Marilyn Monroe: Sugar Kane
Tony Curtis: Joe/Josephine
Jack Lemmon: Daphne
George Raft: Spats Colombo
Pat O'Brien: Detective Mulligan
Joe E. Brown: Oswald Fielding III
Screenplay Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
Directed by Billy Wilder
Watching Some Like It Hot reminds us that there is a fundamental difference between a sexy comedy and a vulgar one. They don't make 'em like this anymore. Most recent Hollywood comedies lack the wit and charm of this classic. I'm speaking generally, of course. There are exceptions and Some Like It Hot hardly marks the end of great screen comedy, but it does offer a blueprint for how to create a truly funny movie.
Great cross-dressing comedies are very rare. Tootsie is fantastic and one of my personal favorites. Victor Victoria comes to mind. I could even make a case for La Cage Aux Folles and its American remake The Birdcage. What those movies have in common with Some Like It Hot is a combination of engaging characters, truly witty and funny dialogue, and great performances by gifted actors. Add in the natural charisma of a iconic movie star like Marilyn Monroe and direction by the legendary Billy Wilder and, well, Some Like It Hot doesn't just rise above other films of its ilk. It manages to be a treasure. In 2000, the American Film Institute proclaimed it the funniest film ever.
The movie is set during Prohibition Era Chicago. The plot is simple enough. Two out of work musicians, Joe and Jerry (played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), inadvertently witness a mob hit that leads to the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. To avoid being rubbed out themselves, they dress as women, call themselves Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-female band called Sweet Sue and Her Society Synopators, whose lead singer is Monroe's Sugar Kane. The gals are headed to Florida and Joe and Jerry see an opportunity to get away for good once they get there. What transpires is a near-perfect blend of high and low comedy. Comedy of manners and farce. What a joy it must have been in to see this film for the first time in 1959.
I've seen this picture multiple times and this past Sunday was my first on the big screen. Eacht time I watch, I'm fascinated and impressed with some new piece of it. Usually, I marvel at the manic energy of Jack Lemmon. The scene where Sugar visits Lemmon's Daphne in his/her bed on the train is a mastery of timing, staging, editing and framing a shot. One of the great pleasures is looking for the subtle visual jokes that Wilder infuses into a scene. This time around I discovered what a balancing act Tony Curtis performs throughout. He plays Joe, who is impersonating Josephine, but also, to woo Sugar, he creates another persona. Stealing clothes and glasses, he pretends to be the heir to the Shell Oil fortune and the performance basically parodies Cary Grant. It's brilliant, really.
Something else stood out to me: Marilyn Monroe. Oh, sure, I've noticed how sexy she is in many movies and Sugar is a particularly fetching creation. It takes a special kind of talent to make a character not simply reside at basic dumb blonde bombshell level and make her living presence. Goldie Hawn could do that. Monroe does it effortlessly. This time around, though, her eyes hinted a sadness that previously went unnoticed by me, a desperation. Maybe I'm reading too much into it because of what I've read about her life, but it's hard to ignore. I think what makes this film work so much and what makes it hold together after all these decades is the clear desire these characters have. The emphasis is on what the characters want and what they're willing to do to get it. Today's comedies (though I'm a fan of many of them) seem content to just turn on the camera and let the actors do improvised riffs that, no matter how funny they may be, don't advance the plot and don't really reveal much about the characters or contribute to the overall picture. Every joke, every gag, every bit in Some Like It Hot does something, means something. To hear Sugar say she always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop is one thing. To hear Marilyn Monroe shade with just the right hint of sadness just makes it that much better. And funnier.
Of course, I still grinned with delight everytime Jack Lemmon came onscreen. I love his night on the town as Daphne with the millionaire Oswald. The scene where Jerry/Daphne announces to Joe that he is engaged to Oswald is just pure comic gold.
If you've not ever seen Some Like It Hot, I highly recommend you do. Not because of its historical significance cinematically. Then it becomes homework. No, watch this movie because it's funny and smart and really kind of spectacular. If you have seen it, it warrants a revisit, especially through the lens of our 21st century sensibilities.