Billy Wilder Film Study: SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959): Film Study

*(the following is based on a prior article on this film but with substantial research and content added for the purpose of a Billy Wilder Film Study course taught by Kellee Pratt in the Fall of 2019.) 

“I think that Billy as at the height of his powers. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done, comedy or drama. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.”

… Jack Lemmon reflects on Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT

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.

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

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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.

Pre-Production… How it All Came Together:

The Mirisch Production company, ran by brothers Walter, Marvin, and Harold is where this film’s production started. Mirischs’ association with Billy Wilder began with LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (when the Mirisch brothers were with Allied Artists) and lasted seventeen years. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also Billy Wilder’s first teaming with writing partner IAL “Izzy” Diamond (Izzy was born Itec Domnici on June 27, 1920 in Ungheni Basarabia, now Moldova.) Wilder agreed to do various projects with their new independent production company with a film concept based on a West German film, FANFARES OF LOVE (1951), which was a remake of a French film, FANFARE OF LOVE (1935.) Its premise was of two musicians who dress in women’s clothing as a hide-out. Based on this simple vaudevillian joke, Walter Mirisch said, “I remember making the first deal for Iz’s services to collaborate with Billy, and Billy indicated that he would again like to work with Iz on SOME LIKE IT HOT.”

Along with many in the Hollywood networking circles, Tony Curtis used to watch movies at Harold’s house (on Lexington Drive, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel). Lew Wasserman was Tony’s agent and Lew was the master orchestrator of setting up social interactions to help broker film deals in the industry. Curtis had met Wilder years prior, then met Harold through Billy. Harold asked Tony to come early to one of these film parties to chat with Billy Wilder. This is when Wilder approached Tony about a part, and he agreed before even knowing any details.

BW: “Well let me tell you about it. These two guys see a murder and they’re recognized by the gangsters and they have to dress up like girls to get away and work in a girls’ band, that’s the story.”      

TC: “Sounds good to me.”

BW: “You’re not worried about it?”

TC: “No.”

BW: “I’m going to get Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor, that’s the cast.”

TC: “Great.”

A week later, Curtis runs into Wilder…

BW: “I’m not going to do it that way. I saw Jack Lemmon in a movie (OPERATION MADBALL) and I liked him so much I’m going to have him play the other guy, and I’m going to try to get Marilyn Monroe.”

The three main parts were then signed on. (Marilyn and Tony signed on first. Each got 5% of the gross, with $250k cash, Lemmon got slightly less cash with no gross, as the lesser name of the three.) Casting was laid out except for one hiccup. Wilder planned to have Edward G Robinson Sr. play the rival mob boss, poised against George Raft as the other mob boss, in reference to another film they made together, SCARFACE, with a coin of flipping a coin. A similar scene was drafted as an insider joke, this time with Edward G Robinson Jr. flipping the coin. But things take another flip when Wilder discovers that Raft and Edward G Robin Sr. got into a fist fight on set once and Edward refused to ever work with Raft again. So, Wilder was forced to keep his son (Edward G Robinson Jr.) in the role of “Johnny Paradise,” George Raft as “Spats Colombo,” and inserted Nehemiah Persoff as “Little Bonaparte.”

Jack Lemmon described his first pitch from Billy Wilder as bumping into him, and Billy’s wife Audrey, at a restaurant. Billy summarized the role as two fellas running from the St. Valentine’s Massacre mobsters by crossdressing as disguise and that he should expect to be in drag a minimum of three-quarters of the film.

JL: “I said yes, no script, no nothing. And I did it because my first thought was. Oh Jesus Christ, we’re in drag and everything, but wait a minute, Billy Wilder is doing it, it’s not going to be in bad taste and the man is a bloody genius and so forth.”  Two or three months passed when he received 60 pages of the script, with the final act missing. Lemmon soon discovered that Billy and Iz never finished the script before shooting began. Jack described his first reading of these pages: “I fell off the goddamn couch, literally, fell off the couch. They were the greatest sixty pages I ever read.”  

Working with Marilyn…

From multiple interviews with cast members and Billy Wilder himself, there is no doubt that Marilyn was a serious challenge to work with. There are several comments indicating that she would have extreme difficulties showing up less than 2-3 hours late to set, and that her acting coach Paula Strasberg was so hands-on with her that it was to the point of emotionally dependent abuse, not to mention Paula’s presence being an uncomfortable slap in the face to the director.

Several interviews reflect scenes here she was required to say only two lines but it would take 60 – 80 takes. And then there were other scenes that ere several pages long and she’d do it in one take. They would allow extra time in the scheduling because of this. They also had to write her lines and sneak them behind the camera, or into drawers when such challenges popped up on set. So why did Billy Wilder want to work with Marilyn again (after similar conditions on SEVEN YEAR ITCH)? Because he knew Marilyn had star power and the results were always brilliant.

But in fairness, Marilyn became pregnant during filming of SOME LIKE IT HOT. This created its own challenges in wardrobe and promotional photo shoots.  Tony Curtis, many years later, in his book claimed her pregnancy was a result of a rekindled affair they had during filming. She was married to Arthur Miller at the time, as was Curtis to Janet Leigh. She miscarried that mid-December and her marriage was falling apart, but she admitted to taking barbiturates and alcohol while dieting during this time, as well. Everyone referred to Marilyn’s emotional state as the cause for her on-set difficulties but I think it’s clear there were MANY challenges she had to overcome.

Excerpts from “Marilyn Monroe” by Donald Spoto:

Page 405:  Professionally idle, dependent on his wife’s income, humiliated by what he saw as her childish caprice and contemptuous of Hollywood in any case, Arthur could no longer tolerate her or the marriage.  But there was another problem, and that autumn, the atmosphere on location in Coronado was thick with tensions.  “Arthur told me he would allow Marilyn to work only in the morning,” (Billy) Wilder recalled.  He said she was too exhausted to submit to outside work in the afternoon sun.  “The morning?  She never shows up until after twelve!  Arthur, bring her to me at nine and you can have her back at eleven-thirty!”  We were working with a time bomb, we were twenty days behind schedule and God knows how much over budget, and she was taking a lot of pills.  But we were working with Monroe, and she was platinum – not just the hair, and not just her box-office appeal.  What you saw on the screen was priceless.  The reason for Arthur’s request was simple:  in late October, the Millers learned that Marilyn was pregnant again.  Fortunately, her most strenuous scenes were already shot and the filming of Some Like It Hot was completed on November 6.  By this time, director and star were barely speaking.

Page 407:  Returning to New York before the end of November, Marilyn was determined to rest during the early stages of her pregnancy.  But on December 16, she miscarried; it was the last time she tried to be a mother.  Both for sleep and as a tranquilizer, she had been taking Amytal, a brand name of the barbiturate amobarbital, and now she guiltily recalled Leon Krohn’s warning, as she wrote the Rostens: “Could I have killed it by taking all the Amytal on an empty stomach?  I took some sherry wine also.”  For weeks she was inconsolable, convinced that the drug abuse she now freely admitted had caused the spontaneous abortion.

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…

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

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getting in the drag mode, in slippers

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Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details

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

Some Like It Hot (1959)

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

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

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

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“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.

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