‘Some Like It Hot’: My First Classic Comedy, 60 Years Later
My introduction to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot was not a conventional one. When my dad’s video store closed thanks to the Blockbuster boom, he gave a lot of the VHS tapes to my grandmother. She babysat me and my sister after school; since my sister claimed the only TV in the house that had cable, I had to make do with whatever tapes caught my interest. Luckily my grandma convinced me to give this comedy about men in drag a chance.
My tastes were back then were limited — if it didn’t have animation, singing or puppetry, I passed it by. Yet Some Like It Hot proved there was more to the movies than that. There’s drama (two men on the run after witnessing a murder), hilarity (disguises and mix-ups), and romance (Marilyn Monroe, ’nuff said). The finer points flew over my head. But I was so busy laughing that I didn’t care. As my knowledge and appreciation of film grew, so did my love for this feature. Here are just a few ways in which it shaped my preconceptions of cinema.
Black And White Is Not Boring
This is an obvious notion, but try telling that to my eight year-old self. I used to associate black and white with stuffy old dramas and shows my parents watched after bedtime. How wrong I was to assume that was always the case. The cinematography choice helps the film’s plot as a throwback and lampoon of gangster pictures from the 1930’s. It also diminishes the fact that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’ disguises aren’t that convincing. If you don’t believe me, then look up pictures of them in color. Thanks to a stipulation in Marilyn Monroe’s contract, we almost did have this film shot in color. What a loss that would have been! Some Like It Hot was one last hurrah for black and white pictures before they died a slow death in the ’60s.
There’s a reason why AFI considers this the greatest comedy ever made. The lines are rich — the last one most of all. But it’s the delivery that makes them. Curtis and Lemmon bounce off each other spectacularly. Flighty “Daphne” and uptight “Josephine” are the results of perfect comic timing and planning. It’s a shame that they only made one other movie together because they’re a great pair. Curtis also milks plenty of laughs through his other persona, Shell Oil heir “Junior”. His impersonation of Cary Grant sells the ridiculousness of his lies:
“Water polo, isn’t that terribly dangerous?”
“I’ll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.”
Marilyn Monroe shows her comic chops here too. Like her character, she brims with quick wit beneath the facade of a blonde bimbo. Some Like It Hot was one of her last movies, and it shows how much talent we lost with her death. She’s more than just a sex icon to me thanks to this film.
Some Like It Hot uses humor as great movies should — not just to make people laugh but to hold up a mirror to everyday injustices. Dig deeper and you’ll find a scathing critique of the male gaze. In their female guises, our heroes become victims of the casual misogyny they carried out as men. By walking in the other gender’s shoes (literally), they understand their plights. Broad humor is also used to tackle themes like gender identity and sexuality; a bold move at a time when such things were taboo.
Steamy Hot Romance
I was moving on from simple fairy tale romances when I discovered Some Like It Hot. There had to be more to love than prince meets princess. And boy, did this movie deliver. The wordplay and even the physical gags underline the sexual tension. Wilder knows how to be bawdy without being vulgar. I mean, that scene where Monroe makes a man out of Junior! You might need to take a cold shower after.
One of my college professors once defended The Taming of the Shrew; he believed that Petrucchio and Katherine were meant for each other since they (unlike the other characters) never hid their true selves. While I can’t say I agree with that, the logic does apply to this film. Alter-egos add further complications. Curtis employs “Josephine” to win Monroe’s friendship, then woos her as Junior using everything he knows. Monroe pretends to be a debutante so she catch Junior’s eye. Both put up a front to try to win over the other. But in true rom-com fashion, it’s only when the truth is revealed that they’re free to be together. On the flip side, Lemmon goes so far in selling himself as “Daphne” that he has no luck ending his engagement, even after he stops the masquerade. At least it gives us that perfect closer.
Fast and Loose Jazz
A musical score can make or break a movie. In keeping with the Roaring ’20’s setting, Some Like It Hot’s score relies solely on the sound called jazz. It was the right choice. Nothing underlines a frantic escape from the mob or Monroe’s allure like a hot sax.
Jazz itself plays a big part of the story. The protagonists are musicians hiding in a women’s band. This also gives us some fun musical interludes. Classic tunes like “Running Wild” weave through the story. You can see its influence in the scores of Round Midnight and Whiplash. Some Like It Hot marked the birth of my love for jazz.
The Death of Film Censorship
All of the above factored into the end of the Hays Code, a “moral” guide that kept a stranglehold over the film industry. Religious watchdog groups accused Some Like It Hot of “promoting homosexual themes and transvestism“. Wilder fought back that the cross-dressing trope dates back to Shakespeare and was perfectly fine. Audiences agreed. The film’s success proved people wanted more like this. Directors had maneuvered around the Hays Code in the past; now was the time to tackle it head on. In the end, they won. The Code was repealed less than a decade after Some Like It Hot‘s premiere. The MPAA took its place, and they gave filmmakers more freedom to create what they wanted to since.
Nobody’s Perfect…But This Comes Close
There are few films that retain their punch after sixty years. I’m happy to say Some Like It Hot hasn’t grown cold at all. It’s smart, sassy, and timeless. If you haven’t already, give it a watch. And by all means, squeeze in a viewing with your kids. It just might change the way they look at movies too.
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