Thursday 11 March 2010

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

For a film from the classic era of Hollywood that the AFI selected as the greatest American comedy of all time, Some Like It Hot is an unlikely creature for a number of reasons. This comedy begins with the St Valentine's Day Massacre and has a body count in the double digits. It ends on an overtly bisexual note, with one of the greatest closing lines of all time. In between it's a highly suggestive screwball comedy that unfolds while the two leading men are in drag. There are sly nods to prostitution, oral sex and free love, as well as alcoholism, unemployment and the poor treatment of women. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency rated it C for Condemned and it was banned outright in Kansas.

What's more, it's a remake, at least of sorts, being based on a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan that had previously been made into a German film called Fanfares of Love in 1951. The only real difference is the gangster stuff at the beginning: the gun battle while the cops chase a bunch of bootleggers, the federal raid on Mozarella's Funeral Parlor and the subsequent massacre as Spats Columbo gets his bloody revenge on Toothpick Charlie. This raid leaves two musicians from the Mozarella's house band, Joe and Jerry, out of a job on the very night they were finally going to be paid, hardly good timing given that they're behind on their rent and they owe money to everyone in their company.

Their timing doesn't get better because they soon find themselves in the very worst place at the very worst time, on the other side of Charlie's Garage on Clark St trying to pick up a car while Spats and his men burst in and open fire. They manage to escape alive and intact, even though they're hindered by their saxophone and double bass, but they've been seen and with the Chicago mob hot on their tail they have to do something drastic. As they don't have the money to do anything at all, they take the first opportunity that comes to hand, filling a couple of vacant spots in an orchestra about to head to Florida for a hotel gig, an orchestra where the bassist has got herself conveniently pregnant and the saxophonist has conveniently run off with a bible salesman.

It's all too good to be true, except for one little problem: Sweet Sue and the Society Syncopators are a girl band. Needs must, so they join anyway, in drag, Joe becoming Josephine and Jerry becoming Daphne because he always hated the name Geraldine, with the plan of getting safely to Florida and then taking off. However that's before they discover that Sugar Kane, the lead singer and ukelele player, is played by Marilyn Monroe in the role with perhaps the most shivery sensuality of her career. She's 'just like jello on springs' says Daphne and no heterosexual male in 1959 was ever going to put something like staying alive ahead of a chance at Marilyn Monroe, even when he's pretending to be a woman at the time. It's more than a little strange to find two of the greatest male film comedians of the era playing women for almost the entire film, but that's what we get.

Once we see Josephine and Daphne walking down the platform towards the train to Florida, that's pretty much it for Joe and Jerry. We don't see Jack Lemmon out of drag until the memorable final line of the film, his improvised change from Geraldine to Daphne being a marker, from which point he doesn't just play Daphne, he becomes her, giggles and gossip and all. On the first night he gets stuck in his bunk trembling all over because Sugar has come to thank him for a favour and proceeds to warm up his feet. Repeating a mantra to himself that he's a girl, he's a girl, he somehow half convinces himself, which leads to a good proportion of the jokes still to come. They're so successful that pauses had to be added to some so that half the dialogue wasn't laughed over and missed.

The only time Tony Curtis steps out of his character of Josephine is when he creates a new persona based on Cary Grant, right down to the voice. It's all to impress Sugar, who has already confessed her weakness for sax players to him, all but describing the persona he can't show her as the one she can never resist. 'All they have to do is play eight bars of Come to Me, My Melancholy Baby and my spine turns to custard,' she tells him and he's hooked. The catch is that she's trying to stop the trend by playing in a girl band with no male saxophonists and going to Florida where all the millionaires are. She wants to land one herself, so he becomes one, pretending to be the heir to the Shell Oil fortune who meets her by chance on the beach. As she later describes to Josephine, 'He's got millions, he's got glasses, he's got a yacht.'

I wonder what Grant thought of the impression of him that Curtis attempts here, which is actually pretty good, especially as somehow he manages not to break up laughing even when speaking lines like, 'With all the unrest in the world, I don't think anybody should have a yacht that sleeps more than twelve.' When Daphne comments that 'Nobody talks like that,' she's technically not criticising him, she's just highlighting that the era of Cary Grant's suave and famously clipped voice hasn't yet arrived. This is 1929, after all and Grant wouldn't appear in a film for another three years, making this a similar joke to one about Hedy Lamarr in Blazing Saddles: 'What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You'll be able to sue her!' Apparently after Grant saw this version of himself he echoed Daphne's comment by simply stating, 'I don't talk like that.'

While they're not entirely successful at sounding like women, Curtis being partially dubbed by Paul Frees, he and Lemmon are far less successful at looking like women, though they could be a lot worse. They're certainly no Thai transvestites and there's simply no way that they would have got the attention they got in any other situation but a Hollywood movie. As Josephine, Tony Curtis gets hit on by a fresh bellboy who looks rather like Elisha Cook Jr. As Daphne, Jack Lemmon gets courted by elderly millionaire Osgood Fielding III, the one with seniority in the line of synchronised millionaire leches waiting on deckchairs in front of the Seminole-Ritz Hotel for the all girl band to arrive. In fact the main reason the film was in black and white was because the makeup the leading men had to wear turned out to tinge their faces green when shot in colour.
Given that Marilyn Monroe's contract stipulated that all her films had to be made in colour, Billy Wilder had a lot of persuading to do to convince her otherwise. Frankly, she looks gorgeous in black and white. However gorgeous she looks though, she was not a popular character on set, except perhaps with Tony Curtis who recently revealed that they slept together during the shoot. The chaos she caused during filming has become legendary, so much so that she was not even invited to the wrap party. 'We were in mid-flight,' said director Billy Wilder, explaining why, 'and there was a nut on the plane.' She was routinely two or three hours late to the set, a habit that contributed in no small part to the death of Clark Gable two years later when she did the same thing while shooting The Misfits, and some days she refused entirely to leave her dressing room.

It took her 47 takes to get the three words, 'It's me, Sugar' in the right order, even after Wilder had them written on a blackboard for her. For the scene where she has to say, 'Where's the bourbon?' while rummaging through a chest of drawers, Wilder even taped the line into one of the drawers because she'd flubbed 40 takes, but then she got confused about which drawer the line was in, so he had to tape it to the bottom of every one of them. After 59 takes it's very likely he just gave up and had the line overdubbed. Certainly many of the publicity shots of her are actually her frequent stand-in, Evelyn Moriarty, with her head added later, though another reason for this is that she was apparently pregnant at the time. Wilder had originally planned to cast Mitzi Gaynor as Sugar Kane, but switched to Marilyn when she became available at the right time. However well it turned out, I'm sure he regretted that decision.

I'd seen Some Like It Hot before, but when I was younger I didn't appreciate many of the clever in jokes because I hadn't seen the films that the script was referencing and I didn't recognise the actors who set up the gags. In particular there are a lot of nods to classic Warner Brothers gangster movies here, especially after Spats Columbo walks into the Seminole-Ritz Hotel after being away from the movie for over an hour. He's played by George Raft, third in the pecking order at Warner Brothers in the thirties, ahead of fourth place Humphrey Bogart and behind only James Cagney and Edward G Robinson who were both so definitively top dog that it would be impossible to put one ahead of the other. However they were both definitely ahead of Raft.

Spats is there for the 10th annual convention of the Friends of Italian Opera, which is as transparent a euphemism as it seems. 'Where did you pick up that trick?' he asks a hood who's tossing a coin in precisely the way that Raft did as Guino Rinaldo in the original Scarface. The hood is played by Edward G Robinson Jr, who proves to be a dab hand with a machine gun, under the command of Little Bonaparte, an obvious nod to Little Caesar, whom his dad had played in 1931. The Cagney reference comes when Spats almost slaps half a grapefruit into the face of one of his 'lawyers', just like Cagney did to Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy. There's probably meaning in the sex change there, given what film this is. As the Kinks sang it, 'Girls will be boys and boys will be girls. It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,' and they could well have been singing about this movie.

As you might imagine for one of the old Warners actors from the thirties, George Raft was getting on a bit here. He was 64 in 1959 and his days as a hotshot were over, having effectively handed Bogart stardom on a plate a couple of decades earlier by turning down a host of great roles that Bogie ended up with. He's excellent here but he only had ten more films left until his final appearance in 1980, in a picture ironically called The Man with Bogart's Face. Originally a dancer before he became an actor, and one good enough for Fred Astaire to comment that he danced 'the fastest Charleston I ever saw,' he taught Jack Lemmon and Joe E Brown how to tango for their memorable scene here.

While I've only seen Raft older by a year in the original Ocean's Eleven, I've never seen Pat O'Brien older and in fact he looks older than Raft here even though he was only 60. He would only make five more films, finishing up with a ninth role opposite James Cagney in 1981's Ragtime, the last film for both of them. O'Brien, so often an Irish cop, is Det Mulligan, the federal agent hot on Columbo's spats, in both Chicago and Florida. He doesn't get much of a part but he has fun with what he has. George E Stone, as Toothpick Charlie, has even less of a part and even less of a career left with only three more pictures to come. It's always good to see him, however little he has to do, even over a decade after he last played the Runt to Chester Morris's Boston Blackie.

I mentioned at the start of this review that Some Like It Hot was the AFI's choice as the greatest American comedy of all time. This list was compiled in 2000, at a point in time when attitudes towards the subjects it touched upon had changed immensely. In fact second on the list was Tootsie, another transvestite comedy but one made in a more understanding 1981. Back in 1959, Some Like It Hot failed its preview screening with many audience members leaving during the film, but succeeded on its second in a different neighbourhood. It went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Comedy, with further awards for Lemmon and Monroe. It was nominated for seven Oscars, though conspicuously not Best Picture, but it only went home with one, for Orry-Kelly's costume design. I have to admit that Marilyn Monroe's costumes, some of which were sewn on, were rather memorable and often more than a little dangerous, but for the Academy to effectively see them as the best part of this film suggests that it was deliberately snubbed. That's what risqué subject matter got you in classic Hollywood.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review and in my eyes a classic. Jack Lemmon is one of my favorite actors and I always felt in my eyes very underrated. He always flawless on screen.