Billy Wilder’s 1959 film Some Like It Hot is an age old comedic farceoften regarded as one of the best comedies of all time (Mondello, 2008). Itcenters 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 asJosephine when in drag, and Jerry – now Daphne, as they try to hide their trueidentity from suitors and compete for the affections of Sugar Kane (played byMarilyn Monroe), all while staying out of the path of the gangsters.
The filmfollows classic farce conventions, starting with an ridiculous and outlandishidea, and then building on more and more absurdity while following a strictlogic. Some Like It Hot builds on Wilder’s past films such as Sabrina (1954) and The SevenYear Itch (1955), creating a film that perfectly merges the romantic comedyand the farce. The film is not only representative of Wilder’s writing anddirectorial style, but it also plays with traditional ideas of gender andsexuality in the fifties, helping to pave the way for later films to explorethese themes more seriously. Billy Wilderwas born in 1906 in an Austrian province to a Jewish family (Phillips, 2009, p.3). During Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s Wilder moved to Hollywoodin 1934 and primarily worked as a screenwriter for a few years before his majordirectorial debut with the film The Majorand the Minor (1942) (Phillips, 2009, p. 12).
Most of Wilder’s earlyscreenplays were comedies, a trend that continued as he began to direct filmsas well. Although he wrote and directed a handful of popular and well-receiveddramas and film noirs like DoubleIndemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard(1950), from the mid-fifties onward he made almost all comedies, primarily withhis writing partner I. A. L. Diamond who also co-wrote Some Like It Hot. Some Like It Hot, starring MarilynMonroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, was based on the screenplay of an earlierFrench film Fanfare of Love (RichardPottier, 1935) where two musicians don a number of disguises in order to joindifferent music groups. Wilder saw the last story of the two men in drag aspart 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 thewitnessing of a gangland killing, set it in the 1920s for plausibility and thenSome Like It Hot emerged. The filmfollows strict and straightforward logic leading the two characters Joe andJerry from one outrageous situation to another to keep the plot tight andsnappy. Wilder held a very firm view on what about films he liked and what hisown 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 theaverage American moviegoer, the kind of people who were Hollywood’s bread andbutter. Wilder quipped that he had ten commandments for filmmaking, “the firstnine 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 hedid not hold pretentions about making cinematic ‘art’ or try to involve himselfin political movements.
His films were not intended to be subversive statementsabout hot button issues, but rather reflections and satires on human nature andtheir many flaws when engaging in relationships. Wilder wasvery much interested in portraying the realities of American culture and theirday to day life. While the outlooks of many of his films are perhaps a tadcynical, 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 peakwhen they wrote Some Like It Hot.
Likehis other films the dialogue is smart and snappy, and although the film runs attwo hours long, it never slows down as it jumps from visual gag to situationalcomedy seamlessly. One of the scenes that best shows off Wilder’s comedicmastery is after Joe and Jerry come in after a night out with their respectivesuitors. Jerry as Daphne had been out tango dancing with a rich man namedOsgood comes in shaking maracas dreamily announces that he is engaged. As Joeand Jerry go back and forth with Joe trying to reason with Jerry that he cannotmarry Osgood, Wilder instructed Jerry to shake the maracas and dance in betweeneach line. As the hilariousness of their conversation escalates – Joe tells himthere is a problem with him marrying Osgood, and Jerry replies of course thereis, he needs Osgood’s mother’s approval first – the maracas and Jerry’s dreamydancing become more than just visually funny. His musical pauses are sculpted toallow time for audience laughter after each of Jerry’s quips so as to not missthe next joke.
Wilder made sure each of his punch lines would be heard, pacingthe scene perfectly for the audience reaction (Phillips, 2009, p. 228). Wilder’sgenius is his mastery of the American language and structure and his ability todirect the scenes for maximum impact.
Wilder’s faith in his scripts made him anextremely strict director by most standards. He did not allow room for ad-libbingand changes of lines and this was sometimes detrimental to the productionprocess. During one scene, Monroe was purportedly pilled out and kept saying “whereis 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 inorder to make sure she said it properly. While this anecdote speaks to some ofthe more extreme consequences of Wilder’s directing (and the beginning of thedecline of Monroe), it does not change the fact that Wilder achievedoutstanding results from many of the actors and actresses he directed. Hedirected fourteen different actors that were nominated for Oscars for theirperformances, 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 thefilm.
Gender expressions and sexualities that were outside the traditional wasnot talked about in the media at all. While talking about sex became more andmore okay as the 50s went on, there was no room for serious discussions ofqueerness in mainstream media. During the 50s women’s roles in their home andprofessional lives were also expanding. While the image of the perfect obedienthousewife and mother had previously dominated advertising, the 50s saw the riseof America’s most famous and enduring sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe and herpopularity open society to the idea of women being independent sexual beings.
Some Like It Hot directly and indirectlyaddresses both of these topics, and although Wilder plays with both ideasthroughout the film, it is left up to interpretation if the film actually movedmainstream society towards acceptance of queerness and new gender roles or onlyreduced their characters to be nothing more than comedic fodder intended tomake the audience laugh.Although gender roles for women at thetime were expanding, Some Like It Hotoffers a very limited view on what a woman can be. Marilyn Monroe in the roleof 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 menin the theaters to lust after. Monroe herself was said to have originallyturned down the role saying “she had played dumb characters before, but neverthis dumb” and she did not want to play someone who was so dim-witted that “shecan’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 characterSugar is never given any agency of her own in the movie. She goes frombreathless bombshell trying to escape down south and marry rich to a seductresstrying to arouse any sort of physical response from a Joe pretending to be arich but impotent heir to Shell oil.
While her vapid characterization isplayed up for the sake of the farcical and comedic elements, the casting ofMonroe as Sugar Kane felt more like an attempt to capitalize on the fact thatshe was the subject of every man in America’s dream woman, and this role wantedto exploit that image she had made of herself. Maria Jesus Martinez, in heressay on gender in Some Like It Hot notesthat the film was conscious of Monroe’s use and depiction and was “openly commenting on what she had come to signify and expecting theaudience 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 andfemale sexuality that were emerging in the 50s while still conceding to beingnothing more than an object of desire for the protagonists and the audiencemembers. Her entrance in the film is directly contrasted with Joe/Josephine’sand Jerry/Daphne’s own clumsy imitations of women. They may be dressed aswomen, but they are still men, and the camera takes on the form of their gazeas it follows Monroe as she swings her hips and sashays towards the trainfocusing only on her shapely lower half. She gives a high pitched little yelpwhen her bottom is blasted with steam from the train (recalling one of the mostfamous images of her pushing down her white dress as steam comes up from thesubway in the film The Seven Year Itch).Even though Joe and Jerry should have much more pressing matters to worryabout, it is clear that she is the object of their desire and the conflict isnow how the two of them are going to keep up their disguise while competing forSugar’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 sexualitysubordinated to male pleasure” (Jesus Martinez, 1998).
Yes, she possesses aninnate 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 isogled at and tricked and runs away with the man who tricked her in the firstplace because that is how she must fulfill her role as the ultimate malefantasy. Besides Monroe’s portrayal of Sugar Kaneand the issues of that character, SomeLike It Hot deals primarily with themes of gender and homosexuality withthe two male characters in drag for most of the film.
While this theme seemsvery progressive for the time period, Wilder never actually intended for thereto be any subversive message relayed to the audience. He certainly was notinterested in expressing any sort of agenda. Crossdressing has appeared instories since the ancient Greeks, and Wilder was only using it as aninteresting narrative device. Wilder’s decision to shoot in black and white waseven attributed to the fact that he thought Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis lookedlike “flaming fagots” in full makeup during color tests (Phillips, 2009, p. 217).While Joe and Jerry are disguised aswomen they are always in juxtaposition to the many women that surround them whoare a “whole other sex” from the women that Josephine and Daphne are trying tobe. By the rules of the farce, none of the other characters, friends andromantic interests alike, are able to tell that these two muscled 6-foot womenare actually men. The comedic elements come from Joe and Jerry failing sospectacularly at being women to the audience’s eye, yet still being forced togo through with the whole charade as they get involved with increasinglyridiculous incidents.
Even scenes that, on their own, can be viewed as subversiveimages, like Joe as Josephine kissing Sugar on stage in front of an audience isimmediately followed by a shot of Joe’s masculine legs marching upstairs inheels he can barely walk in. In this sense the film is prompting “the audienceto laugh at comic crossing, thereby affirming its allegiance to cultural norms”(Liberfeld and Sanders, 1998). Any challenge of societal expectations thatmight come from an image of two women kissing is immediately undercut by thefollowing image reminding the audience that Joe is very much a man and thatscene is meant to be read as funny more than anything else. Even the men that deem Josephine andDaphne as desirable –Osgood who is a millionaire mama’s boy and had beenmarried several times before, and a short bellhop who cannot be more than 20 –are characterized as goofy and outlandish individuals who are ridiculous intheir own right, and made even more so by the fact that Joe and Jerry are theobjects of their affections (Lieberfeld and Sanders, 1998). Outside of theirrelationships with Joe and Jerry, these two men read as unusual and odd, andtheir attachment to the unusual women that are Josephine and Daphne clearlymarks them as the only ones who would fall for and be interested in theirmasquerade.
No ‘normal’ man would fall for such poorly executed ruses, and soOsgood and the bellhop’s infatuation with the women is something for theaudience to laugh at. The laughter that those characters provoke “becomes a policing agent of sexual norms and helps markhomosexuality and transvestism as deviant, even freakish” (Lieberfeld andSanders, 1998). The social rules in the 50s pervaded mainstream culture,leaving any self-expression that fell outside what was normal was left on thefringes of society and only entered conventional society as something to mockand ridicule. All aspects of the comedy invites the audience to laugh at whatis happening on screen. The situations that Joe and Jerry find themselves aremeant to be funny because they are absurd, what they are doing is so outside ofthe societal norms, that were they not posed in comedic situations, theaudience would consider them more weird than hilarious.
In fact, one of theearliest screenings of the film was shown to an audience who had watched anadaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Caton a Hot Tin Roof immediately before. Reportedly no one in the audiencelaughed at all during Some Like It Hot,believing it to be a serious melodrama as well. Jack Lemmon remembered peopleleaving in droves saying “what the hell is this,” not understanding that thefilm was meant to be a comedy (Phillips, 2009, p.
224). Without the audiencepriming themselves for a light comedy poking fun at two men in skirts andheels, they are forced to take the picture more seriously – which garners amuch less enthusiastic reaction. While they may be happy to laugh at men indrag fending off potential male suitors, the moviegoers in the 50s still werenot 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 societalnorms, it still paved the way for similar themes to be explored more seriouslyin later films. The film did not receive approval from the Motion PictureProduction Code due to its content and dialogue, but was released anyway andmet with great success and approval by audiences and critics alike. Varietymagazine called it “a whacky, clever, farcical comedy that starts off like afirecracker and keeps on throwing off lively sparks till the very end” (VarietyStaff, 1959). The New York Times applauded the creators of the film forcreating a “rare, rib-tickling lampoon that should keep them and thecustomers…chortling with glee” (Weiler, 1959). The Hollywood Reporter summed uptheir feelings neatly by writing that the film “should be a winner in any townin any state” (THR Staff, 1959).
The complete commercial success of the filmdespite the lack of MPPC approval made it clear that the authority of the codewas weakening, with some critics considering Some Like It Hot to be one of the last nails in the coffin for thecode (Mondello, 2008). Shortly after SomeLike It Hot was released the Motion Pictures Association began to considera classification system to replace the hard rules of the code. In 1968 the codewas finally replaced with the rating system that Hollywood uses today. One yearlater Midnight Cowboy (JohnSchlesinger, 1969), a drama that overtly deals with prostitution andhomosexuality, won the award for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Filmmakers couldexplore ‘mature’ subject matter without having to condemn those subjects to fitwithin the code guidelines.Some Like It Hot continues to hold it place as one of the best lovedcomedies of all time and as one of Billy Wilder’s most celebrated films. Thecommercial and critical success of the film speaks to the genius of Wilder andDiamond’s screenplay and Wilder’s capable directing skills. Together the two ofthem “developed a completely unbelievable plot into a broad farce in whichauthentically comic action vies with snappy and sophisticated dialogue” (Weiler,1959).
Their brilliance with dialogue can be summed up with the enduring andoft quoted final line “nobody’s perfect” which falls right in with the legacy ofWilder’s other memorable endings like “shut up and deal” from The Apartment (1960) and “I’m ready formy 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 theMotion Picture Production Code due to its popularity despite the subject andthemes of the film. And while the film mostly made light of cross-dressing and potentialhomosexuality, the fact that it was shown on screen to audiences and was wildlysuccessful opened the door for later movies to explore queer narratives seriouslyand in many different contexts, which in turn helped shift mainstream societytowards acceptance as well.