Sixty years after its release, Some Like It Hot remains a timeless, triumphant comedy. This all the more remarkable given the number of problems experienced on-set, particularly a drug-addicted Marilyn Monroe, writes Chris Wasser
In the summer of 1958, on a sweaty film set in sun-drenched California, the folks behind the new Marilyn Monroe picture ran into a spot of trouble. The film was, of course, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and Ms Monroe — who’d made a habit of arriving late on set — couldn’t remember her lines.
The real kicker was that the scene that held everyone up the most contained just three words: “It’s me, Sugar.” That’s it. That’s all Monroe had to say. And, yet, she continued to make a mess of things. It got so bad, that Wilder eventually wrote the line on a blackboard.
“She just had a mental block,” he later explained, “that was it, she just could not say that line. And after 16 takes, she starts bursting into tears, so we have to remake the make-up, and after like, 53, I took her aside and I said, ‘Marilyn don’t worry’, and she said, ‘Worry about what?’ Such a strange, strange girl.” How is it, then, that 60 years since its world premiere in New York City in 1959, Wilder’s triumphant and timeless comedy classic manages to hide its troubles so well?
Indeed, the story behind one of the greatest films of all time begins in 1935 with the release of Richard Pottier’s French comedy, Fanfare d’amour (Fanfare of Love). Armed with a neat story about a couple of male musicians who disguise themselves as women, in order to join an all-female band, and make a few quid, Pottier’s film was later remade for West German audiences in 1951, with Kurt Hoffman in the director’s chair, and Dieter Borsche, Georg Thomalla and Inge Egger in front of the camera. It was a bigger hit than its predecessor — but nobody could have predicted that Hollywood might want to give this quirky and ambitious dramedy a new twist.
In the late 1950s, Billy Wilder — an Austrian-born American film-maker, who’d fled Germany in the 1930s, later setting up shop in Hollywood — thought he’d give it a go. Wilder had made his name with the likes of Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard. And, now, he had his sights set on comedy (he’d already worked with Marilyn Monroe, on 1955’s The Seven Year Itch).
Together with his screenwriting partner, IAL Diamond, Wilder decided to give his gutsy cover version a distinctly American flavour. They relocated the action to Chicago’s Roaring Twenties, where two oily jazz musicians — saxophonist, Joe (Tony Curtis), and his double-bass playing BFF, Jerry (Jack Lemmon) — are forced on the run after witnessing a mafia crime, loosely inspired by the St Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Later, they disguise themselves as women, in order to claim a spot in an-female troupe, headed for Miami. Thus, Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Daphne, and we’re off.
Along the way, our boys fall for the band’s ukulele player and singer, Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (a never-better Marilyn Monroe). But that’s only the half of it.
According to Wilder, who’d met one of his leading men at a Hollywood party in 1958, the casting of Tony Curtis was crucial to the success of Some Like It Hot. “You’re the handsomest kid in this town,” he’d told Curtis, over drinks, “Who else am I going to use?” As for the inimitable Jack Lemmon, well, he wasn’t the studio’s first choice.
Apparently, Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye were considered for the part of Jerry. Heck, even Frank Sinatra was offered the role — which he subsequently lost, after standing up Wilder on a lunch date. Later, Wilder saw Lemmon in 1957’s Operation Mad Ball, and knew he was the right guy for the job (the two would work together again on 1960’s The Apartment).
Lemmon took to his dual role a lot easier than the “self-conscious” Curtis, who initially found playing the part of Josephine rather difficult. What’s more, the film wasn’t supposed to be in black and white. That famous decision was made after initial screen tests found that the boys — all dressed up in frocks and make-up — looked “ghoulish” in colour.
But we need to talk about Marilyn. This was a tough time for Ms Monroe, whose acting coach, the notoriously prickly, Paula Strasberg, followed her everywhere. Monroe’s playwright husband, Arthur Miller, also interfered, and her addiction to pills, not to mention her spiralling mental health issues, didn’t help. All of which brings us back to Monroe forgetting her lines.
Poor Curtis and Lemmon (who took bets on how many takes Monroe would need) had to re-enact scenes over and over. They had to be on top of their game, too, because as soon as Monroe hit the back of the net, Wilder would yell ‘cut’ and that would be the scene that would make the final edit, regardless of how the boys had played.
Curtis, especially, disliked this fractious set-up. He said that kissing Monroe was “like kissing Hitler”. “She was under the auspices of Lee and Paula Strasberg,” he explained, “and when she finished a shot, she wouldn’t look at you — she’d look at them. Billy caught on to that very early, and after one shot, he said, ‘How was that for you, Paula?’”
But again, you’d never be able to tell that this film was such hard work. It’s the greatest magic trick ever pulled, and Monroe delivered the performance of her career. Even Wilder would admit that the hassle was worth it. Monroe may have been difficult to work with, but that’s a small price to pay for cinematic gold.
It’s hardly a surprise that Wilder’s film was made without approval from the Motion Picture Production Code — a tricky and conservative set of industry moral guidelines that had applied to most major US studio releases, between the years 1930 and 1968. Why did the ‘Hays Code’ disapprove? Well, maybe it had something to do with the sexual politics at the heart of this story. It’s a film about cross-dressing — and one that dares to toy with the idea of homosexuality.
No wonder Hollywood panicked.
In fact, when American producer David O Selznick heard that Billy Wilder was making Some Like It Hot, he warned his friend that punters were “going to walk out in droves”. Actually, that did happen, and the picture was later banned in Kansas. But Wilder refused to make changes, and his persistence eventually paid off.
Times, they were a changin’, and the success of Some Like It Hot is generally perceived to have been an effective two-finger salute — not to mention a causing factor — in the demise of the Hays Code. Oh, and the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency declared Some Like It Hot “morally objectionable”. If only they’d put that one on the poster.
That Some Like It Hot has aged as well as it has is a testament to its forward-thinking screenplay. It was significantly ahead of its time. One need only look at that fabulous final scene when Joe E Brown’s Osgood Fielding III learns Daphne is a man. He simply smiles and declares, “well, nobody’s perfect”. It’s a beautiful punchline, but it also goes deeper than that. It hints that Osgood had always known of Daphne’s true nature, and that he was okay with it. He was really in love with Jerry, and it’s this film’s classy handling of such thorny subject matter (it was 1959, remember) that sets it apart from the rest.
Nobody in Wilder’s funny and soulful joint is who they say they are (that’s sort of the point). Everyone is trying desperately to be something, or indeed, someone, they’re not. Some Like It Hot examines and highlights the importance and, indeed, necessity, of illusion when it comes to falling in love. Nobody is perfect, basically. Wilder’s film also pushes boundaries and limits. In fact, the two major things this film pokes fun at is the nature of showbusiness and, indeed, Hollywood’s perceived notion of masculinity. Oh, and the one-liners were — and still are — bloody magnificent.
A gloriously-assembled, romantic comedy with a brain — and a heart — Some Like It Hot is about as perfect a film as you’re ever likely to see. That’s why it grossed $40 million worldwide. That’s why it was nominated for six Oscars. That’s why, in 2017, Some Like It Hot was declared the best comedy of all time in a BBC poll of 253 international film critics.
You can’t argue with that. We wouldn’t want to.