Curator's note: sorry about the ad at the beginning of this—it's one frame. I just had to show the clip.
I’ve seen Some Like It Hot something like 100 times, and every time I still laugh out loud. The American Film Institute has picked it as the #1 funniest movie of all time. Why? The film’s basic schtick – two guys dress up like two girls to escape the bad guys – is fairly rusty as a comic premise. But this premise can be extrapolated into the larger, more layered and interesting theme of appearance vs. reality: who we are vs. who we pretend to be, and why we pretend in the first place. Billy Wilder’s fabulous script and direction, and the precise and luminous performances of the stars, combine to make a movie that is extremely smart, exciting, and, even after more than 50 years, still funny as hell.
The plot is this: It is 1929. Two Chicago jazz musicians, saxophonist Joe (Tony Curtis) and bass fiddler Jerry (Jack Lemmon), are inadvertent witnesses of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, carried out by bootlegger Spats Columbo (George Raft). Desperate to escape the gangster, they don dresses, change their names to Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-girl band, Sweet Sue (Joan Shawlee) and Her Society Syncopators, on a train bound for Florida. The band’s singer is Sugar Kane aka Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), who is hoping to kick her habit of falling in love with saxophone players and find herself a sensitive millionaire in Florida. Once at the resort, Daphne immediately attracts the pawing attention of the many-times-married millionaire yacht-owner Osgood Fielding (Joe E. Brown). Joe steals band manager Beinstock’s (Dave Barry) suitcase of clothes and dresses up as “Junior,” the heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in an attempt to seduce Sugar. He makes Daphne lure Osgood onshore so he can pretend the yacht is his and get Sugar on board for an evening of romance. He explains to Sugar that he is “harmless” – he can’t ever be attracted to girls again because his first true love fell into the Grand Canyon. Sugar, horrified, tries to cure him by kissing him.
Osgood asks Daphne to marry him, and gives her/him a diamond bracelet as an engagement present. Sugar falls in love with Junior. Then, who should appear at the resort but Spats Colombo and his henchmen, along with a whole boatload of “Lovers of the Italian Opera” from Chicago. It’s a convention of mobsters, and Joe and Jerry have to get out quick. There’s a complication: Joe, having made Sugar fall in love with him, realizes he’s fallen in love with her and can’t leave her in the lurch. As Junior, he makes a fake ship-to-shore call to her and tells her has to leave to marry the heiress of a Venezuelan oil company and gives her Daphne’s bracelet as a good-bye present.
Joe and Jerry, dressed as Josephine and Daphne, try to leave the hotel but are recognized by Spats and his men. A chase ensues, during which Spats is murdered by the other gangsters. Joe and Jerry witness this hit, and now all the gangsters are after them. Jerry as Daphne calls Osgood and tells him she wants to get married right away and to meet her/him at the dock so they can escape on the yacht. While Jerry is making this call, Joe hears Sugar on the bandstand, singing “I’m Through With Love.” He watches her from offstage and, moved by her pain, climbs onto the bandstand and kisses her. The gangsters then appear and he runs off, but not before Sugar realizes that Josephine is Junior.The final chase leads Joe and Jerry to Osgood’s motor launch, where the oblivious Osgood is waiting. At the very last second, Sugar jumps on board, and off they go. Joe confesses he’s a saxophone player, and he and Sugar embrace. As the launch speeds toward the yacht, Jerry/Daphne explains to Osgood that they can’t marry. Osgood deflects his reasons until finally Jerry pulls off his wig and says, “You don’t understand, Osgood! I’m a man!” And Osgood says the funniest last line in any movie ever, “Nobody’s perfect.”
The farcical elements of the plot are enhanced by the tightness of the script. First of all, it’s self-referential, with jokes woven in and echoed throughout: Joe, at the beginning of the film, borrows Nellie’s Hupmobile. Later, as Junior, he tells Sugar that his dead fiancé was the daughter of the president of Hupmobile. Joe tells Jerry his blood is “Type O,” then Joe as Junior tells Sugar he gave his squashed fiancé a transfusion because they had the same blood type, “Type O.” References to “The Sheboygan Conservatory of Music” get bounced around like tennis balls, by Joe and Jerry as themselves, then as Josephine and Daphne, then by Sugar as she tries to impress Junior (“Good school,” he remarks). Jerry as Junior uses a bicycle to get back to the hotel room and change back into Josephine; at the end, Sugar uses the bike to get to the boat in time to jump on and escape to Osgood’s yacht. And so on.
There are also movie in-jokes. Jerry’s Junior voice is an exaggerated Cary Grant impression. George Raft, as Spats Colombo, walks into the resort and sees a hoodlum leaning against a wall, flipping a quarter. “Where’d you learn that cheap trick?” he asks. Why, from George Raft of course, in the movie Scarface. The actor flipping the coin is Edward G. Robinson, Jr., son of Scarface himself. A few scenes later, at the gangster’s dinner, Spats motions as if he’s going to smash a grapefruit into his henchman’s face, a la James Cagney in Public Enemy. Funny stuff, especially if you are a movie buff.
Wilder enhances this with a movie score that works to thematically link the different parts of the movie. Scenes with Joe and Jerry running from the gangsters are backed with a frenetic jazz accompaniment; Sugar’s first appearance is scored with a raunchy wah-wah trumpet; and the scenes at the resort are accompanied by female singers trilling “Down Among the Sheltering Palms” and “By the Sea.” Best of all, Daphne’s scenes with Osgood are supported by an instrumental version of “Hernando’s Hideaway,” which also helps punctuate one of Lemmon’s best comedic moments (“I’m engaged!”) and the very last scene of the movie. Additionally, Wilder’s choice to film in black-and-white not only saves Josephine and Jerry from looking like badly made-up drag queens; it emphasizes the contrast between dark, freezing Chicago and bright, sunny Florida, and serves to give the film a romantic temporal distance.
All of this, however, is supportive of and secondary to the appearances vs. reality themes of the movie. Nobody, with the exception of Osgood, is what he or she appears to be. Joe and Jerry are Josephine and Daphne; and Joe is Junior. Sugar Kane, girl singer, is really Sugar Kovalczyk from Sandusky, Ohio, then, in an attempt to impress Junior, a society girl from Newport (“Always the same 400.”). The girls in the band are “Society Syncopators” and, as Sweet Sue (who isn’t the least bit sweet) puns, “Everyone’s a virtuoso – and I intend to keep it that way!” Spats Columbo and his men are, at the beginning, mourners at a non-existent funeral and, later, “Lovers of Italian Opera” at a convention.
Of course, the most interesting hidden identities are those of Joe and Jerry. Immediately upon donning their female personas, they find themselves in masher hell, even though, as Jerry points out, “I’m not even pretty!” Jerry/Daphne trips getting onto the train and gets her bottom patted by Beinstock. (“Upsy-daisy!” “Fresh!”). When they reach the resort, Osgood makes a beeline for Daphne, grabbing her by the ankle when she loses a shoe and groping her leg, then cornering her and pinching her “in the elevator.” (Osgood asks Daphne how she plays her bull fiddle, “Do you pluck it or strum it?” Daphne replies,“I slap it!” Titillated Osgood murmurs, “Zowie!”) An aggressive and diminutive bellhop takes a shine to Josephine and won’t take No for an answer: “That’s how I like ‘em! Big and sassy!” Later, Daphne and Josephine are again cornered in the elevator, this time by Spats’ henchmen, one of whom politely asks, “Ain’t we had the pleasure of meeting you broads before?” then grabs their hotel key to get their room number. It’s funny to see them on “the fuzzy end of the lollipop,” as Sugar says of her own history with men – especially since Joe’s character as a womanizing user has been established with his treatment of Nellie at the beginning of the film.
It’s also funny to watch them try to physically adapt to their new personas – Wilder cuts to them walking in high heels at the train station. Joe as Josephine seems to have gotten it down; he minces in tight little steps. Jerry, on the other hand, pitches forward and staggers just this side of falling, catching his heel in a crack and wondering, “How do they do it?” They gaze in amazement as Sugar saunters by, “like jello on springs.”
But as Josephine and Daphne, the boys also have to interact differently with the other women.They have to be friends, which means empathizing with them in a way that is alien to them as males. They catch Sugar sneaking a drink in the ladies room, and she confesses that she’ll be put off the train if she gets caught with booze again; later, when Sugar drops her flask, Jerry/Daphne pretends it belongs to him so Sugar doesn’t get fired. That night, Daphne invites Sugar into her berth for what starts out to be a tete-a-tete, but ends up as a spontaneous midnight party with the whole band. (It ends badly.) Sugar confides her sad romantic history to Josephine: her weakness for tenor sax players who throw coleslaw in her face and leave her with just “a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste.” Joe and Jerry are forced by their incognito to see women in a new light – as people.
Jerry/Daphne seems to get into the spirit of the thing immediately, chatting companionably with the other band members, and romping with Sugar and the girls on the beach. Joe, however, uses his entre’ into Sugar’s psyche in an attempt to seduce her, pretending to be the sensitive, myopic, sexually inhibited Junior. Ironically, it is Sugar who becomes the seducer, trying to warm Junior up out of his frigidity. (Here is another example of the tightness of the script – Joe’s discomfort at trying to remain unmoved by Sugar mirrors Jerry’s agony in the train berth when the girls start to tickle him.)
Joe’s plan to seduce Sugar is complicated, however, by his having gotten to know her first. He realizes he loves her, which is movingly captured as he listens to her sing “I’m Through With Love.” Wilder uses a long, beautifully lit reaction shot to show Joe’s change of heart. And when Joe kisses her, Sugar puts it all together. By the end of the film, all the secret identities have been stripped away: Spats is dead; Sugar and Joe embrace; and Osgood is blissfully unruffled by Jerry’s confession that he’s a man. In the world of Some Like It Hot, all’s well that ends well.
And this is what moves this film about two guys on the lam beyond slapstick farce into chick-flick territory. In the end, Some Like it Hot is a movie about friendship: Jerry and Joe’s, yes, but about Daphne and Josephine’s unintended friendship with Sugar, which causes them to relate to her as a person, not a conquest, and later, in Joe’s case, to understand her vulnerability and choose not to exploit it. Joe’s character progresses from louse to hero, thus making him deserving of Sugar’s love at the end.
The performances here are pitch-perfect. Jack Lemmon’s Jerry is kinetic, loose-limbed, a wise guy always in danger of bubbling over. His timing is exquisite; he performs perhaps the best double-take in all film when he recognizes Junior on the beach. Tony Curtis’s performance is one of the best of his career. His Joe is tightly controlled, sharp-witted, conniving, yet sympathetic. He moves smoothly between Joe/Josephine/Junior with comic precision that is pure delight to watch. (It is interesting to compare the careers of these two actors – Curtis, after some really fine performances as a young actor, fizzled out in middle-age into mediocre roles in mediocre movies. Lemmon, on the other hand, just got better and better, moving easily between comedy and drama as he got older. It’s hard to find a performance in which he didn’t shine.)
Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar is more than just a bimbo – she is a tragicomedic figure, gorgeous, almost tumbling out of her dresses, but always with an undercurrent of sadness. Stories of her difficult behavior on set are legion; Wilder was so angry with her that he didn’t invite her to the cast wrap party after shooting. It is perhaps worth noting that, during filming, Monroe suffered a miscarriage; it’s difficult to believe this didn’t in some way inform her performance. In a way, she was playing herself in Sugar: a beautiful woman with a life that just wouldn’t work right. In any event, her performance here is, like Lemmon’s and Curtis’s, one of her best.
Some Like It Hot deserves its number-one spot in the AFI’s “Funniest Films” list. It’s what happens when you combine one of the best directors ever, three brilliant actors at the top of their game, and a smart, witty, tight-as-a-drum script. Nobody’s perfect, but this film comes close.
Laura Orem is a writer, artist and teacher living in Red Lion, PA. She is a featured blogger at The Best American Poetry Blog and is managing editor of Toad Hall Press. Her work has appeared in many venues both online and print, most recently in The Barefoot Review, Coldfront, and DMQ Review. She teaches writing at Goucher College in Baltimore.