Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot is an age old comedic farce
often regarded as one of the best comedies of all time (Mondello, 2008). It
centers on two men who, after witnessing a mob hit in prohibition era Chicago,
are forced to flee south to Florida disguised as women in an all-female band,
the ‘Society Syncopators’. Much of the film follows the two men, Joe – known as
Josephine when in drag, and Jerry – now Daphne, as they try to hide their true
identity from suitors and compete for the affections of Sugar Kane (played by
Marilyn Monroe), all while staying out of the path of the gangsters. The film
follows classic farce conventions, starting with an ridiculous and outlandish
idea, and then building on more and more absurdity while following a strict
logic. Some Like It Hot builds on Wilder’s past films such as Sabrina (1954) and The Seven
Year Itch (1955), creating a film that perfectly merges the romantic comedy
and the farce. The film is not only representative of Wilder’s writing and
directorial style, but it also plays with traditional ideas of gender and
sexuality in the fifties, helping to pave the way for later films to explore
these themes more seriously.

            Billy Wilder
was born in 1906 in an Austrian province to a Jewish family (Phillips, 2009, p.

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3). During Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s Wilder moved to Hollywood
in 1934 and primarily worked as a screenwriter for a few years before his major
directorial debut with the film The Major
and the Minor (1942) (Phillips, 2009, p. 12). Most of Wilder’s early
screenplays were comedies, a trend that continued as he began to direct films
as well. Although he wrote and directed a handful of popular and well-received
dramas and film noirs like Double
Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard
(1950), from the mid-fifties onward he made almost all comedies, primarily with
his writing partner I. A. L. Diamond who also co-wrote Some Like It Hot.

            Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn
Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, was based on the screenplay of an earlier
French film Fanfare of Love (Richard
Pottier, 1935) where two musicians don a number of disguises in order to join
different music groups. Wilder saw the last story of the two men in drag as
part of a female band and took off with it as the basis of a farce (Phillips,
2009, p. 212). Diamond and Wilder added dramatic stakes to the story with the
witnessing of a gangland killing, set it in the 1920s for plausibility and then
Some Like It Hot emerged. The film
follows strict and straightforward logic leading the two characters Joe and
Jerry from one outrageous situation to another to keep the plot tight and
snappy. Wilder held a very firm view on what about films he liked and what his
own films should be. He once said “I don’t do cinema. I make movies” (Wilder,
1986). Wilder did not have a taste for foreign films that he felt were pretentious,
or films that were more about showing off camera techniques than the actual storyline.

He wanted to make movies that he would like to see and that would appeal to the
average American moviegoer, the kind of people who were Hollywood’s bread and
butter. Wilder quipped that he had ten commandments for filmmaking, “the first
nine are thou shalt not bore. The tenth is thou shalt have right of final cut”
(Wilder). To make films that are enjoyable to watch was his primary goal and he
did not hold pretentions about making cinematic ‘art’ or try to involve himself
in political movements. His films were not intended to be subversive statements
about hot button issues, but rather reflections and satires on human nature and
their many flaws when engaging in relationships.

            Wilder was
very much interested in portraying the realities of American culture and their
day to day life. While the outlooks of many of his films are perhaps a tad
cynical, the sharply written and intelligent stories like Sabrina and The Seven Year Itch,
brilliantly prod at a society obsessed with consumption and materiality (Armstrong,
2002). The writing collaboration between Wilder and Diamond was at its peak
when they wrote Some Like It Hot. Like
his other films the dialogue is smart and snappy, and although the film runs at
two hours long, it never slows down as it jumps from visual gag to situational
comedy seamlessly. One of the scenes that best shows off Wilder’s comedic
mastery is after Joe and Jerry come in after a night out with their respective
suitors. Jerry as Daphne had been out tango dancing with a rich man named
Osgood comes in shaking maracas dreamily announces that he is engaged. As Joe
and Jerry go back and forth with Joe trying to reason with Jerry that he cannot
marry Osgood, Wilder instructed Jerry to shake the maracas and dance in between
each line. As the hilariousness of their conversation escalates – Joe tells him
there is a problem with him marrying Osgood, and Jerry replies of course there
is, he needs Osgood’s mother’s approval first – the maracas and Jerry’s dreamy
dancing become more than just visually funny. His musical pauses are sculpted to
allow time for audience laughter after each of Jerry’s quips so as to not miss
the next joke. Wilder made sure each of his punch lines would be heard, pacing
the scene perfectly for the audience reaction (Phillips, 2009, p. 228). Wilder’s
genius is his mastery of the American language and structure and his ability to
direct the scenes for maximum impact. Wilder’s faith in his scripts made him an
extremely strict director by most standards. He did not allow room for ad-libbing
and changes of lines and this was sometimes detrimental to the production
process. During one scene, Monroe was purportedly pilled out and kept saying “where
is that bonbon” or “where is that whisky” instead of the line “where is that bottle”.

Wilder did forty-seven takes, pasting the line in multiple places on the set in
order to make sure she said it properly. While this anecdote speaks to some of
the more extreme consequences of Wilder’s directing (and the beginning of the
decline of Monroe), it does not change the fact that Wilder achieved
outstanding results from many of the actors and actresses he directed. He
directed fourteen different actors that were nominated for Oscars for their
performances, three of which (Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, and Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie) actually winning.

            When Some Like It Hot was released in 1959,
it was mostly noted for its portrayal of male crossdressing throughout the
film. Gender expressions and sexualities that were outside the traditional was
not talked about in the media at all. While talking about sex became more and
more okay as the 50s went on, there was no room for serious discussions of
queerness in mainstream media. During the 50s women’s roles in their home and
professional lives were also expanding. While the image of the perfect obedient
housewife and mother had previously dominated advertising, the 50s saw the rise
of America’s most famous and enduring sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe and her
popularity open society to the idea of women being independent sexual beings. Some Like It Hot directly and indirectly
addresses both of these topics, and although Wilder plays with both ideas
throughout the film, it is left up to interpretation if the film actually moved
mainstream society towards acceptance of queerness and new gender roles or only
reduced their characters to be nothing more than comedic fodder intended to
make the audience laugh.

Although gender roles for women at the
time were expanding, Some Like It Hot
offers a very limited view on what a woman can be. Marilyn Monroe in the role
of Sugar Kane, the singer and ukulele player for the ‘Society Syncopators’
plays a sultry blonde who’s biggest goal is to marry a rich man with glasses,
and whose only purpose seems to be a figure for the men on screen and the men
in the theaters to lust after. Monroe herself was said to have originally
turned down the role saying “she had played dumb characters before, but never
this dumb” and she did not want to play someone who was so dim-witted that “she
can’t tell that the two women she is becoming friends with are men in drag” (Phillips,
2009, p. 214). Although she did eventually concede to Wilder, her character
Sugar is never given any agency of her own in the movie. She goes from
breathless bombshell trying to escape down south and marry rich to a seductress
trying to arouse any sort of physical response from a Joe pretending to be a
rich but impotent heir to Shell oil.

While her vapid characterization is
played up for the sake of the farcical and comedic elements, the casting of
Monroe as Sugar Kane felt more like an attempt to capitalize on the fact that
she was the subject of every man in America’s dream woman, and this role wanted
to exploit that image she had made of herself. Maria Jesus Martinez, in her
essay on gender in Some Like It Hot notes
that the film was conscious of Monroe’s use and depiction and was “openly commenting on what she had come to signify and expecting the
audience to see her not only as Sugar Kane… but, above all, as Marilyn Monroe,
the actress and the public person” (1998). She represented all of the new attitudes towards sex and
female sexuality that were emerging in the 50s while still conceding to being
nothing more than an object of desire for the protagonists and the audience
members. Her entrance in the film is directly contrasted with Joe/Josephine’s
and Jerry/Daphne’s own clumsy imitations of women. They may be dressed as
women, but they are still men, and the camera takes on the form of their gaze
as it follows Monroe as she swings her hips and sashays towards the train
focusing only on her shapely lower half. She gives a high pitched little yelp
when her bottom is blasted with steam from the train (recalling one of the most
famous images of her pushing down her white dress as steam comes up from the
subway in the film The Seven Year Itch).

Even though Joe and Jerry should have much more pressing matters to worry
about, it is clear that she is the object of their desire and the conflict is
now how the two of them are going to keep up their disguise while competing for
Sugar’s affection. Ultimately, Sugar Kane’s role in the film (and by extension,
Monroe’s) can be reduced down to the display of a “female sexuality
subordinated to male pleasure” (Jesus Martinez, 1998). Yes, she possesses an
innate sexuality that had not previously been celebrated in mainstream society,
but Sugar is not in the film to empower herself and own her sexuality. She is
ogled at and tricked and runs away with the man who tricked her in the first
place because that is how she must fulfill her role as the ultimate male
fantasy.

Besides Monroe’s portrayal of Sugar Kane
and the issues of that character, Some
Like It Hot deals primarily with themes of gender and homosexuality with
the two male characters in drag for most of the film. While this theme seems
very progressive for the time period, Wilder never actually intended for there
to be any subversive message relayed to the audience. He certainly was not
interested in expressing any sort of agenda. Crossdressing has appeared in
stories since the ancient Greeks, and Wilder was only using it as an
interesting narrative device. Wilder’s decision to shoot in black and white was
even attributed to the fact that he thought Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis looked
like “flaming fagots” in full makeup during color tests (Phillips, 2009, p. 217).

While Joe and Jerry are disguised as
women they are always in juxtaposition to the many women that surround them who
are a “whole other sex” from the women that Josephine and Daphne are trying to
be. By the rules of the farce, none of the other characters, friends and
romantic interests alike, are able to tell that these two muscled 6-foot women
are actually men. The comedic elements come from Joe and Jerry failing so
spectacularly at being women to the audience’s eye, yet still being forced to
go through with the whole charade as they get involved with increasingly
ridiculous incidents. Even scenes that, on their own, can be viewed as subversive
images, like Joe as Josephine kissing Sugar on stage in front of an audience is
immediately followed by a shot of Joe’s masculine legs marching upstairs in
heels he can barely walk in. In this sense the film is prompting “the audience
to laugh at comic crossing, thereby affirming its allegiance to cultural norms”
(Liberfeld and Sanders, 1998). Any challenge of societal expectations that
might come from an image of two women kissing is immediately undercut by the
following image reminding the audience that Joe is very much a man and that
scene is meant to be read as funny more than anything else.

Even the men that deem Josephine and
Daphne as desirable –Osgood who is a millionaire mama’s boy and had been
married several times before, and a short bellhop who cannot be more than 20 –
are characterized as goofy and outlandish individuals who are ridiculous in
their own right, and made even more so by the fact that Joe and Jerry are the
objects of their affections (Lieberfeld and Sanders, 1998). Outside of their
relationships with Joe and Jerry, these two men read as unusual and odd, and
their attachment to the unusual women that are Josephine and Daphne clearly
marks them as the only ones who would fall for and be interested in their
masquerade. No ‘normal’ man would fall for such poorly executed ruses, and so
Osgood and the bellhop’s infatuation with the women is something for the
audience to laugh at. The laughter that those characters provoke “becomes a policing agent of sexual norms and helps mark
homosexuality and transvestism as deviant, even freakish” (Lieberfeld and
Sanders, 1998). The social rules in the 50s pervaded mainstream culture,
leaving any self-expression that fell outside what was normal was left on the
fringes of society and only entered conventional society as something to mock
and ridicule. All aspects of the comedy invites the audience to laugh at what
is happening on screen. The situations that Joe and Jerry find themselves are
meant to be funny because they are absurd, what they are doing is so outside of
the societal norms, that were they not posed in comedic situations, the
audience would consider them more weird than hilarious. In fact, one of the
earliest screenings of the film was shown to an audience who had watched an
adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Cat
on a Hot Tin Roof immediately before. Reportedly no one in the audience
laughed at all during Some Like It Hot,
believing it to be a serious melodrama as well. Jack Lemmon remembered people
leaving in droves saying “what the hell is this,” not understanding that the
film was meant to be a comedy (Phillips, 2009, p. 224). Without the audience
priming themselves for a light comedy poking fun at two men in skirts and
heels, they are forced to take the picture more seriously – which garners a
much less enthusiastic reaction. While they may be happy to laugh at men in
drag fending off potential male suitors, the moviegoers in the 50s still were
not ready to accept the idea of homosexuality and men in drag in reality.

Even though Some Like It Hot did not actively try to subvert any societal
norms, it still paved the way for similar themes to be explored more seriously
in later films. The film did not receive approval from the Motion Picture
Production Code due to its content and dialogue, but was released anyway and
met with great success and approval by audiences and critics alike. Variety
magazine called it “a whacky, clever, farcical comedy that starts off like a
firecracker and keeps on throwing off lively sparks till the very end” (Variety
Staff, 1959). The New York Times applauded the creators of the film for
creating a “rare, rib-tickling lampoon that should keep them and the
customers…chortling with glee” (Weiler, 1959). The Hollywood Reporter summed up
their feelings neatly by writing that the film “should be a winner in any town
in any state” (THR Staff, 1959). The complete commercial success of the film
despite the lack of MPPC approval made it clear that the authority of the code
was weakening, with some critics considering Some Like It Hot to be one of the last nails in the coffin for the
code (Mondello, 2008). Shortly after Some
Like It Hot was released the Motion Pictures Association began to consider
a classification system to replace the hard rules of the code. In 1968 the code
was finally replaced with the rating system that Hollywood uses today. One year
later Midnight Cowboy (John
Schlesinger, 1969), a drama that overtly deals with prostitution and
homosexuality, won the award for Best Picture at the Oscars. Filmmakers could
explore ‘mature’ subject matter without having to condemn those subjects to fit
within the code guidelines.

Some Like It Hot continues to hold it place as one of the best loved
comedies of all time and as one of Billy Wilder’s most celebrated films. The
commercial and critical success of the film speaks to the genius of Wilder and
Diamond’s screenplay and Wilder’s capable directing skills. Together the two of
them “developed a completely unbelievable plot into a broad farce in which
authentically comic action vies with snappy and sophisticated dialogue” (Weiler,
1959). Their brilliance with dialogue can be summed up with the enduring and
oft quoted final line “nobody’s perfect” which falls right in with the legacy of
Wilder’s other memorable endings like “shut up and deal” from The Apartment (1960) and “I’m ready for
my close up” out of Sunset Boulevard.

An intelligent and witty film from start to finish, Some Like It Hot will also be remembered for its part in ending the
Motion Picture Production Code due to its popularity despite the subject and
themes of the film. And while the film mostly made light of cross-dressing and potential
homosexuality, the fact that it was shown on screen to audiences and was wildly
successful opened the door for later movies to explore queer narratives seriously
and in many different contexts, which in turn helped shift mainstream society
towards acceptance as well.