It has Marilyn Monroe in her finest performance, a sizzling script by Billy Wilder and IAL Diamond, and hilarious antics from Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis – yet, astonishingly, Some Like It Hot, which turned 50 last year, was not met with anything resembling universal acclaim or approval when it first came out.
Instead, this riotous comedy, which has been named funniest film of all time in numerous industry polls over the decades, was greeted with ambivalence by many critics who simply didn’t get it. Okay, it won one Oscar (for costume design) but otherwise this masterpiece, which many film academics believe should be studied by every aspiring comedy writer, was roundly ignored by the Hollywood establishment – at least initially. Why? Well, it was quite unlike anything that had been made before, and some viewers just didn’t know what to make of it.
The story of two jazz musicians who dress as women and flee Chicago with an all-girl band after having the misfortune of witnessing the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, it was a heady mix of genres: a madcap screwball comedy with a dash of rom-com, musical, thriller and gangster flick.
Indeed, the fact that Spats Columbo (George Raft), the hoodlum who sends his henchmen to deliver a Valentine’s to our heroes, is so menacing helps to explain why many of the audience members in the first, disastrous preview of the film didnt realise they were watching a comedy. After all, how many funny films have a firing squad-style execution in their first 15 minutes?
But of course the main difference between Some Like It Hot and anything else that was on the mainstream market in 1959 was the fact that it pushed the envelope in terms of sex and sexuality. While Doris Day and Rock Hudson only indulged in phone sex from the safe distance of separate apartments in Pillow Talk that year, Marilyn Monroe and Lemmon were flouting all the censor’s movie bedroom rules by being scrunched up together in the upper berth of the night train to Florida in Some Like It Hot – though, admittedly, only Lemmon and the audience knew that there was anything risque in it, as he was was wearing his nightie and wig at the time..
Some Like It Hot simply boils over with sex – in a much more overt way than had been seen before. Just watch Monroe singing I Wanna Be Loved By You in her flesh-coloured, barely-there dress: the way the spotlight frames her makes her look naked. It’s certainly as near to naked as she ever was in a Hollywood movie.
As director Curtis Hanson, an admirer of Billy Wilder, has said: “It’s a film about sex – from the title to the final line. It’s not just about sex as in people having sex; it’s also about sexual attitudes, sexual roles and, of course, sexual identity.”
When Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis’s characters, Jerry and Joe, transform themselves into Daphne and Josephine, all sorts of sexual confusion isunleashed. For Joe, who is usually a bit of a cad, stepping into women’s shoes has the unexpected bonus of giving him an insight into the female psyche -something which, paradoxically, makes him all the more appealing to the object of his desire – the vulnerable Sugar (Monroe).
Jerry, meanwhile, throws himself into his new role, and takes to womanhood like a duck to water; relishing the girltalk and being a shoulder for Sugar to cry on. Indeed, so enthusiastically does Jerry play the role of Daphne that he forgets he’s a boy and is romanced by ageing playboy Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) – to the point of becoming engaged.
And it’s the Jerry-Osgood relationship which provided censors and critics with the biggest headache back in 1959: they were used to stories being resolved with a happy ending, usually in the form of a heterosexual marriage, and although that’s what we assume will happen with Joe and Sugar, Wilder and Diamond ended the film with the hilarious marriage discussion between Osgood and Jerry.
As with the earlier, perfectly timed, exchange where Jerry and Joe’s conversation about Jerry’s engagement (“Who’s the lucky girl?” asks Joe. “I am!” replies Jerry) is punctuated by shakes of Jerry’s maracas so that the audience has time to recover from each line and enjoy the pay-off, the final bit of dialogue in the film builds up brilliantly to the famous last line. Jerry lists all the noble reasons that he can’t marry Osgood (“I can never have children,” etc) – only to find his fiance is infuriatingly understanding and accommodating.
The climax is Jerry tearing off his Daphne wig and confessing “I’m a man!”. To which the deadpan Osgood delivers the line that brings the house (and the curtain) down: “Nobody’s perfect.”
So uproariously funny is that last scene and so quickly do the titles roll that viewers don’t really have time to digest the implications. But critics – and anyone else who likes to analyse movies – must have been left wondering what on earth this was: mainstream Hollywood cinema’s first gay romance? The implications of the denouement were just not possible for 1950s Hollywood. Yet Wilder later said that the line “Nobody’s perfect” was supposed to be a temporary one, while he and Diamond came up with their real last line. Asked what happened next to Jerry and Osgood, Wilder said he had absolutely no idea: the line’s there because it worked – it left the audience laughing.
Just before Some Like It Hot was released in the States, in March 1959, the Catholic-run National Legion of Decency condemned it as “morally objectionable”, claiming it promoted homosexuality, lesbianism and transvestitism.
It was banned in Kansas when United Artists refused to delete the smouldering love scene in which Sugar rises womanfully to the challange thrown down by the supposedly impotent millionaire that Joe’s pretending to be. In Memphis that same scene prompted the local censorship board to give the film an adults-only rating.
Clearly, Some Like It Hot paved the way for the more explicit and frank films of the 1960s – though, ironically, Wilder himself didn’t fare as well during that decade: witness his brash sex comedy Kiss Me Stupid or the silly Irma La Douce.
Some Like It Hot is such an established family favourite now that it’s strange to think that it was considered so controversial when it came out, but when you pay attention to the double entendres (admittedly difficult when you’re already laughing) and such details as the way Joe’s leg rises each time Sugar kisses him in that seduction scene, it is astounding in its explicitness.
Even more impressive than the fact that the film managed to survive the controversy, with only one scene cut between the initial preview and thefollow-up (and that was not done to please the censor), is the way in which Wilder (right) and Diamond’s script managed to walk the line between comedy and smut with style and panache. Wilder’s description of Marilyn Monroe as having an “elegant vulgarity” about her could just as easily have been applied to his own film.
Some Like It Hot has something for everyone and, as the writers who snubbed it initially soon came to realise, it is actually a very sophisticated piece of work – with particular interest for movie buffs since it is packed with in-jokes and references to the classic gangster movies of the 1930s. The establishment’s view of the film changed as they allowed themselves to go with the laughs. And there are undoubtedly more of those per minute than in any other comedy ever made….