In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching movies that he really should have seen by now, but hasn’t for some reason.
I’m actually not sure how I managed to avoid seeing this week’s film. A household that forbade R-rated movies was naturally overflowing with G-rated black-and-white classics, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Jack Lemmon, Gene Kelly, Katharine Hepburn. By high school I had seen most of the family films in my local video store made before 1980, scouring the “Classics” shelves and those huge white clamshell cases on the Disney Live Action rack every visit to see if I’d missed anything. Yeah, yeah, I never saw Caddyshack until last fall. But The Apple Dumpling Gang? Girl, I’ve seen the sequel.
So watching 1959’s Some Like It Hot was at once uncharted territory and a return to the familiar. A world where the jokes, characters, and romantic arcs are as black and white as the film stock. Where there isn’t a c-word, dick joke or SNL cast member in sight. Out of the ordinary for me these days, but right in my 12-year-old wheelhouse.
In spite of its year of release, though, Some Like It Hot feels surprisingly adult — and not just because of Marilyn Monroe’s cans. There are speakeasies, murders, cross-dressing, more murders, and tons of weird, too-clean innuendo. Although it retains the elevated, presentational style of classic Hollywood filmmaking, the plot and jokes give some real bite to this film even today. But mostly because of Marilyn Monroe’s cans. How did they get away with that?
Her cans, and the term “cans,” aside, Marilyn actually turns in a pretty strong comedic performance. It’s a part written for her, and written well, so it’s not that surprising, but it’s nice to know it holds up. She’s a little dim, but in a three-dimensional way, which was sort of her whole thing, and her tipsy innocence is the perfect complement to Curtis and Lemmon’s farcical door-slamming and man-voice-cough-cough-woman-voice bits.
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon really carry the film, which shouldn’t come as a surprise either, but what is interesting is how evenly they carry it. They’re both terrific, and while Lemmon’s character is less defined than Curtis’ — he more often serves as a device to put plot elements into play for Curtis than as a character with distinct needs — the two of them have a chemistry and a relationship that’s much more equal-status than the classic lead/character relationship of many ‘50s comedies, where the best friend role is usually reserved for advice or physical comedy at the end of every fourth scene or so. Lemmon is clearly more friend than lead here, but the line is blurred, and from this comfy armchair I wonder if Some Like It Hot isn’t something of a prototypical buddy movie — Best Friends On a Wacky Adventure is a log line that got a lot more play in the 80s and 90s than in the 50s, and it’s great to see a movie from that era where two equally talented comedians trade the straight-man role as needed for the jokes and the story.
There’s plenty of both here — the A- and B-plot of Joe and Jerry’s love interests are very funny and tightly paced. Tony Curtis’ awesomely terrible Cary Grant accent is worth the price of admission, and Lemmon’s dopey infatuation with being a rich man’s wife is his best bit. There’s plenty of good physical comedy and sight gags as well - Curtis and Lemmon get a handful of good double-takes and running around. The dialogue is as great as you’d expect from a screwball comedy by the guy who wrote Sunset Boulevard, from cop banter that would make Jerry Orbach roll his donated eyes (Mob Boss [re: shooting]: “There was something in the cake that didn’t agree with them.” Detective Mulligan: “My compliments to the chef. Nobody leaves this room until I get the recipe.”) to one of the best (and most abrupt) last lines I’ve seen in a while: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Neither is the film itself, of course. There are some jokes here and there that are showing their age, and as you’d expect from a 50’s film about cross-dressers surrounded by gorgeous women, a few jokes that hit the edgy-funny sweet spot 50 years ago now fall alternatingly into the “Yawn” and “Yikes” bins. Lemmon’s initial lecherous overload on the train, for example, plays less like an average Joe in ridiculous circumstances and more like a terrifying glimpse into the mind of the 1950s bachelor, like Mad Men in a funhouse mirror.
According to the American Film Institute, however, Some Like It Hot is perfect, or as close as a comedy can be — it was named the #1 best comedy film of all time in 2000. I’m not sure I agree with that, but as we’ve established I’m not equipped with the basis of comparison I probably need to adequately back that up. It is pretty fantastic, however. I’m glad to see that Some Like It Hot holds up, and, having seen a great many of its contemporaries, it seems I unintentionally saved one of the best for last.
Second, maybe, to 1979’s The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. Who’s with me?
Put your hand down, Don Knotts’ ghost.