At the Movies

Michael Wood

Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, now showing in a new print at the BFI, was based on a German film called Fanfares of Love, first made in French in 1935 and then remade in 1951. Wilder, in 1959, was thinking mainly of the original, which he said was ‘deliriously bad’. Coming from him this was a compliment rather than a complaint, and he certainly found in the old work the basic premise of the new one: two male musicians join an all-woman band. In the earlier film this was one of their many antics, whereas in Some Like It Hot it grounds almost all the jokes and helps Wilder concentrate on the delirium, which he definitely wasn’t going to let go. It wouldn’t be a screwball comedy if it didn’t depend on loose screws, on faith and fragile logic rather than reliable engineering. Even the date, about twenty years too late to keep company with the classics of the genre, is off.

There is another premise, another genre in question. David Selznick told Wilder that ‘mixing gangsters and comedy wouldn’t work,’ and perhaps even Wilder didn’t know at first how wrong his adviser was. Would the St Valentine’s Day Massacre really play as farce? The opening frames of the film offer an impeccable answer. Four gangsters looking like gargoyles, more like movie bad guys than even movie bad guys are supposed to look, ride in a hearse, pursued by the police. The gangsters reach for the guns concealed in the roof of the hearse, and everyone starts shooting. When bullets hit the coffin, it springs several leaks: the only corpse in there is all spirit, and in bottles. A title card gives us a place and a date: Chicago 1929.

We move to a funeral parlour owned by a man called Mozzarella – no need to go too far for Italian jokes – where an organist is gently playing ‘Ave Maria’. Again, death is only a front, and a discreetly hidden door leads straight into a speakeasy, with dancing girls, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ rather than Gounod (some like it hot), and various coffees served under the names of various whiskeys. Or rather the reverse: any whiskey you want as long as you call it coffee. The place is raided, and in this version of the narrative the historical massacre is a payback, the killing of the man (and his partners) who tipped off the police. Our heroes, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, musicians in the club but not yet members of their new band, accidentally witness the killing, and the plot can take off.

Versions of the name game with coffee and whiskey occur everywhere in the movie, as if language itself were drag everyone wears but no one believes in. Marilyn Monroe, a singer with the band, tells Curtis that she comes from a musical family. Her mother was a singer and her father was a conductor. Curtis asks where he conducted. She names a railroad company rather than an orchestra: the Baltimore and Ohio. This is quick and casual, but one linguistic gag later in the film is so elaborate that it feels as if it must be the key to something. At a meeting of the Friends of Italian Opera in Florida, the big boss, played by Nehemiah Persoff and called Little Bonaparte (‘It’s been ten years since I elected myself to this office,’ he says, ‘and I congratulate you on your choice’) decides to honour his Chicago colleague Spats Colombo, played by George Raft, on his birthday. Raft says his birthday is some months away, the boss says there no harm in doing things early, meaning only the cake matters. We have seen the vast cake being loaded, not with the traditional dancing girl, but with a man and a gun. I didn’t know until I read Gene Phillips’s Some Like It Wilder (2010) that the actor with the gun is the son of Edward G. Robinson, famous among many other reasons for playing the title role in Little Caesar, although I did, like most people, pick up the reference when Raft asks young Robinson where he got the ‘cheap trick’ of tossing a coin while he is talking. He got it from Raft himself, who had made the habit his trademark long ago in Scarface. Amid such allusions – and indeed the whole show of organised crime as a sort of commedia dell’arte – the breaking open of the cake and the shooting of Raft and his gargoyle companions is just the following of a cue. But Persoff’s laborious joke about the mode of death takes us to another level. ‘There was something in that cake that didn’t agree with him,’ he says of Raft. We may be laughing mainly at the hard work Persoff (or Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond) put into this lamentable pun, but surely the actual differences between the uses (rather than the meanings) of ‘agree’ are important here. There is something so mild and polite about the thought of food that does not agree with us; something subtly brutal about using disagreement as a euphemism for murder.

But of course the most significant moments in the film are indeed those where linguistic assertions seem to be both illusory and essential. Lemmon lies in a bunk on a train crowded with women from the band wearing floppy, revealing nightwear. He is delighted with their proximity, but also wants to tell his secret to one of them. He knows he shouldn’t, and desperately repeats his lying mantra: ‘I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl.’ Later, when his disguise as a girl allows a rich man to propose marriage to him, he is strongly tempted to say yes. Curtis has already asked him the apparently sensible question – ‘Why would a guy want to marry a guy?’ – and Lemmon dealt with that readily. ‘Security,’ he said. But he knows he is not going to go through with it, and his only help against temptation is the reverse of his old mantra. He says, ‘I’m a boy, I’m a boy,’ as if this easily misrepresentable fact might put an end to all argument.

The visual version of this dilemma begins when the two men, in fur coats, high heels and lots of make-up, come stomping down a platform to get the train to Florida. Do they look like women? Yes. Do they look as if they are women? Of course not. Then Monroe comes down the same platform walking the same walk. We know she is a woman because we see her swaying hips from the back and from the men’s point of view. What defines her as a woman, initially, is the way men look at her, her place in what Hélène Cixous once called the great theatre of gender.

There is no end to argument in the film because all the arguments are excuses for something else, and good only as long as that something else lasts – like any fiction perhaps or any fact sufficiently wrapped in fiction. Wilder could keep a remarkably straight face when talking on this topic, but on screen his subversive talent complicates it in wonderful ways. In Fanfares of Love, he said, ‘the two guys joined a girls’ band simply because they needed jobs … We decided that the two guys should join the girls’ band as an absolute question of life and death … So we invented the fact that they had witnessed a gangland killing and had to disguise themselves. Then we set the story in the Roaring Twenties, in order to make this element of the plot more believable.’ Ah yes, believable. I don’t doubt that Wilder and Diamond followed a logic of this kind as they were writing the film, but then it’s the same as the logic of the movie itself: only good for getting you to the next scene.

Curtis and Lemmon use this logic all the time. The reason it’s good to have a job and get paid is not to buy food or clear your many debts but to get your teeth fixed (Lemmon) or blow it all on a sure bet, one you can’t lose (Curtis). And one of the crucial reasons for taking the job with the girls’ band, quite apart from the mob danger, is that the gig is in Florida. Chicago is snowy and windy and the men have pawned their overcoats for the money needed for the bet they could (of course) lose after all.

When Monroe first saw the script for Some Like It Hot, she threw it on the floor, and said she ‘had played dumb characters before but never this dumb’. In the film, though, and in spite of all kinds of latenesses and disruptions during the shoot (47 takes to say ‘Where’s that bottle?’), she is one of the most intelligent of all dumb blondes, because she knows more about illusions than the men do. Why does she keep falling for saxophone players, including one who is disguised as a millionaire played by Cary Grant? Her own answer in the film, given tapping the side of her head, is that she is not very bright. The truth is she knows what she wants and is waiting for the right wrong man. Her supposed weakness is a conscious fidelity to who she is, and this perspective is confirmed by the final flaw in Wilder’s theory of life and death and believability. The men’s disguise was never much of a disguise, just a matter of names and clothes, and as soon as the gangsters show up in Florida they recognise the fleeing witnesses. There was something in those faces and manners that didn’t agree with them.