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  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The highest-grossing film of 1959 and the American Film Institute’s pick for best comedy of all time, legendary director Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot tested the limits of the Hays Code and challenged straitlaced 1950’s social mores.

Summary of Event

Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece, Some Like It Hot, had its world premiere screening on March 28, 1959, as the reopening film for the renovated and modernized Loew’s State Theater at 1540 Broadway in New York City. It opened in wide release the next day. A preview screening, held in December, 1958, in Los Angeles, had paired the film with Tennessee Williams’s new Southern drama, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), about cannibalism and a threatened lobotomy. The preview was a disaster, but by the time of the official opening, the picture had found its audience and opened to rave reviews, despite its potentially controversial subject matter. In a prescreening review published on February 25, 1959, Variety called Some Like It Hot the “funniest picture of recent memory.” It received the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning the award for Best Costume Design. Some Like It Hot (Wilder) Comedies;cinema [kw]Some Like It Hot Premieres (Mar. 28, 1959) [kw]Premieres, Some Like It Hot (Mar. 28, 1959) Some Like It Hot (Wilder) Comedies;cinema [g]North America;Mar. 28, 1959: Some Like It Hot Premieres[06090] [g]United States;Mar. 28, 1959: Some Like It Hot Premieres[06090] [c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 28, 1959: Some Like It Hot Premieres[06090] Wilder, Billy Curtis, Tony Lemmon, Jack Monroe, Marilyn

The storyline of Some Like It Hot is simple: Jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago while on their way to a gig. Gangster Spats Columbo spots them and orders his thugs to kill them, but they escape in the confusion and decide they need to get out of town. The only out-of-state job they find is with an all-girl band, the Sweet Sues, so they dress in drag, rechristen themselves Josephine and Daphne, and catch a train with the band to a resort in Florida.

On the train, the two musicians meet the band’s singer, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and try to get close to her while maintaining their disguises. Once they get to Florida, Joe adds another layer to his disguises, masquerading as an oil tycoon to woo Sugar. At the same time, an eccentric millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown Brown, Joe E. ) pursues Daphne. In the end, the mob shows up at the resort and, after several slapstick chases and another mob massacre, Joe, Jerry, Sugar, and Osgood all escape in Osgood’s boat.

The courtship and engagement between Osgood and Daphne was the source of many of the film’s funniest and best-remembered lines, including Osgood’s famous closing quip when Jerry reveals himself to be a man, “Nobody’s perfect,” but the actual innovation in Wilder’s script was his use of the brutal St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as the set-up for a comic scenario. When the film’s producers read the initial screenplay, they objected to this decision, but Wilder felt that the only way to make the cross-dressing ruse believable was to have Joe and Jerry’s lives depend on it. Wilder borrowed this hybrid of comedy and drama from European black comedies, which came to popularity after World War II. Most of the setup of Some Like It Hot’s plot, including the jazz musicians dressing in drag to escape the mob after witnessing a shooting, was taken from German director Kurt Hoffmann’s 1951 musical comedy Fanfaren der Liebe Fanfares of Love (Hoffmann) (Fanfares of Love).

Wilder also referenced numerous serious gangster films produced during the early 1930’s, before the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 Hays Code Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 had any enforcement mechanisms. (The code, known as the Hays Code, was toothless until it was amended in 1934.) Actor George Raft Raft, George , who played Spats Colombo, also portrayed Guino Rinaldo in Howard Hawks’s 1934 Scarface. Scarface (Hawks) Hawks’s film originated the cinematic cliché, which Wilder used in Some Like It Hot, of one gangster grabbing a coin from the air while another gangster flips it. Mervyn LeRoy’s 1931 gangster film Little Caesar Little Caesar (LeRoy) was the source for the name of Colombo’s rival, Little Bonaparte, and the scene in which Spats threatens to smash a grapefruit in someone’s face is taken from another 1931 film, The Public Enemy, Public Enemy, The (Wellman) which featured James Cagney’s first starring role.

Wilder had to work under the Hays Code while making Some Like It Hot, and his direct evocation of these pre-Code gangster films likely reflected his own frustration with the censorship. The screenplay and directorial choices for Some Like It Hot are particularly noteworthy in their direct yet subtle challenge to the code’s restrictions. In addition to the sultry costuming for Monroe and a steamy seduction scene with Curtis, Wilder’s film was full of verbal sexual innuendo. It spoofed almost every sexual stereotype from androgyny to impotence, and it was unabashedly vulgar. It also touched comically on the serious topics of alcoholism, murder, and unemployment, challenging dictates on appropriate ways to handle controversial or morally suspect themes.

The film has resonated with film buffs for a few minor but noteworthy bits of trivia. Although known for black-and-white films, Wilder initially intended to film this one in color, but the thick makeup worn by Curtis and Lemmon looked green under the lights, so Wilder reverted to black-and-white to solve the problem. Curtis and Lemmon also had difficulties with their costumes: Wilder originally tried to dress them in stock wardrobe costumes owned by the studio, but after a particularly frustrating session in which the costuming staff tried to fit him into dresses previously worn by Loretta Young, Tony Curtis suggested that designer Orry Kelly Kelly, Orry Academy Awards;Best Costume Design, Black-and-White[Best Costume Design, Black and White] custom-make their clothes. Kelly’s glamorous costumes, including his innovative dresses for Marilyn Monroe, which perfectly evoked the 1920’s while still appearing highly seductive to a late 1950’s sensibility, received the only Oscar given to the film.

Some Like It Hot, which marked the first of the classic collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon, was Marilyn Monroe’s second film with the director, after 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. She was not Wilder’s initial choice for the role; he wrote it for Mitzi Gaynor and intended Danny Kaye and Bob Hope to play the male leads. Curtis was the first member of the film’s actual cast to sign on. The choice of Monroe caused Wilder no small amount of grief, as her marriage to Arthur Miller was deteriorating during filming and she was emotional and needy, requiring numerous retakes and assistance remembering her lines. An unproven rumor supported by her fellow actresses on the film has suggested that she may have been pregnant and suffered a miscarriage during production.

Some Like It Hot unfortunately was up against the Oscar juggernaut Ben-Hur (1959); it received only one Oscar, in spite of its six nominations and its revenues at the box office—higher than any previous comedy. The film was vindicated, however, when the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the fourteenth best movie of all time; Ben-Hur appears on the same list at number seventy-two. The AFI also named Some Like It Hot the best comedy ever made, and its continued popularity with critics and audiences surely is its most meaningful distinction.

Significance

The release of Some Like It Hot in 1959 situated the film at the moment when the studio system was declining and television was in ascendancy. It also placed the film at the center of the transition between the highly controlled, repressive, and straitlaced 1950’s and the expressive, gregarious, and sexually liberated 1960’s. Perhaps more than any other film of its era, Some Like It Hot had one foot in each decade. Monroe’s slinky and often see-through costumes were daring and innovative, and the plot’s transgendered elements—especially the relationship between Daphne and Osgood—offered a gentle challenge to rigid sexual normativity. Ultimately, however, the film was less subversive than sardonic, and 1950’s audiences easily saw it as a spoof of the cultural mores in which they were embedded, rather than as a critique of those mores.

Some Like It Hot’s enduring popularity likely derives from its exceptionally clever combination of disparate elements: Wilder’s incomparable one-liners, the nonstop action of the gangster plot, the screwball comedy that results from cross-dressing disguises and gender masquerades, and the innocent sensuality of Marilyn Monroe. The film’s enduring significance comes largely from Wilder himself: A screenwriter first and foremost, Wilder is known for darkly ironic films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), for classic acerbic comedies such as The Apartment (1960), and for carefully crafting each word on the page and insisting that actors stick to the script. Wilder made Some Like It Hot a richly layered satire that pushed the envelope of what film could say in the late 1950’s but that still stands as a model of how films should be constructed. Some Like It Hot (Wilder) Comedies;cinema

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auiler, Dan, and Alison Castle, eds. Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.” New York: Taschen, 2001. A large-format tribute book containing interviews with Billy Wilder and the film’s living stars, a complete facsimile of the screenplay, excerpts from Wilder’s first draft of the script, promotional materials, and numerous photos and film stills.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. New York: Knopf, 2001. A photo-rich volume documenting detailed interviews of Wilder by fellow director Crowe. Contains anecdotes about most of Wilder’s influential films, insights into the personalities of the people he worked with, and advice about making movies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lieberfeld, Daniel, and Judith Sanders. “Keeping the Characters Straight: Comedy and Identity in Some Like It Hot.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 26, no. 3 (Fall, 1998): 128-135. A detailed reading of the film, focusing on the ways it deconstructs and reconstructs gender categories. The authors explore narrative, visual, and verbal constructs of gender, connecting their analysis of gender transgression to subversion of class identity and other social mores, and also speculating on the role of comic narrative in particular.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zolotow, Maurice. Billy Wilder in Hollywood. Reprint. New York: Limelight, 2004. An early biography of Wilder, focusing not only on his personal life but on how his films influenced Hollywood. Filmography and index.

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