If one was to choose the greatest film Billy Wilder ever directed, one would be hard pressed to pick any that could top “Some Like it Hot.” This is a hysterically funny slap-stick comedy about two musicians – a bass fiddler (aka double bass – you know, like Casey Abrams plays) and a saxophonist – who accidentally witness the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In order to hide from the mobsters who want them dead, they dress in drag and get jobs with an all-girls band leaving town which just happens to be short exactly one sax and one bass fiddle player – imagine that! Things start to get sticky when the sax player falls for the band’s lead singer (and ukulele player). Of course, he can’t woo her as a girl, so he disguises himself once again, as a rich oil magnet. To keep up appearances (and impress the girl with a yacht), he has his bass fiddle player buddy keep a real millionaire busy with a romance of their own. Throw into the mix a meeting of all the major organized crime heads (including those who are after these two musicians) at the exact same hotel where the band is playing and you’ve got yourself some rip-roaring fun.
Despite the obvious holes in the story line here, this classic comedy certainly has enough twists and set-ups to keep the laughs coming. While many are typical clichés, they still work. For instance, when the sax player has to make a quick change after a performance to meet the girl, of course he almost forgets to take his earrings off. Or how about when the sax player can’t get the motorboat into gear and he ends up driving it in reverse all the way to the yacht? This film is just chock-full of just such fun bits.
But that isn’t even the least of it. Take for instance the script. Here Wilder, who also wrote the screenplay, brings his greatest wit with a slew of lines that will make you laugh out loud, and many people quote even to this day. How about the line when the sax player tells the band leader that they’re the new girls and the bass fiddle player chimes in with “brand new!”? My personal favorite is when the sax player suggests the bass fiddle player distract the millionaire so he can get in a date with the singer. His immediate response is “Not tonight, Josephine”! Okay, so taken out of context this may not seem all that funny. But if you’ve seen the film, just remembering the look on the bass fiddler’s face when he delivers the line is enough to make you laugh. Moreover, there are those who have put the origin of this phrase as having been said by Napoleon Bonaparte to his wife when he didn’t want to have sex – so how appropriate that it be used to try and keep the sax player from getting into the singer’s pants? Aside from that, this was also the working title of this film before it got its final title.
Wilder even put in some historical comedy when the sax player says “… Suppose the stock market crashes. Suppose Mary Pickford divorces Douglas Fairbanks. Suppose the Dodgers leave Brooklyn!” These are all things that actually happened, but only long after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Another thing that makes this movie special is that even though this movie was made in 1959 and takes place a full thirty years before then, this ages so well, that even today’s audiences would enjoy it – and not even mind it being in Black & White. Part of what makes this so is the slathering of sexual innuendo that Wilder threw in combined with the most anti-homophobic ending one could ever imagine.
But what really makes this movie a truly sparkling star of the Golden Age of Hollywood has got to be its outstanding cast. To begin with we have the most talented sexpot of her day playing singer Sugar Kane – the one and only Marilyn Monroe. Although she was already having problems when she did this film, it doesn’t show up in her acting. What you might see, however, is that she is quite chubby here, and you may notice that in the scenes where she goes to the yacht, the back of her dress is unzipped because she gained too much weight to close it. Next in line is Jack Lemmon, playing the bass fiddle player Jerry/Daphne who didn’t make the most attractive of girls, but got so into the character you actually believe he’s falling for his millionaire. Together with these we get pretty boy Tony Curtis playing the sax player, Joe/Josephine. Curtis was so handsome at the time that he actually makes a beautiful looking woman! What’s more, here he got the opportunity to give a nod to his acting idol, Cary Grant, by imitating Grant’s voice when he’s dressed up as “Shell Oil Junior.” It is no surprise that when Curtis passed away last year that this film was named by almost everyone who eulogized him as one of his best performances. Sadly, none of the awards seemed to recognize Tony’s work here, and all the accolades went to Monroe (who got a Golden Globe for her part here), Lemmon (who won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for this film) or Wilder. The Oscars, being notorious for ignoring comedies, nominated both Lemmon and Wilder, but this film only went home with an Academy Award for costume design.
It is interesting to note that while comedies with characters cross-dressing isn’t unusual, there are very few that have actually stood the test of time. Certainly this was the first of them, and laid the way for such films as “Tootsie,” “Victor/Victoria,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the French film “La Cage Aux Folles,” which was remade for America by Robin Williams as “The Birdcage.” What makes this film stand out is that it is such a perfectly balanced film that it is considered to be one of the best films of all time and has easily earned the title “classic”.
Despite some of the silliness in the plot, there is almost nothing one can fault this film for. The script is dazzlingly witty, the direction is sprightly, the movie runs along at a swift pace that would put a racehorse to shame and the acting is top-notch. Put this all together and you’ve got a Golden Age of Hollywood comedy that everyone can enjoy, and that makes it well worthy of a full ten stars out of ten! If you haven’t seen it already, make it a priority to see it soon. I can assure you, once you’ve seen it, you’ll want to watch it again and again!