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Some Like It Hot (1959)

by on 2011/04/28

Billy Wilder is a source of some ongoing frustration for me. As critically acclaimed as they are popular, his efforts include Stalag 17, Sunset Boulevard, and Double Indemnity. Inasmuch as my opinion is worth, they run the gamut from disappointing to peerless, with some mixed feelings in between. Where might Some Like It Hot end up? As it turned out, somewhere in that tepid “mixed feelings” zone.

Often cited as the best comedy ever, it’s renowned for starring Marilyn Monroe (The Asphalt Jungle), whose allure is, to me, as surprising as irrefutable. Hot is also known for its cross-dressing leads. However, my not finding transvestitism inherently funny or scandalous takes a bit of shock and awe away from the show.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon portray Joe and Jerry, jazz musicians in the roaring 1920s. After witnessing a gangland hit, they flee Chicago with an all-female band, bound for an extended gig to perform in Florida. Posing as Josephine and Daphne, they befriend a gold digging alcoholic, Sugar Kane (Monroe). Between maintaining their charade, competing for Sugar’s affection, and keeping ahead of the mob . . . well, let’s just say a wacky time is had by one and all.

In all likelihood, the only reason I’d see it all again would be to bask in its retrotastic ambiance and the unfathomable allure of Marilyn Monroe. I know little about her movie work, less about her personally, and I’ve never understood her particular appeal. Her appearance, her persona, and even the sound of her voice . . . nothing ever caught or held my attention.

Yet here she is nearly luminous, to the point of unbalancing the proceedings. Her charismatic presence dims the talents of those around her, including Curtis, Lemmon, and everybody else. Despite my characterization of her character as an alcoholic gold digger, she nonetheless radiates a vulnerable benevolence.

Instinctive reaction aside, I felt Hot was less enjoyable than interesting for various reasons. For one, I appreciated its relative tolerance of drag. Like Tootsie decades later, the initial play for laughs gave way to a kind of acceptance, some recognition of — and sympathy for — a Twenties’ (and Fifties’) female’s “turnabout” reality.

I also found the production trappings a strong initial draw. As with Young Frankenstein, the setting and story ensure we’re steeped in vintage sights and sounds. I’m skeptical of farcical antics and screwball comedies at the best of times. Even their combination here couldn’t overwhelm my appreciation of the many period details: the Warner Bros gangsterisms, the Cary Grant mimicry, the lasciviousness of a Pre-Code feature, and the swing/lounge hybrid jazz of Adolph Deutsch.

And still the Billy Wilder frustration train rolls on.

The trouble is, its parts were more fascinating than fun, and I didn’t think they held together well. The uneven combination of “important” and “transporting” did little to endear Some Like It Hot to me. But for those who get off on slapstick, or on Marilyn Monroe, you may just find it a stairway to the stars.

* * * *

Rated PG

122 minutes

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