Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

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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.

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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.

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The simple act of walking becomes their first lesson on the challenges of being female

 

like jello on springs...

like Jell-O on springs…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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…

Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe get direction from Billy Wilder- in matching swimsuits

Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe get direction from Billy Wilder- in matching swimsuits

getting ready for a scene, outside

getting in the drag mode, in slippers

Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details

Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details

Billy Wilder shows Jack Lemmon how to cut a rug in full Daphyne garb

Billy Wilder shows Jack Lemmon how to cut a rug in full Daphne garb

Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III) teaches Jack Lemmon (Daphne) how to tango. Director Billy Wilder observes.

Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III) teaches Jack Lemmon (Daphne) how to tango. Director Billy Wilder observes.

Billy giving direction to Marilyn for the 'train station runway' scene.

Billy giving direction to Marilyn for the ‘train station runway’ scene.

Makeup was an essential factor in convincingly playing Josephine and Daphne. Tony Curtis pictured here in the makeup chair.

Makeup was an essential factor in convincingly playing Josephine and Daphne. Tony Curtis pictured here in the makeup chair.

Wardrobe also played a key role in convincing cross-dressing. Here famous designer Orry-Kelly checks details and fit.

“Does this make my ass look big?” Wardrobe also played a key role in convincing cross-dressing. Here, famous designer Orry-Kelly checks for details and fit.

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!

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And happy birthday, Billy!!

BillyBdayCake

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Comments

  1. Great on so many levels. Great piece, Kellee!

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  2. Great writing and insight Kellee. Such a great film.

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  3. Lovely piece on a riotous movie.

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    • Thanks, Steve! Aurora and I loved hosting this fun blogathon again. Always an educational, enlightening and entertaining good time, thanks to fab participating bloggers like yourself!

      Like

  4. My favorite Wilder film of all time, I love all of the photos! thank you for a beautiful post, and thank you for co-hosting the super-awesome blogathon, I feel like I completed a graduate seminar on Wilder in one day!

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    • Very kind compliment, Summer! I hear ya on the grad course level experience. I’m still pouring through all of the fantastic posts and it amazes me how I continue to learn something new and continue to be thoroughly entertained – with every entry.

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  5. Love this and the movie! I had the pleasure of watching this on a big screen a few months ago and I never laughed so hard. Kudos for the extra insight on ‘cross-dressing’ as a comedic tool. This one DOES do it better than the others – the brilliance of Wilder!

    Great post, Kellee!

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    • OOH, I would LOVE to see this one on the big screen! He truly was brilliant, wasn’t he? Thanks so much and thanks for agreeing to co-host this bday party with me again, Cubish cinema sis!

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  6. This is the film I ALWAYS turn to when I need cheering up. The jokes and the humour never get old, and Curtis, Lemmon and Monroe are the perfect threesome 😉
    I agree with your comments about the comedy of cross-dressing. It works here because that’s not the sole premise of the film – it’s a gag built around a bigger story.

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  7. Great behind-the-scenes photos you’ve posted! I love the one of Jack Lemmon “cutting a rug” with Wilder.

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  8. Awesome review of my favourite film! I love the quotes you chose! 🙂

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