1. A great story
2. The perfect setting
3. Dizzying Pace.
3. Billy Wilder had the perfect vehicle to explore his favourite theme
Like a lot of geniuses he was endlessly circling around one theme. In his case it was the idea of people forced to compromise their principals or self respect in order to survive or thrive - or to be less polite - the theme of prostitution. It is most visible in his much loved 1960's film The Apartment in which Shirley Maclean's character sleeps with the boss in the insurance company while the poor sap played by Jack Lemmon whores out his Manhattan pad for seedy asssignations. But it is also there in Sunset Boulevard where William Holden, his career as a screenwriter in Hollywood having come to nothing, starts sleeping with a faded movie star and working on her hopeless film project to bring in the greenbacks, thus prostituting himself both literally and metaphorically.
In Some Like It Hot the theme is there again. Joe and Jerry, two horny heterosexual males, throw their dignity out the window and don female clobber in order to survive - and Daphne (Jerry's female alter ego played by Jack Lemmon) actually goes on dates with a man and (in the famous last moment of the film) finds that he has no choice but to marry him. Meanwhile Sugar Kane, played by Marylin Monroe, has given up on feckless saxophonists and has decided to go down to Florida and offer herself up as marriage material to old millionaires. But whereas the theme could lead to an air of caustic cynicism in some of Wilder's films - most n0tably in Ace in the Hole where Kirk Douglas's hungry newspaper man sells his soul for a story, in Some Like It Hot there is an incorrigible air of joie de vivre.
Interestingly the accusation that Billy Wilder had himself once worked as a gigolo dogged him throughout his career. This was because he had worked as a tea dancer in the Hotel Eden in Berlin - a dancer for money - and a journalist had once interpreted this to mean that he had actually slept with some of the women.
4.Wilder had found his ideal writing partner in I.A.L.Diamond
Wilder discovered Diamond when he saw a comic skit he had written performed at a Writers Guild dinner and hired him for Love in the Afternoon. Thus began a happy and long-lasting partnership that would produce the much-loved The Apartment immediately after Some Like It Hot. I would posit that some of the atmosphere of bravura joy that suffuses Some Like it Hot emanates not only from Diamond's skill as a writer but also from the unleashing of energy associated with a new writing partnership finding its feet and Wilder's delight at having a workmate whose company he enjoyed.
The script is peppered with witty quick-fire dialogue and replete with the comedy of absurd repetition, of which the blood 'type O' nonsense is the most obvious example. The brevity of the script is legendary with the bold decision not to show Joe and Jerry getting into their women's clobber often cited as an example of how audiences don't need to be spoon fed. The decision to then introduce them at the train station by showing their feet only from behind was probably Wilder's - but you have to give a lot of credit to Izzy Diamond for the greatest comedy screenplay of all time.
5. Tony Curtis was ready to show the world what he could do as an actor
6. Jack Lemmon got to act his socks off
Like Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon was delighted to be cast in a Billy Wilder film. Wilder had encountered him in a Beverly Boulevard eatery called Dominick's and pitched him the story. Lemmon later said he would not have considered the project if it had not been Billy Wilder directing - he knew that Wilder's approach to the material would be tasteful. In fact both he and Curtis had to go on a steep learning curve for the movie. Wilder hired a female impersonator called Barbette to teach them how to move and speak like women. Curtis enjoyed the sessions more than Lemmon who rebelled - saying that his character needed to be seen to be uncomfortable and struggling with the unfamiliar shoes and clothes - something he does indeed convey brilliantly. There was more trouble when the two actors were shown their wardrobe - a rack of off-the-peg costume rentals. They went to Billy Wilder and insisted that their dresses should be designed by Orry-Kelly (who would scoop the Oscar for his work on the film - the only Oscar the film garnered despite a string of nominations). Wilder agreed but when the new dresses arrived Marylin Monroe immediately inspected them and stole a black dress that had been designed for Lemmon - much to his annoyance.
Lemmon's performance is more broadly comic than Curtis's and it was he who was nominated for the Oscar and scooped the BAFTA and the Golden Globe. Lemmon, it has often been commented, could be a touch hammy as an actor but this was the perfect part for him - he gets to chew up the scenery without ever appearing to be over acting for a moment. I can still remember the first time I saw the film and it was definitely Lemmon who got the big laughs from me - and still does now. In fact Wilder described the scene where Lemmon, as Jerry pretending to be Daphne, appears to have forgotten that he is a man and talks ecstatically of marrying his love-struck zillionaire Osgood, as getting 'the longest sustained laugh of all my movies'.
7. Marilyn Monroe is Marilyn Monroe..
Hours were lost as cast and crew waited for Marilyn to come on set and Wilder later joked "I didn't waste those hours, I read War and Peace Les Miserables and Hawaii". Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were told by Wilder that they had to be perfect in every take when they were acting with Marilyn - because whatever take she delivered in would be the one that was used in the film. Famously it took 80 takes to get a shot of her saying 4 words "Where is the Bourbon?" in a scene shot in Josephine and Daphne's hotel room. But Marilyn understood her role in the film absolutely and when she made her first appearance at the train station (in fact the first day's filming on the picture) she pointed out that it wasn't enough for her to just stride along the platform - she needed a piece of business to pep up her impact. They came up with the idea of the train blasting a bit of steam just behind her rear end - as if the train itself was reacting to her.
On Marilyn's contribution perhaps Billy Wilder should have the last word: "Some Like it Hot will be a picture of mine people will see for as long as prints last, not because of me, but because of Miss Monroe."
8. The film is a love letter to American music of the jazz age
Billy Wilder's love affair with America - and more specifically American music, began when he saw American troops enter Vienna in 1918. The city was starving and with the troops came food - and the sound of American dance bands. He particularly loved Paul Whiteman's band and he learned to sing the lyrics of some of their songs before he even understood the words. In May of 1926 Wilder, then a journalist, got to interview Whiteman when he was on a European tour and it was a key moment in the director's life story. Whiteman was impressed by Wilder's knowledge of his music and Wilder introduced him to a song which Whiteman re-recorded (and had a massive hit with under the title "When Day is Done"). When Whiteman moved on to Berlin he invited Wilder to join him and act as a sort of guide. Wilder never went back to Vienna and this was the beginning of Wilder's escape from the approaching maelstrom of the Second World War. In Whiteman's band at that time was a brilliant Jazz violinist, Matty Malneck, who would later move to Hollywood and provide music for several of Wilder's films - including Some Like it Hot . Wilder lost his mother and other family members in Auschwitz - but he made it to America. The film is a sophisticated comedy full of caustic wit and lively cynicism - but the music is a celebration of the great American art - Jazz - and I also detect an exhilarating woop of joy by European émigré artists who escaped the Holocaust and found a home in the land of the free.
9. There are actors like George Raft in the supporting cast
10. A great title and a great last line
Producer Walter Mirsch discovered that MCA, the mini studio that made Wilder's film, was buying all of Paramount's films made before 1950 - which included the Bob Hope flick. There was an agonising wait for this complicated deal to go through and Wilder very nearly had to settle for his second choice title 'Not Tonight Josephine'. But luck was on his side, the deal went through in time.
The last line of Some Like it Hot is "Well, nobody's perfect" and is delivered by actor Joe E Brown (as gazillionaire Osgood) on being told by what he thought was 'Daphne' - the woman he adores - "I'm a man". "Nobody's Perfect" is not a funny line on its own but is so perfect in its context that it has been voted the best comedy line of all time more than once. I think the joy of it lies in the unexpectedness of it - a good part of the film seems to have been leading up to this moment of revelation and it completely confounds your expectations - pulling the rug from under you. There have also been claims that this moment in movie history presages gay marriage by half a century - it is certainly true that you can smuggle controversial ideas more easily when you loosen audiences up with laughter - but this may be a claim too far for the film.
In fact the little scene between Osgood and Daphne/Jerry wasn't intended to be the last moment in the film (a clinch between Sugar and Joe was envisaged) but Marilyn was not available on the last day's shooting and they had to stick with Osgood and his sex change lover. The line "Well, nobody's perfect" had been written months before - thought up by Izzy Diamond, but neither he nor Wilder were happy with it and regarded it as a temporary line until they could think of something better. Luckily they didn't think of anything.