Review: Some Like It Hot (1959)


Director: Billy Wilder | 117 minutes | comedy | Actors: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Joe E. Brown, George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Nehemiah Persoff, Joan Shawlee, Billy Gray, George E. Stone, Dave Barry, Mike Mazurki, Harry Wilson, Beverly Wills, Barbara Drew

Despite the resounding names in front of and behind the camera, the average viewer today will probably have little enthusiasm for a film about a bunch of men dressing up as women. And that is extremely unfortunate, because all the “white chicks”, “big momma’s houses” and “mrs. Despite its age, “Some Like It Hot” is a scintillating and extremely entertaining film.

The beginning of the film is fun right away. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you’ve ended up in a classic gangster movie. The atmosphere is one of nostalgia with a wink. We see a hearse driving quietly through the streets, followed by a shot of the box in the car, and men in suits with depressed faces. We hear a police siren and see the men looking nervously at each other and through the rear window. Now the crooks’ tronies of the men stand out. Then the car is shot at. One of the crooks pulls a string on the ceiling of the car, causing (the double bottom of) the ceiling to slide away and five guns appear. A wild chase with screeching tires, collisions and skidding ensues, where the officers, hanging from the side of their car, shoot at the crooks. They narrowly escape, but unfortunately the box was hit which, as we see when one of the men opens the box, is full of bottles of liquor. Over this image appears the text: “Chicago, 1929”. A wonderful introduction.

We meet the main characters, Joe and Jerry, a little later, at the “funeral” where the crooks have just been headed, and where the police are about to raid. Joe and Jerry are the bass and saxophone player of the band present there. They manage to escape during the raid and look for other work. On their way to such a job, they unfortunately witness a settlement between two groups of gangsters, forcing them to go into hiding in a touring women’s band.

This is the comedic premise that the whole movie is naturally about. It is interesting how initially the characters’ attitudes are reversed. Where Joe first (due to his gambling tendencies and playboy demeanor) had to be kept in check by Jerry, and the latter was the most practical of the pair, especially when it comes to finances, the roles have been turned at the time of their transformation into a woman. Joe tries hard not to be noticed, for fear of being discovered, while Jerry jumps out of the band and acts like an excited schoolboy at the sight of all that feminine beauty. It reminds him of a dream he often had as a little boy, in which he was locked up in a pastry shop. Joe warns him, “We’re on a diet!” The film is full of quirky dialogues, sexual allusions and all kinds of comical situations, in which the jokes are sometimes presented so casually or in quick succession that you have to pay close attention to catch everything at once.

What gives the man-as-woman aspect an extra dimension is that it concerns two people. Joe and Jerry can now talk to each other (as men) in the meantime, for example about their discomfort as a woman. As a result, the female act of the pair remains embedded in the actual thoughts of the characters. Jack Lemmon manages to achieve this on his own on a regular basis, when he makes an en passant comment as his true self. Like a scene where he is lying in his train bed and Marilyn Monroe’s character Sugar Cane “comes to visit” and says, “If there’s anything I can do for you…”. Jerry answers: “I can think of a million things”. When she quickly crawls into bed next to him because someone is passing by, Jerry says, “That’s one of ’em!”

It’s nice to see the completely different “women” that Jerry and Joe portray. Joe is a posh and hypothermic Grace Kelly-esque appearance, while Jerry throws all brains and fully embraces his femininity. He is immediately one of the girls and clearly enjoys it. But at some point he does realize how sexist women are treated by his own gender. When he complains to Joe that he has just been pinched in the ass by a cheeky old man, Joe explains that the sight of a woman in a skirt to a man is like flapping a red rag in front of a bull. To which Jerry says, “I’m sick of being the flag. I want to be a bull again! ”. However, towards the end of the movie, he also sees benefits from being a woman. He goes so far in his act that he even proposes a marriage to an old, rich (and male!) Millionaire

accepts. When Joe asks why a man would want to marry another man, Jerry replies, “Security.” This scene is one of the comedic highlights of the movie. Jerry is completely captivated by his new, financially stable future, while Joe subjects him to all kinds of questions. After every (funny) answer from Jerry, he shakes a couple of maracas a few times to puncture the joke. We also see here how Jerry falls back into his old practical attitude to life, while at the same time revealing perhaps a secret wish of men to be conquered (and taken care of?) Themselves.

Another extra aspect to the cross-dressing performance is provided by Joe’s extra dress-up parties. In order to conquer Sugar, he pretends to be a millionaire every now and then, with Jerry’s disapproval, including hunting and Cary Grant accent. A visually very good working scene involving the switching between the two different (new) guises of Joe takes place when he, as a millionaire, has a meeting with Sugar, on “his” hunt. He has just played with Sugar as Joe in the women’s band at the hotel where they stay, and now has to change costumes very quickly. In his hotel room we see him put on his neat captain’s suit, only… he forgets to take off his earrings! For the viewer this creates a comic anticipation or “tension” that is optimally played with. He even stands in front of the mirror for a while – now he has to see it soon !? – but he doesn’t look into it because he’s in such a hurry. He climbs out the window, gets on his bike, and drives and runs to the moored motor boat, still wearing his earrings. Sugar arrives seconds later, and then at the last minute, putting on his glasses, Joe notices the earrings.

And then there is Sugar, the naive (platinum) blonde who always falls for the wrong men and thus gets the “fuzzy end of the lollipop”, perfectly portrayed by Marilyn Monroe. As noted in one of the documentaries on the DVD, she has a unique combination of innocence and sexiness, which is best reflected in this role. She’s cute and endearing as Joe and Jerry’s candid companion, and sexy in the many revealing outfits she’s wearing. Her famous performance of “I wanna be loved by you” deserves special mention. The way the spotlight plays with her body, clad in a semi-sheer and flesh-colored dress, is comparable to a tantalizing striptease act: “Boo boo bee doo!”.

The acting is excellent across the board, including the mafia roles that are made funny by the actors’ fairly neutral portrayal. Here too, attention has been paid to the details, such as in a scene in which the “godfather” of the company turns down his hearing aid when an incompetent member of his organization is noisily killed with a machine gun. But in the end it is Lemmon who steals the show, in his exuberant performance as Daphne.

The end of the film makes it clear that the characters’ superficial motives (sex and money), whether role-affirming or not, don’t pay off. The film lightly propagates sexual equality and openness, culminating in Joe E. Brown’s very funny ending line. Some parts in the film are perhaps a bit too slapstick-oriented or (now) a bit too recognizable in their cross-dressing humor. Also the part on the boat with Sugar and Joe is a bit drawn out and there is the sporadic over-acted or over-the-top moment that distracts. But it is striking how well the film (still) works. It is still a very smooth film with (for that time) daring themes, a funny script, a nice time frame, and excellent direction and performances. “Some Like It Hot” is a film that earns its status as a classic and one of the greatest comedies of all time.

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