The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, February 8, 2013

Some Like It Hot

Some movies are just perfect. That's it. They just are. Ridiculously spot-on casting, great direction and writing, and a story and style that have more than withstood the test of time. In 2000, it was even voted the greatest American comedy of all-time. I'm not alone in this stance, but it's one of my favorites, 1959's Some Like It Hot.

Working in 1929 Chicago, down on their luck musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are looking for any kind of work.....any. Picking up a car to drive to Champaign, they accidentally witness a gangland massacre, gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his crew knocking off seven rival gangsters. The only problem? They were spotted, and now they're desperately on the run. With no money, they resort to the only option available.....posing as female musicians leaving Chicago for Miami with an all-female band. There's no way the ridiculous plan could work, could it? Joe/Geraldine and Jerry/Daphne pass their first test and blend in with the band. Both fall right away for Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a ukelele-playing singer in the group. Uh-oh, let the hijinks begin, and Spats and his mobsters are still looking for them.

There is chemistry among actors, and then there's chemistry: Some Like It Hot style. I feel comfortable comparing Curtis and Lemmon to Paul Newman in Robert Redford in Butch and Sundance, my high point for on-screen chemistry in a buddy relationship. Other cast pairings were mentioned as director Billy Wilder put his movie together (Curtis and Frank Sinatra as one), but it's hard to imagine any other duo working quite this well. Obviously, you can attribute some to a lot of that success to the script written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, but the actors have to turn that great script into great performances at some point. What I love about their parts is that both men are given their chance to play straight man and comedian in interchangeable parts. That's the beauty of the.....oh, yes.....cross-dressing.

From other films like Tootsie (very good) to White Chicks (end of the world bad) to TV shows like Bosom Buddies, cross-dressing is nothing new in a film/TV medium. What is it that's so funny about men dressing up as women? That's a question left best unanswered. The moral of the story is simple; it is funny, very funny when handled correctly. According to Curtis interviews, both he and Lemmon went through extensive "lady training" to be believable women because to a point, if we don't believe the duo as women, the movie is going to struggle. Yes, they look ridiculous in their wigs, dresses, heels and stockings, but somehow and some way, they make it work. Curtis as saxophone-playing Josephine plays it straight, quite and demure, always pursing "her" lips while Lemmon as lively bull fiddle-wielding Daphne (instead of Geraldine) gets to live it up in a showier, more physical part. It's a match made in heaven, and one that makes the movie the fondly remembered classic it is.

More than just the chemistry between Curtis and Lemmon is the chemistry consistently on display across the entire cast. Monroe could do drama and comedy, but I don't know if she was ever better than she was here as Sugar Kane, the goofy, somewhat ditzy blonde who just wants to find her true love. Shallow side note; she looks stunningly beautiful here, Wilder dressing her up in as risque fashion as possible (her intro especially has become an iconic scene). Her comedic timing is pretty perfect whether it be with Curtis or Lemmon. Both "female musicians" fall for Sugar immediately. Curtis' Joe poses as a young bajillionaire -- coke bottle glasses and all, ridiculous and spot-on Cary Grant voice impression along for the ride -- in hopes of wooing her while Lemmon's Jerry works from the inside of sorts, unfortunately becoming Sugar's fast friend and confidant. The triangle-like relationship (square-like I suppose even) is a gem to watch, just three actors having fun on-screen, and it shows from the start. 

In terms of screen-time, those three dominate the movie, but in smaller parts the supporting cast help brings the movie up another notch. Building off his reputation as a long-time tough guy, Raft plays it straight throughout as the tough as nails Spats Colombo -- always up to something -- with Mike Mazurki and Harry Wilson playing his dim-witted, machine-gun wielding associates. Pat O'Brien makes a quick but memorable appearance as Detective Mulligan, the cop tailing Spats. Nehemiah Persoff makes a cameo as Little Bonapart, a mafioso trying to clear up the problem Spats created. Joan Shawlee plays Sweet Sue, the conductor of her all-female band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, with Dave Barry as Beinstock, the maligned band manager. The best part goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, a horndog of a millionaire who's got the hots for Daphne, including one of the most famous closing lines to a movie ever.

As a director, Billy Wilder had his fair share of gems, but this has always been my personal favorite. Whether it be his script with Diamond or his directing, it's a flawless film. It runs 122 minutes, but it never drags, and I can't come up with a wasted or unnecessary scene. Curtis said he and Lemmon had to do little to no improvising because the script didn't need it. The lines are perfect as is. He made a wise choice filming in black and white too, giving it that authentic, throwback feel that gives a sense of 1920s Chicago and Miami. 'Hot' filmed in California (standing in for Miami) at the beautiful Hotel del Coronado, an unreal looking building that feels like it would be on scenic Miami Beach. And last, the score from composer Adolph Deutsch, a jazzy score that will put a smile on your face at its first note. The scenes of Joe and Jerry running from mobsters is given that comedic touch courtesy of Deutsch's score, which you can sample HERE.

The defining factor in a comedy being truly classic is the quotability, that memorable scene or line that lingers long after the movie is over. It's Curtis' running bit doing his Cary Grant impression, "piloting" a motorboat backwards because he can't put it in drive. It's Lemmon -- as Daphne -- trying to move in on Sugar only to have his train car berth taken over by the female band for a drinking and tickling party, doing a tango (with a straight face) with Brown's Osgood and later celebrating their engagement with a maraca dance. That's just a sampling, 'Hot' never goes long without a laugh. It's beyond a classic, and not just one of the best comedies around, but one of Hollywood's all-time great movies.

Some Like It Hot (1959): ****/****


  1. I found the gangster wraparound plot a bit underwhelming. The balance of the film is excellent.

  2. What I liked about it though was that it's really only a means to the end. Other than the bookends, the gangsters are just a way to scare Joe and Jerry. Then, when they do show up, it's a race to the finish.