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Review: Some Like It Hot, a Funhouse of Sexual Exposure, Tickles Anew in 4K

The film is an outrageous, hilarious, and amazingly unpretentious trip through a funhouse of sexual identities.

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Some Like It Hot
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first time Marilyn Monroe, in the role of the perfectly named Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, walks onto the screen in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, even the train cat-calls her with a whistle of steam. Heading off to front the Sweet Sues, an all-girl brass band starting a residency as the house band at a posh Florida hotel, Sugar Kane has vowed to land a rich hubby, and the way she retrieves a flask of whiskey from her garter, it’s hard to imagine any man passing up the opportunity. And yet, most men that enter Wilder’s frame are far more interested in Joe (Jack Lemmon) and Jerry (Tony Curtis), dolled-up in drag to secure places (as upright bass player and tenor saxophonist, respectively) in the Sweet Sues and hide out from the gangsters they witnessed mowing down a snitch and his associates in a garage—a recreation of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Even the gangsters, late in the film, openly flirt with Joe and Jerry on an elevator, thinking they’re really women.

Of course, Joe and Jerry are the only men who seem interested in actually courting Sugar Kane, a fantastical suspension of disbelief that goes hand in hand with the idea that no one can tell that Curtis’s Josephine and Lemmon’s Daphne aren’t hiding something under their Orry-Kelly dresses. At first, the setting is prohibition-era Chicago (right as the Great Depression was beginning to sink in), where Joe and Jerry play as part of a small jazz band in a speakeasy run out of a funeral parlor by criminal kingpin Spats Colombo (George Raft). A raid puts an end to Joe and Jerry’s paychecks, but it fails to capture Spats, who orders—and is present for—the massacre, as are the two out-of-work musicians. Finding themselves the targets of a statewide hunt by both the cops and the mob, Joe and Jerry powder their noses, jump a train, and join up with the Sweet Sues, only to find themselves pursued even there, this time by horny bellboys and elderly millionaires dealing with their umpteenth divorce.

The brilliant rat-a-tat dialogue is courtesy of Wilder and his regular writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, who had conceived Some Like It Hot as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor. Only Curtis remained on throughout the project’s entire gestation, as the unbeknownst romantic lead to Monroe’s romantically challenged showgirl. Indeed, Sugar Kane falls hard for Joe, but only as he takes on the guise of Junior, the preposterously wealthy heir to the Shell Oil fortune, in a bid to get the voluptuous singer in the sack. Cynicism, as throughout Wilder’s career, is pervasive here, and once she hears about Junior’s fortune, Sugar Kane can barely keep her dress on in front of Joe, who, as Junior, mimics Cary Grant in yacht-owner drag.

Sugar Kane’s willingness to indulge in the perverse proclivities of the rich is more grounded here than that of Monroe’s Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but then, Some Like It Hot is a more ambiguous affair than Howard Hawks’s extravagantly ludicrous musical. Up to and including the film’s legendary final line, spoken by the great Joe E. Brown as Jerry’s chief suitor, Wilder’s sex comedy regularly toys with sexual definitions, even obliterating them at times, most noticeably through Lemmon’s fearless comic performance. At first attempting to suppress himself from taking Sugar for a roll in his bunk, Jerry later comes back from a date with Brown’s Osgood, shaking maracas and walking on air; Joe insists he repeat “I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a man” as a sort of mantra. Money, more than gender or even sexual attraction, is the ultimate aphrodisiac here, and if this deeply cynical belief is slightly upended by the film’s ending, as in The Apartment, the idea is never entirely dispelled by the narrative.

Panned by nearly every critic with a pen or typewriter upon its release, Some Like It Hot became a box office sensation, garnering six Academy Award nominations and, decades later, a place at the very top of the AFI’s list of the 100 best American comedies ever made. Wilder’s film was a triumph over intellectualism, and it came to be worshipped by intellectuals who, after coming to terms with the fact that the film wasn’t co-written by Rudolf Arnheim, noticed the precise auterism at work within it. Magnificently paced and terrifically funny at nearly every turn, Some Like It Hot was imbued with an inherent distrust of capitalism and big business that Wilder regularly expressed in an only slightly covert manner. Here, the stiff, quasi-charming man who says he will one day run Shell Oil is, to put it simply, a liar and a sneak. It’s a blunt indictment of a popular U.S.-based company, but nevertheless a long ways away from the manic, radically profane cynicism that Wilder deployed in One, Two, Three, wherein Coca-Cola has more or less become America itself.

By the end of Some Like It Hot, Sugar Kane is singing “I’m Through with Love,” but it’s a song she’s been singing all along, gossiping with Josephine about all the lousy musicians who’ve romanced her and then bilked her for all she’s worth. The lead singer of the Sweet Sues doesn’t show up until a solid 30 minutes into the film, but make no mistake, Monroe’s importance in this picture is second only to Wilder’s. A notorious presence on the set, the actress flubbed her lines, arrived late, and tested the saintly patience of her director and co-stars, but on the big screen, Monroe holds the audience in her gaze without a flicker of hesitation. Of course, Monroe’s behavior could partially be blamed on the tragic state of her private life; she had grappled with drug problems for months prior to the shoot and suffered a miscarriage toward the end of production. Nevertheless, whatever she put Wilder, Lemmon, Curtis, the crew, and their financial backers through was worth it for what’s on screen: an outrageous, hilarious, and amazingly unpretentious trip through a funhouse of sexual identities.

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Joe E. Brown Director: Billy Wilder Screenwriter: Billy Wilder, I. A. L. Diamond Distributor: Park Circus Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Buy: Video

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