Guest contributor Liam Pennington revisits the classic Billy Wilder comedy and presents a film that “had more in common with the British music-hall tradition than anything which came before from the United States”
This summer the Failed Critics podcasters cast their eyes across the much maligned rom-com genre, from which Hollywood’s relationship has been clearly cooling for some time. Boys meeting girls, girls getting cold feet, boys getting their girls in the end – such an easy to replicate pattern which can absorb the fashions of the age has been distinctly out of place of late, as though the family audience demographic has been judged distinctly uncool.
That’s not to say that family entertainment has always been wholesome and innocent until a cut-off point when the curtain fell, the lights dimmed and the punch-lines turned blue. There have always been winks to the camera and double entendre, not least in the UK where writers balanced innuendo in such a way as to make films more ‘mucky’ than ‘dirty’. On its release in 1959, an age far removed from our own, Some Like It Hot had more in common with the British music-hall tradition than anything which came before from the United States. Indeed it would be accurate to examine Billy Wilder’s work with reference to Britain’s Carry On franchise which would hit its peak in the following decade. For Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis could well have been Bernard Bresslaw and Kenneth Williams, running from crisis to crisis with increasing farce.
My experience with Some Like It Hot comes from countless Bank Holiday viewings, left alone with the living room television and a brain absorbing every throwaway line without even realising it. Years later, it became obvious that my own humour and character would be influenced by the camp wit and rapid delivery. Kenneth Williams himself would regale anecdotes from his days entertaining the troops on national service, and it is from this Army entertainment tradition that Some Like It Hot gets its pace and patter. I would learn to love the increasingly frantic and frenetic storyline as much as others would appreciate horror or crime dramas, although of course it is from the gangster stories of the immediate post-war period that Wilder found the scaffolding from which to hold his subverted take on rom-com conventions.
As ever with highlights from classic cinema, the legends and myths surrounding Some Like It Hot are worth publishing in books of their own – with many an anecdote brushed up and built upon in memoires and background books to this day. The legacy of the film echoes around the studios of the 21st century with reverence and relevance, for who doesn’t like a cross-dressing, simple misunderstanding farce? Many of the urban myths surround Marilyn Monroe, whose turn as the dizzy blonde Sugar Cane was art imitating life, perhaps deliberately. It is true that Monroe, whose stock rose considerably on the film’s release, would take over seventy attempts to say the innocuous line “It’s me, Sugar”, and another eighty to ask “Where’s the bourbon?” She is, in turns, brittle and beautiful and believable in the role of the jazz band singer, self-exiled to visit hotels from town to town in a desperate attempt to find the man of her dreams. This narrative has been and will be the hook from which scores of films would hang, and yet there’s nothing fresher than Some Like It Hot for taking the story of a girl looking for her prince and making it into a race against gangsters, gender politics and gender bending.
When I was a younger man, it didn’t occur to me that this film was a homosexual politics powerhouse, secretly telling its gay audience that everything would turn out right in the end. One vital line in this regard, “I hope my mother never finds out”, is one of the perfect subversive quotes in a screenplay overflowing with memorable lines. Much later comes the celebrated knockabout in the ‘girl’’s bedroom – “Why would a man want to marry another man?” asks Tony Curtis’ Josephine. Jack Lemmon’s Daphne replies “Security!”
Played “straight” in 1959, the implied queer culture undercurrent would be neon-lit in the modern era, surrendering the subtle interplay between male and female characters for explicit morality lessons. The manner in which the clues and codes are played, from Osgood’s overpowering mother to the celebrated boat scene between Curtis and Sugar Cane melting each other’s defences, shows an adept ability which could be so easily over-flavoured. Threats of a remake have surfaced for years, often taking in the best known/paid comedy actors of the day into contemporary settings with hilarious consequences, though all this talk clearly misses the point. There is a dark undercurrent to the story – there’s the St Valentine ’s Day shooting in the second great set piece of the story, echoed in one of the final sequences in which the Chicago gangsters, masquerading as fans of Italian Opera, are gunned down by a man in a cake. (This latter scene, you could argue, is another case of the gender bending motif).
With a quotable line and believable character around every scene, it is no surprise that Some Like It Hot retains its place at the top of many all time greatest lists. My relationship with the film as never faltered, for it retains the ability to cheer up and surprise. I’ve grown to appreciate the subversive narrative and camp humour, warm to the walking contradiction that was the strongly brittle Monroe (who was, incidentally, my sole reason for loving the Hitchcockian Niagara), and still guffaw as the dominoes of farce tumble onto our two heroes. If you’ve ever wondered where to find the starting point of modern comedy’s love affair with men in a frock, there’s almost nowhere else you could start but here.
Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.