Revisiting SOME LIKE IT HOT.

My family were late to the party when it came to buying a VCR. It was 1986 and this large metal box appeared under the TV.

We didn’t have any pre-recorded tapes to watch yet (remember them?) but it didn’t cost a lot to buy blank tapes from the supermarket. Why? You could record things from the TV!

In a pre-internet world this was life-changing. And that Christmas, there were some classic movies being shown.

The first two films I recorded were SOME LIKE IT HOT and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Both from 1959, strangely enough. And I proudly, if awkwardly, used the little sticky letters that came with the tape to put the name on the spine.

SOME LIKE IT HOT was written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond and had a wonderful premise that would be startling today, never mind in the 1950s.

Joe and Jerry, two jobbing musicians in Chicago 1929, stumble across the St Valentine’s Day massacre, where seven gangsters were gunned down. Desperate to escape, the lads take the first job out of town – as part of an all-female band heading to a gig in a hotel in Florida. That’s right, Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Geraldine and head on the sleeper train with the rest of the girls.

Of course this glorious set up is ripe with comedy potential, cross-dressing mishaps, disguised identity and misunderstandings. The performances of the oh-so-macho matinee idol Tony Curtis (never better, apart from perhaps THE BOSTON STRANGLER, or THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) playing against type, and the fantastic physical and vocal comedy of the incomparable Jack Lemmon (where to begin, THE APARTMENT, THE ODD COUPLE, MISSING, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS – comedy, drama, what could he not do?) are just the beginning. The situation complicates upon the introduction of the torch-singing ukulele-playing Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and the brilliant revelation that Jerry is beginning to love his new identity. Indeed, when Josephine first introduces Geraldine, Gerry interrupts with his new chosen name “Daphne”.

In Florida we spend a lot of time with the characters. Jerry/Daphne being courted by a real millionaire – and loving it. Joe tries to woo Sugar by pretending he’s an oil baron.

The comedy on display here is blissful. Joe’s ‘Cary Grant’ accent and swift costume changes, Jerry embracing his new identity, Sugar falling for the oil baron not realising that it is Josephine – I mean, Joe.

Monroe is great here in a character which neatly subverts, or perhaps shows the flip side, of the blonde bombshell “identity” she reached mega-stardom with in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. She is fractured and damaged but no pushover. The fact she begins to fall for Joe’s fake millionaire should be uncomfortable but there is no meanness of spirit in this fantastic script. You root for them all. You want them all to win and get whatever happy ending they want.

And then, who rolls into the hotel for a convention? The Mob. Including the shooters from Chicago, who have long memories…

SOME LIKE IT HOT was filmed black and white (the make-up on the guys looked odd in colour), but I think that adds to the charm. Sure, the hotel and beach scenes would look great in colour, but the monochrome opening in wintery Chicago works well.

The film offers some severe shifts in tone but those shifts work. The opening banter is disrupted by the brutal killings. The joyous comedy is threatened by the arrival of The Mob at the end, raising real stakes. By this time, you LOVE all of these characters and really want this to work out for them.

And, spoilers, it DOES. With a positive message of acceptance, and a killer closing line that leaves an incredible message.

For a time in Hollywood where the Hays Production Code frowned upon many things this film managed to show cross dressing characters, a man and a woman in bed (he’s dressed as a woman), gangsters and machine guns, non-stereotypes (domineering women – band leader Sweet Sue, dominated men – her assistant Mr Beinstock), women in underwear with cleavage and thighs on view, and then there’s the alcohol consumption. Sure the cops raid the speakeasy at the start, but the girls drink on the train to Florida, Sugar drops her hip flask, and Joe and Sugar get amorous on the “borrowed” luxury yacht while drinking.

Billy Wilder left Europe in the 1930s and built an astonishing repertoire too long to mention here, including THE LOST WEEKEND, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and SUNSET BOULEVARD (let’s talk about THAT film some time). His films, covering a range of genres, tackled difficult issues, and often subtly criticised US attitudes. Working for the second time with fellow émigré I.A.L. Diamond, the men crafted a cracking sex farce, exposing the relationships between men and women using mistaken identity and cross dressing that would make Shakespeare faint. Need we complicate the situation further by reminding you that Tony Curtis was really Bernie Schwartz and Marilyn was really Norma Jean Mortensen?

And I’ve not even mentioned the supporting cameos by George Raft, Pat O’Brien and the superb Joe E. Brown as Daphne’s love interest.

SOME LIKE IT HOT was a smash hit, earning Lemmon and Monroe Golden Globes, the film won Best Comedy too. It won the Oscar for costume with nominations for Wilder as director, Wilder and Diamond for screenplay, for cinematography and art direction. It highlighted Curtis’ flair for comedy and led to Wilder and Diamond’s long collaboration that included THE APARTMENT. The film regularly tops the “best comedy” polls. Deservedly so.

Last year, my mother passed away. When sorting through her belongings I found a box of tapes. Pride of place was my video of SOME LIKE IT HOT.

I’m glad I found it again. If you haven’t found this film yet, do yourself a favour and seek it out.

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