“Some Like It Hot,” directed in masterly style by Billy Wilder, is probably the funniest picture of recent memory. It’s a whacky, clever, farcical comedy that starts off like a firecracker and keeps on throwing off lively sparks till the very end.
Pictures like this, with a sense of humor that is as broad as it can be sophisticated, come along only infrequently. Add to this the attraction of Marilyn Monroe, returning to the screen after a two year absense in a part that’s tailor-made for her particular talents, topnotch performances by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and the directorial brilliance of Wilder, and the concoction becomes irresistible.
Even so, the film has its faults. It’s too long, for one, being a small joke milked like a dairy; one or two scenes skirt the limits of good taste. But who’ll care?
Story revolves around the age-old theme of men masquerading as women. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon escape from a Chicago nightclub that’s being raided, witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and ‘escape’ into the anonymity of a girl band by dressing up as femme musicians. This leads to the obvious complications, particularly since Curtis meets Miss Monroe (ukulele player, vocalist and gin addict) and falls for her. Lemmon, in turn, is propositioned by an addle-brained millionaire (Joe E. Brown).
While romance blossoms in Miami, gangsters led by George Raft come on the scene for a convention and Curtis and Lemmon are recognized. Eventually, Raft and Co. are “rubbed” out. Curtis and Lemmon can then reveal their identity. On this plot skeleton, Wilder has put the flesh of farce. He has done this so deftly that the ridiculous somehow appears possible, and the shocking turns into laughter.
Picture opens with a hearse being chased by police. It is the late 1920s. In the coffin repose dozens of bottles of bootleg gin. Bullets rip through hearse and the coffin starts spouting liquid. It’s that sort of thing all the way through. Shot of Curtis and Lemmon walking down the station platform dressed as girls, swinging their hips with the anxious look of one who has yet to learn to walk on high heels, brings the house down.
Again, the scene on the train, where the ‘private’ pullman berth party of Lemmon and Miss Monroe in her nightie is invaded by guzzling dames, represents humor of Lubitsch proportions. And the alternating shots of Miss Monroe trying to stimulate Curtis on a couch, while Lemmon and Brown live it up on the dance floor, rate as a classic sequence.
To coin a phrase, Marilyn has never looked better. Her performance as “Sugar,” the fuzzy blonde who likes saxophone players “and men with glasses” has a deliciously naive quality. She’s a comedienne with that combination of sex appeal and timing that just can’t be beat. If, at the time of the filming she was pregnant, and the tight dresses she’s asked to wear just don’t fit very well, never mind. This gal can take it, and so can the audience.
It’s a tossup whether Curtis beats out Lemmon or whether it goes the other way ’round. Both are excellent. Curtis has the upper hand because he can change back and forth from his femme role to that of a fake ‘millionaire’ who woos Miss Monroe. He employs a takeoff on Cary Grant, which scores with a bang at first, but tends to lose its appeal as the picture progresses. It’s obvious that Curtis enjoys the part of a comedian, and he makes the most of it.
Lemmon here draws a choice assignment. Some of the funniest bits fall to him, such as his announcement that he’s ‘engaged’ to Brown. There is about him the air of desperation of any man who might find himself in this kind of unreal predicament. The audience virtually explodes when, after being grabbed by Curtis in his bosomy disguise, Lemmon announces angrily: “I lost one of my chests!”
In the smaller parts, Raft hams it up as a caricature of himself in a “tough guy” gangster bit. Brown is very funny as Osgood, the smitten millionaire, who tries to lure Lemmon on his yacht. Pat O’Brien has a small role as a federal agent, and Nehemiah Persoff acts the role of “Little Bonaparte,” who looks very much like Al Capone, and whose boys machinegun Raft and his toughs out of existence.
But, in the final accounting, this is still a director’s picture and the Wilder touch is indelible, particularly since he’s collaborated with I. A. L. Diamond on the script. If the action is funny, the lines are there to match it. In fact, laughs often step on one another. Of course, in a two-hour picture, the pace is bound to slacken eventually, and it does. But the momentum of this madcap comedy is such that it keeps rolling along, a gay romp that knows just when to draw back before crossing the line to the vulgar.
Miss Monroe performs a couple of songs capably and in the style of the twenties. Charles Lang’s photography, in black-and-white, is just fine and so is Adolph Deutsch’s background score. Arthur Schmidt’s editing makes for smooth continuality and, in several scenes, contributes importantly.
“Some Like It Hot” goes on the premise that a laugh is a laugh, regardless where you find it, and it knows that men dressed as women tickle the risibilities of male and female alike. Since much of it is also clever, the film should provide United Artists with one of its top grossers for the year.
1959: Best B&W Costume Design (Corry Kelly).
Nominations: Best Director, Actor (Jack Lemmon), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, B&W Art Direction