Some Like it Hot archive review: “a touch of consulting room fantasy”

As Billy Wilder’s deathless comedy returns to the big screen, we take a look back at how we originally reviewed it: as a vibrant and clever burlesque, attuned to a variety of unusual sexual peccadillos.

Peter John Dyer
Updated:

from our July 1959 issue

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane, Jack Lemmon as Jerry aka ‘Daphne’ and Tony Curtis as Joe aka ‘Josephine’ in Some Like It Hot

Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane, Jack Lemmon as Jerry aka ‘Daphne’ and Tony Curtis as Joe aka ‘Josephine’ in Some Like It Hot

Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot will not appeal to those who find female impersonation unamusing in any circumstances; and certainly, since it also contains two painfully accurate re-creations of gangland slaughter, its opportunities for offence are considerable. In fact the gangster sequences are the least successful part of the film. There is too much random detail and intramural humour (a marmoreal George Raft is confronted with a coin-flipping gunman played by Edward G. Robinson, Jr.) and the whole could be cut by at least one blood-bath. The horrifying AI Capone reunion dinner, for instance, is effectively staged and chillingly well-acted by Nehemiah Persoff, but it is an unrelated tour de force; its sole purpose, to conclude the ‘drag’ act necessitated in the first place by an involuntary witnessing of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, could have been more simply served.

Although the comedy never quite shakes off this basic confusion in styles, it comes to life from the start. A suddenly speeding hearse sets the pace, a leaking coffin of whisky the pre-credits setting – Chicago in the freewheeling 1920s – and a funeral parlour front to a speakeasy the comedy’s predominant note of incongruity and masquerade. Soon, painted and padded and tilting at a perilous angle, two jazz musicians on the run join an all-girl train call for Florida.

Extravagance takes over on arrival, when Jack Lemmon’s husky squeaks and girlish dormitory confidences give way to frolicking chaperonage and beach games. Courted by a dotty, much-married millionaire (Joe E. Brown), the duenna mellows into a teasing siren, tangoing through the night with a rose gripped wistfully between her teeth. This is a brilliantly worked-out performance. If Tony Curtis’s cooing Josephine is by contrast a shade too real for comfort, the actor’s heavier style of burlesque is better suited to a secondary impersonation, in yachting cap and blazer, of a pseudo-Cary Grant petroleum tycoon. Marilyn Monroe is charmingly herself, if a little wan, but her role of innocent at large is too peripheral to strike a useful balance with the film’s blacker and more clinical humours.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Almost every character has a touch of consulting room fantasy. (Like Love in the Afternoon, the Wilder &. A. L. Diamond script is distantly adapted from an old German film.) Apart from female impersonation, Tony Curtis takes a foam bath fully dressed and seduces a solicitous Marilyn by feigning doubts about his potency; Marilyn herself has a weakness for men in glasses – large pebble ones at that; George Raft makes a fetish of his immaculate spats; Joe E. Brown, having unerringly picked out the most heavily muscled girl in sight, is not in the least surprised to learn that he has eloped with a man. “After all,” he says, “nobody’s perfect.”

Obviously the day is that much nearer when Billy Wilder must film Hirschfeld’s Anomalies and Perversions as a musical. So long as it casts Jack Lemmon as an Oedipus complex, there should be no grounds for complaint.

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