So let’s say you and I are two out-of-work musicians and we see a bunch of hoods gun down some other hoods.
What’s the first thing we do to ensure we keep living?
Dress up as women and join an all-girl band.
Right. First thing that occurred to me, too.
That Jerry (Jack Lemmon) and Joe (Tony Curtis)—the aforementioned bass and sax players who witness the gangland slaying—not only seize on this idea as their ticket to not getting their tickets punched (or ventilated), but manage to carry it off all the way through the final crazy, ricocheting action of Some Like It Hot, is one of the main reasons that film was named the greatest American comedy of all time in 2000 by the American Film Institute.
Having Marilyn Monroe in sizzling hot dresses (that seem to hold back nothing while covering up everything) as a torch singer whose main dream in life is to not get the “fuzzy end of the lollipop” didn’t hurt either, that’s for sure. When she sings “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” the spotlight caressing her as she sings the song in complete innocence practically melts the celluloid. Her other solo, “Running Wild” is the exact opposite—SEX (yeah, in all caps), coming at you right down the aisle, shimmying and shimmering. Looking at it again after all these years, her sexual chemistry with the camera, and thus our imaginations, remains iconic; no actor of either gender could match it.
Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black & White; while earning nominations for Best Actor (Lemmon); Best Art Direction/Set Direction, Black & White; Best Cinematography, Black & White; and two nominations for Billy Wilder for Best Director and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. (The film was based on a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan).
It won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture-Comedy. Jack Lemmon took home the Best Actor-Comedy award; and Marilyn Monroe who was famous for her own globes, golden or otherwise, won Best Actress-Comedy.
The movie’s closing line, delivered with deadpan seriousness by wide-mouthed comedian Joe E. Brown, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” was voted No. 48 on AFI’s all-time movie quotes.
The title refers to the jazz music Monroe’s character, Sugar Kane, plays—“Yaaaaah, real hot!”
But it really refers to sex—after all jass was the word that blues piano players such as Jellyroll Morton created to euphemistically describe the activities that went on in the Storyville brothels of New Orleans.
And sex is what Some Like It Hot is all about—both overtly and in between the lines revolving around the main joke—reversed sex roles, entangled and secret identities, and cross-dressing. The Catholic League of Decency called the film “seriously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency.”
Of course time alters our perceptions of everything. But even given the Catholics’ protests and the catholic stance of the fussy Hayes Commission, and even all the prudes who just can’t tolerate having fun, Some Like It Hot, was never crude or profane, and always clever and most of all, funny.
And in today’s movie culture where nine year olds drop F-bombs, it seems … well, innocent.
Wilder, who not only directed but cowrote with his long-time partner, I.A.L. Diamond, and served as producer, pushed the boundaries by creating a risqué comedy about bent genders and filling it with sly and wicked sexual innuendo—from spoofing the stereotypical sexual identities and mores (bisexuals, transvestites, homosexuals, transsexuals, androgynous, lesbians, free love, and impotent lovers) to addressing the social ills of alcoholism, unemployment, abuse, and murder—whew! Have I left out anything?
And he did it all with tongue firmly planted in cheek (rouged or freshly shaved).
When Lemmon and Curtis appear in drag, dragging their instruments, they’re still men. “Look how she moves!” Lemmon/Daphne exclaims, when they glimpse Monroe sashshaying for the train, “That’s just like Jell-O on springs.”
A moment later they experience how real women are treated when Manager Beinstock pats Lemmon/Daphne’s tush, “Fresh!” is all h/she can say.
Then Beinstock tells band leader Sue (and her Society Syncopaters) those two are a couple of real ladies. If he only knew.
When they board the train and see it’s filled with women, Jerry’s literally a kid in a candy shop, or in his dream, a pastry shop—“There was jellyrolls [the Storyville word for a woman’s genitalia], and mocha éclairs and sponge cake and Boston crème pie and cherry tarts—” Which prompts Joe to remind him: “We’re on a diet.”
In trying to stop Jerry from inadvertently pulling the train’s emergency brake, Joe does the unthinkable:
JERRY: Now you’ve done it.
JOE: Done what?
JERRY: You tore off one of my chests.
JOE grabs him and points to the WOMEN sign.
JERRY: Now you tore the other one.
Screenwriting gurus point out that audiences will forgive coincidences when they get the hero into trouble, but not when they conveniently get them out of trouble. So Jerry’s damaged falsies, will lead, eventually, to true love, not for Jerry, but Joe, when they meet Marilyn Monroe/Sugar Kane in the ladies restroom.
And Sugar’s problem, or at least one of them, is that she likes to drink: “I can stop any time I want to—only I don’t want to.”
At first, both Joe and Jerry are interested in Monroe. (D’oh, really? Considering that just about every male in America who was taking a breath always had a sudden intake of air when Marilyn appeared, that seems obvious. But it was a great plot device—having Jerry express male lust only to have Joe be the chivalrous foil).
JERRY: Boy would I love to borrow a cup of that sugar.
JOE: Look, no pastry, no butter, and no Sugar.
As they prepare for bed watching all the other girls undressing and getting ready, Joe warns Jerry to squelch his male inclinations: “Just keep telling yourself you’re a girl.”
Of course Joe ignores his own advice when he learns that Sugar is determined to stop falling for sax players who “borrow money … spend it on other dames and bet on horses…” and a sucker (back to the lollipop reference) for a bespectacled nice-guy millionaire with a yacht, which is exactly who Joe’s going to become.
Enter another “convenient coincidence.” Daphne meets Osgood Fielding, millionaire playboy, in one of the most double entendre-laden “meet cutes” in movie history:
OSGOOD: Which of these instruments do you play?
DAPHNE: Bow fiddle.
OSGOOD: Oh, fascinating! Do you use a bow or do you just pluck it?
DAPHNE: Most of the time, I slap it.
OSGOOD: You must be quite a girl.
DAPHNE: Wanna bet?
The coincidental meeting involves Jerry/Daphne, but it’s Joe/Josephine who takes advantage of it with fake eyeglasses, a fake Cary Grant accent, and faking the family business:
SUGAR: You collect shells?
JOE: …You might say we had a passion for it. That’s why we named the oil company after it.
SUGAR: Shell Oil?
Joe also uses Osgood’s yacht to seduce Sugar by pretending he’s impotent: “When I’m with a girl it does absolutely nothing to me.”
Sugar to the rescue. She starts with champagne and then turns to kissing. Torrid kissing. Enough to make Joe’s glasses steam up. Wilder also slips one past the censors when Curtis and Monroe are both laying on the couch and his shoe rises phallically behind her.
This seduction is cross-cut with Osgood and Daphne doing a tango that’s more mating ritual—a rose in Daphne’s teeth is transferred to Osgood’s, the band is blindfolded so they don’t see the pair.
Meanwhile back at the yacht, Sugar’s kisses have their effect:
JOE: Where did you learn to kiss like that?
SUGAR: I used to sell kisses for the milk fund.
JOE: Tomorrow, remind me to send a check for $1000,000 to the milk fund.
This goes on till dawn.
Joe returns Sugar to the dock, just as the love-smitten Osgood Fielding returns to his yacht.
Back in their rooms, another reversal: Joe’s in love with Sugar, but can’t go through with it. Meanwhile Jerry’s enthralled by Osgood and his money and wants to go through with it.
JERRY: Osgood proposed to me. We’re planning a June wedding.
JOE: What are you talking about? You can’t marry Osgood.
JERRY: You think he’s too old for me?
JOE: You’re a guy! And why would a guy want to marry a guy?
JOE: Jerry, you better lie down. You’re not well.
JERRY: Will you stop treating me like a child? I’m not stupid, I know there’s a problem.
JOE: I’ll say there is.
JERRY: His mother. We need her approval.
They continue until Joe finally makes Jerry realize it won’t work, in a nice reversal of the earlier scene in which he tells Jerry to keep repeating he’s a girl, he’s a girl, he says:
JOE: Just keep telling yourself you’re a boy. You’re a boy.
JERRY: I’m a boy.
JOE: That’s the boy.
In the film’s rousing climax (no pun intended), the hoods track down the boys, there’s plenty of shooting and gunplay, cops and robbers, and Joe and Sugar make their getaway in a speed boat. Here Joe (pun intended) literally strips away all his facades—takes off his wig, confesses that he’s a sax player and a no-goodnik. And Sugar says, “That’s right, pour it on. Talk me out of it.” Then grabs him and kisses him passionately.
Jerry also tries to end it with Osgood. He talks about his physical shape, his hair color’s not real, he smokes, he’s been living with a saxophone player, and the problem of infertility. Osgood doesn’t mind any of those. Jerry rips off his wig and declares, “I’m a man.” And Osgood—unfazed by any of this—delivers the line that may be No. 48 to the AFI, but for just about everybody else is No. 1—
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
But Some Like It Hot is exactly that—perfect.
John Geraci is an award-winning screenwriter who recently turned his talents to fiction. His first novel, Dead Man Talking—a thriller set in a Southern California beach town where the dead bodies are beginning to outnumber the tanned ones—will be released in 2013.
Read all posts by John Geraci at Criminal Element.