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Before it closed its doors as an autonomous DVD company MGM home video had a policy of pretending that 1950s films, especially B&W ones, were all shown flat theatrically. Even though widescreen 1:66 and 1:85 pictures appeared as early as 1953 and became the standard by 1955, most everything MGM put out from those years was either flat full frame or flat-letterboxed to 1:66. This made for many weak transfers of classic United Artists films, including one of the studio's top library titles, the Billy Wilder classic Some Like it Hot. When MGM remastered all of its Billy Wilder films for DVD release in 2003, Hot picture remained flat. This Collector's Edition finally presents the film in acceptable form for DVD, albeit right when it should be time to expect an HD release!
Accepted as one of the best comedies ever made, Some Like it Hot is Wilder's funniest and lightest film, a gangster spoof adapted from a twenties' German story about cross-dressing musicians. It's also his sexiest comedy, thanks to Marilyn Monroe's turn as the addle-brained Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. Marilyn may be playing another dumb blonde, but the sophisticated farce allows her to transcend the stereotype by leaps and bounds. The film has great star performances and even glorified bit players like Pat O'Brien and Joe E. Brown get big laughs. Many of us have enjoyed Some Like it Hot too many times to get as excited about it as we should, but those who haven't seen it have a great experience coming.
Female impersonation was always popular, especially in broad burlesque-oriented fare like Jerry Lewis pictures. Some Like it Hot is perhaps the first cross-dressing film that really addresses man-woman politics. Much of its humor derives from the idea that the gap between the sexes may not be as wide a gulf as we thought.
The first thing that strikes us is how convincing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are when dressed as women. Jack purposefully looks a little ridiculous doing his awkward walk. But the tiny, fine-featured Curtis was always a bit too beautiful as a man, as had been pointed out in the dialogue of the previous year's Sweet Smell of Success. Curtis makes a perfect Josephine and carries himself exactly like a late-20's flapper. One of the 'fashion show' models in Singin' in the Rain wears an almost identical outfit, and could have been the model for Curtis' 'look'.
But there are two other components to the transformation. Lemmon's Jerry takes to being a female with almost no reservations whatsoever. After his, "I'm a girl I'm a girl I wish I were dead" hilarity in the top berth of the sleeper train, Jerry immediately finds the female side of his personality. He suddenly has opinions about clothing and a preference for the name Daphne over Geraldine. And his responses to the cartoonish overtures of Joe E. Brown's Osgood Fielding III are some kind of weird female fantasy -- as if Jerry were such a loser in love that he enjoys being pursued while masquerading as a woman. He's uproariously funny, but the comedy also has a strange giddy tension. How can Lemmon's split personality possibly be resolved?
Curtis plays a ruthless cad who finds out what it's like when every bellboy and waiter makes crude passes. In disguise, he hears how women talk when a lover boy like himself is not around. Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane is terminally vulnerable to the attentions of the right kind of predatory male. Curtis' Josephine/Joe is at first eager to exploit his inside knowledge by using a third identity. He becomes a male masquerading as a female masquerading as a male, in this case, a fake millionaire with a Cary Grant accent. The character undergoes a major attitude shift when Wilder and Diamond let Joe melt to a degree where he's capable of truly falling in love. For a supposedly cynical director, it's a sentimental career highlight.
Marilyn is and was the center of Some Like it Hot. She's the star sex attraction on the screen and the source of many headaches during filming. Wilder admitted that her incandescence was unique, however. Watching filming days evaporate as he waited for her, he sighed that he had a very punctual aunt, but nobody wanted to see her in a movie. When Monroe did make it to the set she was reportedly a holy terror, incapable of remembering her lines and coddled by personal acting coaches that Wilder had to carefully pry away. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were told that they had to be spot-on with every line reading in every take, as nobody knew when Monroe would deliver a useable performance.
None of this is visible in the movie. Monroe is a delight on screen and exudes more sex than in any of her other features. The role allows her to be the Lorelei Lee gold digger while also revealing a profound sweetness. How Wilder got away with a couple of her gowns is a Hollywood miracle, as one looks literally spray-painted on. It provided many a childhood fantasy ... quote Osgood Fielding: "Zowie!"
Wilder plays most of his gangster trappings straight enough to provide the appropriate menace for our heroes, with goons like Mike Mazurki around to evoke nervous laughter. The massacre scene is fairly explicit and the entire gangland backdrop is both affectionate and respectful, even down to the casting of Edward G. Robinson Jr. as a Capone-style kingpin. George Raft's gang boss role is more substantial than many of his classic roles of the '30s; I always found Pat O'Brien on the dull side and he's less amusing.
Perhaps the reason why Some Like it Hot is a connoisseur's treat instead of a mass-market favorite is that it wasn't filmed in color. Wilder did color tests but worried that the boys might look too grotesque in drag. I tend to think that he just liked B&W better -- he continued right through the 60s mostly avoiding color and stereophonic sound, although he embraced Panavision for his next six pictures starting with The Apartment.
I haven't described the clever plot, the amazing range of the jokes, Jack Lemmon's syncopated maracas scene or the famous ending because there's just too much written about them. The trick to enjoying Some Like it Hot is to find some lucky person who hasn't seen it yet and treat them to a screening. The picture's so entertaining and funny that it has to be good for one's general health.
MGM-Sony's 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD of Some Like it Hot is a satisfactory replacement for their old, flat letterboxed special edition. The enhanced transfer is a great improvement, although the encoding doesn't 'pop' as it might; Savant remembers seeing B&W prints of this movie that were incredibly rich. Actually, the title is popular enough to show up on an HD format sooner than later.
The extras build substantially on the thin selection from the first special edition, which did pretty well for a minimal effort of the time. The old features are all here: A chatty interview between Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis, another interesting but tangential talk with the surviving "Sweet Sues" female band members, a tiresome "Virtual Hall of Memories" (scenes, bites and photos viewed in a low-res animated art gallery), a trailer and the pressbook. What's missing is a Spanish mono audio track (French has been retained).
The new content overall earns an A-. The commentary (I audited 50%) didn't have much to offer. I.A.L. Diamond's son and the writing team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (all un-billed) share a microphone and are inter-cut with archived comments by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. We quickly discover that we don't care how the two writers relate to the movie; much of what they say is limited to their personal appreciation for what's happening on screen.
The two documentaries fare far better. The first stands alone as an overall making-of piece, with archive interviews with Lemmon, Curtis, Diamond, Diamond's widow and Billy Wilder talking about the film. It's great to hear them say the same old stories in person; at least we can firmly attribute the tales to the original sources. Director Curtis Hanson is among a few latecomers to the story who make a good impression. He shows us where on the Goldwyn Lot (Now Warner Hollywood) Wilder's writing office used to be.
The second docu is called "The Legacy of ..." and is much less organized, but viewers who haven't read all the Wilder bios and Monroe exposés will find it equally refreshing. Again, there's no substitute for Lemmon's sincere memories or Wilder's dry wit. Even producer Walter Mirisch is engagingly impressed by the confluence of talent, legend and show-biz history that his movie represents. 1
The docu uses key color home movies of the filming at the Coronado Hotel, material we haven't seen since the old Criterion laserdisc of 1989. The various interviews aren't identified by date, which is confusing, but we construe that a big chunk of the material came from a 1984 reunion screening at the Coronado in San Diego. Wilder and Diamond express the idea that 25 years have passed like a flash, and both remark sadly on the fact that they're no longer active making movies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Some Like it Hot rates:
1. Tony Curtis mentions that 'some' of his voice as Josephine was added by another actor whose name he cannot remember; seven years ago informed reader Bob Gutowski gave Savant the skinny about Some Like it Hot and legendary vocal talent Paul Frees.. Once one gets used to Frees' chameleon voice, it shows up everywhere!