We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
19. Some Like It Hot, 1959.
“Look at that!” Jack Lemmon tells Tony Curtis as he watches Marilyn Monroe in awe. “Look how she moves. Like Jell-O on springs. She must have some sort of built-in motor. I tell you, it’s a whole different sex.”
Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay for Some Like It Hot, which some consider the greatest comedy ever produced, nails the Marilyn Monroe personae with an exactitude that is almost frightening.
The plot: Curtis and Lemmon are Chicago musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s day massacre. They disguise themselves as women to avoid being rubbed out by the mob, and join an all-female orchestra on its way to Florida. Marilyn Monroe is the orchestra’s featured singer who has her sights set on marrying a millionaire.
Curtis lusts for Monroe, and disguises himself as a millionaire in need of a good woman’s love to cure him of his inability to get aroused. As the heir to the Shell oil fortune, Curtis turns in a devastatingly wicked Cary Grant imitation. And the scene on the yacht where MM tries to arouse Curtis is a prime example of how to avoid low comedy by exploring real emotions. Observe how Monroe kisses Curtis: with great tenderness and mercy, as if she’s afraid that too much passion might break him into little pieces.
Meanwhile, Lemmon in drag, gets engaged to a real millionaire, the whacky, unflappable Joe E. Brown.
“You’re not a girl!” Curtis tells Lemmon. “You’re a guy! Why would a guy want to marry a guy?”
Responds Lemmon with great common sense: “Security!”
This is a screwball comedy, that wonderful, optimistic genre which thrived in the 1930s and gave way to the cynical film noir of the 1940s. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s inspired and meticulous script hits all the right notes: men and women locked in epic romantic confusions, gender switches that defy imagination, and dialog so dazzling the viewer is left breathless. In fact, so deft and finely resolved is the movie’s script and direction that it can be safely said to be the last genuine screwball ever produced.
Production on Some Like It Hot is infamous for MMs neurotic, if not pathological behavior.
Monroe had so much trouble saying one line of dialogue, “Where’s the bourbon?” while looking in a dresser drawer that Wilder had the line pasted inside the drawer. When Wilder called for another take, Monroe opened the wrong drawer and of course, flubbed the line. Wilder finally pasted the three words of dialogue inside every drawer.
It took something like forty takes for Monroe to get the correct line reading.
This is, of course, madness, and it’s the main reason Tony Curtis notoriously told a reporter that kissing Marilyn was “like kissing Hitler.”
While MM struggled with her lines, the other actors with whom she was playing scenes were forced to adjust to her endless demands. Monroe’s insecurities dominated the set. And it’s a testament to the artistry of Tony Curtis that he never falters in his scenes with MM. His reaction shots are golden examples of comic timing. And his line readings, in spite of the multiple takes MM required, are always fresh and sparkling.
Regardless of MMs personal torment—made even worse by Lee Strassberg’s destructive Method—she steals the show.
Seraphic Secret has repeatedly emphasized that all great movies are, in one way or another, love stories. On the surface, Some Like It Hot seems to be about raw sex and animal desire. Poured into an Orry-Kelly designed black dress with a sheer panel that makes every red-blooded American squint, MM sings “I Wanna Be Loved by You.”
Marilyn coos, whispers, and smolders, putting over the lyrics like a wide-eyed child. This musical number captures the essence of MMs universal appeal. Alone in the spotlight, awash in wonder and anxiety, MM begs for love. We, the audience, experience her yawning emptiness with a vividness that has rarely been equaled in movie history.
MM, in spite of her chronic hysteria, was a great actress, an elegant comedienne whose explosive sexuality she carefully released lest its sheer power overwhelm the narrative.
Some Like It Hot is laugh out loud funny, and yet, at the same time, a deeply moving testament to the enduring power of true love.