To honor Billy Wilder’s birthday (today would have been his 109th birthday), I’m sharing my thoughts on one of his most beloved comedies of all-time, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959). Written (along with long-time writing partner IAL Diamond), produced, and directed by Billy Wilder, this film is a comedy that’s both classic and contemporary. Then and now.
It was a slight change of pace for Wilder who was better known for his darker edge in filmmaking as evident by the majority of his films up through this time. (And they continued thereafter.) But here was a Billy Wilder film that was pure light-hearted fun, with a slapstick tone reminiscent of the silent comedies.
The story is simple enough. Two broke and struggling musicians (Tony Curtis as Joe and Jack Lemmon as Jerry) in 1929 Chicago witness a mob hit after a speakeasy raid and find themselves desperate enough (both financially and eager to hide from the mafia) to take on a gig with impossible odds. They’ve got the musical skills to fit the bill and the sojourn to breezy Seminole Ritz in Miami would be a warm welcome from the freezing midwest winter. But the cross-dressing in order to join this all-female band requires a leap in courage – and adaptation, in more ways than they bargained for.
Early on, they discover the challenges of passing as women; from the wardrobe, even down to the walk. They meet the beautiful Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, one of the members of their new troupe and Joe (dressed as ‘Josephine’) is fully smitten. Meanwhile, Jerry (dressed as ‘Daphne’) finds he’s become a target of cupid’s arrow himself. Joe E. Brown portrays the wealthy ‘mature playboy’ Osgood Fielding III, in dogged pursuit of Daphne. As you might imagine, it doesn’t take long before the mafia tracks the boys down to their beach side hideaway. The hilarious antics and chaotic pace entangle as the fellas do their best to keep their gender roles in check, and balance their romantic pursuits, all while trying to save their skin from the mob’s hunt.
Billy Wilder exemplifies that he could handle anything… from light-hearted comedies like this, to thought-provoking dramas. His legacy as one of the very best writer/directors in Hollywood reflected dramas that had some elements of dark comedy in it, and comedies with flickers of darkness underneath, as well. Let’s face it, we all know that tragedy and comedy are just 2 sides of the same coin of storytelling. And Wilder was the master like none other.
Some highlights of Wilder’s brilliant mastery in SOME LIKE IT HOT…
The Cast: It takes a skilled actor to command a great performance. But it takes a master director to bring out his/her very best. It helps to start with a stellar cast (no problem here) but you can’t fake chemistry. Curtis and Lemmon are a dynamic duo – both adept at comedy and drama and play off each other like they’ve been close chums their entire lives. I’m a bit biased; but for me, Jack Lemmon can do no wrong. He worked very well with Billy Wilder and their partnership across seven films remains one of the best actor/director collaborations in Hollywood history. And while it’s no secret that Wilder did not enjoy working with Monroe, it speaks volumes to their professionalism and skills to bring such iconic results.
The Writing: Billy Wilder would often take rather unexpected situations (like cross-dressing jazz musicians in the roaring twenties on the lam from the mob) for his stories then highlight the most fascinating characters that become vibrantly alive and real, thanks to his writing. We are pulled in and can’t get enough. Here’s an example of one of my favorite scenes that showcases this; starting when Joe asks Jerry (giddily shaking maracas, still dressed up as Daphne from his date), “who’s the lucky girl?” to which Jerry responds “I am”:
Some other fabulous lines:
Sugar: “Water polo? Isn’t that terribly dangerous?”
Junior: “I’ll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.”
Sugar: “Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!”
Sugar: “Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”
Sweet Sue: “Are you two from the Poliakoff agency?”
Josephine: “Yes, we’re the new girls.”
Daphne: “Brand new!”
Sugar: “I come from this musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.”
Joe: “Where did he conduct?”
Sugar: “On the Baltimore and Ohio.”
Osgood: “I am Osgood Fielding the third.”
Daphne: “I’m Cinderella the second.”
Osgood: “You must be quite a girl.”
Daphne: “Wanna bet?”
Note, cross-dressing is not as relevant today as a vehicle for comedy as it once was as a premise, simply because we have evolved as a society that is more aware and accepting of transgender, transsexual, and cross-dressing populations. Keep in mind, the ‘high jinks of cross-dressing’ as a comedy tool has been utilized in a multitude of films and TV shows. But SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) holds up better than most because it doesn’t rely upon that element as a singular joke or gag to occupy the entire film. Billy Wilder was smart enough to know that. His talents of layering multiple characters and sub stories, while creating delightful obstacles of chaos resulted in cinematic magic. Magic that is still as contemporary as it is a classic.
I’ll leave you with some behind-the-scenes snapshots and the man behind the magic, Billy Wilder, as he orchestrates his talented cast in SOME LIKE IT HOT…
This article was my contribution to the 2nd annual BILLY WILDER BIRTHDAY BLOGATHON, hosted by the ever-lovely Aurora aka @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and yours truly of Outspoken & Freckled. Please explore both host sites as each of us will list the many, talented participants’ posts- enjoy!
And happy birthday, Billy!!