Billy Wilder is to the sound era what Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd were to the silent: one of the foremost masters of the medium’s comic forms. Like them, his comedies were not only considered the best in their time, they have continued to be the best over time.
Some Like It Hot demonstrates Wilder at the peak of his form. Marilyn Monroe, who has remained a universal icon among movie stars longer perhaps than any other female star, is also at her peak in this film. Marilyn has never been funnier, more alluring, or more captivating, than she is in this film. Some Like It Hot also proved to be a milestone in the careers of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, who spend more than three quarters of the film in drag. And let us not forget George Raft and Joe E. Brown, whose work in the early days of the sound era now is largely forgotten, but who in this film each give one of the memorable performances of their careers.
Even the most successful of sound comedies tends to date rather quickly, but Some Like It Hot has managed to remain today as fresh and lively as it was three decades ago. Billy Wilder and his writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, turned to a German farce of the twenties for their original source material, but putting a couple of guys in drag has been a familiar comic shtick far longer than that. Greek and Roman audiences roared at the gag in the works of playwrights such as Plautus and Terrence. Elizabethan audiences did the same when Shakespeare continued the tradition, and music halls and variety shows in England, America, and Europe also used the gag as a sure-fire way to get a laugh.
What helps Some Like It Hot rise above its 2600-year-history is the combination of Wilder and Diamond’s wise-cracking dialogue and Marilyn Monroe’s powerful performance as Sugar Kane (née Kawalchick), a singer in the all-girl orchestra, “Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators.”
What also helps are Lemmon and Curtis’ finely-controlled performances as two musicians hiding in the band in order to escape from George Raft and his gang after they have witnessed a scene based on the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Jack Lemmon graciously consented to a lengthy interview for this videodisc. His comments on the making of the film, his theories about comic acting, and his analysis of Billy Wilder’s unique powers are incorporated into the analysis of the film that appears on Analog Track Two. This analysis focuses on the structure and technique of Some Like It Hot, provides background on the film’s making, and demonstrates how the film follows classic principles of comedic construction.
There are two ingredients that are necessary for any comedy that tells a story: (1) an underlying pain and (2) a three-step structure of desire, deception, and discovery. The analysis on Audio Track Two explains why it is that comedy requires deception, and demonstrates how this principle works in this film.
There is another kind of pain and deception that underlies Some Like It Hot: the notion that Marilyn Monroe was nothing more than an early “T and A” girl who could drive men mad but couldn’t act. The sources of Marilyn’s personal pain, both in her personal life and during the making of the film, could explain why she appealed to women as well as men. Although Marilyn never received the recognition for her acting ability that she so desperately desired during her lifetime, she was, in fact, one of the most effective comedians in film history.
Above all, it is Billy Wilder’s comedic genius that makes this film the classic that it is today. The acerbic one-liners, the careful construction of character and situation, the simultaneous sentimental/cynical use of music and love scenes, the running lines and gags, and above all the absolute economy that makes everything contribute to the forward frenetic motion of the film are elements that make Billy Wilder one of America’s model writer/directors of comedy.