Sunday, October 10, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: Some Like it Hot

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 98 of 100

Perpetually penniless jazz musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) find themselves out of work when a two-bit job playing at a speakeasy owner by Chicago mob boss Spatz Colombo (George Raft) goes south after a police raid. Spatz has an inkling that the nark who squealed to the coppers is “Toothpick” Charlie (George E. Stone) and arranges for him to be rubbed out in a St Valentine’s Day style hit. Which brings us to Joe and Jerry’s second piece of bad luck: being right at the scene when the shooting goes down.

Spatz has an aversion to witnesses who are still alive, so Joe and Jerry go on the lam. In disguise. A women’s orchestra is leaving town for a three-week gig in Miami. A quick make-over and Joe and Jerry become Josephine and Geraldine (only Jerry doesn’t like the name Geraldine so he re-reinvents himself as Daphne) and the scene is set for Billy Wilder’s funniest and most sparkling comedy.

On the train to Miami, sharing a sleeping car with several dozen women, Jerry/Daphne is in heaven, delightedly reminiscing about a recurring dream he had as a kid of being locked overnight in a bakery, the place filled with all kinds of goodies. Joe/Josephine curtly informs him there’ll be no such calorific intake here: “You’re a girl, remember.” Jerry/Daphne takes a disconsolate look at the ocean of female pulchritude before him and forlornly murmurs, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I wish I was dead.” No-one could do harassed like Jack Lemmon, and he’s at his comedic best here.

Not that Joe/Josephine leads by example, however. Chief among the panoply of pulchritude is ditzy blonde singer and ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), who catches the eye of both of them. During a girlie heart-to-heart, Sugar tells Josephine that she’s joined the women’s orchestra after a string of bad relationships, all with tenor saxophonists who are impecunious, charming, inveterate liars and good for nothing but borrowing money off her that they never pay back. Since this is a pretty good description of Joe himself, he eagerly prompts Sugar for the particulars of her perfect man – millionaire, bespectacled, sensitive, gentle, own private yacht – and once the band are ensconced at their Miami hotel, he sets about passing himself off as a myopic, sensitive, gentle, yacht-owning millionaire. Problem is, apart from the specs and the blazer (both appropriated from the orchestra manager), he’s demonstrably lacking the other accoutrements.

Fortunately, yacht-owning millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) – who is neither bespectacled nor sensitive – is also in town and takes a swift interest in Daphne. An interest that Joe/Josephine persuades him to play along with, the better to gain access to his yacht. Then the Friends of Italian Opera show up for their convention (that only one of them seems to know that ‘Rigoletto’ is an opera and not some wiseguy should tip you off that they aren’t actually a bunch of Verdi fans) and, as Jerry/Daphne puts it, “the omelette just hit the fan”.

‘Some Like it Hot’ starts off as a gangster movie – with a properly kick-ass car chase and shoot out – then becomes a romantic comedy of mistaken identities (so wittily structured and nuanced that it’s pretty much cinema’s answer to Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ but with colloquialisms and tommy guns), before wrapping things up back in gangster movie guise. Wilder’s genius is that he plays the gangster shenanigans more or less straight (there are plenty of funny moments during these scenes, but they’re done totally deadpan) and the romantic comedy a little broader. The effect is something like a Frank Capra feelgood movie bookended by ‘The Roaring Twenties’.

From the script to the direction to the performances, the film is flawless. Everyone’s ideally cast: Lemmon’s a hoot as the increasingly flustered bass player, Curtis goes from camp as Josephine to faux­ Cary Grant smooth as the phoney millionaire (the way he passes himself off as hier to the Shell Oil company is priceless), Marilyn Monroe – notwithstanding the Curtis likened playing their elegantly staged love scene as akin to “kissing Hitler” – is at her most likeable, George Raft does gangster like he means it (hanging out with some of America’s most notorious hoods probably helped) and Brown gets the best last line a comedy has ever been graced with.

‘Some Like it Hot’ isn’t just a classic of its kind. It’s perfection.

(i.m. Tony Curtis, 3 June 1925 – 29 September 2010)

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