Some Like It Hot

So Much Marilyn!

Film essay by: Witney Seibold


            Most savvy followers of the famed Hollywood icon and sex symbol know about Marilyn Monroe’s famous drug-addled meltdowns, her drunken songs to JFK, her multiple marriages to terrible men, her tragic final hours of pill-popping hysteria. I’ve spoken to out-and-out admirers of Marilyn Monroe fans, and they openly acknowledge her vices and self-destructive tendencies, and blend them – in a Jackie Collins/soap opera kind of way – with her honest-to-goodness sultriness and sweet ditziness. Her bad behavior in real life has all but eclipsed the screen presence that made her an icon to begin with.

            You hear the story about how Monroe couldn’t remember a simple line, “Where’s that bourbon?,” and had to have the line written in the drawer she was opening. Lo, she opened the wrong drawer, and the director put it in all the drawers. You hear the story of how many takes she needed to get a scene (her poor co-stars). But seeing the final product, you still se her freshness and her joy.


            But then you sit to watch “Some Like It Hot,” and you’re reminded why Marilyn was so famous. The woman was sex on legs. Her clingy dresses which accentuated her hefty bosom… her kissyface, almost striptease manner of singing a song (watch the “I Wanna be Loved by You” number, and try not to picture her in the nude)… her wide-eyed sexy playfulness… and her honest sweetness… The woman was a welcome breath of fresh air to teenage boys, a pleasing indulgence for married men, a knowing wink to the other young women who know that men “only want one thing from a girl” (as her characters seemed largely oblivious to their immediate effects on certain men), and a surefire moneymaker for studio heads. Her drunken meltdowns are so far away from “Some Like It Hot.”


             “Look at that! Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs. Must have some kind of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it’s like a whole different sex!” So Jerry says upon first seeing Marilyn. Indeed, Jerry. Indeed.


            “Some Like It Hot” (1959), directed by Billy Wilder, is one of the great screen farces, dipping liberally into Shakespeare, The Marx Bros. and ancient drag conceits, and handing them to some of the greater comic talents of the day. Wilder had already directed classics like “Sunset Blvd.,” “Sabrina,” and “The Seven Year Itch,” and was at the top of his game, the peak of his career. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, as Joe and Jerry, the two down-low musicians and desperate poverty-stricken womanizers, turn old and familiar characters into, well, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The supporting cast includes popular comedians as George Raft (“Are your hands clean? Good. Button my spats.”), Pat O’Brien, Nehemiah Persoff (“We wuz wit’ you, a Rigoletta’s!”), and the indispensable Joe E. Brown as the girlcrazy millionaire Osgood.


            The story follows Joe and Jerry after they witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre accidentally, and are recognized by the killers (Raft as the bigwig, Persoff as his lieutenant). Joe and Jerry are used to lowlifes as they play in speakeasies and illegal bootlegging bars. They have no money due to Joe’s gambling problems, and have to hock their instruments occasionally just in order to eat. When they have to go undercover to hide from the angry mobsters, the only spot they find is in an all-girl traveling band on their way to Florida. Joe becomes Josephine and Jerry becomes Daphne (he never liked the name Geraldine anyway), and off we go.


            Sexual tension erupts – men are in the women’s dressing room! – and both fellows set their eye on the girl band’s lead singer and ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Monroe), (“It used to be Sugar Kowalczyk.”). When they arrive at the Florida club where they are to play, Joe decides to seduce the golddigging Sugar by posing as a millionaire. The millionaire he chooses to impersonate seems to closely resemble Cary Grant. Hm. This romance is the “high” comic farce. The “low” is handled by Jerry, and the wandering eye “Daphne” has attracted from an irascible and lecherous millionaire named Osgood (Brown). While Joe, who has finagled his way onto Osgood’s private yacht, seduces Sugar by playing dumb – he claims that he has lost the ability to experience romantic feelings (read: get aroused) – Jerry runs interference while dancing all night with Osgood.


            It’s extraordinary the way the film skirts so very close to being dirty without ever actually going there. Joe talks about how unfeeling he is, and Sugar is only too happy to oblige him. This almost sounds like the setup to an x-rated film. There’s even a cute visual cue where Joe’s foot rises up, mid-screen, just as Marilyn is kissing him. He talks about a tingling in his toes. We modern audiences probably snicker at the obvious joke. Only certain-minded individuals in the 1959 audience probably saw it.


            “Some Like It Hot” is purportedly about crime and musicians on the run, but is really all about sex. It’s all the two men think about, it’s usually the only way many of the characters relate to one another. There are gay jokes, gay panic jokes, shack-job jokes, penis jokes… all cleverly coded, playfully hidden, and gloriously (and hilariously) self-aware. Everyone involved in this film knew exactly how close they could get without crossing the line. The presence of Marilyn Monroe is nothing but a testament to that: someone who is plainly and forthrightly sexual, but who plays cute and sweet. That could describe the film as a whole as well: all about sex, but wrapped in a warm knowing smile of humor.


            Joe succeeds in making out with Marilyn all night long, returns to his apartment where he finds Jerry still dancing, elated from the night before. Allured by the promise of wealth, Jerry has become engaged to Osgood.


            “Why would a guy marry another guy?” “Security!”


            Of course, there have to be great reveals by the end in order to tie everything up neatly in a traditional romantic-comedy package. The gangsters must inevitably show up, which they do, and the great Marx. Bros-like chase that ensues is a marvel of comic timing. It must also inevitably be revealed that Joe is not a millionaire, and that they are both men. It’s actually kind of comforting, though, to find that no one is heartbroken by any of the deceptions. Well, the bad guys get theirs, but not of the comic heroes or clowns have to suffer. A lesser comedy (like many recent romantic comedies I have seen) have a hurtfully protracted scene in which the hero revels all his lies to the heroine (or vice versa), and there is a long period of sullen suffering before the predictable final romantic reunion. I hate those scenes. I’d love to see a movie in which the hero reveals his lies, and the heroine, knowing that he still loves her anyway, says “Fine, you lied, but let’s go make out anyway, o.k? ‘Cause we’re obviously meant for each other.”


            Which is what basically happens in “Some Like It Hot.” The truth comes out, but no one cares. Marilyn takes Tony into her arms and kisses him anyway. Jack Lemmon turns to Joe E. Brown trying to explain why they can’t get married. She smokes. He doesn’t care. She has a terrible past. He forgives her. She can never have children. We can adopt some.


            Then, the final line of the film. If you don’t know what it is, I’m not going to tell you. Besides, it’s better to see it than to quote it.


            Allow me to expound a bit on the film’s gay content. One cannot have a cross-dressing comedy without at least some hint of homosexuality. Heck, even Shakespeare played with it. In 1959, homosexuality was not dealt with in American film. If a homosexual did appear in a film, they were either “sissy” types, fruity villains, or hidden depressives. They were always coded, sublimated, tucked away in a straight face. “Some Like It Hot” does not immediately deal with its rampant gayness (which would have just bogged the film down) until its final line, which is like whipping the handkerchief off of the table to reveal the ace of spades underneath. Finally an American sex comedy confessed to its unspoken content. It’s not as revolutionary as, say, the British film “Victim,” (1961) – the earliest mainstream film to address homosexuality (I’ll have a full essay on “Victim” in the future) – but it was daring nonetheless. Imagine that, a sex comedy with a final line that is daring, upfront, and mildly revolutionary, while still managing to stay true to the brilliant comic madness of the whole.


            A few bits of trivia as well: The film’s screenwriter claims that Cutris’ voice was dubbed when he was talking like a woman. This may be true, but I doubt it. Curtis also felt his lips were too thin when he was in lipstick, so he’s constantly seen puckering. Legend also claims that Wilder chose to shoot in black and white to make the makeup of the two men seem all the less garish.


            Credit also to the screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond, who collaborated with Wilder. Diamond was a great writer of farces, and a regular of Wilder’s. It’s hard to say who came up with which jokes, but some of the one-liners are gold. I’d quote many of them here, but it’s more fun to experience them. O.k. one quote: “I come from a musical family. My mother was a piano teacher, and my father was a conductor.” “Where did he conduct?” “The Baltimore and Ohio.”


            Dumb? Not in the least. “Some Like It Hot” moves some of the old Vaudeville tropes into the modern day, updates sexual attitudes, presents a series of brilliant comic actors at the tops of their games, let’s a brilliant comic director flex his muscles, and presents us with one of the best performances we’ll get from a Hollywood legend.

             What more could you ask for in a movie?

Published in: on January 9, 2008 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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