In 2017, BBC conducted a poll to announce the funniest movie ever made, and the winner was Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). Its plot is a classic screwball plot: two musicians dress in drag and go through an adventure, with romantic elements along the way.
Joe, played by Tony Curtis having the best Cary Grant manners, is a jazz saxophone player and a ladies’ man, while Jack Lemmon plays a double-bass player named Jerry. The story is set in 1929 during the prohibition era and our players work in a speakeasy. Having accidentally witnessed a mob massacre, our heroes flee the city and join an all-female band in Miami. To prepare for the part, Curtis and Lemmon walked around Goldwyn Studios disguised as women to see how long it would take to get noticed. They even managed to fix their makeup in a women’s toilet, and no one gave them a second look.
The overall plot becomes less important here since refreshing dialogue parts and character development drives the rest of the film. Marilyn Monroe plays Sugar in one of her most memorable roles, and the scene in which she sings I Wanna Be Loved by You shows why her charisma and beauty never aged. Joe is eager to win Sugar by pretending to be a millionaire, a Shell Oil heir named Junior, and Jerry gets engaged to a real millionaire, still disguised as a female, which opens a classical comical world of mistaken identity. A preview audience was laughing so hard when Jerry announced his engagement to Joe, so they missed a lot of dialogue. It had to be reshot with Lemmon as Jerry playing with maracas to allow for a laughing break between the lines.
Jerry: Have I got things to tell you!
Joe: What happened?
Jerry: I’m engaged.
Joe: Congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?
Jerry: I am!
Joe: But, you’re not a girl! You’re a guy, and, why would a guy wanna marry a guy?
Marilyn Monroe was addicted to pills at the time and was reportedly awful to work with and it usually took her 35–40 takes to get a single line right. According to Curtis, one scene required Monroe to go through some drawers and ask “Where’s the bourbon”, but she was constantly failing by saying “Where’s the bottle?”, “Where’s the whiskey?”, “Where’s the bonbon?”, so Wilder put a note with the correct line in one of the drawers. But then Monroe was confused about which drawer to open, so Wilder had the note pasted in every drawer. She got it right in the 59th take. That was the reason why a single scene at the beach was scheduled for three days of shooting since Monroe had many complicated lines, but they managed to film it in only 20 minutes. However, Billy Wilder did admit that Monroe player her part wonderfully. In 1959, considering another film with Monroe, Wilder stated: “I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I’m too old and too rich to go through this again.”
What’s else to say about Billy Wilder’s directing since he’s one of the best film directors of all time? A strong sound design corresponds perfectly with the film dynamics, and the tango scene between Jerry (as Daphne) and her fiancee is cutting the Joe/Junior and Sugar dialogue perfectly. Jazz in the background corresponds to our jazz duo but also revoking the gangster-movie tension, and anticipating the future film noir from the soundtrack point of view. The movie plays with the idea of cross-dressing and homosexuality, which, even though the Hays code era was over, only Wilder had the guts to do it at the time. The dialogue is fast when it needs to be fast to illustrate the tension, and it’s slow when it needs to be slow, as it is in Junior/Sugar scenes.
Reportedly, Billy Wilder held a frame in his office saying “What Would Lubitsch Do”, honoring his mentor. Wilder’s characters are both speaking and doing things needed for their development since he believed that nothing should get in the way of a good story.
Sugar: Water polo? Isn’t that terribly dangerous?
Junior: I’ll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.
All of Wilder’s movies accentuate the writing with their tight plots and memorable dialogues. And the ending of the film is one of the funniest and most memorable lines ever made. I do not believe in spoilers, but hearing and seeing it for the first time seemed like a cathartic experience, so I urge you to experience it yourself.
Braund, Simon (2006). Masterpiece: Some Like It Hot (1959). Originally: Empire, December 2006, published online in 2019.
Ciampaglia, Dante (2016). 13 Sizzling Facts About Some Like It Hot. Mentalfloss.com.
Curtis, Tony (2009). The Making of Some Like It Hot. Wiley & Sons.
Maslon, Laurence (2009). Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion. HarperCollins.
Parkinson (2016). Tony Curtis Talks About Marilyn Monroe. YouTube.com.
Schlöndorff, Volker (2006). Billy Wilder Speaks. DVD interview, Kino Lorber Films.