Folks, when I first set out on this ridiculous journey to chronicle my favorite films of the last hundred years, there were certain trends that shocked me. And, the thing that perhaps shocked me the most was the fact that the late fifties were absolutely fantastic. I feel like I often was told that the 1950’s were a generally creatively bereft decade, languishing until the New Hollywood movement of the 1960’s revitalized things. And, that may be true in broad strokes, but it’s indisputable that the late 1950’s were churning out some of the best movies I’ve ever seen, it’s just that they were a little more few and far between. When I discussed 1957 I talked about how hard it was to pick a favorite film, since I had like five films in a brutal battle royale. This year’s a little different. Instead, it’s a crazy duel to the death with two films that I really struggled over picking a champion. I speak of course of Plan 9 From Outer Space and House on Haunted Hill. And, I’m only somewhat joking, because both of those films are fascinating, and I could probably find some bullshit to spin out of both of them, in my usual manner. But, getting serious, the two films that I had to chose over ended up being incredibly on-brand for me. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Obviously, from seeing the name of this article, I went with Some Like It Hot, but that was an incredibly difficult decision to make. Both of these films are absolutely fantastic, and it’s almost absurd that I ended up tormenting myself by choosing between a Hitchcock and a Wilder flick, since those two directors are two of the most featured directors on this project up until this point. North By Northwest is a fantastic film, giving us everything we could possibly want from a Hitchcock movie, bolstered by a wonderful performance from Cary Grant, giving us one of my favorite “accidental detectives,” who are tossed into a story way bigger than them. As with all Hitchcock movies, I highly recommend checking out North By Northwest, and it’s a film that I wholeheartedly love. But, when I rewatched both films, it was undeniable to me that there’s just something absurdly magical about Some Like It Hot.
One of the unexpected consequences of doing this project was learning that almost every film that I love had an absolutely chaotic production story, teaching me that it’s incredibly any movies are ever released, let alone movies that are this good. Things began with Billy Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond taking the script for a French film named Fanfares of Love, and adapted some of it for a more American audience. Which apparently means they tossed in a bunch of mobster stuff. But, we’ll get to the actual plot later. Once they had a story, they began acquiring a cast, and ending up almost immediately getting Tony Curtis for the male lead. And, oddly enough, they apparently wanted Frank Sinatra for the role that eventually went to Jack Lemon, which is absolutely astounding to me. Things then got a little surprising when they landed Marilyn Monroe for the female lead, something that Wilder apparently never thought would happen. Which, maybe ended up making the shooting of this film too difficult. Because Marilyn Monroe was in rough shape at this point of her career. She was apparently quite addicted to pills at this time, and had a hell of a time concentrating and remembering her lines, creating an incredibly frustrating experience for the rest of the cast and crew. Meanwhile, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon were working with a famous female impersonator to learn how to most accurately portray men pretending to be women. The film ended up pushing some serious boundaries, especially in regards to the Hayes Code, but was given to the public, who immediately accepted it. Unlike so many other films that I’ve talked about during this project, Some Like it Hot was almost immediately embraced, and recognized as a truly wonderful and special film. And that esteem really has never left it. Taken from a modern perspective there’s obviously some things to reckon with, but there’s something wonderfully timeless about this film that has kept it in the public consciousness after more than half a century.
Some Like It Hot opens up in Chicago in 1929, following the exploits of two musician best friends named Joe and Jerry. They’re working in a jazz band that operates out of a speakeasy in the back of a fake funeral parlor, and seem to have finally found a good gig. Until the police arrive and raid the place, ruining everything for them. They’re able to escape the clutches of the police, but are then forced out into the unforgiving winter of Chicago, jobless, and without many prospects. They hit several talent agencies, and it seems like the only job that’s available is specifically for an all-woman band, meaning they’re pretty screwed. Unless they want to drive several hours into the suburbs. Which, they accept. So, the head to a local garage and borrow a car for the drive, which ends up being a terrible mistake. Because the garage that the car is being held in is also a hideout for a couple hoods, one of whom is actually a police informant and led the police to the speakeasy earlier in the film. So, as Joe and Jerry are gassing up the car the mobster who ran the speakeasy, Spats Columbo, arrives and brutally kills the informant and all of his buddies. Joe and Jerry do their best to silently flee, but Spats sees them, and realizes that they’re potential witnesses to his murder. So, they decide they need to get out of town as fast as possible, which means they’re going to have to do something extreme. They go buy some women’s clothing and some wigs, and end up pretending to be women named Josephine and Daphne so they can join the all-women band that’s heading to Florida. They’re accepted into Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators, and begin travelling to Florida with a train-full of women.
Joe and Jerry almost immediately realize they’re in over their head, especially when they both become instantly enamored with the vocalist/ukulele player of the band, Sugar Kane. Jerry really tries flirting with the women in the band, while Joe does his best to keep quiet and out of sight, until he’s placed in an intimate position with Sugar. She ends up describing the type of men she falls for, and he realizes he completely fits the bill. Except for the fact that he’s broke. So, while the train finishes its trip to Florida Joe begins plotting, creating a character that will be Sugar’s perfect man so that he can become him once they get to Florida. And, when they arrive in town, we see that Sugar isn’t the only one with an admirer. Because as soon as the band arrives in their hotel Jerry, of Daphne I suppose, is approached by an aging millionaire named Osgood Fielding, III who immediately falls in love with “her,” and makes it clear he’s going to be pining for her as much as possible. Joe doesn’t have any time to help Jerry with this strange predicament though, because he’s busy creating a man who he only calls Junior, in theory the heir to the Shell Oil fortune, to woo Sugar. And it works exceedingly well. She’s instantly enamored with him, and Joe starts stringing her along, building a relationship on a foundation of lies, all while encouraging Jerry to just go along with Osgood so Joe can pretend all of Osgood’s possessions are his own. This culminates in an evening where Jerry and Osgood dance the night away at a tango club while Joe and Sugar make-out on Osgood’s boat. Oh, and Osgood proposes to “Daphne,” and Jerry accepts.
And this is where things get really silly. Because as Jerry and Joe are trying to figure out what to do about their romantic interests, they end up finding out that a special convention is happening in the hotel. And it’s some sort of Mafia convention, meaning that Spats Columbo is now in the same hotel as them. And, unfortunately for them, Spats ends up recognizing both Jerry and Joe, and orders his men to kill them. They attempt to flee from the mobsters, but realize that to fully escape they’re going to have to flee from the hotel and their elaborate lies. Joe decides to break things off with Sugar, telling her that he has to go to Venezuela to marry an heiress for an economic alliance, and I guess Jerry was just going to ghost Osgood. Unfortunately, as they attempt to escape they end up being spotted by the gangsters again, and end up witnessing a second massacre, this time when the rest of the Mafia kill Spats and his men. But now the entirety of the Mafia is after them, so they attempt to flee, planning on using Osgood’s yacht to escape to South America. But, before they leave, Joe approaches Sugar, and gives her a kiss, which is when she realizes that Josephine, Junior, and Joe are all the same person, and that she’s in love with him. So, She chases after the trio, and they all end up fleeing Florida. Joe and Sugar declare their love, and Jerry finally admits to Osgood that he’s a man. And Osgood seems cool with that.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m in awe at the range that Billy Wilder had. I’ve talked about several of his films already on this project, and most of them have been completely different from one another. It’s hard to believe that the same man who made this, one of the greatest comedies of all time, also made movies like Sunset Blvd or Double Indemnity. And, what’s even more impressive, is the fact that this film is still this funny after more than fifty years. Comedy can often age terribly, unless it’s something universally funny like the silent comedy’s slapstick shtick, but it’s hard to comprehend how a movie like this can still be so fresh and funny. Especially in regards to the subject matter. I’m sure there are very nuanced opinions about this film and the way that it handles drag, but I don’t really feel like I have the knowledge base to talk about all of that. What I can talk about is the fact that this film is absolutely hilarious. It’s most certainly my favorite performance that Marilyn Monroe ever gave, even though there’s such unpleasant circumstances behind the scenes. But she’s rather over-shadowed by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon, who completely and thoroughly own their roles, and give it everything they’ve got. They have an amazing comedic chemistry that helps keep the ridiculous premise of this film afloat, and honestly is one of the biggest reasons I think that this film doesn’t feel too problematic. There’s a shocking amount of respect in their performances, mixed in with the truly genius comedic chops. All while doing something truly remarkable to the history of Hollywood.
I’ve talked quite a bit during this project about the Production Code, or the Hayes Code as it’s usually called. It was a puritanical set of rules imparted upon Hollywood after the excess, debauchery, and tabloid news-inspiring events of the 1920’s which told the Hollywood production companies what they could and couldn’t put on the screen. It had some pretty buck wild rules, and in a strange way ended up pushing Hollywood to become more violent. They had strict rules that if a movie featured criminals it also needed to have those characters being punished, and it didn’t mind if the way they punished them was with a gory death. But, one thing that the Code couldn’t abide was sexuality. There was to be no nudity, frank discussions of sexuality regardless of orientation but certainly no homosexuality, no transgressive sexual elements, and just generally nothing that didn’t fit into the box that “Good Christian Americans” had made of sex. By 1959 the Hayes Code was really struggling. Several films had been pushing back on most of the other taboo topics like violence, gambling, drunkeness, and all the other bad things that Americans wanted to pretend didn’t exist, but the sexual rules were holding fast. And then this film came out. It’s full of mob violence, alcoholism, gambling, promiscuous sex, and of course, men wearing women’s clothing. It’s a film that could have never passed through the Production Code. So, it didn’t. The film was released without the approval of the Motion Picture Production Code, and not much happened. Some fear-mongering conservatives raised hell, but in general people just accepted it. The film was a massive hit immediately, and was opened with open arms, proving that people wouldn’t really mind if a movie didn’t pass the Production Code’s muster. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of the Code. It limped along being barely enforcing its own rules until Hollywood enacted the MPAA rating system, the wildly corrupt system we still use to this day, and the Hayes Code was finally left to die. The Hayes Code had a massive effect on Hollywood, and it’s fascinating to see what a massive blow that Some Like It Hot dealt to the Code, giving us a film that was finally frank and truthful about human sexuality. It’s complicated, man.
Some Like it Hot was written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder, and released by United Artists, 1959.
Categories: Cinematic Century
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