Wednesday, August 7, 2013

“Like Jell-O on springs!” (Some Like it Hot)

Some time in the early 00’s, I was killing some time at work surfing the web (shocker) and ran across what struck me at the time as an extremely ambitious web project. A few guys had taken it upon themselves to create their own alternative version of the Top 100 Movie Comedies of All Time, in response to the official list covering that territory which had just been released by the American Film Institute. The guys in question were probably in their mid-to-late 20’s and (shocker again) found the AFI list to be far too stodgy and burdened with classic, respectable films which evinced a corny, old-fashioned sense of humor at best, whereas everybody knows that truly hilarious movies not only make you laugh uncontrollably but are inherently shocking and offensive and not the kind of thing you would want your mom to even know exists. And I was entirely sympathetic to this point of view, being an age peer of the don’t-trust-anyone-pver-30 cohort as well. Still, coming up with 100 worthy comedies with little to no overlap with AFI, and ranking them in logical order, and writing a synopsis/critique/defense of inclusion and ranking in a style which was itself snarkily amusing in a cool, detached Gen X way - all those parameters of the undertaking were what struck me as ambitious. And, in fact, I believe I came across this website countdown very early on in an unfinished stage, as they were planning on releasing so many entries per day or week or month or whathaveyou, and I checked back regularly but the effort quickly fell behind, and I don’t know that they ever finished it. Nor do I remember many of the movies which made the cool-kids list, except that I’m fairly certain Up In Smoke was in there somewhere, as well as a couple of unintentionally funny so-bad-its-good turkeys.

One thing I do remember, though, is that in the introductory rant for the whole project, much objection was made to the number one pick on the AFI list, which was Some Like it Hot. How, the ironic braintrust demanded, could a movie from the Hays Code 1950’s possibly be better than anything and everything since? Clearly the question was rhetorical, and just as clearly Some Like It Hot was the safe choice, a mewlingly reverential and painfully misguided one. But the braintrust bravely vowed to speak truth to power and prove beyond a doubt that they knew from funny.

So that was a long time ago, and since then I’ve matured a bit (and for all I know, those rudeboys of the paleolithic internet have as well) and I’ve broadened my horizons and tried to face more and more of the world (particularly the before-my-time world) with an open mind. But I had not yet seen Some Like It Hot until this summer. Of course, up until a year or so ago I had never seen any of Marilyn Monroe’s movies at all, or any of Billy Wilder’s for that matter, until I rectified those oversights via Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Sunset Boulevard. The 1001 Movies Blog Club had already covered Some Like It Hot, some time before I joined up, so this also falls under the make-up work aspect of SUMMER SCHOOL. And even the subject matter is thematically appropriate, at least in the sense that it largely takes place at a seaside resort, beach scene included. (OK, yes, it’s supposed to be Florida in the dead of winter, but let’s not quibble.)

With its reputation preceding it, the question which Some Like It Hot is now forced to answer is not “Is it any good?” but rather “Is it actually funny?” And I was entirely happy to discover that yes, it categorically is. In fact, the most wonderful thing about the movie is the fact that it is several different flavors of funny all at once. Long before Curtis or Lemmon or Monroe appear on-screen, the movie opens with Detective Mulligan and Toothpick Charlie exchanging rapid-fire banter.

Mulligan: All right, Charlie; that the joint?
Toothpick Charlie: Yes, sir.
Mulligan: Who runs it?
Toothpick Charlie: I already told you.
Mulligan: Refresh my memory.
Toothpick Charlie: Spats Columbo.
Mulligan: That's very refreshing; what's the password?

The “very refreshing” zinger is great; even better, to my mind, is the fact that the “I already told you” is itself kind of a writerly inside joke, poking fun at the convention in movies for characters to recite expository dialogue for the audience’s benefit despite the fact that, logically, it’s all stuff that should have been said long before the moment unfolding on screen. I am nothing if not a fan of lampshade hanging.

But of course Mulligan’s pursuit of Columbo is only a minor subplot in the narrative machinery that puts Curtis and Lemmon on the run and leaves them no choice but to disguise themselves as women and join up with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, where they end up playing alongside lead singer and ukulele plucker Monroe. I love her introduction, too, when she informs the boys-passing-for-girls of her name only to have it repeated back to her in disbelief: Sugar Kane? To which she replies, “That’s right. It was Sugar Kowalczyk, but I changed it.” For my money, that’s the best joke in the whole script. It goes by so fast, in Monroe’s trademark guileless little girl voice, which of course is the beauty of it. It’s not even listed on IMDB as one of the memorable quotes from the movie. But the layers! Her stage name is a pun, and such an egregious one that it’s hard to believe anyone would choose to use it. There’s backstory to it, but not the backstory one would expect, along the lines of someone being born Mary Kane and changing their first name to be cute. It’s in fact the opposite of that, an inversion that makes perfect sense given how difficult Kowalczyk is to get other people to say and spell correctly. (I know how that goes, believe me.) I am of course bleeding this joke to death by vivisecting it, but I can’t help myself.

Back to my point, though: Monroe has lots of moments in the movie where she gets to bring the funny in the form of delivering jokes with no clue that they are in fact jokes. Curtis brings the funny in an entirely different way, working the angles of multiple assumed identities including an outrageously on-point impersonation of Cary Grant. But Lemmon probably has the funniest part in the entire film, and if you set aside the whole Sugar/Joe romance it’s all about Jerry’s slow and harrowing descent into madness as Daphne. First he can barely reconcile the fact that he needs to pretend to be a woman in order to hide from Columbo against the fact that he’s insanely attracted to every woman in the band, most especially Sugar. Joe advises him to repeat the mantra “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl”. Then Daphne finds herself romanced by the millionaire Osgood Fielding III and accepts his marriage proposal, which leads to the great callback of Joe insisting Jerry tell himself “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy”. Some Like It Hot has a reputation for one of, if not the best final punchline of any comedy (“Nobody’s perfect!”) which is fair enough in the set-up of the scene but hits even harder as the culmination of Jerry totally losing his grip on reality and reality returning the favor by turning on its own head.

And there’s a slapstick chase scene at the climax of the movie. And there’s fun-with-stereotypes humor in the “Friends of Italian Opera” conference, and Little Bonaparte’s keynote speech. Oh, and have I mentioned that for much of the movie there’s two guys in drag?

I’m sure in 1959 this was the height of taboo behavior which was inherently uproarious. Now, of course, it could not be less of a big deal. My generation grew up with Monty Python on PBS, syndicated re-runs of Bosom Buddies after school, five seasons of The Kids in the Hall on HBO, and the scourge of movies like Sorority Boys and White Chicks ushering in the 21st century. If Some Like It Hot is known to the majority of the public as “that Marilyn Monroe movie where Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis pretend to be girls, which is funny because guys in dresses!” then it’s no wonder that there might be some backlash against it being considered the Funniest Movie Of All Time. But the drag aspect is the least of Some Like It Hot’s charms, thankfully. I’m still leery of deeming anything the absolute, unequivocal, objective Superlative Of All Time, but Some Like It Hot is still plenty funny, lo these fifty-plus years later. And that’s really all it needs to be.

1 comment:

  1. Yep yep yep. Very, VERY well said, and I appreciate you pointing out some of the lesser known quotes and gags. For awhile I had an icon on livejournal that was Jack Lemmon saying "I'm a girl I'm a girl I'm a girl."

    Very much like you said, I'm not sure if Some Like It Hot is the definitive Greatest Comedy of All Time, but I don't really care if it is or isn't. Great filmmaking is great filmmaking. Once again, Billy Wilder has a movie that ages well.