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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 Wilder and I.A. L. Diamond's affectionate screenplay allows her to transcend the stereotype by leaps and bounds. The film has career-defining star performances and even glorified bit players like Pat O'Brien and Joe E. Brown get big laughs. Anybody who hasn't yet seen it has a great experience coming.
The old MGM/UA 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 every B&W MGM DVD title from those years was released either flat full frame or flat-letterboxed to 1:66. This made for many weak transfers of classic United Artists films, including this top library title. MGM finally remastered Hot in its proper aspect ratio for a 2006 DVD, and that's what has stuck for this picture-perfect Blu-ray.
Wilder's story apparently came from several source inspirations, one of them being a 1920s German film with a much more explicit cross-dressing theme. In 1929 Chicago, musicians Jerry and Joe (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) lose their money gambling and then have the bad luck to witness a gangland rub-out ordered by gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft) on St. Valentine's Day. Their only avenue of escape is to dress as women and join an all-girl band heading to Florida. What at first seems impossible becomes all too convenient, as Jerry's disguise seems to transform him into a girl in more than just appearance. When womanizer Joe lives so close to his chosen prey, especially hot dish lead singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), he begins to see romance from the female side of the fence.
Although often considered in questionable taste, 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 to directly address gender 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. Although Billy Wilder surely had this idea in mind, his movie mainly uses the situation to push as many provocative (and hilarious) jokes as possible.
We're accustomed to seeing obvious impersonation skits in movies, but the most salient aspect of Hot 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: "He's the boy with the ice cream face". As Josephine, Curtis 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'.
Two other components add complexity to the cross-gender illusion. Lemmon's Jerry takes to being a female with almost no reservations whatsoever. Not long 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 apparently discovers 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. It's as if the original male Jerry were such a loser in love that he enjoys being pursued while masquerading as a woman. He's uproariously funny, but the comedy carries a slightly giddy tension. How can Lemmon's split personality possibly be resolved?
A confirmed ruthless cad, Curtis's Joe finds out what it's like when every bellboy and waiter makes crude passes. When in drag as Josephine 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. Josephine/Joe is at first eager to exploit his inside knowledge through 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 co-writer I.A.L. Diamond let Joe melt to a degree where he's capable of truly falling in love. For a movie made by a supposedly cynical director, Some Like it Hot is a sentimental career highlight.
The star sex attraction on the screen, Marilyn is the center of the show. She was also the source of many headaches during filming. Wilder admitted that her incandescence was unique, however. Watching filming days evaporate as he waited for her to come out of her trailer, Wilder noted that he had a very punctual aunt, but nobody wanted to see his aunt in a movie. When Monroe did make it to the set she was reportedly a mass of problems, 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 the dialogue-flubbing Monroe might deliver a useable performance.
The movie as finished shows none of this chaos. 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 and is lit by cameraman Charles Lang to enhance every curve. It inspired many a childhood fantasy ... to quote Osgood Fielding: "Zowie!"
A fairly serious gangland story provides a menacing foundation for the comedy, with machine guns blazing in a manner as frightening as any "straight" bootlegging tale. The massacre scene is fairly explicit, but the amusing ugly-mug goons like Mike Mazurki also evoke nervous laughter. The gangland backdrop is affectionate and respectful, right 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 but he performs the G-man chores well enough.
Like many other Billy Wilder greats, Some Like it Hot has been excluded from the top rung of Home Video popularity because it wasn't filmed in color. For Wilder, the choice to originally film in B&W was a matter of preference. The director did color tests but worried that the boys might look too grotesque in drag. But Wilder just liked B&W better -- he continued right through the 60s mostly avoiding color and stereophonic sound. He did embrace Panavision for his next six pictures straight, starting with The Apartment.
Further descriptions of the characters, the clever plot, the amazing range of the jokes, Jack Lemmon's syncopated maracas scene or the famous ending are unnecessary 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 is so entertaining and funny that it should be advertised as good for one's general health.
MGM-Fox's Blu-ray of Some Like it Hot really sells the movie, as well as the beauty of high-quality B&W cinematography. Through HD we finally have a video incarnation that replicates the snap and glamour of original B&W prints. Besides an English 5.1 track, the disc carries additional language audio in French 5.1 and Spanish mono. Subtitles are present for all three languages.
All of the 2003 extras seem to have been retained: a chatty interview between Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis, a tangential but fairly interesting 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), and a trailer.
The content from 2006 begins with a patchwork commentary track. I.A.L. Diamond's son and the writing team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (why?) are inter-cut with archived comments by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Most of what the two writers contribute is a personal appreciation of what's happening on screen; it's like watching the movie while a pair of genial loudmouths free associate.
The two newer 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 now firmly attribute to original sources, tales that might have been apocryphal. 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 simply called "The Lot") Wilder's writing office used to be.
The second docu is called "The Legacy of ...". It 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 showbiz history that his movie has come to represent. 1
Color home movies of the filming at the Coronado Hotel show up in the docu, 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 Blu-ray 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 Savant correspondent Gutowski gave Savant the skinny about Some Like it Hot and legendary vocal talent Paul Frees.. Once one becomes accustomed to Frees' chameleon voice, it shows up everywhere.
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T'was Ever Thus.