Wilder: Some Like It Hot (1959) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Wilder: Some Like It Hot (1959)

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When two Chicago musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), witness the the St. Valentine's Day massacre, they want to get out of town and get away from the gangster responsible, Spats Colombo (George Raft). They're desperate to get a gig out of town but the only job they know of is in an all-girl band heading to Florida. They show up at the train station as Josephine and Daphne, the replacement saxophone and bass players. They certainly enjoy being around the girls, especially Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) who sings and plays the ukulele. Joe in particular sets out to woo her while Jerry/Daphne is wooed by a millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Mayhem ensues as the two men try to keep their true identities hidden and Spats Colombo and his crew show up for a meeting with several other crime lords.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

SomeLikeItDannyCommentaryBannerThis is it. The return of Billy Wilder, first class filmmaker. After a decade of thinning himself out with (mostly) halfhearted Broadway adaptations, two poorly designed tributes to friends, and one pretty good courtroom flick, something has clicked and he's back.

I think part of that has to do with the jazz soundtrack that pulsates throughout the film; if his last decade of films have sometimes felt moribund, Some Like It pulsates with sex and thrills. Setting the picture during Prohibition is inspired, and the more playful musical numbers that reflected the thinly veiled naughtiness of the times puts quite a bit more heat under it.

The big draw for me this go around is the cinematography. This is Charles Lang's fourth and final collaboration with Wilder after the immaculate looking A Foreign Affair, Ace in the Hole and Sabrina, and just by saying those titles the connections become apparent. Shadows and blacks simply look so much more divine under his eye, and he gives those films and this a sense of richness that most of Wilder's 50's films have lacked. Compare the rather blase muted greys that filled Love in the Afternoon and the sharp edges and tempered darkness that outlines every one of the curves here; it's night and day.

Not that I'm saying that Wilder's directing isn't a big part of why the movie works. His ability to flout the Production Code gives him the chance to craft some truly memorable images and stagings. The first scene where we see Curtis and Lemmon in drag sells that simple gag perfectly. The multiple introductions we get to Monroe's Sugar Kane function as both being loaded with sexual desire but also serving as counterpoints to our hapless heroes. It's not so much as she's such a woman (which she is), but that they're so awful at it.

Watching it this time (the umpteenth time, mind you), I was trying to be a little more aware of how Monroe's character was treated. There's been plenty of romantic comedies over the years that function as a male revenge fantasy, where they play the woman for the fool and use that to win their heart. Where this one works is that we see Kane attempt to do the same thing back at Curtis. Both construct a series of lies to try and win the other's affection, with Curtis finally coming clean in the end because his lies are so much larger.

When we talked about The Seven Year Itch a while ago, you thought it was a dirty movie without any merit; Some Like It Hot reads like a maturation of that film's callow themes. Instead of one man with a rich fantasy life, we follow four, all of whom believe that pursuing one another in spite of each other's actual feelings will result in happiness. They play each other for suckers time and time again, and it's both hilarious and kind of sad. It's only when they remove their disguises and admit who they really are that they find some measure of happiness.

So, Ryan, did you think one of my first points of discussion about Some Like It Hot would involve how they're all terribly broken people? Or should I just have written, "Jack Lemmon. Period." and sent it to you?

SomeLikeIt2Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingYou could have easily just written Jack Lemmon and called it a day but we could also do the same thing for The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie etc... so lets leave that one in our back pocket for when we are good and lazy. I believe that Some Like It Hot might be the perfect comedy in that it balances the laughs (which are plenty) with the characters. Like you mentioned, setting the film during prohibition gives this film a wonderful jazz like atmosphere where everything whizzes by in perfect rhythm.

I am glad you brought up the fact that everyone lies to each other in this film, other than Osgood who is very honest in his intentions through the movie, because one of my favorite scenes in the film is when Sugar "seduces" Joe in the yacht. In this scene we have Joe lying to Sugar saying he is a millionaire while Sugar is pretending to be much more innocent that she truly is. Both want to sleep with the other person but instead of just coming clean about that fact both pile up lie upon lie until we have Joe faking a sexual problem just so Sugar can "cure him". This scene is marvelous and it is only made better by the constant cutting to Daphne/Jerry and Osgood dancing.

I agree that with Some Like It Hot, Wilder did what he was trying to do with Seven Year Itch in making a sex comedy that was smart and funny. Marilyn Monroe was the onlygood thing about the first film and is the final piece that makes Some Like it Hot a timeless film. I am curious Danny, do you think there is a better comedy than this in the world AND is it possible to ever tire of this film?

SomeLikeIt3DannyCommentaryBannerShortRyan, I can still remember the first time I saw Some Like It Hot, when and where. It helps that I have a ticket stub to jog my memory, but I don't think that dims the experience for me any.

The funniest part of this very funny movie is that it isn't very funny. Not at first, I mean. The film starts with a car chase and some speakeasy shenanigans that are mildly amusing, but the film spends its first act reveling in the darkness of Prohibition-era Chicago. We get a pretty clear sense of what kind of men Jerry and Joe are, and then the film get its laughs by flipping it: woman hungry Joe is terrified for his life, uptight Jerry can't help see all the advantages in terms of his relations to the lady folk.

This reversal gives both men more depth than they would have had if Joe and Jerry had decided to cross dress without the bounty hanging over their heads. It shows us that Joe is a womanizer, sure, but he's much more concerned with saving their necks. And Jerry may be a worry wort, but he's not above jumping on the chance to seduce a woman, even if it's in the clumsiest manner possible.

And I agree that Sugar's seduction on the yacht is probably the highlight of the movie. Besides the wonderful use of dichotomy-- both couples are doing the tango, though one appears to be horizontal-- there's an infectious sense of playfulness in every action. I always get the feeling that the impotence routine is something Joe has tried a few times, but it's obvious that Monroe's bubbling sexuality is almost a match for it.

Speaking of her, the scene with the grate and her dress back in Seven Year Itch may be the iconic image of her life, but she was never better or more alluring in Some Like It Hot. Sugar is such a splendid mix of neurosis and cunning and Monroe sells it; it's such a good performance I was left wondering where the actress begins and Sugar Kane ends. The daffy innocence she projects and sultry delight she indulges in are the keys to making this work; I can't think of another actress in existence who could pull it off so perfectly.

But that's to Wilder's credit, again, though we know him and Monroe didn't work on the most amicable terms. Even if every scene he plays a big 'waaah wahh' saxophone as we follow her rear, it somehow manages to work as an empowering symbol. In this movie, the men are confounded by their new genders, and Sugar is that unattainable perfection. The male gaze works since it's not just sexualizing what we're seeing, but also utterly baffled by it.

Speaking of gender roles, Ryan, do you think you could pull off a pair of heels? And what do you think the movie is really saying about the differences between the sexes?

SomeLikeIt5Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingI wouldn't even try walking in heels, I have a hard enough time walking in sneakers! Like you, I can remember watching Some Like It Hot the first time because it was a magical experience. I might have seen Stalag 17 and Witness for the Prosecution before but this was the movie that made me search out as much Wilder as I could find.

Getting to your question about what the movie says about the gender roles, one thing that I have always found interesting was the personalities the two guys create for their alter-egos. Jerry and Joe are not what you would call dignified men. They play at illegal speakeasies, are broke and Joe seems to have a gambling issue. Yet, when they pretend to be women they try to be classy broads that were classically trained. They know what dogs they are and believe that women are the classier sex.

The movie smartly turns this idea on its ear by making Josephine and Daphne the only classy ones in the band and making the real women drinkers who love a good time. While Sugar is introduced we might get the lingering shot of her walking away that sums up the sexiness but the next time we see her it is with a flask concealed on her legs saying he is not a damsel in distress.

Taking this a step further, the only women who are really hit on in the film out of their control is Josephine and Daphne because they don't know how to deal with it, I think Sugar and the rest of the women musicians would be able to take care of the bellhop or Osgood pretty quickly if they pulled their tricks on them.

Enough with gender politics and the like, lets talk about how freaking funny this film is! Most importantly, it has the greatest and funniest closing line in the history of film but there are countless funny zingers throughout the film.

Only Jack Lemmon could make some of the lines work and his manic laugh as Daphne makes me crack up every time. I said that the movie had a jazz like feel to it and it is because the way the dialogue is written and read has a musical quality to it that just sings. So Danny, I throw it back to you with a question, what is your favorite line in the film? Mine would have to be "Will you look at that! Look how she moves! It's like Jell-O on strings. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!"

SomeLikeIt6DannyCommentaryBannerShortThat Jell-o line is perfection, and it certainly comes to mind whenever I see other attractive hinders. (You probably did not need to know that.) I just picked up a book, the Some Like It Hot 50th Anniversary Companion, and there's a picture with Wilder showing Monroe how it's done that's just sublime.

I also think that some of the funnier jokes in the movie are pretty subtle. Kane's roommate and her story of the girl and the jockey on the desert island is hilarious since we hear the idea and the punchline but none of the setup.

There's also a couple of sneaky reference jokes that Wilder stuck in because of his love of old gangster movies. The one most people pick up on is George Raft's Spats lambasting a young gangster's habit of flipping a coin, which is a reference to Raft's role in Howard Hawks' Scarface. Another one I noticed this go around is when they're at the opera appreciation dinner and Raft threatens to hit one of his goons in the face with a grapefruit, a subtle but funny nod to James Cagney's big scene in The Public Enemy.

Going back a bit, I wanted to again emphasize how much of the movie both lives and dies at the hands of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Curtis essentially plays three different roles in the film, and before this wasn't much more than a pretty face. He nails all of the comedy and pathos that Joe/Josephine/Junior needed to get by. And Lemmon's enthusiasm and elasticity is vital for making Daphne such a hoot.

Which brings me to something we haven't talked about yet, and that's the afterlife of the film. It was picked as the American Film Institute's #1 Comedy a few years back, and has been turned into a stage musical and even went through an attempted transformation as a weekly comedy series. They even got Lemmon and Curtis to guest star for the pilot, believe it or not.

So, Ryan, if they had picked up the pilot, do you think a TV show about Jerry and Joe's further adventures would have you tuning in? It had Tina Louise playing Sugar, if that helps.

SomeLikeIt4Ryan COMMENTARY w/o RatingAn idea of a TV show based on this makes sense and the idea of casting Ginger from Gilligan's Island is great but I am so glad it did not take. I think one of the reasons the movie is so timeless is it ends PERFECTLY. Everything is wrapped up and we don't need to see further adventures of the group to see where everything goes, what you have in your mind is sufficient. They really caught lighting in a bottle in this film with Monroe being the perfect Sugar and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis nailing every line and beat that they had. I agree that Curtis was more than a pretty face and I think the tightrope job he has to do in this movie and his role in The Sweet Smell of Success prove that point.

If a sequel or a spinoff would have been made it would have diluted that perfectness and turned it into something else. It is very similar to Casablanca, would that movie be as loved if Casablanca II: Play it Again Sam existed? We are lucky Wilder made the movie before the era of sequels because if it was made today we would be on Some Like it Hot III: Some Like it Hottest and the perfectness of the movie and especially the ending would be lost.

I think Some Like it Hot should be required watching for anyone wanting to make a comedy because there are many lessons to be learned from this film. Like I have said before, I think this is the perfect comedy and a return to form for Billy Wilder. Now we go from my favorite comedy to probably my favorite movie with the wonderful The Apartment.

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The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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