25 June 2010

Some Like It Hot

Some Like it Hot Simply A Delight
By Kristin Battestella

There are so many reasons to love the 1959 comedy caper Some Like It Hot. Lemmon, Curtis, Monroe, music, slapstick, and merriment- fifty years on and director Billy Wilder’s gem shows no signs of slowing down.

Poor musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are on the run after witnessing Chicago gangsters in action. The boys flee on a Florida bound train and end up taking a gig as disguised members of an all-girl band. Josephine and Daphne, as they are now known, soon run into more trouble- both fall head over heels for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).  Joe puts on another façade as an oil tycoon in an attempt to win Sugar’s affections, but real millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) pursues Daphne-er Jerry.  When mob man Spats Colombo (George Raft) also arrives in Florida, romances, disguises, lives and all become hopelessly and humorously entangled.

It seems contradictory to say Some Like It Hot is innocent and full of innuendo at the same time, but Best Director nominee Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17) and co-writing nominee I.A.L. Diamond (Monkey Business, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie) take Michael Logan and Robert Thoeren’s source story and develop a well-rounded tale mixing songs, wit, and charm.  The dialogue is subtle yet multi-layered, memorable, and famously quotable. The switcheroo, fish out of water, and battle of the sexes hijinks are chock full of subtext both hetero and homosexual.  Some Like It Hot is largely open to interpretation, but it’s all played for innocent laughs and misunderstandings in this era of Beaver Cleaver.  Of course, the black and white silver screen had to happen to cover up the heavy, ill-colored makeup on the boys, but it’s also fitting to see a colorless and thus ‘old’ film dealing with such wonderfully taboo topics.

Even if we expect the drag, the first shrill dialogue from the boys and the quintessential pan up of those seamed stockings and wiggling backsides is a still wonderful introduction.  Both our guys look a little fake with their musical instruments; but honestly, the Jazz era hats, bobs, and furs help the boys look like old school dames.  Maybe it’s because we’re used to their iconic drag images by now or other seemingly old and ugly photos of the time, but yes, Curtis and Lemmon actually look all right!  Best Actor nominee and Golden Globe winner Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts, Days of Wine and Roses, Grumpy Old Men) is perfectly comedic and still believable as a manly man’s jazz musician, yet he skillfully blends effeminate mannerisms and nudge nudge wink wink at the same time.  Only Lemmon could complain about high heels, subsequently compliment Marilyn Monroe as ‘jello on strings’, and then imitate her wiggle.  Jerry and Daphne begin as distinct characters, but somewhere along the line, Lemmon expertly merges his two halves into some lovely comedy ambiguity. And he has such rhythm with those maracas!

Likewise Tony Curtis (The Defiant Ones, Sweet Smell of Success, Spartacus) is delightful between his switches as Josephine and the fake millionaire Junior.  Perhaps his half of our duo has been overlooked or unloved in comparison to Lemmon’s yarn, but Curtis is up to the task as the straight man-or woman-against the outright hijinks. Yes, he needed a little dubbing help with the high-pitched voice, but Curtis’ little send up of patterning Junior after Cary Grant is another cool layer on the subtext. It’s ingenious really, as it plays on our perceptions of the traditionally macho and suave Grant-who was also rumored to be bisexual. It’s wonderful writing and performance skill- and Some Like It Hot gets away with it.

Sugar Kane!  It’s nearer the end of Marilyn Monroe’s (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, All About Eve) career, yet Some Like It Hot is one of her most beloved films.  We have some serious shimmying and jiggling, but the top-billed star and Golden Globe winner doesn’t have as many musical numbers and dancing tunes as we’ve seen previously. Thankfully, Monroe gets all her sex appeal and then some across in the ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ serenade.  Betty Boop has a run for her money! Not without skill beyond her leggy charm, Monroe’s ditsy and comedic timing works wonders with Curtis.  Despite her off screen ill romances, health and pregnancy issues, and difficulty onset; Monroe charms us into loving the innocent and oh so lovable Sugar.  Of course, the costumes go a long way in amping up the Sugary sweetness. Monroe’s tiny, see-through and studded sheer frocks reveal just enough whilst the comedy suggests plenty for our imaginations. In our modern obsession with thinness and youthful appearance, it’s delightful to see such a mature, curvaceous woman exuding such innocent sex appeal.  Again a seeming contradiction, but sometimes its as if Monroe doesn’t know what she does to the camera, and that makes us love Sugar all the more.   

Naturally, Some Like It Hot can’t be done without a few straight laced folks. Joan Shawlee’s (The Apartment) Sweet Sue is great fun as the oblivious manager who has no clue what’s really going on in her girl band. Likewise, Joe E. Brown (Show Boat, The Comedy of Terrors) is delightful as the ‘dirty old man’ pursuing the be-dragged Lemmon. Fielding isn’t portrayed as overtly gay, but the chemistry and charm of the mistaken (or is it?) relationship is wonderfully played.  George Raft isn’t given much more than a stereotypical mobster thug, but there’s a kinship to his earlier Scarface role adding extra peril to the pursuit.  The Prohibition and gangster angles are themselves little more than a simple frame story to set up the drag and disguise comedy at hand, but it’s also neat to see 1929 as portrayed by 1959. The Tommy guns and fedoras, frocks and bobs are somehow more believable with the black and white photography-even though there are a few fifties anachronisms for careful viewers to find. Despite production mistakes of the time, Some Like It Hot still looks dang good-worthy of its Art Direction and Cinematography Oscar nominations among numerous other accolades and awards.

I suspect you have to like jazz music and fifties scoring to enjoy the music in Some Like It Hot, but the tunes, mannerisms, and Oscar winning costumes by Orry Kelly (An American in Paris, Gypsy) are a lovely time capsule.  Not only are the hats, gloves, cigarettes, casual drinking and beachfront locales of the day delightful, but its also amazing to consider that such a clean cut, old fashioned looking film is dealing with such innuendo. Yes, there’s gay subtext and lesbian suggestion that any modern and mature person will see. All this naughty built-in subtext still works precisely because it was so risqué for the time.  Monroe in her itty bitty and very revealing little nightie,  climbing into Lemmon’s bunk and rubbing his legs to keep him warm- the subtle hijinks never get old and it’s all the more funny and shocking because they got away with it in 1959.  No wonder the infamous Production Code disapproved of this one!

Adults and folks looking for the kink can find it, but kids can enjoy the innocent funnies, too.  Young eyes can take the humor at its honest level while the kinky folks delight in the hidden mastery. Film scholars can enjoy the numerous awards, recognition, and honored place in movie history-you don’t have to take my word for it, but maybe the American Film Institute’s ranking of Some Like It Hot as Number One on its 100 Funniest Movies countdown makes a statement. Several DVD editions, including Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder collection sets are affordable for the laymen or extensive for the classic completist.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the blu-ray edition is out just yet.  I protest!
Classic film fans, comedy lovers, fans of the cast, gay film collectors, and family audiences can adore Some Like It Hot again and again.  All this drag hysteria might be too much for a prude or two out there, but you can’t please everybody. No film is perfect, but Some Like It Hot comes damn close to it.

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