I was chatting in the Gabbing Geek office with Watson, saying I was watching Some Like It Hot next for the AFI Challenge, and he chimed in to say it was the second best collaboration between Jack Lemmon and writer/director Billy Wilder, the first being The Apartment. As we talked about a shared affection for Wilder’s work, it occurred to me that Billy Wilder may be one of the least-known writers/directors to get multiple references on the AFI list. His work appears a total of four times, behind only Steven Spielberg as near as I can make out. That ties Wilder with Alfred Hitchcock, and puts him ahead of both Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick with three entries each.
Wilder truly is underappreciated in this day and age considering what he produced during his lifetime, so let’s take a look at a comedic retelling of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
OK, I kid a bit, Wilder plays the massacre more or less straight, and it isn’t quite the famous, real-world St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a large scale hit on numerous figures in the Chicago Underworld during the era of Prohibition. Instead, we see Chicago gangster “Spats” Colombo gun down a group of rivals, witnessed only by hapless musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon). The two barely get away and manage to find a job headed out of town. The catch? They have to go in drag as it’s an all-girl band. The band’s lead singer is Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), and while both men initially fall for her, Joe/Josephine eventually wins her over with another disguise and Jerry/Daphne has to fend off a silly billionaire looking for his hand in marriage.
That’s, in a nutshell, what happens. The mobsters comes back only to die, Joe and Sugar run off together, and Jerry’s unwanted fiance Osgood Fielding III doesn’t mind that Jerry is a man because nobody’s perfect.
Now, Wilder’s films are often known for their sharp, witty dialogue. Even his dramas tend to have those, and we have one more film of his coming up soon in the countdown that in many ways straddles genres. He’s also known for having a more unclassifiable style of comedy as discussed in a YouTube video I posted to Gabbing Geek once before. As such, like previous entry Tootsie, Some Like It Hot doesn’t always go for the quick and easy laugh of two men dressed like women. Considering this film came out in 1959, there are a number of bits that have aged the film in ways Wilder and his cast probably wouldn’t have expected. Though Jerry does initially try to win over Sugar while still in drag, or at least tries to play around with her and the other girls at the beach, he instead is followed by a much-married Fielding, and even dreams of marrying him. Sure, it’s strictly for the money for Jerry, but as he tells Joe about his engagement, Joe repeatedly reminds him that, at the time the film was both made and set, men couldn’t marry other men.
Now, I suppose we could ask if Jerry really was interested in something besides the money, and that could take the film in a new direction especially in regards to something like transgender rights being a thing that no one in 1959 would have even considered as an actual thing. But today, when Fielding just shrugs off the fact that his beloved Daphne is a man, well, that’s less of an obstacle in 2018 than it was 1959.
And even if the film doesn’t always go for the obvious joke about men in drag, it’s also obviously nowhere near as progressive on women’s rights as the aforementioned Tootsie. Sure, Joe and Jerry are both given unwanted romantic and sexual attention, but neither seems to learn to be a better man to women everywhere as a result. If anything, the fact Joe is “rewarded” with Sugar’s love at the film’s end, despite being nothing of what he says he was, says more about what lessons if any the guys learn than anything else.
However, I would be remiss if I somehow failed to mention Marilyn Monroe. This is her only time on the AFI list, and she does give a marvelous comedic performance in her general breathy way. Reading a bit on the backstory of Some Like It Hot actually shows she was having a bit of difficulty on-set, caused by a pill addiction and other problems. A number of her costars and Wilder found her difficult to work with at times, and the story of the making of this film seems to have been added to the long list of stories that detail how sad Monroe’s life must have been during the height of her celebrity. She was having problems from the sounds of things, and few around her seemed to realize or recognize that, or even just to sympathize with that. This may be another case where knowing too much about the making of the film hurts the viewer’s appreciation of it.
On a final note as I wrap this entry up, Wilder cast actor George Raft as Spats Colombo. Raft has a rather stern look to him, and a quick check on his career tells me he was best known in the 30s and 40s for playing more serious gangsters. That’s actually a nice touch of Wilder’s, an inside joke of sorts, having Raft playing the sort of role he always used to play to a different effect. It suggests Wilder had a great deal of affection for older movies and didn’t mind using that sort of knowledge to play a little bit of extra comedy into the mix for nascent film buffs. But that will be more obvious when we get to the final Wilder entry in the AFI Countdown which will be coming up very soon.
In the meantime…
NEXT TIME: We’re going back to 1957 for the wartime epic about madness and construction The Bridge on the River Kwai.