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Film Friday: "Some Like It Hot" (1959)

In honor of Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis, who both had birthdays this week, I thought that for this week's "Film Friday" I would bring you the only film they made together.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot (1959) follows the crazy adventures of Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two hapless Chicago jazz musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in February 1929. In a desperate attempt to get out of town after being spotted by gang leader "Spats" Colombo (George Raft) while fleeing the scene of the crime, Joe and Jerry disguise themselves as women, "Josephine" and "Daphne," and take a job with an all-female band headed to Miami. During the train trip, they meet the beautiful Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), the band's vocalist and ukulele player. Both Joe and Jerry are immediately smitten with her, but keep their true identity a secret.

Once they arrive in Miami, "Daphne" catches the eye of an elderly millionaire named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), who repeatedly tries to pick her up. At the same time, Joe tries to woo Sugar by posing as the heir to the Shell Oil company, "Junior," who happens to talk exactly like Cary Grant. While Junior and Sugar are enjoying their first night together, Daphne accepts Osgood's marriage proposal after dancing the tango with him until dawn. A couple of days later, Spats and his henchmen show up the hotel where the band is staying for a summit conference with a rival gang. The Chicago mobsters immediately recognize Joe and Jerry, who then realize they must flee again. After several chases, they witness additional mob killings, this time of Spats and his crew. Free at last, Joe immediately discards his diguise and declares his love for Sugar. Jerry, still as "Daphne," comes up with a series of reasons why he and Osgood cannot get married, ranging from a smoking habit to infertility. Osgood, however, dismisses them all; he loves Daphne and is determined to go through with the wedding. Infuriated, Jerry finally takes off his wig and shouts, "I'm a man!" The unfazed Osgood simply responds, "Well, nobody's perfect."

Jerry: Look at that! Look how she moves! That's just like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!

Billy Wilder and co-writer I. A. L. Diamond, who had previously worked together the romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, got the idea for Some Like It Hot from a French film named Fanfare d'amour (1935). With a screenplay by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, this was a farce about two unemployed musicians who disguise themselves as women in order to find work in an all-female dance band. However, the original script of Fanfare d'amour was untraceable, so producer Walter Mirisch found a copy of Kurt Hoffmann's German remake Fanfaren der Liebe (1951). He purchased the rights to the script and Wilder worked with this to develop a new story. In brainstorming with Diamond about the plot, Wilder decided to set the film in the Roaring Twenties, which audacity and style strongly appealed to him, and construct it as a satire of the old gangster pictures. Discarding the English title Fanfares of Love and replacing it with Some Like It Hot, they initiated the casting process as soon as they began working on the screenplay.

Tony Curtis was the only actor Wilder considered for the role of the saxophone player, Joe. A World War II veteran who witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in September 1945, Curtis made his uncredited screen debut in Robert Siodmak's noir Criss Cross (1949), starring Burt Lancaster. His breakthrough performance came nearly a decade later, when he was cast as a scheming press agent in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which also featured Lancaster. The following year, he received his only Academy Award nomination for playing a bigoted white escaped convict chained to the black Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones (1958). Wilder and Curtis had met whenthey were both working at Paramount Pictures; at the time, Wilder was shooting the war drama Stalag 17 (1953), while Curtis was playing the title role in Houdini (1953). One night before a film screening at the house of producer Harold Mirisch, brother to Walter, Wilder offered Curtis the role and he quickly jumped at the chance to work with the acclaimed director.

Billy Wilder, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon
on the set of Some Like It Hot
Wilder initially approached Frank Sinatra for the role of Jerry, the bass fiddler player. Although Sinatra liked the story when he first heard it, he failed to show up for the meeting with Wilder. He then considered Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis, before ultimately deciding on Jack Lemmon after seeing him in the military comedy Operation Mad Ball (1957). Lemmon, who had won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts (1955), immediately accepted the part, not wanting to lose the opportunity the be in a Billy Wilder picture. "If another director had asked me to dress in drag, I'd have ran like a jack-rabbit," Lemmon later said. "Since it was Billy Wilder, I accepted as I trusted him completely, and the script was the funniest thing I had ever reads and probably still is." Some Like It Hot marked the first of seven films Lemmon would make with Wilder and Diamond between 1959 and 1981. These included The Apartment (1960), the Best Picture winner at the 33rd Academy Awards, Irma la Douce (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966).

For the role of Sugar Kane, Wilder initially pursued musical star Mitzi Gaynor, who had recently garnered a Golden Globe nomination for her role in Joshua Logan's South Pacific (1958). But then Wilder unexpectedly received a letter from Marilyn Monroe saying that she was available and would like to work with him again. Hoping to recreate the hit they had had with The Seven Year Itch (1955), the director immediately offered her the role of the kooky singer and sent her a five-page summary of Some Like It Hot. "Marilyn was like smoking," Wilder later said. "I know she was bad for my health, but I couldn't give her up."

Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe
Born Norma Jean Mortenson, Monroe began her career as a model during World War II, before Ben Lyon signed her to 20th Century Fox in 1946. Making her debut in Dangerous Years (1947), she emerged as one of Hollywood's most bankable stars following performances in Niagara (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). After attending acting classes with Paula Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York in the fall of 1955, Monroe was eager to move from playing dim-witted blondes to more serious roles. When she read the synopsis of Some Like It Hot, she was enraged and refused to play a character so stupid that she did not even realize that her two best girl friends were actually men in drag. It was her husband at the time, playwright Arthur Miller, who convinced her to take on the role by pointing out that the scenario was well-structured and could potentially be a good script.

Getting into costume involved much time and energy for Curtis and Lemmon, who arrived every day of filming at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios at 5:30 in the morning. First, they would have their face, chest and legs shaved, before being rushed to the wardrobe department, where they would then be buckled into special tight-fitting underwear to be able to wear a dress. Afterwards, they would have their eyebrows plucked, several layers of make-up applied and their hair twisted into tiny pincurls so that it would lie flat under the wigs. Before production started, Lemmon challenged Curtis to try out their disguises in public to see if they could pass themselves off as women. They went into the ladies' room in the studio lobby and then sat in front the mirror pretending to fix their make-up. They were amazed to find out that none of the women that entered the room showed any interested in them. When the two actors told Wilder of their experience, he told them not to change a thing and humorously remarked that Curtis looked like Joan Crawford, while Lemmon resembled Mae West.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag
To help coach Curtis and Lemmon in the art of female impersonation, Wilder hired Vander Clyde, a famous Texan drag queen known in Europe as Barbette, whom the director remembered from his younger days in Berlin. Since Curtis wanted to play Josephine as a restrained, sophisticated lady, he took Barbette's advice on how to walk and behave like a woman. Lemmon, on the other hand, saw Daphne as a goofy character and much less lady-like, so he did not think he should walk like a woman, but rather like a man trying to walk like a woman.

I was too inhibited to go all out like Jack did, but it worked out all right because it gave some yin and yang. Jack was afraid if he listened to Barbette there'd be nothing of himself in the part. He'd become Daphne and lose Jack. He preferred to keep half of each. It was a wise move and Billy approved of it, so he let Barbette go.
(Tony Curtis)
 By the time Monroe was cast as Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot, she was on the verge of an emotional breakdown. After suffering two miscarriages in the last two years, her drug use had increased and her mental health had started to deteriorate. Because of this, Wilder found Monroe especially hard to work with. Even before filming began, she complained about the film being shot in black and white; for six years, all of her films had been photographed in Technicolor, so she naturally expected that this one would be too. As Wilder explained, Some Like It Hot had to be shot in black and white, otherwise the make-up of the two men in drag would be "absurdly garish and not convincing." Wilder also had to cope once again with her chronic tardiness, which caused several delays in the production schedule. One day the excuse she gave for being late to the set was having gotten lost on her way to the studio (at this time, she had been working there for seven years).

Filming on location in San Diego
 Principal photography on Some Like It Hot took place in California between August and November 1958. Exteriors scenes were shot in location at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, which served as the Seminole Ritz Hotel in Miami in the film. During the final weeks of filming, Wilder found it more and more difficult to work with Monroe, as she kept forgetting her lines and required several takes until she performed her scenes properly. One scene in which she had to simply to say "It's me, Sugar" took 47 takes to get right, even with the line written on a cuecard. Another scene required her to rummage through a set of drawers and say "Where's that bourbon?" After 40 takes of her saying "Where's the whiskey?", "Where's the bottle?" or "Where's the bonbon?", Wilder decided to paste the correct line inside one of the drawers. When Marilyn became confused about which drawer contained the line, Wilder had it pasted inside every drawer. It took 59 takes for Monroe to deliver the line coherently.

Lemmon and Curtis, with whom Monroe had most of her scenes, grew weary and annoyed after the tenth and fifteenth take of the same shot, for she would cut in the middle of every one, angry or exasperate because she had a word wrong   or, more often, convinced that she could do the scene better. "Sometimes this stretched out to three days, something we could have completed in an hour," Wilder later recalled, "because after every bad take Marilyn began to cry, and there would have to be new makeup applied." Nevertheless, Wilder admitted that Monroe had matured as an actress: "She has her own instinct for reading a line and an uncanny ability to bring something to it."

Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe at the
New York premiere
Released through United Artists, Some Like It Hot premiered at the Loew's State Theatre in New York on March 29, 1959 to great critical and commercial acclaim. A. H. Weiler of The New York Times called it "a rare rib-tickling lampoon that should keep them, the [audience], chortling with glee." Weiler also praised the principal cast, commenting that Monroe "contributes more assets than the obvious ones" and that Lemmon and Curtis "give vigorous, top-flights performances that add greatly to wacky goings-on." For their part, Variety described Some Like It Hot as "probably the funniest picture of recent memory. It's a whacky, clever, farcical comedy that stars off like a firecracker and keeps on throwing off lively sparks till the very end." At the 32nd Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in April 1960, Some Like It Hot won the Oscar for Best Costume Design (Black and White) and received five additional nominations Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Black and White) and Best Art Direction (Black and White).

Some Like It Hot is without a doubt one of Billy Wilder's funniest and most vital works, as well as one of the most popular Hollywood films of the post-war period. It is also one of my absolute favorite films of all time, classic or otherwise. I love its outrageous sense of humour, the hint of nostalgia for the films of the 1930s, Tony Curtis' dead-on imitation of Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe's kookiness and vulnerability. But the number-one star of Some Like It Hot is definitely that comedy genius who called himself Jack Lemmon. I just love how competely ungraceful and wacky and vivacious he was as "Daphne." I don't think any other actor could have played that role as brilliantly as Jack did. I have never seen Ben-Hur (1959), but I swear Charlton Heston robbed that Oscar from Jack Lemmon.

Marilyn Monroe: The Biography by Donald Spoto (1993) | Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder by Gene D. Phillips (2010) | The Defiant One: A Biography of Tony Curtis by Aubrey Malone (2013)  | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. Great post!! I really want to visit the Coronado Hotel where they filmed. I love when Tony Curtis talks like Cary Grant. After this film they asked him what picture he wanted to do and he said "A submarine movie with Cary Grant" (Operation Petticoat). I wonder if he was embarrassed to see Grant after imitating him!

    1. Thank you. :)
      I'd love to go to the Coronado Hotel too. It looks beautiful out there.

      I don't think Tony was embarrased to see Cary Grant after imitating him. Even though Cary apparently said "I don't talk like that" after seeing the film, I think he was actually quite delighted by Tony's imitation. Tony was just in absolute awe of working with Grant, who was his idol, and the two eventually became quite good friends.


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