No one did Old Hollywood like Billy Wilder. And by did, I mean toyed with. He made Old Hollywood film stylings his pet. And if Billy Wilder was your owner, you were liable to succumb quite quickly to his oppressive, cynical charm. You’d grow up an ass, but you’d have a lot of fun in the meantime. He perfected perhaps the most Old Hollywood genre of all, film noir, in 1944 with his nihilist fable Double Indemnity, sent Old Hollywood off in fine style with his late period The Apartment, and generally dived deep into Old Hollywood and ripped it into little pieces from the inside out with his masterpiece among masterpieces, Sunset Blvd. But America never loved a Billy Wilder film like Some Like it Hot, and it’s easy to see why. Never before, and probably never since, has a comedy been so carefully assembled to walk a thin line between sauce and sweetness, between bouncy, lascivious swagger and prim-and-proper airs. And perhaps never before was Wilder so gosh-darned fun.
The film’s success gets even more surprising when we hear the concept, which sounds like yesterday’s leftovers stripped to the bone of anything juicy or worth chewing on. Two brow-beaten musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) accidentally witness a gang massacre and go on the run, in the process impersonating two females of their own creation, Josephine for Joe and Daphne for Jerry. They wind up on a train headed for Florida whose cargo is an all-female band. There, Joe falls for the band’s singer, Sugar (a never better Marilyn Monroe). Not to be left out in the cold, Jerry/ Daphne eventually finds himself the object of affection for old millionaire Osgood Fielding (Joe Brown). The only problem: gender, in both cases. Specifically, their gender, and someone needs to get them out of it
Things progress in the rough form you might imagine, but not with the same breeding. We might suppose a lame-brained, belabored work of low-brow comedy to be in order, and the film is indeed low-brow. But you’ve never seen low with its brows raised so high before. Some Like it Hot is an eloquent, literate, fluent trip through cinema history. Considering the film’s setting, it’s almost impossible not to think of the free-form anarchic fireworks birthed when the wild years of film migrated to comedy in the ’30s after they became unsafe for the Hollywood drama machine following a residency with drama in the late ’20s. The obvious comparison is the Marx Brothers, but the slightly diluted snark and caustic repartee of screwball comedy is never far throughout the film, the bitter banter of Curtis and Lemmon and the more playful, farcical, nastily erotic Curtis/Monroe interplay always taking center stage. The end result is a film that operates on a continuous high, but never loses the bottom-end. Frothy, sure, but froth usually hides bitters beneath. As per usual, Wilder didn’t hold anything, and he added in a twist of lemon for extra acid too.
If the film is matched in its flippancy only by its buoyancy, both mask its ingenious visual and aural construction. If nothing else, Some Like it Hot is among the most visually rigorous American comedies ever directed, Wilder’s eye supplying the lion’s share of the wit. The scene in the train is probably the most famous, with Curtis and Monroe positioned horizontally (a no-no in 1959) on top of one another. When things get steamy, as Robert Ebert so cunningly reminds us, Curtis’ foot moves up ever so slightly in place of something naughtier. Dialogue soon after makes it clear the effect is intentional, and this is merely one of the small, personal gestures of sexual passion and dirty longing that guide the film toward its perfectionist streak (incidentally, it is a happy accident that 1959 produced the cinema’s two greatest visual double entendres, and both center trains no less! Hitch joined the bandwagon for his grand plaything North by Northwest, when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint move in for the kill in a train compartment and Hitch devilishly cuts to the train penetrating a mountain tunnel).
Elsewhere, befitting a film about flip-flopping social roles that stops short of gender deconstruction but still approaches the idea, and in 1959 no less, Wilder’s ears perk up anytime physical space and motion come into contact. Again, the simple way the characters walk tells the comedy of the story on its own, the two men behaving like idiotic pastiches of drunken mens’ ideas of the feminine form rather the real thing. Wilder had always been invested in the human body in motion, latching on to Curtis’ boisterous swagger and easily flustered caricature, Lemmon’s aloof, finecky pricks and prods, and Monroe’s sultry strides and childlike swaddle. When things get hectic and the film evolves into a parade of bodies in motion, the differences in the way people move are the camera’s focal point (a late film chase when the movie remembers it had made passing gestures to being a gangster pic is a perfect example). And if any screwball comedy was really just a bunch of people running around elevated to the heights of artistic craftsmanship, Wilder elevates it further than ever.
The issue of film in motion also brings up the issue of gender, especially when the camera almost literally objectifies Monroe during a famous performance of “I Wanne Be Loved By You” as the lighting is pressed to her form and caresses her body with a deeply sexual intent that her genuine, sincere character can’t seem to understand. For gender is on the mind in Some Like it Hot, and gender we must address. As a film about men dressing up as women, it is surprisingly progressive by the standards of its time. Then again, progressive for 1959 doesn’t exactly make ends meet today. If it doesn’t explicitly make fun of women, it isn’t so sure about making fun of men for thinking they can imitate women either. Then there is the fact that no one realizes they are men, itself both a radical commentary on how gender is entirely a social construct and an unfortunate explication of how men are so superior to women they could change genders simply by putting on some clothes and vaguely attempting an accent.
The issue of Marilyn Monroe is also germane, for she is the film’s third wheel who often becomes the driver. If the film works as a suggestive, titillating, bawdy, spicy comedy with sex on the mind, it works because she epitomizes the opposite of each of these qualities. Her character exists at a crossroads between the innocence she exudes internally and the primal lust others see in her and express toward her. The film uses her as an object in making her the subject, defining its comedy on the grounds that others urge for her and she couldn’t find an urge if she looked for it. Partially, this was a snarky rib at Monroe’s real life persona, that of an aloof naive incompetent about whom jokes have been made on end. Yet she’s a drug, and others can’t escape her.
On one hand, the film works wonders around her, finding in her an object of great import and observing her with one of the hungriest filmic gazes ever captured. If the characters want her, Wilder absolutely succeeds in making us feel the same. At the same time, the portrayal is a harsh stereotype rooted in the male vision of female childishness that very seriously positions the film as the product of the male gaze, thus crippling any real argument that it is an especially radical exploration of gender relations. For every argument in the film’s favor, such as the sympathy it draws for its cross-dressing main characters, there are two against it: for all their sympathy, one male is ultimately lying to a female in an attempt to bed her, and the film spends an awful lot of time poking fun with, if not necessarily at, the two leads for cross-dressing. The question is whether the joke is on them for being masculine fools and assuming they can best their female compatriots, or whether the joke is on them for cross-dressing at all. On this, the film comes up ambidextrous, and its batting average shifts either way by the minute. Either way, it is difficult to get away from how it uses Monroe as an objectified version of the Marilyn Monroe-type and mocks her as much as it falls in love with her simplicity (both forms of objectifying, by the way).
Ultimately, I suspect, the film is as confused about its gender relations as its audience usually is, and I’m not about to go out on a diatribe either way about it, for I don’t much know either. Gender and film have never really been pen pals, and Some Like it Hot unfortunately won’t change that. It isn’t the work of an angel, but not all great arts are either. Some Like it Hot takes a complicated subject and uses truly sublime artistry to elevate it to the stratosphere of filmic entertainment, applying gender in difficult ways and moving forward and backward and often coming up at odds with itself. It’s a tangled, labyrinthine film, worthy of a much longer essay-length, and perhaps even book-length, dissection. The paltry way I’ve analyzed it thus far can’t even begin to capture the full breadth and depth of the film’s formal genius and biting dialogue; one is always left supplicant, begging for more with a hungry need echoed only by the film’s leads. I haven’t even discussed how carefully Wilder recreates the noir form he cut his teeth on. Nor have I discussed cinema’s best Cary Grant mockery in the film’s funniest scene.
It is, in short, a film stuffed to bursting with filmic invention and carefully, painstakingly pinpoint filmmaking, and yet it never feels forced or over-whelmed. Even as it subverts its own being by attaching itself to the contours of two delicately developed relationships rooted more in human loneliness than in sex, it’s light as air, and it makes you feel like it.