18 April 2001 | gbrumburgh
Billy Wilder's screwball masterpiece with Curtis, Lemmon and the immortal Marilyn handed the best comedy roles of their careers.
Admittedly biased, "Some Like It Hot" can certainly stand on its own merit with or without my thunderous round of applause. More than a decade ago, I had the privilege of performing both the Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon roles in "Sugar," the musical adaptation of "Some Like It Hot" which originally starred Tony Roberts, Robert Morse and Elaine Joyce on Broadway in the 70s. Though it hardly compares to the film's original (how could it???), the musical nevertheless is still a big hit with live audiences. I can't remember ever having a better time on stage than I did with "Sugar," and it's all due to the irrepressible talents that instigated it all.
In the 1959 classic, Curtis and Lemmon play two ragtag musicians scraping to make ends meet in Prohibition-era Chicago during the dead of winter who accidentally eyewitness a major gangland rubout (aka the St. Valentine's Day Massacre). Barely escaping with their lives (their instruments aren't quite as lucky), our panicky twosome is forced to take it on the lam. Scared out of their shoes (sorry), the boys don heels and dresses after they connect with an all-girl orchestra tour headed for sunny Florida. Killing two birds with one stone, they figure why not go south for the winter while dodging the mob? Once they hit the coast, they'll ditch both the band and their humiliating outfits.
Enter a major detour in the form of luscious Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane, given one of the sexiest (yet innocent) entrances ever afforded a star. Snugly fit in flashy 'Jazz Age' threads, a blast from the locomotive's engine taunts her incredible hour-glass figure as she rushes to catch her train to Florida. The boys, stopped dead in their high-heeled tracks by this gorgeous vision, decide maybe the gig might not be so bad after all. As the totally unreliable but engagingly free-spirited vocalist/ukelele player for the band, Sugar gets instantly chummy with the "girls" when they cover for her after getting caught with a flask of booze. As things progress, complications naturally set in - playboy Curtis falls for Monroe but has his "Josephine" guise to contend with, while Lemmon's "Daphne" has to deal with the persistently amorous attentions of a handsy older millionaire.
What results is an uproarious Marx Brothers-like farce with mistaken identities, burlesque-styled antics, and a madcap chase finale, all under the exact supervision of director Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the script. Lemmon and Curtis pull off the silly shenanigans with customary flair and are such a great team, you almost wish THEY ended up together! Curtis does a dead-on Cary Grant imitation while posing as a Shell Oil millionaire to impress Marilyn; Lemmon induces campy hilarity in his scenes with lecherous Joe E. Brown (who also gets to deliver the film's blue-ribbon closing line). As for the immortal Monroe, she is at her zenith here as the bubbly, vacuous, zowie-looking flapper looking for love in all the wrong places. Despite her gold-digging instincts, Monroe's Sugar is cozy, vulnerable and altogether loveable, getting a lot of mileage too out of her solo singing spots, which include the kinetic "Running Wild," the torchy "I'm Through With Love," and her classic "boop-boop-a-doop" signature song, "I Wanna Be Loved by You."
The film is dotted with fun, atmospheric characters. Pat O'Brien and George Raft both get to spoof their Warner Bros. stereotypes as cop vs. gangster, Joan Shawlee shows off a bit of her stinger as the by-the-rules bandleader Sweet Sue, Mike Mazurki overplays delightfully the archetypal dim-bulbed henchman, and, if I'm not mistaken, I think that's young Billy Gray of "Father Knows Best" fame (the role is not listed in the credits) playing a snappy, pint-sized bellhop who comes on strong with the "girls."
For those headscratchers who can't figure out why the so-called "mild" humor of "Some Like It Hot" is considered such a classic today, I can only presume that they have been brought up on, or excessively numbed by, the graphic, mindless toilet humor of present-day "comedies." There was a time when going for a laugh had subtlety and purity - it relied on wit, timing, inventiveness and suggestion - not shock or gross-out value. It's the difference between Sid Caesar and Andrew "Dice" Clay; between Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon and Chris Farley and David Spade; between "I Love Lucy" and "Married With Children"; between Lemmon's novel use of maracas in the hilarious "engagement" sequence, and Cameron Diaz's use of hair gel in a scene that ANYBODY could have made funny. Jack Lemmon could do more with a pair of maracas than most actors today could do with a whole roomful of props. While "Some Like It Hot" bristles with clever sexual innuendo, today's "insult" comedies are inundated with in-your-face sexual assault which, after awhile, gets quite tiresome -- lacking any kind of finesse and leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination. I still have hope...
Having ultimate faith in my fellow film devotees, THAT is why "Some Like It Hot" will (and should be) considered one of THE screwball classics of all time, and why most of today's attempts will (and should be) yesterday's news.