“Wilder’s 1959 comedy is one of the enduring treasures of the movies, a film of inspiration and meticulous craft” – Roger Ebert
You can imagine Some Like It Hot in hands other than those of Billy Wilder being an instantly forgettable farce, using the drag act to elicit a shock factor and laughs in a 1959 world not ready for cross-dressing. A footnote in cinematic history.
What he actually made was an iconic and toe-curlingly charming picture, arguably Monroe at her finest, beautifully played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, both on top form. Wilder’s success was in taking unpromising material and crafting from it a fresh and funny movie that stands to be watched a thousand times.
Wilder was also helped by the razor-sharp script he co-scripting with long-term writing partner IAL Diamond. The success of any script can be judged by how well it serves the bigger picture of a movie, and, certainly for a zany comedy, whether people still quote the one-liners 50 years later. In this case it happens every day, without exception. We may forgive and forget that some of the movie now looks dated, notably comic chase scenes as the two musicians in drag try to escape from the dumb mafia henchmen, but we still say to ourselves, for example, “nobody’s perfect” and remember fondly that final scene with Lemmon in the boat with Joe E Brown, while Curtis and Monroe smooch in the back.
Without Monroe it could simply not have been the same – she stands out like a beacon, though you also suspect that the same is true of Curtis and Lemmon. Her Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk is the archetypal dizzy blonde, played without irony and all the more toe-curlingly charming for that. Everything Monroe does is delicious. She is especially loved for her irresistibly cheeky and sexy rendition of I Want To Be Loved By You, performed while wearing what appears to be a transparent dress with the lighting strictly confined to her face.
Along the way, Wilder and his cast send up everyone they can, not least Cary Grant, whose voice Curtis mimics in his role as multimillionaire “Shell Oil” while trying to win over Sugar (what Grant thought of that scene is not recorded, but I hope he chuckled along with the best of them.) Indeed, the likes of George Raft and Edward G Robinson, best known for their roles in gangster pictures, sent themselves up in this movie. Granted the stories from behind the scenes tell a slightly different story, but on the strength of the finished product you can only ever imagine that cast and crew had a whale of a time making SLIH.
For the record, the plot for this mayhem is recorded by Wikipedia:
It is February 1929 in the city of Chicago. Two friends who are struggling jazz musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis), a saxophone player, irresponsible gambler and ladies’ man, and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), a sensible double-bass player, accidentally witness the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre. When the gangsters, led by “Spats” Colombo (George Raft), spot them, the two have to run for their lives.
Penniless, freezing cold, and in a rush to get out of town, the two musicians take a job in a women’s band headed to Miami. Disguised as women and calling themselves Josephine and Daphne, they board a train with Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, an all-girl band and their male manager, Bienstock. Before they board the train, Joe and Jerry have already noticed Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s vocalist and ukulele player, marveling over how she walks “like Jell-O on springs,” as they struggle along in their high heels not at all sure they will be able to pass as women. As they board the train, however, Daphne (Jack Lemmon) experiences the kind of sexual harassment common to women when Bienstock feels her up.
Both Joe and Jerry become enamored of Sugar and compete for her affection while maintaining their disguises. Sugar confides that she has sworn off male saxophone players, who have stolen her heart in the past and left her with “the fuzzy end of the lollipop.” She has now set her sights on finding a sweet, bespectacled millionaire in Florida. During the forbidden drinking and partying on the train with all the women in the band, Josephine and Daphne become intimate friends with Sugar, and continually have to struggle to remember that they are girls and cannot make a pass at her.
Once in Miami, Joe woos Sugar by assuming a second disguise as a millionaire named Junior, the heir to Shell Oil, while mimicking Cary Grant‘s voice and feigning disinterest in Sugar. An actual millionaire, an aging mama’s boy, the much-married Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), tries repeatedly to pick up Daphne, who repeatedly rebuffs him. One night Osgood invites Daphne for a champagne supper on his yacht. Joe convinces Daphne to keep Osgood occupied onshore, so that Junior can take Sugar to Osgood’s yacht, passing it off as his. Once on the yacht, Junior uses metaphors to explain to Sugar that unfortunately, due to psychological trauma, he is impotent and frigid, but that he would certainly marry anyone who could change that. Sugar tries desperately to arouse some sexual response in Junior, and begins to succeed. Meanwhile, Daphne and Osgood dance the tango till dawn.
When Joe and Jerry get back to the hotel, Jerry happily explains that Osgood has proposed marriage to Daphne and that he, as Daphne, has accepted, anticipating an instant divorce and huge cash settlement when his ruse is revealed. Joe finally convinces Jerry that he can’t actually marry Osgood. The two men realize they must quit the band and leave the hotel. Sadly, Joe then breaks Sugar’s heart by telling her that he, Junior, has to marry a woman of his father’s choosing and move to Venezuela.
Many mobsters arrive at the hotel for a conference honoring the Friends of Italian Opera. Spats and his gang from Chicago eventually recognize Joe and Jerry as the witnesses to the Valentine’s Day murders. After several humorous but potentially lethal chases, Joe and Jerry end up witnessing additional mob killings, this time of Spats and his crew. Once again Joe and Jerry have to run for their lives. Joe, dressed as Josephine, sees Sugar onstage singing sadly that she will never love again. He kisses her before he leaves, and Sugar suddenly understands that Joe is both Josephine and Junior.
Sugar runs from the stage at the end of her performance and is able to jump into the launch from Osgood’s yacht just as it is leaving the dock with Joe, Jerry and Osgood in it. Joe tells Sugar that he is not good enough for her, that she would be getting the “fuzzy end of the lollipop” yet again, but Sugar wants him anyway. Jerry, for his part, comes up with a list of objections for why he and Osgood cannot get married, ranging from a smoking habit to infertility. Osgood dismisses them all; he loves Daphne and is determined to go through with the marriage. Exasperated, Jerry removes his wig and shouts, “I’m a man!” Osgood simply responds, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
My personal favourite moment is Osgood dancing the tango with “Daphne”, though I might have chosen any one of a hundred other scenes. This is one of the top 100 movies you have to see in a lifetime, and shame on you if you don’t.