Some films are terrifically overrated, even if they are solid, enjoyable little films. Perhaps the most glaring example of this dictum is Billy Wilder’s 1959 black and white comedy Some Like It Hot. It often appears on Best Of lists as the top comedy of all time, but, while a good, solid film, it is nowhere near a great film, in screenwriting, technical measures, nor in, well, laughs per minute. Let’s tackle those three things in reverse. Perhaps the funniest film ever made, in terms of laughs per minute is Stanley Kramer’s 1963 all star comedy, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It’s a pants-pisser that unleashes 2-3 guffaws per minute. The scene where Jonathan Winters destroys the gas station is priceless. By contrast, Some Like It Hot hasn’t a single guffaw in the whole film- a number of moments that make you smile and tee-hee, but guffaw? No. Part of this is because the film has not aged well- it’s hard to still laugh at drag jokes nowadays. Also, the film is not even a parody nor satire, like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Then there’s Wilder’s own significant cache of comedies, the best of which I’d argue is his VASTLY underrated 1966 black and white comedy, The Fortune Cookie, which is far superior to Some Like It Hot, for many reasons, but primarily because, while the films shared Jack Lemmon, The Fortune Cookie had Walter Matthau and no Marilyn Monroe, while Some Like It Hot was burdened with Monroe, and lacked the comically impeccable Matthau. More on the Monroe debacle in a bit.
First, a brief plot recap: the film opens with a cop car chasing a hearse in 1929 Chicago. Gunshots are fired, and the cops have shot up a coffin full of booze. The hearse carries gangsters, led by ‘Spats’ Columbo (George Raft), and they go to his speakeasy, where we find two musicians playing with the band. They are Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), who soon witness a fictionalized account of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre. They head to Florida, with an all girl band, to play at a resort hotel, to escape sure death by the gangsters, and assume the aliases of Josephine and Daphne. Both are smitten with Sugar ‘Kane’ Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s none too bright but sexually easy singer and ukulele player. In Florida, Joe assumes a second alias as a millionaire and the heir to Shell Oil. Meanwhile, a real millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), falls for ‘Daphne.’ Hijinks abound, but nothing of any depth underneath the comedy. Sugar is too dumb to see Josephine is a man, and Jerry is not found out by Osgood, who proposes to her. He accepts, hoping to get a cash settlement once Osgood finds out he’s been hoodwinked. Then, the gangsters end up at a convention for Italian Opera at the same hotel, where Spats and his boys are done in by the head of the national syndicate. The boys, of course, witness this, end up escaping, but not before Joe reveals himself to Sugar. Then he, Sugar, Jerry and Osgood escape on his yacht. Joe and Sugar seem in love, and Jerry tries to explain why Daphne and he can never work. Finally, Jerry takes off his wig, and tells Osgood that he’s a man, to which Osgood replies, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’ The film then ends on a well timed blackout.
As one might presume, it is a humorous film, and enjoyable, but nowhere near great. Let’s suspend the disbelief that all the other men and women in the film would have to be stupid not to see that the two male leads are, indeed, men. Even doing that, all of the laughs the film is supposedly most noted for come from the fact that there are two men in drag. In 1959, ok, that may have been envelope pushing, and funny. But, over five decades later it’s simply not. The film simply lacks the sophistication to stand up well to time. This the film’s biggest problem- its predication upon drag comedy still being funny. Of course, this is exactly why other such drag comedies, like Tootsie, La Cage Aux Folles, Victor/Victoria, and arguably The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also do not hold up to modern comic sensibilities. Even the gangsters, as dumb as they are, are merely ‘movie gangsters,’ and not any possibly real world threat, the way the mobsters of The Godfather, Goodfellas, or Once Upon A Time In America, are. They simply would not scare anyone. In this way, Some Like It Hot is still a pre-Modern film, and, for comedies, that will date you very quickly. Compared to Dr. Strangelove, made just a few years later, and this film seems from another planet, in humorous terms, while Strangelove, despite different political realities, is still relevant. Also, many of the ‘drag’ jokes are so telegraphed, and so ‘old,’ even then, that to think so many critics regurgitate the fact that this is not only a great comedy, but perhaps the greatest, is odd….until you ponder the likely reasons why.
First, there is always a tendency to overrate the work of an artist once he has attained a certain consensus of greatness, just as there is the tendency to dismiss excellence from newcomers, because the statistical likelihood is that they are hacks. Similarly, there is the better chance that someone with a proven track record of quality will hit the mark again, whether or not they do. So, wider berths and benefits of the doubt are granted to the already feted. And, when a collection of talented folk get together, their collective reputations almost assuredly make the thing they are in seem more valuable than if the identical play or film they were in were populated by amateurs. Second, the film telegraphs its plot coming miles away. For example, we see mobsters early in the film, we see the two male leads, and the moment they appear at the garage, populated by gangsters, you know that something bad will happen, the leads will be chased, and that a standard Dumbest Possible Action trope is underway. Don’t believe it? Why would our boys simply not take a bus to the city limits and hike up to Wisconsin? It does seem a lot easier than the whole charade of masquerading as women, especially considering they clearly look like men. Why would they not simply disappear, once in Florida? By hanging at the hotel, they risk being caught as men, being arrested on some morals charge, and the tale making the newswires , as a ‘human interest’ piece, and being either summoned back to Chicago to testify against the killers, or being found and killed by same. Third, while comedy is not that difficult, deep comedy is, and can anyone seriously compare this film to Dr. Strangelove or the best comedies from Europe or Woody Allen? No. And this is because a) it’s a dope comedy, pure slapstick with a few outdated zingers on sex, and b) it’s simply not well acted nor written. The mobsters are all dumb film gangsters. And is there a single bit of slapstick that measures up to the best from Abbott And Costello, the Marx Brothers, or the Three Stooges? No. And why is that? Because the aforementioned comedians all sell their slapstick to the limit. When there is a fight or a pratfall, it goes all the way. Here, all one gets is motion, no payoff. As example, when the film nears its end, and the original gangsters that were after the male leads are killed, nothing occurs except, in Dumbest Possible Action predictability, the boys are now chased by a new set of killers. Some Like It Hot is a solid, funny little old film that retains few of its best chuckle inducers today. It’s not a bad film, but it’s nowhere near great, much less ‘greatest,’ territory- as it was named the greatest comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, and hit 14th on their list of greatest movies, regardless of genre. Part of this is because it could have lost 30 or so of its 122 minute run time to great effect- farce, even more so than satire, needs to follow Oscar Wilde’s dictum, of brevity being the soul of wit.
The DVD, by MGM, comes in a two disk package. Disk One has the film, in a terrific transfer of the film, and an audio commentary with interviews with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and the screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, A League Of Their Own, Night Shift). The segments with Curtis and Lemmon are culled from interviews, and are recapitulated in other parts of the DVD package, while the Ganz/Mandel comments are almost nothing but fawning praise. The lone interesting insight they give is how Edward G. Robinson Jr. got the part of the assassin of George Raft’s character because his real life father, Edward G. Robinson, disliked and refused to work with Raft. And, in another aside, they point out how Junior Robinson took Raft’s trademark flip of a coin (from several of his classic 1930s gangster films) and used it as an in-joke in the film, when Raft palms the coin in midair from him. Disk Two has the rest of the extras, such as a half hour long making of documentary that mostly repeats legends about the film, such as Marilyn Monroe’s inability to recall her lines. There is also a 20 minute documentary on the film’s legacy, a half hour interview with Tony Curtis, by Leonard Maltin. There’s a featurette on the actresses who played the female musicians in the film, an interactive 3-D Hall of Memories about the film, the original theatrical trailer, and a few other features. As for the technical aspects of the film, and the screenplay, neither is that stellar. Of course, Billy Wilder films are not noted for their superb cinematography (just as Joseph Mankiewicz- another screenplay first director- was not), but for their felicity with words. And that lack of felicity, in the script by Billy Wilder and longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, adapted from a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, is what makes this film sag.
But, its acting is pretty good, comically, except for (and you know I had to mention it) Marilyn Monroe. I have seen her in many of her films and it always amazes me the way that critics excuse her utter lack of talent. The fact is that she cannot act well, she sings almost as badly as she acts, and this is the sort of role that would have worked much better with a saucy sort of female lead, rather than Monroe’s ditzy idiocy. Her role simply called for an actress who could project a stronger essence than Monroe could muster- then or ever, it seems. The only film that she was even passable in was in a small cameo role in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. The truth is that, by this time in her career, Monroe was not even particularly sexy, the way she had been earlier in her career, up till The Seven Year Itch, also directed by Wilder. One look at her and one can see that drugs and alcohol have taken their toll, and perhaps the single line that gets the most laughs in the film is when Monroe, as Sugar, claims that she is only 25, when, in real life, Monroe was 33, and looked at least a decade older. Even the shots that try to accentuate her ‘sexiness’ look silly. She had recently been pregnant, and it shows, for she looks fat (there are a number of scenes where you see rolls of fat on her back and arms), and even her breasts look saggy, floppy, point outward in differing directions, as they undulate with no firmness nor tone. I’ll guarantee you, no male under 40, watching this film, would find her particularly sexually appealing.
Yet, critics, then and now, rave of Monroe in ways that make one scratch their heads, because they are simply so far from reality. As example, Roger Ebert wrote:
What a work of art and nature is Marilyn Monroe. She hasn’t aged into an icon, some citizen of the past, but still seems to be inventing herself as we watch her. She has the gift of appearing to hit on her lines of dialogue by happy inspiration, and there are passages in Billy Wilder’s "Some Like It Hot" where she and Tony Curtis exchange one-liners like hot potatoes. Poured into a dress that offers her breasts like jolly treats for needy boys, she seems totally oblivious to sex while at the same time melting men into helpless desire.
One liners? Monroe could not even recall lines of three or less words. There’s not a snappy comeback in the film that is believable coming from her lips. Even Wilder admitted that she was the weak spot in his film. But, look at that last quoted sentence. Aside from it having a critical Q rating of zero, it seems to miss the fact that Monroe’s jiggles are not akin to that of a modern buxom Playmate, but that of an aborning Aunt Estella- a 56 year old chain smoker from Bayonne, whose husband recently died, and just returned from an electrolysis treatment paid for by her husband’s life insurance. And, oblivious to sex? What film was he watching? Her character’s STATED purpose in the film is that she is with the band only to seduce a millionaire. With what, does Ebert think? Her witty repartee? Her geopolitical analyses?
Ebert digs his own grave a bit deeper:
The movie has been compared to Marx Brothers classics, especially in the slapstick chases as gangsters pursue the heroes through hotel corridors. The weak points in many Marx Brothers films are the musical interludes--not Harpo’s solos, but the romantic duets involving insipid supporting characters. "Some Like It Hot" has no problems with its musical numbers because the singer is Monroe, who didn't have a great singing voice but was as good as Frank Sinatra at selling the lyrics.
Yet, the truth is that Monroe could barely recall and enunciate the lyrics she sang in any film, including this. Again, Ebert’s mind and pelvis has obviously reverted to that of a twelve year old who first notices girls aren’t so uncool after all. There’s just something about the old time Hollywood starlets that simply makes Ebert’s mind turn to mush, as when he defends Ingrid Bergman’s mediocre performance in Casablanca because his own knees melt.
Granted, he’s not alone in this Monroe idolatry, but, compare her to her European rival and equivalent of the time: Brigitte Bardot. Not only was Bardot better looking, with a fitter, trimmer body (see her nude scenes in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and compare her body with Monroe’s here), but Bardot was a better actress, and did films that actually attempted (although not always succeeded) in being great art. Monroe is always just a prop, a moving plastic sex doll. There really is no ‘there’ there. She’s an utter cipher onscreen, despite the fetishistic gazes of the camera. Is she funny? No. Is she sensual? No. Is she sexy? Maybe then she could have been considered that, but thinner actresses now hide their bodies lest end up on a tabloid cover with their fat rolls exposed, so, no, today she’d not be considered sexy- another mark for the fact that the film dates poorly (as well as it’s being anachronistic in some of its cultural references). Yet, it was nominated for several Academy Awards that year, although it lost most of them to Ben Hur.
In conclusion, Some Like It Hot is one of those films whose great reputation is its own worst enemy. It’s a good little comedy, and that’s it. It’s not even one of Billy Wilder’s best films, yet it has been so lauded that to point out its obvious flaws, and the flaws in the claims of its supporters (as I’ve done), is to commit a perceived heresy; at least in the present time. But, time, longitudinally, avails, and the real heretics will be revealed as those who foisted up such a minor film into a major position of respect. And that’s something that even Roger Ebert and Marilyn Monroe can’t do anything to prevent.