I was immediately intrigued by this movie once I discovered it was co-written and directed by Billy Wilder, the gentleman responsible for the superb The Apartment. I was expecting another movie like it, a comedy that dealt with unexpected subject matter in a deftly-handled way. Some Like It Hot wasn’t quite like that, but it was still a really enjoyable farce that manages to surprise us every now and then.
Two musician friends, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) are down on their luck. To make matters that much worse, they accidentally witness the Valentine’s Day Massacre while making a quick delivery for a friend. The quickest way to get out of town is through a traveling all-women’s band, so they disguise themselves as girls and sign up at the last minute as Josephine and Daphne, respectively. They’re surprised by the treatment of the women on the train going to Miami, but they make a number of friends there — one of them is Sugar Kane (Monroe), the band’s lead vocalist and ukelele player.
Once the band arrives in Miami things get even more complicated. Joe falls in love with Sugar, and decides to woo her by donning a second disguise — this time as the heir of Shell Oil. The ruse works for the most part, though there are plenty of close calls. Daphne, meanwhile, is being aggressively pursued by Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), an actual millionaire who isn’t used to taking no for an answer.
The film is breezy and light, but what makes it impressive is the way it piles lies on top of lies at a breakneck pace. It’s over two hours long, but it really doesn’t feel like it — every scene moves at the speed it needs to, slowing down so the characters can get to know each other, or at least become familiar with the face one character is presenting above their own, then speeding up when the carefully constructed lie falls apart. Both Joe and Jerry are in over their heads and they know it; nothing is planned but their wits manage to keep them one half-step ahead of utter disaster. Both Curtis and Lemmon are pretty game for what the script asks them to do, and there’s a surprising amount of sympathy for women and what they have to deal with in a male-dominated society. It pulls back the curtain without condemning; this is a farce, after all.
Monroe is magnetic here as Sugar, the unlucky-in-love good-time girl. When she sings “I’m Through With Love” near the end of the film, she’s surprisingly sincere; the heartbreak exudes from her, as if she’s not even trying to project it. It’s kind of stunning. Her lightness, her easy charm, suffuses the whole movie. Lemmon and Curtis are precise with their comedy, and under the steady direction of Billy Wilder they weave through the tangled plot of the script without a knot.
Considering the plot — that two men dress as women to escape witness-killing by the mob — is so dark, it would be incredibly easy to get this movie wrong. I’m not sure if the “men-in-drag” genre is permanently through or if the most recent examples have simply been that poor, but Some Like It Hot actually works incredibly well. I’m positive that in the hands of lesser collaborators, the machinery would have fallen apart. It’s a testament to the talent of everyone involved that it purrs along as easily as it does.