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Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot
MGM Home Entertainment
1959 / B&W / 1:66 flat letterbox / 122 min. / Street Date July 15, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Joe E. Brown
Cinematography Charles Lang
Art Direction Ted Haworth
Film Editor Arthur P. Schmidt
Original Music Adolph Deutsch
Written by Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond from a a story by Robert Thoeren and M. Logan
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Also available in The Billy Wilder Collection Boxed set (129.96), with The Apartment, Avanti!, The Fortune Cookie, Kiss Me Stupid, One Two Three, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Irma La Douce and Witness for the Prosecution.

Accepted as one of the best comedies ever made, Some Like it Hot is Billy Wilder's funniest and lightest film, a gangster spoof adapted from a twenties' German story about cross-dressing musicians. It's also his sexiest, thanks to Marilyn Monroe's turn as the addle-brained Sugar Kane Kowalczyk. She may be playing another dumb blonde, but the sophisticated farce allows her to transcend the stereotype by leaps and bounds. It's the finest hour for all the stars, the jokes just keep getting funnier and even the glorified bits get into the act, with Pat O. Brien and Joe E. Brown around for extra laughs. Many of us have seen Some Like it Hot too many times to get as excited about it as we should, but anyone who hasn't seen it has a great experience coming.


Chicago musicians Jerry and Joe (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) lose their money gambling, and then have the bad luck to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre being committed by gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft). Their only avenue of escape from gangland is by dressing as women and joining an all-girl band heading to Florida. What seems impossible at first becomes all too convenient, as Jerry's disguise as Daphne seems to transform him into a girl in more than just appearance. And when womanizer Joe gets closer to his prey, especially hot dish Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), he also begins to see her predicament from the female side of the fence.

Female impersonation in movies was always a familiar farce element, usually in broader, burlesque-oriented fare like Jerry Lewis pictures. Some Like it Hot is perhaps the first cross-dressing film that's really about man-woman politics, and gets a lot of its humor from the fact that maybe the gap between the sexes isn't 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 looks a little ridiculous, especially when doing an awkward walk, but the tiny, fine-featured Curtis was always too beautiful as a man, as had been pointed out in the dialogue of the previous year's Sweet Smell of Success. He makes a perfect Josephine, and carries himself exactly like a late-20's flapper. One of the 'fashion show' models in Singing 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. First, Lemmon's Jerry takes to being a female with almost no reservations whatsoever. After the "I'm a man I'm a man 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 a losing lover as a man, but enjoying being pursued while masquerading as a woman. It's funny, but there's a strange giddy tension to the comedy - how is Lemmon's split personality going to be resolved?

Curtis plays a ruthless ladykiller who finds out what it's like when every bellboy and waiter makes crude passes. In disguise, he hears how women talk when a loverboy like himself is not around. Marilyn Monroe's Sugar Kane is terminally vulnerable to the attentions of the right kind of predatory male, and Curtis' Josephine/Joe is at first eager to exploit his inside knowledge, using a third identity .. 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 slight shift in his attitude - for an ending, Wilder and Diamond let Joe melt to a degree where he's capable of 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, the star sex attraction on the screen, and the source of many headaches during the filming. Wilder admitted her incandescent importance, however. Even while wasting filming days waiting for her, he sighed that he had a very punctual aunt, but nobody wanted to see her in a movie. When Monroe made 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 is on record attesting to the unpleasant business of acting with her.

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 simply because the role allows her to be the Lorelei Lee golddigger while also showing a sweetness beneath. 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 for nervous laughs. 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 connosieur's treat instead of a perennial mass favorite is that it's not in color. Wilder did color tests, but worried about the boys looking too grotesque in drag. I tend to think that he just liked B&W better - he continued right through the 60s without stereo or color, although he embraced Panavision in his next picture, The Apartment.

I haven't described the plot, the amazing range of 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, it has to be good for one's general health.

For the record, MGM's John Kirk scoured archives and records to see if the film once had a longer ending. As it is now, the music track continues for a number of seconds after the credits have faded. The answer is, nope, Wilder just wanted to have some snappy exit music ("Runnin' Wild") while the lights were coming up.

MGM's DVD of Some Like it Hot is a special edition in name only. Even though it should be a flagship title, its transfer was done when MGM formatted almost all B&W non-scope movies at 1:66 flat, without benefit of 16:9 encoding. There were some semi-official claims about sticking at 1:66 because to respect original aspect ratios, but the practice really was to save money by limiting the number of masters required to make a transfer package - the television master could be the same as the DVD master. Some Like it Hot was originally screened at 1:85, wider than the 16:9 widescreen and suffers in clarity and resolution when shown flat.

The extras are also thin for a special edition. Tony Curtis contributes a rather chatty and gossipy interview section with Leonard Maltin that only makes us realize that almost nobody else from the film is still alive. Wilder is easily forgiven for not wasting his last years doing DVD interviews, but the other two extras, a glorified photo gallery and a short on the all-girl band aren't exactly a thorough look at the picture. Four of the actresses from 'Sweet Sue's Society Syncopaters' share fun but not very authoritative memories - they collectively agree that Jack Lemmon hadn't done much before, when he'd already won an Oscar. After the special content on this disc, it's still a good idea to read about the film in the various Billy Wilder biographies.

They do make special, deserved mention of actress Joan Shawlee, the band's abrasive leader. Shawlee was always a hoot, in several Wilder films and in oddball appearances in films as diverse as The Conquest of Space and The Wild Angels. And it's a surprise to learn that one of the showgirls body-doubled Marilyn Monroe for publicity pictures when the actress became pregnant. All of a sudden, Marilyn's head does look oddly grafted onto many of those photos, including the one on the package box.

MGM's DVD of Some Like it Hot isn't bad, but it certainly could use a new and improved transfer. Perhaps some of the impressive extras from the old (1989) Criterion laser disc (which had color home movies from the Coronado Beach Hotel) could be tracked down to provide an appropriate hook. MGM's doing a lot better with its special editions now.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Some Like it Hot rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good --
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Tony Curtis interview, stills, featurette on the All-Girl band,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 5, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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