The other day Turner Classic Movies caught me by surprise with a daytime showing of the 1959 classic, “Some Like It Hot.” Usually the cable channel reserves this for Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis festivals, so it was a terrific excuse to drop the thousand and one things I needed to get done, and instead watch for the umpteenth time a film I’ve been touting for decades as the funniest movie ever. In fact, “Some Like It Hot” has been acknowledged as such by the American Film Institute.
If for some unfathomable reason you haven’t seen it, the plot is a simple one: Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two down-on-their-luck musicians in 1929 Chicago, have the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They get out of town by disguising themselves as Josephine and Daphne, members of the all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, on its way to Florida for a three-week gig. Among the band’s musicians is singer-ukelele player Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe), who has a history of falling for saxophone players, which Joe is. A millionaire with a yacht, gangsters and hysteria ensue.
What makes this movie? For starters, it hasn’t aged a day. The comedy is as fresh as ever, perhaps more so now given the sexual politics of our time. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond never stops, which makes writing about “Some Like It Hot” a bit difficult—there’s an enormous temptation to leave analysis behind and just quote those terrific lines from the film. Nevertheless, few movies are blessed with so many other gifts. Among these are:
Its shrewd and economical take on gender and sexual fluidity. Unlike 1982’s “Tootsie,” which I do like, “Some Like It Hot” maintains a light touch. “Tootsie” uncomfortably lets us down with Dustin Hoffman’s too-earnest speech that being a woman has made him a better man. We’ve already seen him developing some awareness as Dorothy Michaels; telling rather than showing feels like overkill in such a finely played film. In contrast, “Some Like It Hot” takes a more effective approach via the succinct observation. After Daphne is pinched in the hotel elevator, Joe/Josephine notes: “Now you know how the other half lives.” Daphne protests “I’m not even pretty!” to which Josephine retorts “All it matters is that you’re wearing a skirt.” And as Joe, he/she should know. Point made.
The music. “Some Like It Hot” features a great tune selection from the 1920’s: “Running Wild” (“…lost control/Running wild/mighty bold”), “I’m Through With Love” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You” which interestingly is the only song with a 20’s style arrangement, notwithstanding Sugar’s ukelele—lots of staccato trumpets and cymbal chokes. “Stairway to the Stars,” used on the soundtrack during the Junior/Sugar scenes dates from 1934 (close enough), but this is memorably compensated for by “La Cumparsita,” (1916), as Osgood and Daphne tango the night away. Extra bonus: Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters actually look like a real orchestra—the violinists are properly bowing and fingering the strings with nary a moment of fake-looking “playing” in sight.
San Diego’s Victorian marvel, the Hotel Del Coronado, standing in for Miami’s Seminole Ritz (love the name). The atmosphere and palm trees couldn’t be better.
Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue. She was one of the best character actors ever (among her other roles, she was tall Sandra in “From Here to Eternity,” towering over Frank Sinatra, and would later show up as the inimitable Sylvia in Wilder’s “The Apartment”). It’s hard to pick out her best moment (“Each and every one of my girls is a virtuoso—and I intend to keep it that way”), but my favorite is probably her expression of exquisite pain—and disbelief—at Josephine’s Lawrence Welk-style warbling on sax. She can’t yell for her manager enough—“Bienstock!”
For that matter, all the other actors in “Some Like It Hot,” from George Raft (Spats Columbo, with his
bone breakers “lawyers”—“All Harvard men”), George E. Stone (Toothpick Charlie), Pat O’Brien (Detective Mulligan) and Nehemiah Persoff (Little Bonaparte) to Dave Barry (Bienstock) and Beverly Wills (Dolores, she of one-legged jockey joke fame). While I’m not a big fan, Marilyn Monroe manages to bring just the right amount of bruised innocence to Sugar, and Tony Curtis is best as Shell-Oil Junior. Pride of place, though, goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, millionaire on the make, who loves a shapely ankle. He’s so wonderfully besotted with Daphne that he turns farce into a Cinderella tale. And who can forget the one and only Sig Poliakoff, played by Billy Gray? No, this isn’t the young actor from “Father Knows Best.” This Billy Gray (real name: William Victor Giventer) was a sometime actor, comic and owner of The Band Box, a comedy club in Los Angeles. In one of my favorite scenes from “Some Like It Hot,” Sig and Sweet Sue try to come up with replacements for the band’s saxophone and bass players, subtracted by elopement and pregnancy, respectively:
Jack Lemmon, who brings down the house as Daphne, intoxicated with his engagement to Osgood (“I’m engaged.” “Who’s the lucky girl?” “I am.”) Billy Wilder shrewdly anticipated how movie audiences would react—he supplied Lemmon with a pair of maracas so the responsive laughter would sound over their shaking instead of drowning out the actors’ lines. Lemmon seems to be having a ball in drag, unlike Tony Curtis, who is rather dour, though he is after all stuck with being Daphne’s straight man (later he has a lot more fun imitating Cary Grant). In the Chicago scenes we see Jerry continually put-upon by Joe; there’s a sense that creating and being Daphne has liberated his spirit, and he takes the audience right along with him. Watch his expression during Daphne’s first conversation with Osgood, at the hotel elevators. Osgood’s talking about his last wife, an acrobatic dancer who could smoke a cigarette held between her toes, though his mother ended the marriage. Why? “She doesn’t approve of girls who smoke.” Daphne, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips, mulls this over for a beat, then shows us her only thought without a word: “Is this guy for real?” It’s fleeting, but one of the funniest moments in the film.
No final line in any film has been so celebrated, and rightly so. Daphne may not be perfect, but “Some Like It Hot” comes awfully close. What a delight.