wilder and Diamond’s dialogue just rolls off the tongues of his cast like an expensive bottle of wine. When Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne first spot Sugar walking along the train platform, Jerry tells Joe, “It’s just like Jell-O on springs! Some sort of built in motor. I tell ya’ it’s a whole different sex.” The movie is filled with just about one classic scene after another. After Jerry announces to Joe that he is engaged.
Joe asks, “Who’s the lucky girl?”
“I am” Jerry replies. “Osgood proposed to me. We’re planning a June Wedding.”
“You can’t marry Osgood!” Joe tells him.
“Why? Do you think he’s too old for me?”
Joe tells Jerry he had better lie down.
Jerry replies, “Will you stop treating me like a child. I know there’s a problem.”
“I’ll say there is!” Joe said
“His mother! We need her approval. But I’m not worried, because I don’t smoke.”
“Jerry there is another problem. Like what are you going to do on your honeymoon?”
“We’ve been discussing that,” Jerry says, “He wants to go to the Riviera and I kinda lean toward Niagara Falls.”
Who else but Wilder, and he knew Marilyn’s childlike delivery could get away with it, would write a line like “That’s the story of my life; I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”
A few years earlier, Wilder swore he would never work with Monroe again after making “The Seven Year Itch,” claiming life is too short. Yet, here he was with MM again because well, no one was like Marilyn. She was oblivious to others, not necessarily uncaring, just oblivious. Lemmon and Curtis would spend hours getting ready in makeup for their roles and then would have to sit around and wait until Marilyn came out of her trailer. Still, when you saw her on the screen, it was magical. Wilder compared her screen presence to Garbo. Speaking of Monroe, there is the scene where she sings “I Wanna Be Love By Love” while wearing what amounts to a see-through gown, so carefully lit that Wilder managed to get it passed the vigilant eyes of the censors.
Tony Curtis was pretty much signed up for the film from the start. Wilder originally planned on Frank Sinatra as Joe and Mitzi Gaynor as Sugar. Curtis was originally scheduled to play Jerry. Then Monroe signed on. Along the way, Sinatra was out and the young and upcoming Jack Lemmon signed on for the role of Jerry. Curtis switched over to the role of Joe. The film was originally to be shot in color, however, after a few screen tests of the boys dressed as girls were completed, it was decided they would be more believable in black and white. In truth, neither Lemmon nor Curtis are very convincing as women, unlike say Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.” Watching the film recently, I keep getting the feeling that Lemmon looked at times like a deranged combination of Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher and Heath Ledger’s “The Joker.” They get away with it mainly because “Some Like it Hot” is a wild farce as opposed to a more straight comedic film with a message, like “Tootsie.”
The movie is not just Monroe, Lemmon and Curtis; Wilder pays loving tribute to the Warner Brothers gangster film with George Raft playing Spats Colombo and Pat O’Brien as Police Detective Mulligan. Wilder also used “Little Caesar” alumni George E. Stone in the role of “Toothpick” Charlie. There is also a wonderful scene with Raft and a young thug flipping a coin in the air, Raft’s trademark move from the original 1933 “Scarface.” He tells the thug, “Where did you get that cheap trick?” The thug is played by Edward G. Robinson Jr. Warner Brothers alumni Edward Robinson Sr. was originally supposed to play Little Bonaparte, a role ultimately performed by Nehemiah Peroff. Then there is Joe E. Brown whose pronunciation of Wilder and Diamonds dialogue is well, “Zowie,” thanks to a very large mouth. Also on board are Wilder favorite Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue. Character actor Mike Mazurski (“Ain’t I had the pleasure of meeting you two broads before?”) is one of the not so brightly lit hoods.
The Florida scenes were filmed in San Diego at the famed Coronado Hotel. And I would be remiss if I did not mention Charles Lang’s beautiful black and white photography.
Not all critics at the time were bowled over by “Some Like it Hot.” Some were shocked by the risqué humor (Judith Crist for one), still the film was a monumental hit. Today, it is considered arguably one of the funniest films ever put on celluloid. The American Film Institute named it the funniest film ever made, for what that is worth. Is it Wilder’s best film? Many would argue so, and with a filmography consisting of such works like “The Apartment”, “Double Indemnity”, “Sunset Blvd”, “Ace in the Hole” and others it is tough to make a definitive choice. For me, as I stated in the beginning, it was the first film I ever recorded and one of my all-time favorites, I consider it up there with “City Lights,” “The Gold Rush,” “Duck Soup” and “The Producers” as one of the greatest comedies ever made, and a sentimental favorite to say the least.