Some Like It Hot is not known for its mob ties. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, carrying their awkwardly-shaped bass-case and sax-box, dressed in drag, is the memorable image. It would be easy to watch the opening first ten minutes and not even realise what the film is as we see gangsters with tommy-guns, shoot through a hearse revealing the liquor inside. Remember the funeral parlour that doubles as a speakeasy with the appropriate knock? Or the dancing girls and jazz music that echoes out onto the street while drinkers order their “coffee”? Oh, and then the camera subtly moves to introduce Gerald (Lemmon) and Joe (Curtis). They look bored playing their up-beat music. Like the average schmuck, these unlucky gamblers discuss their payday and the money they’ll surely make at the dogs. These are the central roles, and the gangster narrative is merely background fodder to their plight.
Considering this splendid misdirection at the start, it nevertheless remains a masterpiece of comedy cinema. Rarely can such a subjective genre exhibit an example of such perfection. It comfortably sits alongside Modern Times and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Arguably it supersedes both (and the AFI would agree). This seems like hyperbole, as if I’m merely praising the classic that has been heralded already, but it really does challenge so much. By the time Gerald and Joe (emerging as Daphne and Josephine) strut their stuff on the train platform, struggling with the cumbersome heels they wear, you’re already sold on the film. The break-neck pace, adorable characters and tension that holds you so tight you’re unsure whether the duo will be found out, is already established before they board the train. Then, what seems like late in the film, Marilyn Monroe appears. Her perfect body, within the slinky black dress that makes our boys (dressed as girls) melt. And we melt too – this impeccable figure has just barraged her way into the film and within seconds we realise why she became so popular. Even the steam from the train that whooshes under her skirt reminds you of The Seven Year Itch, almost self-aware of its own classic status in cinema.
Made in 1959, the story could potentially make some clanger jokes. Men dressed as women; men pushing other men’s sexual advances away; a man who comfortably retorts with “nobody’s perfect” when Daphne reveals her, or his, true identity before the final credits. Prior to 1962, sodomy was illegal in every state in America, effectively outlawing homosexuality. Yet here was a film, three years before Illinois tweaked their laws to legalise it, openly and boldly laughing at gender, sexual attraction and cross-dressing. Here, in 2014, we watch a 1950’s film with no awkward plots to justify their behaviour and no jokes that appeal to the more conservative viewer. Surely Gerald and Joe are highly aware that their actions could be considered sexually deviant. It is comfortable, acceptable and normalised.
Jack Lemmon’s memorable laugh is infectious and Jack-Nicholson-esque (He would make a great Joker) while Tony Curtis’ multiple roles show how flexible he is as an actor. Surely “Shell Oil Jr” is partly based on the stiff, clipped manner of Cary Grant, and his nerdy dinosaur expert in Bringing Up Baby?
Every thread of the story interlocks and justifies itself. Nothing is wasted and you can’t take your eyes off the screen (especially as Monroe seems to perform in a dress which seems to be almost transparent in high-definition). Some Like It Hot is the most important comedy film ever made and deserves your time and attention this summer. Don’t watch it on TV, go to the cinema and watch it as intended. As the ladies crowd the train carriage, projected, it fills the cinema screen majestically as your eyes dart across each character to work out where Daphne is hidden amongst the girls. This is the time to watch Some Like It Hot. Take a friend, take your kids and witness a masterpiece.
Originally written for Flickering Myth on 23rd July 2014