#532) Some Like It Hot (1959)
OR “Girls Gone Wilder”
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Based on the film “Fanfare of Love” by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan.
Class of 1989
The Plot: It’s 1929 Chicago and a raid on a local speakeasy leads to wanted gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft) killing off some informants during the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. The murder is witnessed by jazz musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis & Jack Lemmon), who escape Spats by dressing in drag and joining an all-female band en route to Florida. As “Josephine” and “Daphne”, the two men become chummy with the band’s lead singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). Once the band arrives in Florida, complications arise when Joe poses as a millionaire to woo Sugar, while Daphne fights off the advances of real millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Oh, and it’s not only a comedy, but the funniest comedy ever made.
Why It Matters: The NFR attributes the film’s success to its “breakneck pacing, a touch of cynicism, and gender-bending and gender-celebrating jokes galore.” There’s also a loving essay by film censorship expert Dr. David Eldridge.
But Does It Really?: I am warning you right now: this post is gonna be one of my gush-fests. If you’re willing to forgive and accept the film’s binary gender politics, “Some Like It Hot” is still a remarkable film comedy. Beautifully structured, perfect casting, and oh yes, it’s still one of the funniest movies ever made. With a modern viewpoint of the gender spectrum, the film has unfortunately started showing its more problematic aspects, but hey, nobody’s perfect. “Some Like It Hot” is a well-oiled machine that still runs marvelously over 60 years later.
Shout Outs: Several references to ’30s gangster pics “Little Caesar“, “The Public Enemy” and “Scarface”. The latter is specifically alluded to when Spats disapproves of Bonaparte’s “cheap” coin flipping trick. He learned it from you!
Wow, That’s Dated: It’s safe to say that the “drag comedy” sub-genre is over, at least in the form seen here. Thanks to progressive leaps in acceptance of gender fluidity, drag is no longer perceived as a comic disguise, but rather an artistic and/or personal expression of one’s self. “Some Like It Hot” may have been the first drag movie to revel in its gender complications, a move that ultimately killed the genre.
Title Track: Joe actually says the phrase “some like it hot” while disguised as “Junior” talking to Sugar. In this context, “it” is jazz. Jerry also says the film’s working title within the movie: “Not Tonight, Josephine”.
Seriously, Oscars?: One of the most successful movies of 1959, “Some Like It Hot” entered the 1960 Oscars with six nominations (though missed out on a Best Picture nod). While the film lost in most categories to “Ben-Hur” and “The Diary of Anne Frank”, Orry-Kelly took home the Oscar for Black-and-White Costume Design.
- Stay with me: “Some Like It Hot” is a remake of a remake. The initial story of two male musicians crossdressing for an all-female band came from the 1935 French film “Fanfare d’amour”. When Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wanted to remake the film, they couldn’t find the screenplay, so they bought the rights to the 1951 German remake “Fanfaren der Liebe” and used that script as a launching pad. Despite its lineage, “Some Like It Hot” is a mostly original story: it was Wilder’s idea to set the film in the ’20s, and added the gangsters to give Joe and Jerry a reason to stay in drag.
- This whole post could be me gushing over this cast. Both Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis fully commit to their characters (and their alter egos); Lemmon with his masterful comic timing and character work, Curtis with his natural movie-star charm. And while stories of Marilyn Monroe holding up production are as legendary as the movie itself, she’s put to good use here. Sugar is allowed to be charming and alluring, but the movie doesn’t rest on Monroe’s star power and sex appeal alone, which permits her to have more fun with the character.
- In a move that predates “Airplane!” by 20 years, Wilder cast established actors known for their typecasting and dramatic work to lend authenticity to this comedy. Both George Raft and Pat O’Brien were veterans of the ’30s gangster pictures, where they typically played, respectively, a menacing criminal and a no-nonsense cop, as they do here. And shout out to longtime character actor Nehemiah Persoff (Little Bonaparte), who as of this writing is alive at age 101!
- Bonus shout out to Paul Frees: the versatile voice actor who dubs a few minor characters in the film, and helps Tony Curtis maintain his falsetto.
- Oh right, the sexism. “Some Like It Hot” is filled with talk of the sexes stemming from the inherently biased viewpoints of two cis-male writers, but the film’s relentlessly clever dialogue is the proverbial spoonful of sugar. Weirdly, “Some Like It Hot” is somehow less problematic than later drag comedies that attempt to address gender roles more head-on.
- I’m sure the British film “Room at the Top” has a lovely script, but “Some Like It Hot” should have won Best Adapted Screenplay. The structure of this movie is infallible: each scene moves the story and the characters along in a beautifully orchestrated manner, but never forgets to be funny.
- A major movie comedian of the 1930s, Joe E. Brown came out of semi-retirement to play Osgood Fielding, and he does not disappoint. Never have I been so charmed by a character who’s kinda creepy when you think about it. Maybe it’s his mile-wide smile.
- As much fun as Tony Curtis seems to be having as Josephine, he’s having a ball when Joe poses as “Junior”. He’s so good I’m willing to forgive his anachronistic Cary Grant impression.
- After watching him be charming (and manipulative, let’s be real), it’s fun watching Joe out of his element when he brings Sugar onto the yacht (the backwards boat trip is hilarious). The ensuing romantic moments aboard the yacht are still charming, though the manipulation being done by both parties is a bit cringe-inducing. Side note: Is this the first movie to strongly imply erectile disfunction?
- The maraca scene is a highlight. Both Lemmon and Curtis pause for laughs, and this is one of the rare classic movie scenes in which you really need those pauses. This scene also contains one of the best exchanges in the movie: “Why would a guy want to marry a guy?” “Security.”
- My favorite line in the entire movie comes from one of the gangsters helping an armed Little Bonaparte into a hollow cake: “And don’t mess up the cake. I promised to bring back a piece for my kids.”
- About a year ago, I showed “Some Like It Hot” to a friend of mine unaccustomed to watching “old movies”. She laughed quite a bit during the movie, and I’m happy to report that “Nobody’s perfect” got the biggest response of all: she laughed all the way through the exit music. Not bad for a placeholder line when Wilder and Diamond couldn’t come up with something better.
- “Some Like It Hot” was a hit upon its release, but had its share of controversy out the gate. While the MPAA gave its approval, the Catholic Legion of Decency declared the film “seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency”, and some states refused to screen the film at all (though eventually allowed it with an “adults only” restriction). While “Some Like It Hot” is remembered today as a harmless relic, this initial back and forth with film censorship helped end the long-standing Hays Code.
- Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon would make six more films together over the next 20 years, including my personal favorite “The Apartment“.
- The drag comedy genre continued along for the next 40 years, but always in the shadow of this movie (many of the lesser attempts got reviews titled “Some Like It Not”). There was the occasional “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire”, but changing times and the perfection of “Some Like It Hot” have buried the drag comedy.
- After the success of “Promises, Promises” (aka “The Apartment: The Musical”), “Some Like It Hot” became the next Wilder movie to become a stage musical. Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s adaptation “Sugar” opened on Broadway in 1972, and a 2002 national tour saw Tony Curtis in the role of Osgood Fielding!
- When Billy Wilder passed away in 2002 at age 95, he left behind a legacy of classic movies, but one line stayed with him literally to the end. His tombstone reads “I’m A Writer, But Then, Nobody’s Perfect”.