Saturday, January 29, 2011

Film # 49: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 9 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Pair of jazz musicians dress in drag and travel with all-girl band to flee gangsters. Shenanigans abound.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Chicago, 1929. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are a couple of jazz musicians who play in a hot speakeasy run by notorious gangster “Spats” Colombo. That night is payday, and the two are working out how to pay back all of their many debts. Just as they bask in the appreciation of simply having a steady job, the police raid the club off of a tip from a local rat, “Toothpick” Charlie. Joe and Jerry see it coming and get out, but the police manage to shut down the place.

The next day, Joe convinces Jerry to put all of their money on a horse. The horse loses, and gone is the fellows' remaining cash, leaving them broke and jobless. They head to a talent agency, to no avail, finding only the tantalizing job for a bass fiddle and sax, their instruments, but for an all-girls group heading to Florida. Instead, they take a small gig on the far side of town. Joe even connives his way to borrowing a secretary's car to get there.

Early that same evening, the boys stroll into the garage to pick up their loaner car. While waiting for the tank to be filled, though, a pack of mafiosos storms in, led by Spats Colombo himself. They have Toothpick Charlie cornered there and gun him down, along with a half dozen other unlucky saps. Joe and Jerry witness it all and are about to join the recently deceased, but they luck out and escape the garage.

On the run, they decide to pose as women and join the all-girls band that they had heard about earlier that day. They adopt the names Josephine and Daphne, don some wigs and dresses, grab their instruments, and show up at the train station. On the train, they meet all of the other girls in the band, including the sultry Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the group's bombshell singer and ukulele player. Joe and Jerry have to fight their male urges amongst the scantily-clad women, especially the voluptuous, naive and vulnerable Sugar.

"Josephine" and "Daphne" sashay their way down the platform.

Once in Florida, Joe and Jerry seem to be in the clear, but only to an extent. While Jerry is eager to ditch the masquerade, Joe reminds him that Spats is likely looking in every jazz club in the country for them. They decide to remain Josephine and Daphne for a while longer, though it's starting to pose its own unique problems: Jerry has already had to fend off a grabby, though very wealthy suitor – the playfully lecherous Osgood Fielding III.

This also gives Joe the chance to weasel his way into Sugar's arms. He uses what he knows of her search for a rich man “with glasses” and takes on his second persona: the heir of the Shell Oil Corporation. Under this guise, he finds Sugar on the beach and she falls for it, hook, line and sinker. The two part ways, but Sugar is clearly starstruck.

Back at the hotel, Jerry receives a call from Osgood, who invites “Daphne” to an intimate evening on his yacht. Joe convinces Jerry to let him use Osgood's yacht to woo Sugar under his “Shell Oil” millionaire persona. Jerry reluctantly agrees to this as well as keeping Osgood busy on shore for the evening.

That evening, Joe's devious plan works to perfection. Jerry keeps Osgood occupied with an evening of romantic dancing while Joe works a cunning game of reverse psychology on Sugar. After ferrying her out to Osgood's yacht and pawning it off as his own, he weaves a tall tale about the freak death of a past love and how he is no longer able to feel love for any woman. Sugar, taking up the challenge to re-ignite his passions, kisses Joe repeatedly and clearly falls in love with his fictitious persona.

Sugar and "Shell Oil Junior" get further acquainted.

Back at the hotel in the morning, Joe returns from his evening of deception and snuggling with Sugar to find his pal Jerry in a bizarre daze. After a marathon evening of lively dancing, Osgood has proposed to him, and Jerry seems to actually be considering marrying the goofy old sod and extorting alimony checks from him after the inevitable annulment. Joe manages to snap Jerry out of this odd and felonious notion.

At the same time downstairs at the same hotel, one Spats Colombo has arrived for a meeting of mafia dons, all under the heading of a gathering of “Italian Opera” aficionados and presided over by head boss Little Bonaparte. Bonaparte has a serious bone to pick with Spats, as Toothpick Charlie had been a friend of his.

In the lobby, Joe and Jerry stumble across Spats, fortunately in disguise, but think that they've been discovered. They immediately hustle back to their rooms and pack for a hasty getaway. However, while clambering down the banister outside their room, they are spotted by Spats and his crew. A chase ensues, but the boys manage to elude capture by ducking under a banquet table. Unfortunately, the banquet is for the “Italian Opera” mobsters, including Spats. The banquet turns into a bloodbath as Bonaparte has Spats and his crew brutally gunned down. Joe and Jerry a discovered by Bonaparte, but the police arrive, allowing Joe and Jerry to slip away once again.

In the lobby, Joe and Jerry hide and overhear some of Bonaparte's goons explaining that they have all of the roads and public transportation routes out of town covered, in order to intercept Joe and Jerry. They realize that they can take Osgood's yacht to escape, and Jerry channels “Daphne” to make Osgood amenable. Osgood agrees, and the only order of business is for Joe to break away from Sugar without breaking her heart. He decides to once again use Osgood by sending Sugar some flowers and a diamond bracelet that Osgood had intended for “Daphne”. This initially crushes Sugar, but she decides to pursue her Shell Oil man as he flees to the shore with Joe and Osgood. She joins them on the boat just as they depart for Osgood's yacht. Joe finally comes clean to Sugar, dropping all masks, but she hardly bats an eye and accepts Joe, wholeheartedly.

Jerry, still dressed as Daphne and riding next to an elated Osgood, tries to let him down easily. Osgood is not so easily rebuffed, forcing Jerry to finally remove his wig and confess that he is, actually, a man. The euphoric Osgood misses not a beat and delivers the most timeless line of the film, saying, “Nobody's perfect.”

The love-struck Osgood and his muse, "Daphne"

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

Eh. Inconsistently entertaining.

Some Like It Hot has some really funny moments peppered into an underwhelming barrage of flat gags. The movie is clearly meant as a silly, screwball affair. From my reviews of earlier classic screwball comedies such as The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve, it should be clear that the genre is probably my second least favorite, with musicals taking the top spot. Some Like It Hot, however, eliminates the elements that I always despised, namely the focus on the rich and sophisticated class. By having the two main boobs (not counting Marilyn Monroe's) be average Joes (Josephines?), the condescension found in most screwballs is blessedly absent. Joe and Jerry are semi-lovable, if deceitful, morons who stumble their way through the movie. Unlike the typical “Cary Grant” protagonists of earlier screwballs, I found them far more amusing than annoying.

The humor is so intentionally silly that you can't help but laugh at times. This is mostly due to some great script work and top-notch comedic acting. While I couldn't care less for the endless gender humor (e.g. the fellas tripping in high heels, Jack Lemmon adjusting his fake breasts, et al), the interactions between Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe are priceless. Once Curtis adopts his “Shell Oil” persona, complete with a dead-on Cary Grant affectation, there are plenty of great moments between him and the laughably gullible Sugar Kane.

Here's some of the primo stuff, when Curtis and Monroe are hitting on all cylinders as "Shell Oil Junior" is trying to cunningly lure the dim-witted Sugar Kane into amore:

A personal side-note and observation: watching Marilyn Monroe in this movie is an interesting exercise, as a modern viewer. She was excellent at playing what amounts to a bimbo who is, in her own character's word, “not too bright.” More interesting to me, though, are the more subtle moments when she would be recounting past failures in love at the hands of abusive men. There are moments when, between sips of bootleg hooch, her eyes would narrow and her pain seemed eerily genuine. Knowing how Monroe's life played out and ended, I wondered just how much “acting” she was doing at these moments.

As funny as some of those moments are, there are plenty of duds to me. Nearly all of the supposedly funny moments with Spats Colombo and his gorillas were anything but. I got the sense that they almost didn't go far enough with the parody. All of the characters in the movie are meant to be cartoonish, but this concept was not fully realized with the gangsters, especially with their dialogue. Instead of being slyly ridiculous, their lines were merely hackneyed. Had some of the other characters' dialogue not been so sharp and clever, I might not have noticed, but compared to Curtis, Monroe, and Lemmon's lines, the writing for the gangsters seems a bit lazy.

One thing that distracted me a bit was the utter shallowness of the characterization, typified most by a lack of consistency. During the first portion of the film, Joe seems to be the slick-talking shyster and Jerry the level-headed, uptight straight man. Without warning, though, Jerry becomes the libidinous and irresponsible clown of the pair. Then, the voice of reason shifts back to Jerry's lips for the last part of the story. I know better than to ask for much character depth from such a goofy comedy, but a little bit of consistency would have been nice.

The plot is hardly worth mentioning. It was clearly just a device for setting up scenarios that, for mainstream Hollywood of the time, were probably rather risque. Having a bunch of nubile women scamper around in their underwear and bathing suits was probably titillating enough; the added element of Curtis and Lemmon's overtly lusty observations and comments almost certainly blazed new trails for popular sexual comedy. It goes without saying that having Marilyn Monroe's undulating curves and generously displayed cleavage, highlighted through Billy Wilder's direction, clearly sent the sex-o-meter into the red. Alas, in this day and age of Farrelly brothers and Judd Apatow flicks, such old-school fare is a relative lightweight.

Some Like It Hot is yet another movie which, if you know a little about cinema history, poses no mystery as to its lasting place in the annals of film. Still, it's another “classic” that I feel has faded to degrees in recent decades.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Some Like It Hot seems impervious to wear, as far as critics are concerned. Even now, it is ranked by the American Film Institute as the 22nd greatest American movie of all time, and THE best American comedy of all time. (I respectfully disagree.)

There are no real surprises as to what critics have loved about the movie, which are the same things that I found enjoyable: the sharp, farcical scenarios and dialogue and the timeless sensuality of Marilyn Monroe. Something that does surprise me is how many critics, including this original reviewer back in 1959, cite Jack Lemmon as turning in the strongest performance, for which he was even nominated for several awards. Lemmon was excellent, no doubt, but Tony Curtis provided me with far more laughs.

As he often does, Roger Ebert points out an interesting aspect – Monroe's ability to be such a sex-pot while remaining so genuinely innocent. He recounts the well-known (among hard-core film buffs, anyway) tales of the troubles with Monroe, including her trouble with the lines and the domineering presence of then-husband Arthur Miller. There's also the curious tale of Tony Curtis saying that kissing Marilyn Monroe was “like kissing Hitler.” Check out his review here.

Speaking of Monroe, something was confirmed for me that I made no mention of above – that she did, in fact, perform all of her own singing. I have to agree with the reviews that I read that state that she did outstanding work with them. She may not have been any kind of world-class vocalist, but she was certainly skilled enough to “sell” the lyrics, as Ebert put it. As a person who nearly always dislikes musical numbers in movies, I had absolutely no problems with any of them in Some Like It Hot.

Here's my favorite number from the movie:

Another point of note is that, due to its blatant sexuality, Some Like It Hot is credited as being one of several contemporaneous films that began to break down the Hays Production Code, the ratings code that had been in place for over two decades. In fact, it received a rating of “Condemned” by the “National Legion of Decency” back in '59. I have to think that that piqued the public's curiosity to no end. Fortunately, such Protestant ideals of art and censorship would be mostly shattered in another five or six years' time.

Considering that it's hailed as arguably the greatest closing line of all time, I have no choice but to finish up with this:

That's a wrap. 49 shows down, 56 to go.

Coming Soon: The World of Apu (1959):

The final installment of the Apu Trilogy. The second was an understated delight, and I'm intrigued to see how Satyajit Ray completed his tale of the thoroughly human Bengali boy.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.