Some Like It Hot

English Title: Some Like It Hot

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: MGM

Director: Billy Wilder

Producer(s): Billy Wilder

Screenplay: IAL Diamond , Billy Wilder

Cinematographer: Charles Lang

Art Director: Ted Haworth

Editor: Arthur P Schmidt

Runtime: 120 minutes

Genre: Comedy

Starring/Cast: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon , Marilyn Monroe

Year: 1959

Volume: American - Hollywood

In Prohibition era Chicago, two musicians, a saxophone player, Joe, and a double bass player, Jerry, are flat broke and down on their luck after the speakeasy they work at is raided by the cops. Having witnessed a mob slaying orchestrated by Spats Colombo and barely escaping with their own lives, they take the desperate measure of disguising themselves as women, ‘Josephine’ and ‘Daphne’, and escaping with an unsuspecting girl band which is just leaving for a booking in Miami. On the train they befriend Sugar Cane, a similarly-unlucky ukulele player and singer. She confess to Joe(sephine) her ambition to marry a millionaire and escape a spiralling series of bad relationships with various saxophone players. However, having arrived at the hotel, it is Daphne who immediately attracts the attention of the satchel-mouthed millionaire Osgood Fielding, whereas Sugar is suckered by Joe who adopts a phoney British accent (à la Cary Grant) and claims to be an oil tycoon, borrowing Osgood’s yacht to complete the illusion. When Spats Colombo and his associates turn up at the hotel for an ‘Italian Friends of Opera’ conference with other leaders of the mob, an element of danger is added. 

In the best tradition of Shakespearean comedy, Billy Wilder’s superlative comedy deals with the fluidity of identity. Almost everybody is trying to be somebody else. At the very beginning of the film, a police officer poses as a mourner in order to enter a speakeasy which is itself posing as a funeral parlour. None of these disguises and deceptions is frivolous. The context of Prohibition and organized crime add a deadly frisson as, again agreeing with Shakespeare, violent death lurks around the edges of comedy as more than a possibility. The Valentine’s Day Massacre, organized in order to take out Toothpick Charlie, a police informer (another example of role-playing) and the later assassination of Spats are shown in all their brutality. ‘I think I’m going to be sick’, Jerry says on witnessing the massacre. That said, the film also plays with parodic in-jokes at the expense of the gangster genre: the casting of uber-gangster George Raft as Spats Colombo, and the referencing of his own trademark, the tossing coin (‘where d’ya pick up that cheap trick?’) and a hoisted grapefruit in true James Cagney style, as well as the casting of a motley group of nasally-challenged plug-uglies as his henchmen, all serve to undermine the menace.
The most important disguises are those of the two central performances of Jerry/Daphne and Joe/Josephine. Their ineptness underlines the comedy. Daphne’s nervous laugh topped by a tiny snort and Josephine’s butch pouting and matronly pretension never fool us for a second even as those around them are completely taken in. Seeing how the other half lives, our two musicians begin to relish the opportunities their disguises give them, such as a slumber party with the all girl band and Sugar’s confession, which gives Joe all the information he needs to con her into bed. However, the comedy deepens on arriving in Miami and Daphne increasingly loses him/herself in her role, dancing the tango with, and then accepting a proposal of marriage from, Osgood and Joe begins his seduction of Sugar. With his second disguise as Junior, the heir to millions, Joe seeks to transgress not just the lines of gender but also those of class and nationality. There is a hint of this already in Josephine and Daphne’s claim of being ladies who studied at a fictional conservatoire, but Joe spins his story to Sugar with an increasingly inventive verve. Sugar herself pretends to be a society flapper, foregoing what also seems a carefully-constructed role as dumb blonde steeped in bad luck, who always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. As with Daphne, Junior begins to realize parts of his own personality in the part he is playing. When Jerry queries why Joe feels bad for running out on Sugar when he always treats women badly, Jerry replies that the saxophone player would have done that, but now he is supposed to be a millionaire. The genuine need to escape (from violence and poverty) fuels the escapism, but the role itself becomes more important than the ruse; the disguise preferred to a former identity.
Music has a vital role to play. In addition to offering Marilyn Monroe the opportunity to perform a series of iconic numbers, Adolph Deutsche’s jazz score provides a brassy and sexy background to the shenanigans. The title Some Like It Hot refers to a conflation of jazz with sex. Music also unites the three leads as they belong to the world of performers, a world that seems sexually promiscuous, carelessly deceptive (Sweet Sue the band leader is anything but sweet) and necessarily dynamic; a life made up of hotels and trains, a world in which performance defines you.

Author of this review: John Bleasdale