Some Like It Hot

US (1959) Dir. Billy Wilder

At the time of writing this – June 22nd 2015 – it is Billy Wilder’s birthday and he would have been 109 years-old. So what better way to celebrate than with a viewing of one of his most popular and enduring films? And before you curse me for this being my first ever time watching this exalted classic, Twitter has already done that! Everyone has a first time right? Come on, nobody’s perfect!

Just many of Wilder’s other films Some Like It Hot was a groundbreaking affair, its influence found in a myriad of comedies right up to the present day. It is a masterclass in comedy scripting, plot structure and using a simple premise for great effect without over doing it or diluting for  cheap laughs.

For the benefit of any other neophytes reading, the story is set in Chicago in 1929 where two impoverished jazz musicians, womanising gambler saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and sensible, double bassist Jerry (Jack Lemmon) struggle to find work. They eventually secure a gig that requires long distance travel but when they go to collect a car, they happen to witness the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  

Needing to escape the city for their own safety, they con their way into an all expenses paid gig in Miami which comes with one tiny caveat – it is for an all female band. Posing as Josephine and Daphne they board the train with Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee) and her Society Syncopators. There they meet ditzy ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) who befriends “Daphne” but becomes an object of desire for Joe.

Men cross dressing in the name of comedy is not new, dating back to Shakespeare, music hall acts and early silent cinema, with the likes of Fatty Arbuckle indulging his feminine side. Wilder’s film was one of the first examples where it was used in a more clever manner, with an astute eye on using the differences in men and women to turn the joke on the men.

Granted it is a product of its time so some of the humour, later replicated in Carry On films and other more ribald imitators, hasn’t held up quite so well, but Wilder shows some class and keeps his tongue in his cheek to make it easier to accept it as satirical banter and not uncomfortable sexism. The “I’d like a cup of that sugar” type lines are predictable but again, our two dragged up leads are not presented as lascivious lotharios (well, Joe comes close) thus are relatively harmless.

To that end the joy and magic to be found in this film is the unwittingly confused interaction between Sugar, Joe/Josephine and Daphne, wittily played and built around clever situations that dip their toes into the potential farcical aspect of the guys having to dress and re-dress as the situation demands, instead opting for Wilder’s typical canny subversion of the premise.

How does this achieve this? Well, Joe woos Sugar posing as Cary Grant-esque millionaire but needs the aid of a yacht and the usual wealthy trappings to complete the illusion, which is where Daphne comes in. “She’s” caught the eye of wealthy bachelor Osgood Fielding (Joe E. Brown) and Joe convinces Daphne to distract Osgood while he uses Osgood’s yacht himself to win Sugar over.

So we have Joe trying to juggle two false identities – one of each gender – while Jerry is trapped in his female identity, but the trouble doesn’t end there as the reason they fled Chicago has caught up with them! Gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his men arrive in town for an “opera lovers” convention and are staying at the same hotel. What are the odds?

It is amazing how multi-layered this simple comedy is, shifting between two storylines which eventually converge into one. The gangster scenario tops and tails the film leaving the “drag” segments to carry the load, which they do with precision magic. It’s difficult to single out one moment or quote (aside from the famous closing line) as Wilder has – true to form – crammed many into this fast moving script. I will nominate a great juxtaposition of the fates of our two leads as the scene switches between Joe and Sugar having a fun on a yacht while Daphne is gritting her teeth while dancing with Osgood.

As much as the whole film is held together by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond’s cracking and superbly constructed script and of course the vibrant and whimsical direction, the true strength lies in the casting. I’ve never been a huge fan of Tony Curtis but he absolutely nails the role of Joe in all his incarnations, keeping him on the right side of being a charming rogue. His Cary Grant impersonation is a hoot while his Josephine is suitably edgy.

It has been said that Jerry Lewis was originally offered the part of Jerry/Daphne but her refuse to drag up. Honestly I can’t see how Lewis could have pulled off the subtleties, nuances and knowing asides of the Daphne persona that Jack Lemmon did with aplomb and panache. Lemmon spends more time in drag than Curtis but makes the most of it rewarding the audience with a joyous performance.

And then there is Marilyn. Oh boy, her beauty radiates like a thousand suns and her sexuality sizzles like a hundred barbecues yet it is never exploitative or tawdry. She may be the requisite airhead eye candy but she brings so much warmth and ebullience to the role of Sugar. I don’t think Marilyn had ever been captured on screen as lovingly as she was here.

There is not much else to say about Some Like It Hot that hasn’t already been said much more eloquently or in greater depth by better writers over the years, except that it takes just a few minutes to see why this utterly joyous comic tour de force is the revered treasure it is.

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