Masterpiece: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Simon Braund hails the enduring appeal of Wilder's classic comedy, and gives credit to that magic final ingredient — Marilyn Monroe...

Simon Braund hails the enduring appeal of Wilder’s classic comedy, and gives credit to that magic final ingredient — Marilyn Monroe…

by Simon Braund

If all the words of praise that have been lavished on Billy Wilder’s evergreen comedy over the years were typeset in a single line, they would encircle the Earth approximately 500 times, or stretch from Hay-on-Wye to Uranus twice. Every one of them is, of course, true. Based very loosely on a 1951 German film called Fanfaren Der Liebe, written by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, Some Like It Hot is, as any fool knows, the story of struggling musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) who go on the lam after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Desperately searching for an out-of-town gig, all that turns up is a job with an all-girl jazz band bound for an engagement in Florida. With the Mob on their tail, Joe and Jerry have little choice but to dress in drag, rename themselves Josephine and Daphne, and board the train to Miami Beach.

En route — in a sleeping-car scene that has lost none of its playful eroticism — both compete for the affections of the band’s delectable ukulele player and star vocalist ‘Sugar’ Kane (Marilyn Monroe), while attempting to maintain their disguises. Things get more complicated still when, at the resort, ‘Daphne’ is romantically pursued by randy old millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) and Joe adopts another disguise — heir to the Shell Oil fortune — in order to woo Sugar. It’s a prototypically elegant farce whose sprightly pacing, airtight intricacies and romantic intrigues might have put a supercilious smile on Oscar Wilde’s face. It is a film so fleet of foot, so perfectly measured in its mix of comedy, romance and suspense, that it remains an unalloyed joy even as other movies of its vintage are beginning to show their wrinkles.

Wilder and Diamond — particularly Wilder — take much of the credit for that. The script and direction are sublime. But it is a feature of both the screenplay and Wilder’s incomparably assured hand on the tiller that they shine the spotlight squarely on the performers. What you remember and cherish time after time with Some Like It Hot is its embarrassment of classic scenes and effervescent, remarkably racy dialogue — ‘Daphne’ swooning on the bed as she announces her engagement to Osgood in a maraca-shaking reverie (the maracas were added to create pauses after test audiences laughed so much they missed most of the dialogue); Curtis romancing Monroe on the beach with his camp Cary Grant accent (“I don’t talk like that,” Grant allegedly sulked when he saw the movie) and, of course, the famous fade-out with Daphne and Osgood heading into the sunset aboard his speedboat — cue for, perhaps, the greatest last line in cinema history.

Needless to say, for a film of such souffle-like levity, it was a complete nightmare to make. And, as is duly recorded in the annals, the reason for that was Marilyn Monroe. While Lemmon and Curtis hit mark after mark despite high heels and chest-padding, producing a cinematic comedy duet rivalled only by Laurel and Hardy and Lemmon and Matthau, Monroe’s behaviour on the set of Some Like It Hot has passed into legend – with no little justification, if the testament of those who had to put up with her is anything to go by.

Having already worked with Monroe on The Seven Year Itch, Wilder might have had an inkling of what he was in for. Still, the story that he originally favoured Mitzi Gaynor over Monroe is misleading. True, he bad envisioned Gaynor in the role of Sugar, but only until Monroe expressed her interest. “We wanted to do a comedy out of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” he told Cameron Crowe in 2001 (in the book, Conversations With Wilder). “We just wanted any girl, because it was not such a big part. Mitzi Gaynor was who we had in mind. Then word came that Marilyn wanted the part. And then we had to get Marilyn. And we got her.” The ruefulness in Wilder’s last sentence is obvious.

Apart from turning up late — or often not turning up at all — Monroe’s problem was her inability to deliver simple lines. On one excruciating day, during the scene where she rummages in a drawer for a bottle of booze, it took, according to Wilder’s estimate, 80-odd takes for her to say, “Where’s the bourbon?” After countless instances of, “Where’s the bottle?”; “Where’s the whisky?”; or, “Where’s the bonbon?” Wilder had the line pasted in the bottom of the drawer. When Monroe forgot which drawer she was supposed to be looking in, he had the line pasted in every drawer. To make matters worse, after she fluffed each take, Monroe would get upset, burst into tears and her make-up had to be completely re-done. Then she would retreat to her trailer and fail to reappear for the rest of the day. In another similar debacle, it took her over 50 takes to deliver the line, “It’s me, Sugar.” “We were in mid-flight and we had a nut on the plane,” remarked Wilder years later, Monroe’s exasperating behaviour still rankling him.

What drove Wilder — and everyone else on the set – to distraction was the apparent randomness of Monroe’s meltdowns. For the scene on the beach with Curtis, she had three pages of dialogue. The scene had to be shot quickly because of the noise from military jets taking off at ten-minute intervals nearby. Monroe nailed it on the first take. “She almost fainted,” recalled Wilder, somewhat wryly.

Monroe’s behaviour wasn’t simply capricious — she had suffered a miscarriage shortly before shooting, and her third marriage to playwright Arthur Miller was already on the rocks, both of which contributed to the depression that plagued her during production — but the sympathy of co-stars and director ebbed as the shoot went on. Despite hailing her as a great comedienne shortly after the film’s release, Wilder’s decidedly mixed feelings about Monroe were plain to see even towards the end of his life. “I don’t know why she became so popular,” he told Cameron Crowe. “I never knew.” What be certainly did know, however, was that when she did deliver her lines correctly, the results were magical. Monroe’s performance in Some Like It Hot, for all that it took to drag it out of her, is lightning in a bottle: radiant, sexy and heart-meltingly vulnerable. It is a peerless example of star quality, the elusive Ingredient X that Monroe possessed in greater quantities that anyone before or since.

“There was a love affair between her and the camera,” said Wilder simply. “She was a star. Every time you saw her, she was something. A remarkable person, and in spades when she was on the screen. She was much better on the screen than not on the screen.” He was in a position to know. But even in his most curmudgeonly moment, he must have concluded, as does this shining testament to Monroe’s alchemical allure, that nobody’s perfect.

Empire, December 2006


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