Going to the Movies: Why "Some Like It Hot" Stays With Us
Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon make a timeless American comedy.
One test of an artwork is whether it speaks to enduring human issues and concerns. Director and screenwriter Billy Wilder’s funny, insightful and humane Some Like It Hot (1959) is a movie that does exactly that. It is worth watching and re-watching.
St. Valentine’s Day, Chicago, 1929
Wilder, who collaborated on the screenplay with I.A.L Diamond, sets the story in Chicago in 1929 when saxophonist Joe (Curtis) and bassist Jerry (Lemmon) inadvertently witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a multiple-fatality gang killing. Joe and Jerry flee from gangster Spats Columbo (George Raft) and his vengeful mob. They disguise themselves as women, Josephine and Daphne, and join an all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, featuring singer and ukulele player Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe.) The band leaves Chicago by train for a three-week engagement in Miami.
Welcome to Miami
When the band arrives at its Miami hotel (actually, San Diego’s fanciful Hotel Del Coronado with its gables and turrets) hilarity ensues, or rather, continues. Joe, disguised as Junior, a Shell Oil heir, avidly pursues Sugar. At the same time, an aging actual millionaire, mama’s boy Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) who has “been married seven or eight times, Mama’s keeping score,” falls hard for Daphne and showers her with attention and jewelry.
Our heroes now pursue (Joe/Josephine) or are pursued by (Jerry/Daphne) love interests unaware of their true identities. Meanwhile, the Friends of Italian Opera (actually a conference of organized crime families) has booked a convention at the same hotel so the gangsters are not far behind. If all this seems overly complicated, here is United Artists’ trailer for Some Like it Hot:
Complications make romances interesting. Some Like It Hot revels in the comic potential of romantic complications arising from multiple identities and how Joe/ Josephine/Junior, Jerry/Daphne, Sugar and Osgood cope with them. 
The Boys and the Girls
Playwrights and movie makers have explored the possibilities of cross-dressing characters and gender fluidity since plays and movies began. One of the keys to Some Like it Hot is how thoroughly and enthusiastically Curtis and Lemmon (who spend much of the movie dressed as women) physically, vocally and emotionally embrace their Josephine (grand and dignified) and Daphne (ditzy and girlish) personas. Their mannerisms and attitudes portray a misguided mid-20th century American male’s idea of what it means to be female. As Daphne says when she and Josephine first see Sugar, “It’s a whole different sex.”
Josephine and Daphne’s female identities collide with the story’s dramatic and comedic agendas (wooing Sugar, avoiding the mob and staying alive, and, in Daphne’s case, fending off Osgood,) all of which are emphasized by the movie’s rapid pacing.
Curtis and Lemmon do not just walk like women, they walk like men trying to walk like women. Their adventures in over-the-top cosmetics, jewelry, clothes and accessories add to their portrayals of men imitating women. Even so, Josephine and Daphne are accepted, even confided in, by Sugar and the other working musicians in Sweet Sue’s band.
Curtis, with his sleek matinee idol looks, is adept at Wilder and Diamond’s rapid and inference-rich dialogue. Joe/Josephine tells Sweet Sue at their first meeting, “We’re the new girls. Brand new.” As Junior, he executes a marvelous extended Cary Grant impression, although Grant himself was reportedly unimpressed.
In the scene shown below, Joe/Josephine, after a mad dash from the beach to switch his identity from Junior to Josephine, emerges from the bathtub fully clothed and covered with soap bubbles after Sugar departs.
Junior negotiates an enviable arrangement. He is pursued by the beautiful Sugar who takes on the challenge of inspiring his supposed lack of emotional engagement and libido. Thus, the roles of pursuer and pursued are reversed from traditional gender norms. The result is, even by today’s standards, an atmosphere of remarkable gender fluidity.
Meanwhile, Jerry/Daphne adapts readily. First, Daphne ingratiates herself with Sugar by shielding her from Sweet Sue’s wrath for violating the band’s rules. Ever the party girl, Daphne organizes an after-hours party with the other band members in the close quarters of the train’s sleeping car. In a memorable scene, Daphne, in a lower berth, parts a curtain of legs hanging from the upper berth.
Things really heat up when the band arrives in Miami. Osgood (“Zowie!”) puts the moves on Daphne and the result is an unforgettable night on the town that concludes at a Cuban restaurant. The evening is capped off by a scintillating tango in which Daphne, working her feminine wiles, clenches a flower stem in her teeth. At the end of the dance, Osgood does likewise.
So much has been written about Marilyn Monroe that it is hard to say anything new or insightful. Her lateness and problems learning her lines, and her need for multiple takes on the set of Some Like it Hot, are well-documented evidence of her troubled life. Even so, she delivers a memorable performance and displays that special quality of a true movie star: she seems to be lit from within, a quality enhanced by Wilder’s shrewd decision to shoot the movie in black and white.
Critic Pauline Kael said “Monroe gives her most characteristic performance, which means that she’s both charming and embarrassing,”  an overly harsh assessment unless Kael meant that we are embarrassed for, not at, Sugar. She memorably says that she has gotten “the fuzzy end of the lollipop” in life from various caddish saxophone players. This seems to describe Joe but, of course, he proves to be more high-minded than that. Sugar’s vulnerability and hopeful persistence shine through.
Monroe is not a singer with great range or technical ability. Her gift is articulating lyrics with special conviction. She does not just sing a song, she believes it. Her renditions of “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “Runnin’ Wild” and “I’m Through With Love” are compelling.
Some Like It Hot also features strong supporting players. George Raft, as Spats Columbo, never lets on that he knows he is in a comedy. Pat O’Brien, as Agent Mulligan, effortlessly inhabits his role as an Irish policeman.
Billy Wilder: Screenwriter and Director Extraordinaire
Wilder (director of Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina and other movies) was a native of Sucha Beskidzka in what is now Poland. He was successful in drama, comedy and film noir in a long Hollywood career. As a young man, he moved to Berlin as a crime beat reporter. With the rise of Nazi Germany, Wilder moved to Paris and eventually to Hollywood in 1933. Wilder’s refugee sensibility—people do what they have to do to get by—is evident in Some Like It Hot. In other hands, the movie could have been smarmy or prurient. Instead, the movie dances away from anything sleazy. Some Like It Hot is good, clean, sexy fun.
Wilder enjoys making connections to other movies, particularly classic American films from the 1930’s. Spats (George Raft) tells another hood (Edward G. Robinson, Jr.) that his coin flipping is “a cheap trick”—it was also Raft’s mannerism as a hood in Scarface (1932). Echoing James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy (1931), Spats picks up a half grapefruit and threatens to smash it in the face of a member of his gang. And, in a call out to the famous stateroom scene in the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935), 13 musicians in Sweet Sue’s band crowd into Daphne’s sleeping compartment on the train for a pajama party.
Some Like it Hot: Now on Broadway
Great stories never fade away; they are repurposed and adapted. In December, a musical comedy version of Some Like it Hot opened to enthusiastic reviews in Broadway’s historic Shubert Theatre. 
The show features an interracial cast lead by Christian Borle as Joe/Josephine, J. Harrison Ghee as Jerry/Daphne, NaTasha Yvette Williams as Sweet Sue and Adrianna Hicks as Sugar. Each is a major singing and dancing talent. The story is set in 1933, the twilight of Prohibition. With a nod to the era’s race relations, Sweet Sue’s integrated band travels to California, not Florida.
Borle, Ghee, Hicks and the large cast sing and dance with energetic abandon and the show’s new big band music recalls timeless show tunes. The close bond between Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne is confirmed by their catchy Act I number, “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him.” )
As the movie was a product of Hollywood’s studio system at peak form, the musical honors and updates the Broadway tradition of splashy musicals. Ghee, in particular, is compelling in the transition to Daphne which the show suggests will be a permanent part of his/her life. In his Act II show-stopping song, “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather,” Jerry/Daphne sings, “…that lady I’m loving is me.”
Hicks, as Sugar, adopts none of Marilyn Monroe’s mannerisms but is winning in every way. Her downtempo Act I ballad, “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee” is a highlight.
More information about the the musical comedy version of Some Like it Hot, including several lively videos, is available
Honors and Accolades
Some Like It Hot was a commercial and critical success for United Artists and everyone associated with the movie. Its numerous honors include six Academy Award nominations. In 1989, the Library of Congress selected the movie as one of the first 25 films to be included in the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Some Like It Hot tops the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American movies of all time. You can see the list
The 1950’s are generally regarded as an era of conformity. The movie’s success led to the loosening of Hollywood’s production codes which limited the topics filmmakers could address on screen.
The final scene of Some Like it Hot is justly famous for a curtain line of two perfectly chosen words that capture the movie’s tolerant attitude. While the far, far better choice is to watch the entire movie, you can see the final scene here:
Some Like It Hot streams on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and other services.
 Shakespeare relied on cross-dressing to complicate and resolve plots in Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice.
 5001 Nights at the Movies—A Guide from A to Z by Pauline Kael. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York (1982), p. 542.
 New York Times theater critic Jesse Green’s review of the musical comedy version of Some Like it Hot can be seen
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