If I had to pick only one film to define Marilyn Monroe’s movie career in totem it would probably have to be Billy Wilder’s sardonic farce, Some Like It Hot (1959); as cinematically poetic as a men-in-drag comedy caper ought to be, but with an adroit sense of humour about sexuality in general, and, an even more frank critique of the stringent sexual politics circa the button-down ultra conservative 1950s. As co-star Jack Lemmon once pointed out, a ‘sense of humour’ is not about being able to laugh at something that is funny, but rather an appreciation for finding humour in the everyday and then exposing its irony to a much larger audience.
Wilder’s film certainly does that, and has continued to enthral and inspire generations of film makers and movie goers alike. Naturally prone to acidic wit and scathingly risqué situations, Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond (who loosely based their screenplay on 1935’s French Fanfare d’Amour) charted new territory in Some Like It Hot. Upon its release the film quickly incurred the wrath of the Catholic League of Decency, who felt it was a salacious exposé celebrating lesbianism, homosexuality and transvestitisms – all rather ludicrous claims then, and all but incongruous by today’s laissez faire film standards.
Today, it is impossible to imagine anybody but Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in the film. But Tony Curtis was the only star etched in stone when Wilder went to the Mirisch Company to sell his idea. Wilder desperately wanted Jack Lemmon, then a fledgling in the industry. The Mirisch brothers told Wilder that Lemmon lacked box office cache, but that he could have Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor instead. However, Sinatra failed to show during the prearranged luncheon date, souring Wilder’s interests in working with the actor. When Monroe expressed her desire in working with Wilder again, Harold and Walter Mirisch agreed to the casting of Lemmon as the film’s third wheel, thereby affording him his breakout performance.
As Some Like It Hot is a period piece, the original concept for dressing Lemmon and Curtis in drag was to use actual vintage costumes some of Hollywood’s leading ladies had worn back in the 1920s. However, these quickly proved an ill fit and designer Orry-Kelly was hired to reproduce their vintage look with minor embellishments to accommodate Curtis and Lemmon’s more ample measurements. Reportedly, after stretching his tape measure across Marilyn’s bottom Orry-Kelly told the actress, “Tony has a better ass than yours,” to which Marilyn lifted up her top and replied, “But I’ll bet he doesn’t have tits like these!”
Even before production began, a critical backlash had begun to build. To many in the industry it seemed as though Wilder was stretching a four minute burlesque gag into a two hour movie. The Production Code office was leery over the overt sexuality and the gender bending aspect of the story. But Wilder resisted his naysayers. Even better, the entire cast had fallen in love with the screenplay, treating it as reverently as the Bible.
This attention to perfection did have its drawbacks, particularly with Marilyn’s performance. Prior to committing to the project the actress had suffered a miscarriage – the latest in a series of personal disappointments. Worse, despite her best intentions, her marriage to Arthur Miller was steadily crumbling. Already plagued by insecurities about her own talents, unabated by constant meddling from her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, Monroe grew anxious and often tearful, leaving Wilder feeling drained and more than a little worried that perhaps his greatest asset might not be able to finish the film.
His fears were hardly quelled when a reporter asked Tony Curtis what it was like to kiss Marilyn Monroe. Put off by the question, Curtis glibly replied, “It’s like kissing Hitler,” a comment that ruffled Strasberg’s feathers. It is unclear whether the remark ever made its way back to Monroe’s ear, but its sting continued to linger around the set. Decades later, Curtis suggested that his words were meant more to dissuade the reporter from asking other ‘stupid questions’ rather than as a direct indictment of Monroe as either a talent or co-star. However, it is common knowledge that Monroe’s frequent delays and/or absences from the set created some minor friction between her and Curtis. Thankfully, none of this brewing animosity shows up on camera.
Some Like It Hot opens with a bang – literally – when struggling musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) inadvertently witness 1929’s Valentine’s Day massacre orchestrated by Chicago gangster Spats Columbo (George Raft). Fleeing for their lives, the boy’s beg their agent for a gig that will get them out of town – fast – only to learn that the only audition currently available is for a bass and clarinet player in a travelling ‘all girl’s’ band. Joe gets an idea. The boy’s dress up and audition for Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee). They land the job and board a train to Florida where the band is already booked to headline at the Seminole Ritz (actually the Hotel de Coronado near San Diego). Joe and Jerry – rechristened Josephine and Daphne – immediately fall for sultry ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe); a problematic lust indeed, since they must keep up the pretext of being girl’s themselves in order to stay in the band.
Sugar has a minor drinking problem that Sue is mindful of, even threatening to let Sugar go if she finds a hint of booze on her person. At the hotel another series of complications ensue when Shell oil millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) becomes infatuated with ‘Daphne’. During his time away from the band Joe adopts the persona of a flashy commodore, complete with a fractured Cary Grant accent. He passes himself off to Sugar as a wealthy patron of the arts, inviting Sugar to his yacht (actually Osgood’s) to go sailing in the moonlight, while Daphne entertains Osgood on the mainland.
Returning to the suite they share hours later Jerry informs Joe that Osgood has proposed and that he – as Daphne – has accepted. Joe tries to explain to Jerry why the marriage can never take place. Of course, the real conflict of interest comes by way of an even more immediate confrontation. It seems Spats and his cronies have decided to host a gangland convention at the hotel.
The boy’s attempt to disappear but are spotted by Spats. In their getaway, Joe confides to Sugar that he is not a millionaire. To his amazement he is told by her that it doesn’t matter. She loves him anyway. Jerry, still dressed as Daphne, hops into a boat with Osgood. En route to Osgood’s yacht Jerry attempts to offer various reasons why they can never be married. To any and all, Osgood dismisses each hindrance, forcing Jerry to reveal his true identity. “I’m a man!” Jerry declares. “Well,” replies Osgood, “Nobody’s perfect!”
This final line of dialogue was written on the fly by I.A.L. Diamond at the eleventh hour of production, under great duress to come up with a suitable ending for the film. Wilder loved it, but others – including Wilder’s wife – were certain it was too weak to sustain a laugh. Nevertheless, the line stayed in, its piquant reference to homoerotic proclivities on Osgood’s part miraculously overlooked by the censors.
Interestingly enough, the first preview at the Bay Theatre in Pacific Palisades was a disaster – perhaps because audiences were unprepared for Some Like It Hot’s raucous comedy. After some minor editing, Wilder held a second preview in Westwood that came off without a hitch. Audiences have been roaring with laughter ever since.
Viewed today, Some Like It Hot has lost none of its timeless allure. Because it was always a period film the premise for the story has never dated. Every frame undeniably belongs to Marilyn Monroe – whether shimmying against her fellow band members during the rehearsal ‘Running Wild’ or seductively cooing ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ to an adoring crowd inside the del Coronado’s ballroom, Monroe – poured into her translucent Orry-Kelly costumes that leave very little to the imagination - dominates each and every scene with a flashy, slightly trashy, allure. As a sexpot she’s just slightly passed her prime; gone enough to seed as it were to be believable as the knock about gal with a body for sin but a heart of pure gold.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are inspired casting and genuinely affecting as their feminine alter egos with Lemmon’s twenty cent tart playing perfectly off of Curtis’ glacially cool glamour queen. A good portion of Curtis’ feminine’ vocals were dubbed by a character actor after it was decided that the pitch in Curtis’ own voice was still too masculine to be believed. Nevertheless, both actors are peerless. Some Like It Hot would not have retained its legendary status all these years without these two boys in drag.
MGM/Fox Home Video has reissued Some Like It Hot on Blu-ray with a 1080p image that is, at least for the most part, very beautiful. The opening titles reveal a heavier patina of grain than the rest of the film – leading me to deduce that a lot of the film’s visuals have been scrubbed with DNR to minimize grain elsewhere. The more curious anomaly is a general instability in the credit sequence. It bobs vertically, possibly from sprocket damage. Otherwise, we get a fairly impressive and very stable B&W hi-def presentation. The image is dark, but with exemplary contrast, really showing off Charles Lang’s sumptuous cinematography to its best advantage. By my eyes, the image looks just a tad too clean and less film-like than I would have preferred – but overall, this presentation will surely not disappoint.
The audio has been remixed to 5.1 DTS – a blessing for the Monroe songs, with effects and dialogue sounded naturally dated. Extras are all direct imports from MGM’s previously issued 2 disc SE DVD and include four featurettes with archival interviews; one on the making of the film, one on its lasting phenomenon, one where Tony Curtis waxes with Leonard Maltin at the Formosa café, and finally, a tribute to the Sweet Sue’s. We also get a very informative audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)