Some Like it Hot

Greenscreening Series #26

March 3, 2023

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This Time on Greenscreening

Some Like it Hot (1959) directed by Billy Wilder

*Some Like it Hot*


One of the most beloved films of all time, this sizzling masterpiece by Billy Wilder set a new standard for Hollywood comedy. After witnessing a mob hit, Chicago musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, in landmark performances) skip town by donning drag and joining an all-female band en route to Miami. The charm of the group’s singer, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe, at the height of her bombshell powers) leads them ever further into extravagant lies, as Joe assumes the persona of a millionaire to woo her and Jerry’s female alter ego winds up engaged to a tycoon. With a whip-smart script by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, and sparking chemistry among its finely tuned cast, Some Like It Hot is as deliriously funny and fresh today as it was when it first knocked audiences out six decades ago. - Criterion

Find Some Like it Hot via Reelgood

Why Some Like it Hot?

"I think the reason why Some Like it Hot has endured for so long is because it speaks to something universal in all of us – the desire to find love and acceptance, no matter who we are or what we look like. That's a message that will never go out of style." - Billy Wilder

Hollywood in the 1950s was undergoing changes. Few films provide as good a glimpse into the bridge between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood as Some Like it Hot.

The Hollywood Production Code was still in full force in the late 1950s, but had been weakened by several key developments.

  • First, the Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that films were considered protected free speech under the First Amendment, reversing the 1915 ruling. Specifically, the case overruled a state censor's ban on a film it deemed sacrilegious. With this ruling, one of the key reasons for the Production Code - self-censorship to avoid state censorship - was no longer an issue.
  • Secondly, audiences had more choices, with the rise of television and foreign and independent films. Films by Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Akira Kurosawa, along with independent films by John Cassavettes and Nicholas Ray, were simply more interesting to many filmgoers, exploring adult themes and often taboo topics with a high degree of sophistication and artistry.
  • Third, filmmakers began to oppose censorship outright. In 1953, Otto Preminger released The Moon is Blue without Production Code approval, after the PCA demanded cuts. Despite playing at fewer theaters, the film was a box office hit and earned Oscar nominations, proving that Code opposition was no longer box office poison or industry ostracism.

Fast forward to the end of the decade, and here comes Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, and a buddy comedy where the two leads dress in drag to hide out from murderous gangsters.

Some Like it Hot made the taboo subject of cross-dressing central to the plot, and made lighthearted and playful allusions to homosexuality. The Production Code censors initially objected to the film's content, but Wilder was able to persuade them by arguing that it was a period piece set in the 1920s, which it was. The film's success paved the way for more daring and provocative films to be made in the years that followed. The Production Code’s days were numbered.

*Some Like it Hot*

Some Like it Hot is set in the world of organized crime, with the two male leads, Joe and Jerry, forced to go on the run after witnessing a gangland massacre. This scene was a recreation of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which if you recall was also a key moment in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932). Some Like it Hot features several references to real-life mobsters, including Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, and the presence of organized crime adds tension and danger to the story.

Wilder even cast a gangster film veteran, George Raft, as the mob overlord, Spats Colombo. Remember Raft as the coin-flipping sidekick in Scarface? Or as the dancer’s gangster boyfriend in Singin’ in the Rain? Raft’s presence is an example of type casting but in a blended genre film; genre blending and genre inversion became one of the key features of the New Hollywood of the late 1960s.

Wilder opted to shoot in black and white, which went against the 1950s trend of shooting in color to attract audiences to theaters. Wilder felt black and white would help to evoke the feel of the period setting (and probably help the censors ease up). The soundtrack also evokes the jazz age, with classic songs from Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, with plenty of saxophone.

*Some Like it Hot*

Marilyn Monroe was a major box office draw at the time and her casting helped ensure the film's commercial success. However, Monroe's personal life was tumultuous during the filming of Some Like it Hot, and she was frequently late and unprepared on set. According to legend, she struggled so mightily with remembering her line, "where's the bourbon?" while opening a drawer, that Wilder had the line printed on the inside of the drawer; Monroe then proceeded to open the wrong drawer, so Wilder had the line printed on every drawer in the chest. Despite numerous challenges, Wilder was able to coax a memorable performance out of Monroe, and her portrayal of Sugar Kane remains one of her most iconic roles.

At various points in the series, we’ve discussed the concept of the movie star. True stars possess some sort of near-magical charisma and chemistry with the camera that almost begs to be looked at. Our first example was Charlie Chaplin. Marilyn Monroe had just as much of it, if not more, than any actor in film history.

Last week, we introduced the concept of the male gaze, the camera assuming the audience is male and recording women with an objectifying desire. No actress was subject to as intense a male gaze as Marilyn Monroe. Both of the male leads, Joe and Jerry, leer at Sugar Kane, inviting us to do the same. Anytime she's on camera, Monroe competes for the viewer's attention, even when she's not speaking. It's as if the camera, the audience, and the characters are irresistibly drawn towards Monroe and her character, Sugar Kane. Wilder, while probably just as misogynist as his contemporaries, was able to capture something interesting about the currency of relationships and desire in this film.

*Some Like it Hot*

As in many of his films, Wilder uses comedy to skewer our motivations. One of his favorite topics was what Sam Wasson called "the Machiavellian lengths to which people will go to get what they want, which is never much nobler than money, sex, or self-preservation." Monroe’s Sugar Kane tells stories of failed relationships where fellow musicians took her for money, and explains this as her motivation for pursuing a millionaire. The wealthy in the film are shallow, almost universally represented by the millionaire divorcées in Miami, one of whom ends up engaged to Jerry as Daphne. Joe is easily able to slip into character as Junior, the heir of Shell Oil, who he presents as essentially heartless - entirely unable to feel anything romantic. Monroe is motivated to deploy all her charms to cure him, and win his money.

Part of the brilliance of the film is the way Wilder and Diamond manage tone. As Ebert points out, the film shifts between high and low comedy, romance, the gangster film, and buddy comedy, from scene to scene, while never feeling jarring.

*Some Like it Hot*

Some Like it Hot was a smash hit in 1959, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Actor for Lemmon. It ultimately won one Oscar for Best Costume Design. The film continues to rank among the greatest of all time, tying for 38th on the 2022 Sight and Sound Critics Poll. Its influence on films has been tremendous; it essentially set the tone for the modern use of cross-dressing, gender swap, and false identity comedies through the second half of the 20th Century, along with the evolution of the buddy comedy. Billy Wilder made several classics across genres, but is probably best remembered, and most influential, for his comedies. For Wilder, above all, the movies were a great time.

Learn More About Some Like it Hot

Roger Ebert with an excellent essay on the film, its unique blend of high and low comedy, and Marilyn Monroe’s performance

Some Like It Hot: How to Have Fun by Sam Wasson for Criterion

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