The American Film Institute rates the 1959 film "Some Like It Hot" as the funniest movie of all time - it also gets number 14 on its list of 100 greatest movies. So what went right with this black and white farce about two musicians forced to dress up as women to avoid being snuffed out by mobsters? The answer is clearly 'Billy Wilder' all the way - one of the deftest, wittiest and most accomplished directors in history - and his brilliant writing partner Izzy Diamond - but below, in no particular order, I try and break it down into what I believe are 10 crucial elements. This is not a 'how to write the perfect comedy' list - it is pure appreciation, and I sneak in the odd favourite fact and anecdote too.
1. A great story
Cross-dressing has been a staple of comedy down the ages, stretching back into theatre's distant past, but it is a device that is tricky to utilise tastefully. The director Billy Wilder was intrigued by the comic potential in the idea of a pair of male musicians being forced to dress as women in order to get a job - a comic conceit that he knew featured in the 1935 French film Fanfares D'Amour. Unable to get hold of a copy he ordered a screening of the 1951 German remake Fanfaren De Liebe. The film told of two musicians who disguise themselves to get work with various bands - including a Gypsy band, an all-black jazz band and an all-female band. The film was episodic and somewhat laboured in its insistence on showing the men donning their disguises, but Wilder's instincts told him that there was something in the cross dressing sequence that he could build on and he duly bought the rights to the German film. He then set to work with his writing partner I.A.L. (Izzy) Diamond. What they came up with was a tale of joblessness made worse by the fear of death - which drives two musicians (Joe and Jerry) into joining an all female band. Joe falls in love with one of the musicians (Sugar Kane) - and they contrive to stick with the disguises on arrival in sunny Miami. To complicate matters Joe then takes on a second disguise as an impotent millionaire in order to woo Sugar, and Jerry has to bat off advances from a genuine millionaire who is staying in the same hotel. When the death threat catches up with them Joe and Jerry escape with their paramours and reveal their true identities.
2. The perfect setting
Izzy Diamond and Billy Wilder were writing their screenplay in the 1950's, a deeply conservative era in America, and they were concerned that people would find the idea of men dressing as women uncomfortable (in fact the finished film was banned in Kansas and the producers had to cite cross-dressing in Shakespeare to stop it being banned across the country). It was Izzy Diamond who suggested that they set the film in the 1920's - the age of prohibition and wall-to-wall mobsters but, more importantly, a time when, to a contemporary eye, it would appear that everyone was in costume, thus softening the effect of seeing male actors in women's clothing. The choice of the 1920's works perfectly because it was a time of economic depression (making the musician's plight seem natural) but also of frenetic change, budding liberation for women, jazz, great fashion and of course the insanity of prohibition. The ubiquity of gangsters solved a problem that Wilder and Diamond had agonized over: what would make two lusty heterosexual musicians decide to dress as women? Just being hungry and needing a job was not a strong enough motivation for a movie plot. It was Billy Wilder who came up with the idea that Joe and Jerry accidentally witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and have to go into hiding to avoid being snuffed out.
3. Dizzying Pace.
From the explosive opening which sees a car chase gun battle between cops and mobsters Some Like it Hot has a frenetic pace which never lets up. The Chicago scenes are driven by the insane cat and mouse chase of bootleggers and cops and the desperate plight of our two heroes, a saxophonist and double bass player, who are so hard up they are soon hocking their overcoats to put money down on a 'sure thing' at the race track. This leaves them coatless and at the mercy of Chicago's pitiless winter wind which whips them back into the offices of the musical agents where they beg for work. Once we get to the scenes on the train the frenetic insanely brilliant comic sequence in which 'Daphne' throws a cocktail party in her bunk seems to take its pace from the metronome of the steam engine's relentless chug chug, which eventually segues directly into the jazz-age soundtrack. Not a microsecond is wasted in this film which successfully delivers a perfect movie example of that most difficult of genres - farce - where the pace has to speed up continually. As Wilder commented when he started work with his actors "Its going to be like juggling eleven meringue pies at once."
3. Billy Wilder had the perfect vehicle to explore his favourite theme
Billy Wilder was on a winning streak when he made Some Like It Hot. Films like Five Graves to Cairo, The Lost Weekend and the masterful Sunset Boulevard exuded class, scooped awards and made money for the studios he worked for. Quite simply Wilder had impeccable taste and instincts.
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
Some Like It Hot was only the second feature that Billy Wilder wrote with Izzy Diamond. The first had been Love in the Afternoon starring Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn of which Wilder later commented "The day I hired Gary Cooper he got too old for the part". Prior to this Wilder had endured a long writing partnership with Charles Brackett. It was a stormy working relationship and they were not friends outside of the office (Billy Wilder was a self-made Polish-born Jewish immigrant , Brackett urbane old-money American). But it had been remarkably fruitful, culminating in Sunset Boulevard. After this Wilder dropped Brackett - stating later that "The match no longer struck sparks on the matchpaper".
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
Tony Curtis was already a star by the time Billy Wilder offered him the part of Joe in Some Like it Hot but he regarded Wilder as being in a league above even himself, a director of such shimmering quality that he could only dream of being cast in one of his movies. Wilder offered him the part of Jerry the goofball double-bass player, at a party given by producer Harold Mirisch. Curtis nearly wept with joy and agreed on the spot. At that point Wilder was seriously considering giving Frank Sinatra the part of Joe, the sax player (the part Curtis would eventually play). In fact Wilder decided that Sinatra would have been too difficult to work with but he nearly had to cast him. He had arranged a lunch to discuss the part but Sinatra failed to appear. Both Bob Hope and Danny Kaye had also been in the running but Wilder wisely recognized that the sight of these older men in drag would have been too grotesque. He regarded Curtis as the best looking boy in town - and they shared Austro-Hungarian Empire origins.
For Curtis this was a breakthrough role, a chance to show that he was versatile and he played it with immense gusto and relish. He in effect plays three parts in the film - Joe, Josephine (Joe's female alter-ego) and the bogus millionaire with whom Sugar Kane falls in love. Curtis made the decision to do a Cary Grant impersonation for the millionaire which works a treat (Billy Wilder was delighted with the impersonation and commented that he had never managed to get Cary Grant into one of his films so would have to be content with Curtis' impersonation). However his voice work for Josephine proved too deep and had to be largely dubbed by an actor called Paul Frees. But Curtis' characterisation as Josephine is brilliant - there is a sense that Joe is suddenly conscious of what life must be like for a woman with guys like him around - and he plays her demure and wary of men. There is even a sort of Joe-in-miniature to harass him; a priapic little bell-boy in the Miami Hotel, a little devil sent to punish him for all the times he has hit on women in a similar way.
Initially Curtis was told that Sugar Kane would be played by Mitzi Gaynor (known for South Pacific) and Elizabeth Taylor was also in consideration. When Curtis heard that Marylin Monroe had bagged the part he had mixed feelings. He had an affair with Marylin when she was an unknown in Hollywood and he wasn't sure how she would react to working with him. When they met again her first words to him were "Have you still got it Tony?" She was referring to the green Buick convertible they used to make out in.
6. Jack Lemmon got to act his socks off
Tony Curtis recalled the first day that he and Jack Lemmon got into their female costumes for Some Like it Hot: "I didn't want to come out first. I wanted him out first, to see what Jack would be like...then I see Jack come dancing out of his dressing room, and he looked like a three-dollar trollop. You know, skipping along, talking in a high voice. I said 'Oh shit, I can't do that'."
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..
Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond admitted that the part of Sugar Kane was the weakest in terms of the writing - which meant it needed someone remarkable to play it. Wilder's view of Marilyn Monroe was that she was nearly impossible to work with but that she possessed near-magical qualities; "She looked on screen as if you could reach out and touch her" he said. In the story Joe and Jerry initially disguise themselves as women merely to escape from Chicago. But on the train Joe falls in love with Sugar and persuades Jerry that they need to maintain the disguise so he can spend time with her. Sugar Cane needed to be supernaturally attractive if the audience were to believe that the two men would continue the subterfuge. In fact Marilyn shows herself to be more than just a sexpot in the film - she is also a very accomplished comedian. As Curtis put it "her timing was excellent - but not her timekeeping".
Billy Wilder had worked with Marilyn on The Seven Year Itch and had sworn not to work with her again due to the endless delays and difficulties. Their relationship had been so fractious that he was astonished when he received a letter from her asking to be in Some Like it Hot. Wilder knew what he was letting himself in for, but calculated that she was worth the trouble. In fact her behaviour was so erratic and unpredictable that Wilder suffered serious back and stomach troubles due to the stress - to the point where (according to his wife Audrey) they had to hire a psychologist to persuade him to get out of bed in the morning. He even started walking with a cane - but what he saw on screen always justified the hell he was going through.
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
Some Like It Hot is a story about musicians and it is infused with the delirious 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
Such was Billy Wilder's reputation that he was able to call on almost any actor to play even quite small supporting roles. As the film features Chicago gangsters it was natural that he would want to get some of the stars of the great gangster movies to play mob bosses - people like Edward G Robinson and George Raft. Unfortunately the two men had history - during the making of Manpower, Raft and Robinson had both fallen for their co-star Marlene Dietrich. The rivalry had blown up into an actual fistfight, caught on camera by a stills photographer from Life magazine. Still sore from this they had refused to ever appear in the same picture again. But Raft was keen to work with Wilder. He had turned down a part in Wilder's brilliant Double Indemnity and was not going to miss out on the chance to work on a masterpiece again. Interestingly Edward G Robinson Junior does appear in the film - also as a gangster.
Another terrific 'bit player' is Joe E Brown - who plays Osgood - the millionaire so madly in love with Daphne (Jack Lemmon) that he doesn't even mind that she turns out to be a he. Brown was a once-familiar face from countless film comedies. He had fallen out of favour and was reduced to television work (then regarded as film's very poor relation) when Billy Wilder saw him at a Dodgers game (Brown was a baseball fanatic and part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates). The film briefly resurrected Joe E Brown's career and he appears in the wonderful Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
10. A great title and a great last line
Izzy Diamond, the screenwriter, apparently plucked the title Some Like It Hot from the nursery rhythm that goes "Some like it in the pot, nine days old" which ends, ..."some like it hot" - and Billy Wilder was keen on the title from the off - but there was a problem. There was already a 1939 Bob Hope vehicle that used the title - and there was (and still is) an industry rule that prevented people re-using the title of a copyrighted film.
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.