Some Like It Hot (1959)

+++ Chicago, 1928: By accident, two hapless, penniless musicians (Gerald and Joe, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) become witnesses to a mob hit. And now they are running away from the mobsters, who don’t like loose ends. Without money, their only chance to get out of town and as far away as possibly is to join a travelling orchestra who are on their way to Florida. But there is a hitch: it is an all-girl band. +++

This is the first Marilyn Monroe picture I ever really watched. Growing up, everyone around me seemed obsessed with Marilyn Monroe – and Elvis. Not James Dean, curiously, he never caused so much as a blip on the radar. Now, I never understood people being obsessed with celebrities, much less dead ones. And it didn’t help that Marilyn and Elvis both embodied types of music that meant nothing to me, that both did not represent any cultural point of reference for me, and that both were constantly “sold” on sex-appeal while they held none for me (– not that I have any business judging the sex-appeal of Elvis).

So I chalked both of them off as “fads”. Remarkably long-lasting fads, but fads nonetheless. And so all I had ever seen of Monroe’s films were some minutes on TV of a film in which she played a performer in some sort of variety show; as well as a brief scene from this very film, Some Like It Hot – a scene that Monroe was not even in.

Now, let’s somewhat erratically jump back to my review of 1937’s Riding on Air: this was the first Joe E. Brown film I had ever seen – before that I had never even heard of Brown. And while I found that film very sub-par, in the very last sentence of my review I stated that I was intrigued enough by Brown to be determined to check out some of his other films. Now, so far I have not managed to see any other film with him in the leading role; but as it turns out, I own a DVD copy of Some Like It Hot that I took home from a thrift store at some point (it is probably the only Monroe film currently on my shelf) – and as Joe E. Brown has a rather famous supporting role in that film, I recently sat down to watch it, killing two birds with one stone: Watching another performance by Brown while also adding my first Monroe film to the blog.

A big factor that speaks in favour of the film even before seeing it, is the fact that is was directed by Billy Wilder; especially considering how much I enjoyed One, Two, Three.

Watching the film, two things stood out for me, even before we get into discussing the film itself: firstly, Brown’s part is somewhat larger than I had assumed it would be; and secondly, Monroe actually looks “normal”. Maybe not normal by everyday standards, but certainly normal by Hollywood standards. I think her image has been so distorted in the decades since her death – in ads, sketches, references in film and on TV: you always see that almost grotesque vixen bombshell. And by contrast seeing her here as an (almost) ordinary girl was really refreshing and a bit of a relief.

The film has somewhat of a four-act structure. The first act includes the criminal pre-story and the subsequent mob-hit our two male leads witness. This whole prohibition-era Chicago story is incredibly well done, with lovely sets and “mob enforcer” characters that nicely balance the thin line between being threatening and comical.

The short second act consists of the train journey to Florida and serves to establish Monroe’s character, “Sugar”, and her developing relationship with Gerald’s and Joe’s faux personas.

The third act takes place at the Florida hotel where the band is playing. Here Gerald and Joe are increasingly at odds because of their rivalry regarding Sugar. While Joe has the better plan and thus the upper hand, Gerald’s female alter ego somehow ends up being courted by a clueless millionaire scion played by Joe E. Brown.

The fourth act includes them running from the mob again, culminating in a fast-paced chase that ends in an unexpected manner before the two find themselves on the run for a third time.

Joe E. Brown is highly enjoyable in this film and pulls off an impressive dance choreography that shows how much of a professional he was. And Marilyn Monroe not only delivers a great performance in general, she also gives some amazing deliveries of comedic dialogue.
But I did not just enjoy Monroe and Brown, all the performances in this film are great. But I do have problems with the choices Lemmon and Curtis made for their female personas. Lemmon’s character, Gerald, is a quiet, careful, and reasonable man, who only gets dragged into trouble by his irresponsible, womanising and gambling friend (Curtis’s Joe). And as the film progressed I began to wonder why in the second act, once they are in women’s clothing, the straight-laced Gerald becomes the giddy, girl-crazy one and why the irresponsible Joe suddenly becomes the more careful, responsible one.

If I understand the making-of interview with Curtis correctly, he and Lemmon started off their shooting schedule with scenes in which they are already in women’s clothing. And they approached their female personas by simply trying to find a groove that worked for them and then they stuck to that. So they may not have been aware that the choices they made would then feel at odds with their male personas once the film was assembled.
That being said, if you regard them in an unconnected way, both the male and female performances by Curtis and Lemmon are great and provide a lot of comedy (even though they are, at times, “overselling” it).

The smaller roles are also very well cast, with Joan Shawlee and Dave Barry standing out in particular. And George Raft is amazing as the fearsome mob boss – he somehow manages to carry this character through all of the comedic surroundings, still remaining menacing. And as I mentioned earlier, the “mob enforcer” types he is surrounded with are played by actors who nicely balance the thin line between comedy and menace.

As for the music, the big band numbers are enjoyable. I believe Monroe has at least three solo songs in this film. Of these, the 1922 song “Runnin’ Wild” has a nice rhythm to it. I did not care much about the others (especially the by now terribly overused “I wanna be loved by you”), but it has to be said that her final song, “I’m through with love” is at least well-chosen tonally and fits in nicely with the plot at that point.

Some Like It Hot does have a few slow sequences in the third and fourth act, but in general it keeps a steady pace that moves along nicely without dragging. One of the film’s strengths is the dialogue, even though it is not as exceptionally great as the dialogue in One, Two, Three.

All-in-all, I’ll rate this film at 7.5 out of 10.

PS: Since I had never seen Some Like It Hot, I obviously missed this until now: but I now believe that the mobsters’ banquet at the end of Let’s All Kill Harold is a clear homage to a similar scene in Some Like It Hot.

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