Directed by Samuel Wilder, starring Norma Jeane Mortenson, and Bernard Schwartz. Or perhaps those names don’t mean much to you. After all, Samuel was known as Billy: director of Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and this, arguably the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot. Norma you probably know as Marilyn Monroe: cultural icon, pin-up, Hollywood superstar. Bernard became Tony Curtis, an academy award nominated host of a career spread across over one-hundred films and six decades. They join Jack Lemon, a cast of grizzled-faced mafiosos, and a glamorous all-girl jazz troupe, in this romantic comedy caper. It remains funny, a rather basic requirement for a comedy, but this is an intruder on the Sight and Sound Top 100, the BBC’s greatest comedy of all time, a picture which transcends the bounds of genre and…well, why, I wonder? And how does it hold up in 2019?
The story is simple enough, but gracefully structured. Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemon) are musicians who witness a mafia massacre (based on the real-life St Valentine’s Day Massacre). To escape the wrath of the mobsters they take on a job in Florida – with an all-female troupe named Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators. They don disguises and become Josephine and Daphne, and on the train down south they meet Sugar Kane, played by Monroe, and both become quite helplessly infatuated with her. Once they are in Florida, Joe manages to make a move on Sugar by taking on another disguise, this time as Junior, a big wig in the Shell corporation, a family company. Junior is (or is presented as) a millionaire yacht owner with a Cary Grant accent. Using what he’s learned about Sugar, he woos her quite spectacularly, but plays hard to get. Meanwhile, Jerry is the subject of the affectations of a real millionaire, Osgood Fielding III, who unknowingly lends his yacht to Joe’s Junior and Sugar for a romantic evening, whilst drinking and dancing and, somehow, getting engaged to Jerry’s Daphne. And then the mafia arrive!
Except, things don’t really play out how you might expect, probably because decades of much lesser romantic comedies have deadened our sensibilities.
Here’s how I would have expected everything to play out if this movie had come out, say, in the 90’s:
The mafia finds the pair at the hotel and somehow Daphne and Josephine are found out to be Jerry and Joe, and Sugar and Osgood realise the subject of their affections are actually quite different from what they have been presented. Jerry and Joe, somehow get away from Spats – the leader of the mafia chapter looking out for the two witnesses – probably by using their goofy charm and quick wits, but of course Sugar doesn’t want to take Jerry now, she’s been lied too! And of course, Osgood doesn’t want to take Joe, he’s a man! But oh, and thank god, before the end Jerry, probably with the help of his good friend Joe, work out how to convince Sugar he’s not a psychopath and that they should hook up and live happily ever after.
That’s not what happens.
The mafia does come to the hotel, and they do discover that Daphne and Josephine are the surviving witnesses of the massacre, but beyond that things do not play out as above. Knowing they have to run from Spats and his gang, Jerry says goodbye to Sugar over the phone, pretending that Junior is being called away to Venezuela, gifting her with the diamond bracelet engagement present given to Joe by Osgood. Downstairs he hears her singing and, moved by her apparent grief, kisses her in full Daphne garb. It takes a second, but from the kiss Sugar manages to works it all out. To escape the mafia Joe agrees to elope with Osgood, taking Jerry as his bridesmaid and, without much hesitation, Sugar joins them. This leads to a fantastic final line. As Osgood drives them away on his speedboat Joe attempts to tell Osgood exactly why they cannot get married, eventually going all out and admitting that he is a man. Osgood shrugs.
‘No one is perfect.’
There is no artificial, sitcom level, drama to be found here. In any other typical rom-com Sugar would go through some period of outrage before settling down with Jerry, but here she is never shown to be any more honest that either of the male leads. She’s a big drinker, sneaking bourbon onto the train against Sweet Sue’s wishes, and starting a party amongst the bunks. Plus, as soon as she meets Junior, she says whatever she thinks she needs to say to impress the millionaire with little regard for the truth. The movie is about a bunch of no-gooders, with admittedly soft hearts, doing no-good to each other, and somehow finding happiness from it. They all undergo transformations and, in what I consider to be a nice change of pace despite the age of the film, we aren’t told that this is wrong. The characters, through their willingness to transform, find contentment.
Their personalities are flexible, their identities malleable. In other hands, this could have come across as cynical, but the film carries a charm and warmth in its script that ensures it leaves the audience with a cosy feeling when the happy ending eventually comes.
Truth is, some members of the modern, Netflix scrolling audience, aren’t going to give Some Like It Hot the time of day, despite its revered status. All genres change with time, and comedy is no exception. I do not think this is a timeless film, it would not, could not, be made today. However, it is far more progressive and tolerant than I expected of a movie from 1959. When Joe tells Jerry that he has accepted Osgood’s proposal he cries of ‘laws, conventions!’ but he soon comes around to the idea, without any trace of disgust. Acceptance is the name of the game here, best summarised by that exemplary final line.
‘No is perfect.’
It makes sense, considering the personal transformations that Wilder, his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, and two members of the key cast, underwent in the pursuit of Hollywood success. They knew that identity is malleable, for they exercised such flexibility in their own lives. The fate of Monroe throws into question how positive an impact these changes can have on a person’s mental health, but there is no doubting the career success that it instigated.
Speaking of which, it is interesting to note how brilliant Billy Wilder had already proven himself by the point at which he made this film. How often do today’s great directors tackle comedy? This came after Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Let’s see Barry Jenkins, or Denis Villeneuve, or Alfonso Cuaron tackle a comedy now that they are established. We see plenty of directors moving the other way, or starting off with funny films, but doing a straight up comedy in the midst of the success? It is an unlikely scenario. Some Like It Hot is shot and directed with the eye of a great artist. On top of the iconic performances, jam-packed script, and excellent tunes, there is a beautifully lit and framed picture that is a pleasure to simply…look at. I’m not saying that film is better in black and white, but there is little more pleasing on the eye than a scene perfectly constructed in monochrome.
Is it still worth a watch? I’m sure eventually I’ll come out and say that something “classic” is unequivocally not worth your time, but Some Like It Hot is historic. For anyone interested in cinema, in studying cinema, in enjoying film from across the world and through the ages, yes, of course it is worth watching. For more casual viewers, those not so bothered about fulfilling a nerdy watch list of must-sees, this is a movie about two men dressed as women from the 1950s…but despite what you might rightfully expect, it never crosses into the realm of the archaically gross, so don’t be afraid to dedicate a couple of hours of your time to this peach from the still glowing end of Hollywood’s Golden Age.