Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Some Like It Hot

Tony Curtis (as Joe or Josephine) and Jack Lemmon (as Jerry or Geraldine, erm, oops as Daphne)  
Curtis (as the wealthy yachtsman) argues with Lemmon as he (she) can't stop dancing the rumba.
Last weekend Jennifer and I enjoyed the great film Some Like It Hot (1959) directed by Billy Wilder. The comedy features wonderful performances Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. It is interesting that this movie scores high (98%) on Rotten Tomatoes and is ranked 88 (as of this post) on the Top 250 list at the Internet Movie Database and yet almost no one I know has ever seen or remembers the film. Of course, with a few exceptions, the older the film is the less likely it is for anyone to see it in our times.

Still, Some Like It Hot is a 9 in my book and possibly a 10. We are talking about one of the greatest movies ever made and it is absolutely hilarious as well. It is funny on the screen with several gags and humorous situations, even a little slapstick. But, it is also funny in a very intellectual way. This is no lightweight comedy. It does not force the viewer to think but it does reward a thoughtful viewer with a greater depth of humor.

In a nutshell, Lemmon (playing the character of Jerry in the film) and Curtis (Joe) are two musicians down on their luck in 1929 Chicago. They witness a rather horrible execution committed by the mob and barely escape with their lives. Now, they have a stream of creditors wanting them and the mob is after them as well. In desperation they decide to pose as two women in an all-girl's band that is headed to Florida. It is the only job they can find.  This will ensure them some badly needed cash as well as offer them cover for their escape.

Of course, Lemmon and Curtis in drag are superb and richly comical to watch. Their feminine gestures and voices are just believable enough to make it legitimate and just silly enough to make it funny.  They meet Monroe (known aptly enough as Sugar) who is the band's lead singer and ukulele player. She is not having much better luck with her life than the two guys dressed as girls. She is a drinker, depressed, and cannot seem to have a meaningful relationship with a special guy. Of course, the three of them bond with all sorts of interesting things happening to the guys who are pretending to be just part of a trainload of girls in a band headed for a gig in Florida.

Ultimately, the situation becomes even more complicated. Curtis falls in love with Monroe and decides to adopt yet another persona. He will play a wealthy yacht owner vacationing in Florida and lure Monroe onto "his" boat for a night together. How is this possible?  Well, the real yacht owner (played by Joe E. Brown) has the hots for Lemmon and the two of them spend the evening dancing the tango and the rumba together while Curtis is able to put the moves on Monroe.

There's a lot more to all of this. Curtis becomes three characters in the film; Joe, his female persona, and the wealthy yachtsman who Curtis embellishes with an obvious Cary Grant impersonation. At one point Lemmon, enraged by the continued risk-taking of their hare-brained schemes, criticizes Curtis for his Grant impersonation. "Nobody sounds like that," he hilariously proclaims. This is just one of many instances where the film becomes a kind of pun on itself.

There are all sorts of little things that make the situation evermore absurd. At the beginning of the charade, Curtis (Joe) and Lemmon (Jerry) decide to call themselves Josephine and Geraldine respectively but, rather spontaneously, Lemmon introduces himself to Monroe as "Daphne" instead. This surprises both Curtis and the audience. It is a frequent occurrence that these characters do things spontaneously to embellish their personas in a way that makes the audience laugh and the other characters befuddled.  Curtis, later with Monroe as passenger, does not know how to make the little motor boat that transports them to the yacht go forward. He is undaunted, however, and nonchalantly (in Cary Grant style) stirs the thing in reverse.

Lemmon confronts Curtis as the latter (in parts of three different characters) emerges from a bath tub.
In one scene toward the end of the film, Curtis gets to portray all three of his personas, switching from one to the other as the situation arises. He has just returned from the beach where he has wooed Monroe as the yachtsman.  He is soaking in the thickly soapy tub with his wig on as Josephine as Monroe comes in to tell Lemmon (as Daphne) and Curtis about this wonderful new guy she’s just met.  When Monroe is called away, Curtis emerges from the bath in his drenched yachtsman captain’s attire and gets into an argument as Jerry with Lemmon while wearing Geraldine’s hair and the wealthy guy’s costume. It is quite funny to watch but even more comical when you consider the complexity of the thing.  This is just one example of several comical scenes where Curtis and Lemmon get the opportunity to play multiple characters in the same scene.

Monroe sort of spilling out into the frame.  Her sexuality is front and center in this film. 
It has been many years since I last saw Some Like It Hot and I had forgotten what a well-crafted film it truly is. Curtis does a really terrific job in this film and displays a range of acting that perhaps matches anything else in his career. Lemmon is one of the great actors in motion picture history. Here we get to see him early in his career. Of course, for sheer sex and sizzle you have Monroe, one of the great icons of American sensuality. She is featured here relatively late in her career, but she gets to show off a decent singing voice, adequate acting, and – oh yeah - all those curves.

I can’t classify the film as “timeless.”  It is a bit dated in some of its situations and sources of humor.  But, if you can get into the classic 1950’s movie mindset you are in for a wonderful experience.  As I said, the film can be enjoyed purely on the surface.  There’s plenty to make you laugh.  But, there is definitely a deeper level to the film, one that presages great contemporary comedies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou or Brazil.  To that extent Some Like It Hot is an influential movie and one you should not miss.  If nothing else you can watch it for free on youtube.
A terrific, funny scene featuring the three main actors at a ritzy beach resort on the 1929 Florida coast.  Curtis is pretending to be something he isn't in order to win Monroe's heart.  Lemmon taunts Curtis, taking clever verbal stabs at him.  Monroe doesn't understand why Daphne is behaving like that. 

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