Some Like It Hot

DIRECTOR Billy Wilder’s classic American comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it would probably take a curmudgeon of significant proportions not to chuckle at this black and white classic.

Joe E Brown’s last line in the film has already passed into the legendarium of film – in fact the movie has been voted the greatest American comedy of all by the American Film Institute.

But its sparkle must belong to its three main stars – Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon – who are probably all in their prime in the movie, released in 1959.

Broke musicians Joe and Gerry, in wintry 1920s Chicago, at the height of the Depression and Prohibition, are playing at a secret speakeasy in a funeral parlour which is raided by the police after a tip off from a mobster. The mob, led by the inimitable George Raft, track down the squealer and wipe out him and his gang.

But the massacre on St Valentine ’s Day in a seedy garage is witnessed by the two musicians - Curtis and Lemmon - (saxophone and bow fiddle players), who escape.  

Desperate to leave Chicago, they take a job with an all-girl band in Florida, become Josephine and Daphne, and meet ukulele player Monroe, who has a history of being dumped by saxophone players.

Much of the classic comedy arises as a result of the sexual tension between the guys (as gals), the ensemble and Monroe, in the train en route to Florida.

At an illicit midnight party in the sleeper section  of the train, Monroe peeps her head through the curtains of Lemmon’s bunk to thank him for rescuing her after a flask of bourbon had slipped through her dress during  a previous rehearsal session.

(Incredulous at seeing such, after Lemmon asks for ‘his’ flask back, ensemble leader Sweet Sue says: “Didn’t you girls say you went to a conservatory?’ To which Lemmon replies: “Oh yes – for a whole year.” Sue: “I thought you said three years…”, to which Lemmon chirps: “We got time off….for good behaviour!).

Back at the party, Marilyn whispers to Lemmon, in his bunk: “I just wanted to thank you for standing up for me. If there’s anything I can ever do for you….”. “I can think of a million things…..” says Lemmon wryly.

On seeing Sweet Sue’s approach down the carriageway, Marilyn then jumps into Lemmon’s sleeper bunk.

“That’s one of them……..!” says Lemmon.

When discovering Daphne/Gerry’s feet are freezing, Marilyn starts warming them up, as only Monroe can, stating how she recalled how she and her sister uses to pretend to cuddle up in bed on cold nights.

Lemmon breaks out in a cold sweat  - and recalling Curtis’s demand that he remembers that he is a girl – not a red blooded male – chants vainly: “I’m a girl, I a girl….” as Marilyn bouncily rubs his feet.

On arrival at Florida, millionaire Joe E Brown falls for Daphne (Lemmon) and asks her out on a date on his yacht.

Curtis steals a blazer and glasses from Beanstalk, the co-leader of the all-girl band – and becomes ‘Junior’, a pretend millionaire who deliberately trips up Marilyn on the beach to gain her attention.

Talking in a mock Cary Grant-style accent  – hilariously so – he announces his family are connected to Shell Oil and that he has a yacht offshore (actually Joe E Brown’s).

While Lemmon and Brown tango to a blindfolded band, with roses twixt their teeth, Curtis, again fibbing, describes to a startled – and ravishing looking Monroe – how he can’t fall in love thanks to a tragic previous relationship.

He describes how on a previous vacation, he and a fiancée on vacation visited a precipice at the Grand Canyon. “Suddenly we had this impulse to kiss. I took a step towards her; she took a step towards me. I took off my glasses, she took off hers.

“On no,” winces Marilyn...

“Yes….eight hours later they brought her up by mule…”

The mob then arrives at the hotel, attending a ‘Friends of Italian Opera’ convention and the final ensuing hilarity roll outs.

Marilyn was 33 when SLIH was made and certainly at some point in the filming reportedly expecting (though just) through her relationship with then husband  Arthur Miller; (though Curtis in newspaper reports in the 2000s claimed there was a chance the baby was his). Marilyn would later miscarry.

Lemmon and Curtis were both 34 and probably at their acting best; Lemmon would go on to win a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Daphne; though it probably should have been as ‘actress’!

Marilyn’s sparkly ‘almost nude’ look dress featured when she sings: ‘I Want to Be Loved By You’, and the one she wears while sat on the piano in the cocktail lounge before being ‘kissed’ by ‘Geraldine’ helped Orry-Kelly win the Best Costume Oscar.

The story goes that Lemmon and Curtis even donned their costumes and tottered in high heels into a ladies’ toilet to practise their roles – and to see what reaction they garnered.

Curtis in later years said he struggled to get used to the ‘sex change’ compared to Lemmon. Lemmon, he says, naturally became the flouncy, chatty type when in drag; he (Curtis) concentrated on the ‘pout’ and more refined look.

But the film also has a serious side; it was risk taking at the time for its depiction of cross dressing; though Shakespeare used the notion as a plot device numerous times, 500 years before the movies.

Lemmon also highlights the difficulties women face in a ‘man’s world’: Lemmon gets ‘pinched in the elevator’ and says: “Men are rough, greasy and hairy – with eight hands – and they all just want one think from a girl…”. Curtis has to put up with the amorous bell boy at the hotel who looks half her/his age.

The film was an instant hit; Marilyn Monroe worked for 10% of the gross in excess of $4 million, Tony Curtis for 5% of the gross over $2 million and Billy Wilder 17.5% of the first million after breakeven and 20% thereafter.

Tony Curtis is frequently quoted as saying that kissing Marilyn Monroe was like "kissing Hitler". However, during a 2001 interview with Leonard Maltin, Curtis stated that he had never made this claim. In his 2008 autobiography, Curtis notes that he did make the statement to the film crew, but that it was meant in a joking manner.

The famed final line of the film, "Well, nobody's perfect," was only supposed to be used temporarily until Wilder and writer Diamond thought of a better line. Thankfully that better line never came nor was needed.

What is not often known about the film is that is spawned a one-off pilot which never quite made it to TV.

An unsold television pilot was filmed by Mirisch Productions in 1961 featuring Vic Damone and Tina Louise. As a favour to the production company, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis agreed to film cameo appearances, returning as their original characters, Daphne and Josephine, at the beginning of the pilot.

Their appearance sees them in a hospital where Jerry (Lemmon) is being treated for his impacted back tooth and Joe (Curtis) is the same O blood type.

In 1972, a musical play based on the screenplay of the film, entitled Sugar, opened on Broadway, starring Elaine Joyce, Robert Morse, Tony Roberts and Cyril Ritchard, with book by Peter Stone, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and (all-new) music by Jule Styne.

A 1991 production of this show in London featured Tommy Steele and retained the original title. In 2002, Tony Curtis performed in a stage production of the film. He portrayed the character originally played by Joe E. Brown.

Perhaps one of the most enduring tests of popularity of the film is that it is difficult think of who might play which role were the film to be re-made today; in effect making it unremarkable.

Jim Carrey, in theory, might fit as the nervy, hilarious Lemmon character – but it’s more difficult to think of a character that might play Curtis’s role; and volumes have been written about Marilyn’s distinct uniqueness and irreplaceability.

When it comes to replacing legends, perhaps nobody’s perfect.