Some Like It Hot (1959)

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We might be done with the lists for the two Coursera film courses, but that’s no reason to stop watching movies from the classic era of Hollywood. In particular, we realized that we’ve never watched anything starring Marilyn Monroe, surely an omission that must be corrected. I chose Some Like It Hot both because it was one of her best commercial and critical successes and because it was made by the same creative team behind The Apartment, one of my favorite comedies from that era.

Monroe is the biggest star in this movie and thus receives top billing but the real leads here are Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The two play a pair of musicians in Prohibition-era Chicago. When they accidentally witness mob boss Spats Colombo carry out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, they decide to get out of town. Unfortunately for the penniless duo, their only route out is to join an all-girl band booked to perform in Florida. Since this is a farcical comedy, it therefore totally makes sense for them to dress up as women and join the troupe, where they encounter Monroe who plays its lead singer.

I ordinarily don’t think much of drag comedy but the fact that there are two of them here and they get to play off of each other makes all the difference for me. It also doesn’t hurt that both of them are such terrific actors. Curtis effectively plays three roles here: the roguish musician, the attentive girlfriend and the aristocratic millionaire. As for Lemmon’s character, it’s hilarious how he starts out as the reasonable and cautious one and ends up being the wackier of the two. Sure, some bits of the story doesn’t make much sense, like why exactly does Lemmon decide to help Curtis with wooing Monroe, but the script is so much fun that it’s easy to just go along with the ride.

As for Monroe, she’s pretty much here only to provide the sex appeal and this is one of those movies which plays up her persona as a dumb American blonde. Thankfully the script does know how best to use her and the scene in which Curtis tricks her into trying to seduce him is both appropriately hot and actually funny. I was however rather surprised how much sexiness there is in this film. There are heaving bosoms and swaying bums aplenty and the scene in which Monroe sings “I Wanna Be Loved By You”, apparently one of her most famous musical performances, tries rather hard to convey an impression of nudity with the judicious use of shadows and a very sheer gown. That’s a lot more risqué than any of the films chosen by the course professors!

I’m also inordinately pleased that, thanks to the previous course, I actually recognized a cinematic reference in here. When the mob boss interrupts a flunky who is tossing a coin in his hand, I knew that the film was referring to Scarface. It turns out that the boss is played by George Raft who actually was the coin-tossing right-hand man in Scarface. In fact, reading up on the making of this film turns up all kinds of interesting anecdotes. Apparently director Billy Wilder chose to make it in black-and-white, a rarity in Hollywood by the 1950s, because he thought that Curtis and Lemmon looked atrocious in drag when filmed in color. Another is that this is a late period work for Monroe when she had begun to become extremely difficult to work with, constantly arguing with both Wilder and Curtis and failing to appear on set. I guess no one at that time could have imagined that Monroe would die only three years later, leaving this as one of her last films.

Fortunately none of this drama is visible on the screen, as even Wilder had to concede that Monroe brought an indefinable magical presence into the film. That is surely one of the reasons why this film remains one of the enduring treasures of Hollywood and holds up perfectly even to modern audiences.

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