Some Like It Hot (1959) Directed by Billy Wilder. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon. Joe E. Brown (121 min).
Two broke musicians accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and don flapper attire to join Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators in order to escape the vengeful mob. Marilyn Monroe positively glows onscreen, even if she drove her director to distraction, and Curtis as ladylike Josephine and Lemmon as rowdy Daphne redefine midcentury drag. A comic masterpiece of gender fluidity blooming smack dab in the uptight 1950s, the Legion of Decency rated it “Morally objectionable in part for all.” The sparkling 4K restoration of this exquisitely constructed comedy is a pleasure from start to finish, never giving you the fuzzy end of the lollipop. “The greatest comedy ever made in America. Nobody’s perfect, but this movie is” (Entertainment Weekly)
Some of the movies I write about are a little outside the canon, and it’s hard to research them. This situation is exactly the opposite. So many people have written about this film, it’s hard to know where to begin. So many books on Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe. So many books on comedy.
Director Billy Wilder, and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond were sure there was a concept for them somewhere inside a 1935 French film, remade in 1951 in West Germany, called Fanfaren das Liebe, (Fanfares of Love) in which two starving musicians don different costumes, including drag, to get work in various bands. One problem: there was no reason for them to remain in disguise once their stomachs were full. “Diamond and Wilder understood precisely what it would take to force an American man even to play at being a woman in the 1950s—the threat of death.” If it was set in the past, Diamond realized, another problem would be solved, “when everybody’s dress looks eccentric, somebody in drag looks no more peculiar than anyone else” (Sikov 409). Wilder hit on the idea of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as motivation. Two of the victims in the gangland execution were not criminals, but associates of the mob, a gambler and an auto mechanic in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so the plot fell into place.
There are many stories about casting. Perhaps the studio, United Artists, wanted to star Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, with Mitzi Gaynor as Sugar Kane. But, Wilder signed Tony Curtis right from the beginning, thinking that to put the handsome heartthrob in a dress was too funny to pass up. The studio pressed for Frank Sinatra (not interested) and Anthony Perkins (previously committed to another project). Jack Lemmon won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mr. Roberts, but was not yet a big star. Lemmon and Wilder had great chemistry and this was the first of their seven films together. At the start, the two actors were cast in roles opposite to the ones they played on screen. While the first draft was still percolating, Wilder got a letter from Marilyn Monroe, in which she recalled how much she enjoyed working with him on The Seven Year Itch. Even though he was cautious about committing to another project with her, he felt having the biggest star in the weakest role was important to balance the film. The three stars were signed before a word of script had been written.
Tony Curtis and Marilyn conferring with Wilder on the porch of the Hotel Coronado
Tony Curtis became an avid student of Barbette, an old acquaintance of Wilder who was hired to tutor the two stars in the fine points of drag performance. Curtis was already very conscious of showing off his attractive body. In private life, he wore very tight clothes, some of which he designed himself. During one argument with Wilder about the size of the type in which his name would appear on screen, Billy scolded him, “The trouble with you, Tony, is that you’re only interested in little pants and big billing” (Sikov 412).
Curtis cared about the clothes, even if they were women’s clothes. At first, Curtis and Lemmon were sent to Western Costume for rentals, but Curtis balked. “They gave us dresses that looked like they’d been made in the forties for movies that took place in the twenties. I don’t know who wore them. Maybe Eve Arden or Loretta Young. Who knows? But they didn’t do a thing for me. They didn’t fit right. They puckered up. I knew this. My father was a tailor. I didn’t like the idea that they were passing this shit off as wardrobe on a $2 million picture. I drove back to the studio and marched into Billy’s office. ‘Uh, Billy,’ I said, ‘Who’s designing Marilyn’s gowns? ‘ ‘Orry-Kelly.’ He’s really good. Why can’t he design the dresses for me and Jack. I don’t want these hand-me-downs. Can’t you have Orry-Kelly make our dresses?’ ‘All right, we’ll have him make yours, too.’” (Curtis 57). In fact, Curtis’ and Lemmon’s wardrobes are much more period correct to the 1920s. But, this is one film where I don’t care that Marilyn is wearing 1950s hair and makeup, and not one of her dresses would really pass for 1920s. She knew how she looked good!
The film was shot in black and white partly because it made Curtis’ and Lemmon’s make-up more believeable.
They wore soft scuffs on their feet when they were out of the frame.
Curtis absorbed Barbette’s lessons on how to look, how to stand and walk, but Lemmon resisted. His character isn’t particularly feminine, and while Jerry, his male avatar, is nebbish, Daphne is surprisingly bold. Lemmon gets drag, that it is about showing your hidden self, which, in this case, is someone who barrels in and speaks up. Both actors were unnerved by how much they resembled their mothers when dressed in women’s clothes. Josephine and Daphne are introduced without any indication of how they got that way. Both male stars were struggling with the high heels. But, Wilder didn’t care. “It has to be kind of awkward for the audience to be in on the joke, to really get a laugh out of it” (Curtis 75). Not only did he add extra footage of the two of the walking to prolong the laughter, but Marilyn insisted that her entrance needed an extra something to shift the focus to her, later provided by a providential blast of steam as she hurries to catch the train. I also love the way that in drag they both experience the sexual harrassment that women endure every day. They are outraged, and perhaps, a little enlightened.
“Some Like It Hot for me was a turning point. But strangely enough, everybody in town before the picture was made thought we were absolutely crazy. They thought Wilder had lost his marbles…because how could you take two men like Curtis and Lemmon, two men in Hollywood, and dress them up in women’s clothes for 85% of the film?” (Friedland 57).
Marilyn Monroe was jittery, difficult and chronically late. Some in Hollywood gleefully announced she was washed up, replaced at the box office by Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood. She hadn’t wanted to do the film in the first place. She didn’t want to play dumb blondes anymore and Sugar was so dumb, she couldn’t even recognize two men in drag. In her anger, she couldn’t see that this was the best written script she had ever been offered. Her agents and her husband, Arthur Miller, thought she should sign, the deal was made, and Marilyn learned to play the ukulele. Wilder was aghast when he heard that Marilyn was studying at the Actor’s Studio. He thought they would ruin her unique star quality. When they met, he realized his mistake. She was a better actress, but now, a self-conscious one. “Before, she was like a tightrope walker who doesn’t know there’s a pit below she can fall into. Now she knows” (Leaming 313).
Here is Orry Kelly fitting Marilyn for one of his Oscar-winning costumes. He only won Oscars at the end of his career, in spite of all the delicious gowns he designed in the 1930s. This Oscar was one of his three.
Marilyn felt ill, her marriage was troubled, she was taking barbiturates, and drank vermouth out of thermos all day. She’s just had a miscarriage, and, it turned out she was pregnant again, and she’d later have a miscarriage, 12 hours after filming her last take. (The pregnancy was ectopic, doomed in any case). She would struggle with simple lines, and then do an entire complicated scene perfectly in one take. The line “Where’s the bourbon” took 42 takes over two days, and the star’s tardiness was costing the production company money. But Lemmon told an interviewer Wilder told him, “With this girl, you may take a lot more takes that you think necessary, but when she’s finally got a scene right, it’s worth it.” Friedland 61). She got along well with Curtis, if not her director. They may have had a thing in their earliest days of Hollywood, and may have briefly revisited it during filming. He admired, in spite of what she put the company through, her gifts as a comedienne. He loved watching her with the ice pick in the train car bathroom. “Marilyn made you feel she really was Sugar, and you got an impression that there was a whole life behind her. It was lovely watching her do her scenes. As I said before, there’s magic in making movies. This was part of it, watching Marilyn” (Curtis 108).
Wilder said, “She may have no respect for time. She may get sick frequently. She may insist upon bringing along her drama teacher. She may hold up production. But, when you finally get her in front of a camera, she has a certain indefinable magic which no other actress in this business has…I have an aunt in Vienna. She, too is an actress. Her name is Mildred Lachen-Faber. She always comes to the set on time. She knows her lines perfectly. She never gives anyone the slightest trouble. At the box office she is worth fourteen cents. Do you get my point?” (Curtis 142).
Marilyn and Billy
Orry-Kelly’s Oscar-winning clothes are spectacular. I saw one of Marilyn’s dresses from this film at a museum in London, and you could see all these tiny little tucks and darts to make it fit like a second skin. The designer tried to antagonize the star by telling her that Curtis had a better ass than she did, but she was having none of it. “Well, he doesn’t have tits like these,” she retorted. (Sikov 418). This story is told in almost every book I read.
Anthony Lane is pleased with such a risqué story, because so much of Marilyn lore is centered around her crack-up. “If Some Like It Hot remains her best as well as her most celebrated film, that is because Wilder was lucky enough, and perceptive enough, to catch Marilyn when her balance was still intact. Wilder knew precisely how good a comedian she was, he knew the ratio of bite to fluff, and he saw that her pathos—which the public, avid for the crash of failing marriages, was increasingly keen to ascribe to her—wasn’t worth a damn unless it came wrapped in shining lines” (Anthony Lane).
The final line was originally a place holder, written a week before the production wrapped. But neither Wilder or Diamond could come up with something better. “When we screened the movie, that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater. But, we just hadn’t trusted it when we wrote it; we just didn’t see it. The line had come to easily, just popped out” (Sikov 423).
Joe E. Brown woos Daphne.
The film ended up half a million over budget, and was not particularly well reviewed. In fact, many in Hollywood thought it a career killer, especially for Curtis and Lemmon. But, it was the third top grossing film of the year (after Auntie Mame and The Shaggy Dog), grossing almost 15 million dollars world-wide, and with percentages, made over a million for Billy Wilder alone (Curtis and Monroe also had percentages). It won no Oscars, other than for costumes (it was Ben-Hur’s year at the Academy Awards) but is ranked by the AFI the #1 comedy of all time.
Lemmon said, “It was by far the best farce script I’d ever read, even if everyone thought we were insane. Fortunately, it turned out to be an enormous smash. I just adore it. I think it’s a classic job of writing and directing. It’s Billy at his best” (Friedland 62).
Wilder said, “Movies should be like amusement parks. People should go to them to have fun” (Sikov 421). At the screening at the Carolina Theatre, there were people who told me they were seeing the film for the first time. When the audiencescreamed with laughter at the end, it really gave me the feeling of being in a screening during the first run.
I have a script, published in 1960, after the film was a hit. I think Moviediva, Jr., probably bought this during her intense Marilyn phase.
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov, “Boys Will Be Girls: The Making of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot” by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, October 22, 2001, “Isn’t It Wonderful?: Tony Curtis sings and dances in Some Like It Hot” by Lillian Ross in The New Yorker, June 3, 2002, Jack Lemmon by Michael Friedland, Marilyn Monroe by Barbara Leaming, Wilder Times: The Life of Billy Wilder by Kevin Lally, The Making of Some Like It Hot by Tony Curtis and Mark A.Viera, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Valentine%27s_Day_Massacre