Marilyn Monroe Month: “Some Like It Hot”

If there was ever a person arguing against the long shelf life of 1950s comedies, I would slide over a copy of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot to blow their respective mind!

Set in prohibition era Chicago, the 1959 drag comedy stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two big bang musicians, Joe and Jerry. These two street rats have lived their lives bouncing from gig to gig, hustling money from office secretaries to show girls. Sadly, Joe’s and Jerry’s worlds are flipped upside-down, when they accidentally witness the infamous St. Valentine’s Day massacre. With no choice but to disappear, Joe and Jerry…sorry, I mean, Josephine and Daphne take razors to their legs and join an all-girls band, while the mobsters are hot on their trail. Josephine and Daphne think they’re sitting pretty until they begin to fall in love for the band’s jaw dropping lead singer, Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe.

You know, it’s truly astonishing. A comedy from an era which enforced black and white idealism of biological sex and gender identities approached the topics with the same amount of cleverness and sincerity, if not more so, as today’s sex comedies. The classic coming-of-age story isn’t restricted to the lives of children and young adults in Some Like It Hot.

The comedy lies in Wilder’s dependence on the brief but clever visual gags of masculinity in the form of key props and settings. I couldn’t help but grin when Lemmon and Curtis escaped the gangsters’ shower of bullets without a scratch except for the three holes in Lemmon’s bass — once a proud extension of his manhood. Wilder put in so much more visual innuendoes that he even went out of his way to top his famous up-skirt sight gag from The Seven Year Itch with a train blowing off some steam when Marilyn Monroe walks by in a sexy black dress.

Once the train leaves the literal station from Lemmon’s and Curtis’ old lives, their feminine disguised masculinities take a journey to gender and sexual enhancement. The characters progress in a natural way that doesn’t fall victim to preachiness of the opposite sex. The drama and the comedy are symbiotic in every scene. Lemmon and Curtis transform into men of humility as their not-so-subtle infatuation with Monroe turns into a healthy relationship with three women.

Starting off Marilyn Monroe Month with Some Like It Hot, I wasn’t sure where her acting talents would fall. Maybe her career would be revealed to be similar to James Dean’s career: bankable movie star and credible actor all rolled up into one hot package. Ultimately I believed I was wrong for the first hour. Monroe had a certain naïve charm but nothing else to suggest a hidden nuance.

However when Monroe hits rock bottom at the end of the second act that nuance I was searching for found its way to shine. Sugar Kane isn’t a character with complex motivation and agency. She has the agency that would make modern feminists huff and puff. And that isn’t to say, this criticism doesn’t have merit, but Monroe shapes Sugar into such an earnest person that you want to just give her the biggest hug at the slightest trailing tear down her cheek.

Decades later and Some Like It Hot still stands taller than most sex comedies coming out today. It’s not a lazy culmination of cheap sex jokes and immature characters who are past the point of no return within the first act.

The trio of Lemmon, Curtis, and Monroe is pitch perfect as their banter elevates the comedy to screwball intensity. If the gimmick of sexist men being forced to dress up as women doesn’t sound as funny as it used to be, the final punchline makes the entire joke worth it. I won’t dare spoil it here, but it’s one of the reasons why Some Like It Hot is among the best comedies Hollywood ever generated.