“What are you afraid of? No one’s asking you to have a baby!”
Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that’s so hot and wildly funny that it gets banned in Kansas. The 1959 movie Some Like it Hot is one such movie. Directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity) and starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, this is widely considered one of the best comedies of all time. Though fairly tame by today’s standards, it was wildly inappropriate when it was released. More progressive cities like L.A. gave it a standing ovations, while other cities had people walking out (and, as I mentioned, it was initially banned in my home state of Kansas). But the movie is still hilarious today, and worth seeing for any comedy fan.
The plot follows two jazz musicians in the 1920s who witness a mob hit and narrowly escape with their lives. The mob boss is known for his cruel and meticulous nature, so they know they have to go deep undercover to escape retribution. They disguise themselves as women and join and all-female touring band. But when one of them falls in love with their new bandmate, Sugar Kane, things get slightly complicated. And when the mob they’re running from shows up, things get really complicated.
We’re up the creek and you want to hock the paddle!
Though the gender-bending farce had never really been done to this scale before this, it’s fairly commonplace now, when we regularly have fish-out-of-water comedies. What makes this movie stand out are the great situational comedy and brilliant writing. Though the humor is a mixture of highbrow and lowbrow, there are no cheap gags or senseless shock humor—every gag is perfectly placed and expertly executed. Even some of the pop culture references are still funny, such as Curtis’s ridiculous Cary Grant impression. (Grant himself actually found the impersonation to be amusing. Wilder showed him the film, then asked about it, to which Grant replied, in an exaggerated accent mimicking Curtis, “I don’t talk like that!”) Also, the final line of the film was voted the #48 greatest movie quote by the American Film Institute.
Though Wilder had worked with Monroe before on The Seven Year Itch, she brought some new problems onto the set for this film. She would frequently show up late, even hours late, claiming that she’d lost her way while finding the set. She kept forgetting her lines and even simple scenes had to be shot multiple times. The scene where she says, “It’s me, Sugar,” took 47 tries to get right. After 30 tries, Wilder wrote her line on a blackboard and had someone hold it off screen. In another scene, Monroe was to dig through some drawers and ask, “Where’s the bourbon?” After flubbing the line for 40 takes, Wilder had it written inside the drawer she was looking in, but then she couldn’t remember which drawer it was in, so he had it written inside every drawer. Monroe’s performance frustrated Curtis and Lemmon, whose performances deteriorated as the number of takes wore on, but they knew they had to be perfect every time because Wilder would use whatever take Monroe performed well on, even if they didn’t. After filming wrapped up, Wilder threw a wrap party at his house for the cast—although Monroe was not invited. Monroe later called Wilder and gave his wife a message to deliver to him: “Go fuck yourself.” Many now believe that Monroe had bipolar disorder, which helps to explain her behavior during production, but it was still an ordeal for the cast and crew.
Some Like it Hot does a great job of presenting hilarious dialogue and situations while also continuously raising the stakes of the game and increasing the tension. The cross-dressing-men-join-an-all-female-band thing had actually been done recently, in a 1951 German film, Fanfaren der Liebe (Fanfares of Love), but in that film, it was just a simple gag; here, it’s a matter of life and death for these characters. This film is funny, but the stakes are high and it holds your attention the whole time. As the situations and relationships become more hilariously convoluted, you wonder how things will resolve. And when the big reveal finally hits at the end, it’s just as smart and funny as the rest of the film.
Some Like it Hot is a timeless comedy that holds up very well today and is still rightly considered one of the best—if not the best—comedies of all time. My teenage son enjoyed this movie as much as I did, and that’s a huge testament to how smart and accessible this humor is. My only criticism would be a few overly-long musical numbers featuring Marilyn Monroe, but these are to be expected in a Monroe film. But, as they say, nobody’s perfect!
Director: Billy Wilder