Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Like It Hot (1959)

  Marilyn Monroe was the preeminent sex symbol of an America where any hint of sexuality was stamped out by so-called decency groups that regularly condemned people or work that did not tow the group's initiative of protecting society from salacious subject matter. When she was alive many in the press reduced her to the dumb blonde stereotype and after she died Marilyn couldn't escape from the public's need to turn her into a martyr, an angelic beauty struck down by the harsh realities of the film business. Many cling to the myth of Marilyn; they relish the less savory aspects of her life and pour through all sorts of material that they can find, looking for a juicy piece of gossip not yet mined by the tabloids or the press. In truth it is the public's failure to give her career some serious thought that contributed to her death. The characters Marilyn played were rarely dumb blonde stereotypes, but because she was beautiful and not ashamed of her body she became a threat to respectable society and as such was denounced as indecent.
  Over the decades, since it was first released, Some Like It Hot has gained a reputation for being one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Yet to label it merely as a comedy does the film a great disservice. Billy Wilder, the director of the film, takes elements of the Prohibition Era gangster picture and uses it as the foundation to build the comedic story from.
  Wilder opens the picture in Chicago 1929 right in the middle of a police chase. Bullets fly as a police car catches up with a fleeing hearse. The hearse gets away, but the casket inside seems to be leaking. When the casket's lid is lifted open there is no body to be found though; rather we, the audience, are shocked to discover that it is a coffin filled with bootleg whiskey.
  One remarkable thing about the film is how Wilder takes his time to establish the story and most of the characters before he gives us the very first joke. For the first thirty minutes we are basically watching a story about two down on their luck musicians, Joe and Jerry, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. And unlike what many directors would probably do today he punctuates the end of the first act not with a big laugh, but rather a mass murder; a reenactment of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in itself an event which marked the end of the Roaring Twenties.
  After this grisly event we cut to a train station with both male leads already dressed as women, Joe becoming Josephine and Jerry changing his name to Daphne. It is a testament to Wilder's abilities as a screenwriter and director that he never underestimates the audience's intelligence. Where most director's would have placed a montage sequence showing how Joe and Jerry transform into women Wilder wastes no time and just shows us the end result. Instead of completely relying on the one-note joke of two men dressing in drag he makes the movie into a sex comedy; exploring what was then mostly unchallenged ideas about gender roles, sexual identity, and attitudes about sex.
  The scene at the train station is also important because it introduces the third major character in the story; Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe. Like many films which feature Marilyn, various parts of her body are called attention to; at the train station Lemmon's character refers to her rear as "Jell-O on springs", when Josephine and Daphne formally introduce themselves to Sugar the camera is carefully framed to show Marilyn's exposed thigh and garter belt, and during the scene where Marilyn sings "I Wanna Be Loved By You" she wears a sheer see-through gown that teases the viewer as to what might lay underneath.
  Although there has never been a shortage of horror stories about working with Marilyn, especially during this movie's production, she is without a doubt at the top of her game in this film. The part of Sugar could have been easily played as a cliche gold digger type or as the usual victim of circumstances, but Marilyn doesn't allow the character to fall into simple generalizations. In the film Sugar Kane is a gold digger, but Marilyn charms us and we root for her to break from her usual role as an emotional punching bag. When she appears onscreen we practically forget about Joe and Jerry.
  With a story about two men who dress in drag it is practically mandatory to address the issue of gender roles. The film does this in several ways. First is Sugar's preference for men who aren't just millionaires but also wear glasses because to her they seem "much more gentle, and sweet, and helpless." Her character, unlike many typical female characters in movies then and now, rejects the usual protector type and opts for security instead. Sugar wants a man to depend on her instead of being dependent on them. Joe, believing he now has all the information he needs to win Sugar over, invents a new identity for himself as an effeminate millionaire who speaks with a Cary Grant affectation. All of this culminates with a seduction scene where it is Sugar who plays the aggressor and Joe is the passive one; pretending not to react to all of Sugar's attention.
  Of course the comical side of the gender role issue is explored by Jerry who gradually blurs the line of gender itself. At first when Jerry puts on her Daphne costume he relishes the idea of being in an all girl band, thinking of himself as a kid in a candy store, but he eventually starts to fit in as "one of the girls." A reason for this maybe due to how Wilder establishes that Jerry is more weak willed than Joe is; the scenes in Chicago clearly show that Joe is the dominant one in their friendship. And so it is quite believable that Jerry would begin to buckle under the strain of having to maintain a completely unfamiliar identity. A perfect example of the battle between Jerry's male and female side is during the tango-dance sequence between Jerry as Daphne and Osgood Fielding, a millionaire himself who tries to seduce Daphne. Throughout the scene Osgood complains to Daphne to stop leading and although the look on Daphne's face is that of annoyance they continue to dance and with each step and spin she takes Daphne sinks deeper into her new identity till finally all that is practically left is Daphne.
  Some Like It Hot has rightfully earned its place as one of the greatest film comedies of all time by never opting to go for the easy joke. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond took the time to create a well crafted story and interesting characters and so they didn't need to bombard an audience with joke after joke to keep their attention. They realized that the best jokes come from the situations that characters get themselves into. To sustain laughter you cannot always cater to audience expectations, instead you must peel away the layers of a scene and find the unexpected areas where no one thought laughter could come from.

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