SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959, Directed by Billy Wilder)

M. Keith Booker, University of Arkansas

By the time of the release of Some Like It Hot in 1959, Billy Wilder had established himself as one of the leading masters of film noir, with such dark-hearted films as Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Ace in the Hole (1951). Of these, though, Double Indemnity and (especially) Sunset Boulevard also contain a layer of dark comedy. Meanwhile, Wilder, a Jew from Austrian-ruled Poland who had originally come to Hollywood in 1933 to escape Hitler and the Nazis, had also taken the surprising step of making a largely comic film about a World War II German prison-of-war camp in Stalag 17 (1953). Then he made one of Hollywood’s greatest pure romantic comedies in The Seven Year Itch (1955). He followed with a biopic about Charles Lindbergh and a British courtroom drama, though between those he made Love in the Afternoon (1957), a crime film that is also a romantic comedy.

In short, by the time Wilder made Some Like It Hot, audiences must have wondered exactly what he might do next. What they got was, in some ways a summum of Wilder’s career to that point, combining all of the ingredients he had employed in his earlier films into one multigeneric stew that now stands, in retrospect, as an important forerunner of the turn to postmodernism in American film. In some ways, the plot of Some Like It Hot revolves around the notorious St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, one of the key moments in the bloody history of American crime. To that extent, it looks back to the famous gangster films of the early 1930s, and Some Like It Hot indeed works in clever allusions to all three of the most important of these: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), Moreover, Some Like It Hot actually has a much higher body count than any of Wilder’s noir films.Oddly enough, though, these killings are mostly just setups for the film’s romantic comedy, which is primarily of the screwball variety, and it is as a comedy that this film is typically regarded. It was, for example, named the funniest movie of all time in a 2000 poll conducted by the American Film Institute (AFI). At the same time, Some Like It Hot is probably best regarded, not as a combination gangster film, noir film, and screwball comedy, but as a parody of all three of these genres. However, it is a good-nature, all-in-fun sort of parody that does little to ask us to reassess how we feel about these genres. It is, in that sense, better seen as an example of the kind of parody known as “pastiche,” as described by Fredric Jameson as a key strategy of postmodern art. Viewed in this way, Some Like It Hot can be seen as a key early text in the evolution of postmodern American cinema[1].

Some Like It Hot and the Boundaries of Gender (and Genre)

Some Like It Hot announces its comic intentions very early on, as the bluesy strains of “Sugar Blues” (which sounds a bit like stripper music) accompany the opening credits, morphing into the lively “Runnin’ Wild” as the credits roll on. The music clearly has comic intonations and entirely lacks the dramatic intensity usually associated with the music of film noir. The opening credits, incidentally, are topped by the name of Marilyn Monroe, then at the very height of her fame coming off a string of hits that included her iconic turn in The Seven Year Itch. By this time, Monroe was associated mostly with sexy roles in romantic comedies, though she also had a background in film noir with appearances in such films as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Niagara (1953), so she was a perfect fit for Some Like It Hot. But she was also perfect because the character she plays in Some Like It Hot is essentially a pastiche of the characters she had played in films such as The Seven Year Itch, as I will discuss in more detail below.

The film proper begins on the glistening, rain-slicked, streets of nighttime Chicago, a classic noir setting. A hearse is shown bearing a coffin, but then police approach, sirens-blaring, and the funeral procession quickly morphs into a running gun battle. One thinks, perhaps, of Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) careening through the nighttime streets of Los Angeles at the beginning of Double Indemnity, his life oozing from his body. In this case, though, most of the oozing is done by the coffin, which is packed with bottles of bootleg liquor (Prohibition was still in force in 1929), some of which are shattered by police bullets in the ensuing chase. It’s a violent, high-action chase scene, filled with gunfire and car crashes, but it’s also clearly done in a comic spirit. The scene shows us, not a real car chase, but a mock car chase, a parody (or pastiche) of a car chase, sending up what had already become a stock scene of Hollywood film (and remains so today).

The gangsters elude the police and arrive at Mozarella’s Funeral Parlor, one of the many gags in Some Like It Hot that poke fun at the traditional association between Italians and organized crime. Not surprisingly, given the contents of the coffin, the funeral parlor is really a front for a speakeasy run by Italian mob boss “Spats” Colombo, played by George Raft. Raft (who was actually of German descent), had first established himself in Hollywood film as Italian mobster Tony Camonte in the original Scarface, and he is primarily remembered for playing that and similar characters.Raft’s allusive casting is an example of the kind of meta gestures that are sprinkled throughout Some Like It Hot. For example, Raft’s Camonte was known for his habitual coin flipping in Scarface, and there is a scene later in Some Like It Hot (when the setting has moved to Miami) when Colombo passes by a young gangster who is similarly slipping a coin. Annoyed, Colombo snatches away the coin and demands, “Where did you pick up that cheap trick?” For anyone familiar with Raft’s performance in Scarface (and most people would have been in 1959), it’s a funny moment, the kind of one-off gag that is a big part of the comedy of Some Like It Hot. But there is a subtler reference here as well that adds to the humor for those in the know. The young gangster flipping the coin is none other than Edward G. Robinson, Jr., the son of famed actor Edward G. Robinson, who was one of the stars of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (and several other noir films), but who made his name playing the gangster “Rico” Bandello in Little Caesar[2].

This one scene thus alludes simultaneously to two of the three most important early gangster films of the 1930s[3]. Meanwhile, the main plot of Some Like It Hot is kicked into gear when two struggling musicians, Jerry and Joe (played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, witness the famous St. Valentine’s day massacre, the real-world version of which was rumored to have been ordered by Italian mob boss Al Capone, this version was ordered by Colombo, who also participates in the killing. Jerry and Joe then flee the mob by posing as women and joining an all-woman band that is headed by train for a gig in Florida. This instance of cross-dressing pushes the film into a whole different tradition of comedy. In this case, the motif was most directly inspired by the 1935 French farce Fanfare of Love, though the script of Some Like It Hot drew most directly upon the 1951 German remake Fanfares of Love, because the script of the French film could not be located. The motif, of course, completely violated the restrictions that had long been placed on American film by the Motion Picture Production Code. But such was the clout of principals such as Wilder and Monroe that the film was distributed by United Artists without Cod approval, the first major Hollywood film to be so released since 1935. The film subsequently became a huge commercial and critical success, grossing $49 million off of a $2.9 million production budget and winning six Academy Award nominations (including the major categories of Best Actor for Lemmon, Best Director for Wilder, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), winning for Best Costume Design. This success is widely regarded as the first major blow against the power of the Production Code, which would eventually unravel altogether by 1968, making Some Like It Hot an historically important film. In addition, though the social climate of 1959 meant that Some Like It Hot inspired few immediate successors, it did eventually pave the way for many later cross-dressing comedies, including such classics as Tootsie (1982) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

It is the cross-dressing of Joe and Jerry for which Some Like It Hot is best remembered, and—while there is no real indication that Wilder or anyone else involved in making the film was particularly interested in subverting the conventional gender notions that were so well ensconced in 1959, this motif nevertheless does a great deal more than simply produce a ridiculous situation for laughs. For one thing, this cross-dressing could be taken as a metafictional commentary on film as a whole: after all, all fictional films are populated by actors who wear costumes in the interest of pretending to be someone they are not. Read this way, Some Like It Hot potentially emphasizes the performativity of gender (which would later become so central to the work of theorists such as Judith Butler) by arguing that gender is a role to be played just like any other.xxx

When we first meet Joe and Jerry, they have attitudes toward gender that are typical of men of their time (whether one sees that time as 1929 or 1959). As they first go to board that the train to Florida, for example, they spot Monroe’s Sugar Kane (Kowalczyk) walkiong in fron of them. Observing her swaying gait, Jerry exclaims, “It’s like jello on springs! They must have some sort of a built-in motor!” Even the train agrees, emitting a spray of steam as Sugar walks by, as if in reaction. The moment is enhanced, of course, because audiences are perfectly aware that Sugar is being played by Monroe and that Monroe is widely regarded as the epitome of late-1950s American female sexual charisma. Meanwhile, the comedy is enhanced by the irony of fact that the men ogling Monroe’s character in this scene are themselves dressed as women.

Being dressed as women, of course, exposes them to some of the same sexist objectification that they are accustomed to directing at women. Noting the way in which men seem to be regarding Daphne as a sexual object, Daphne complains to Josephine that “I’m not even pretty.” “They don’t care,” responds Josephine, “just as long as you wear skirts. It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” It isn’t entirely clear how thoroughly the two men learn this lesson in reversed perspectives, but it is certainly the case that the experiences of Daphne and Josephine go a long way toward teaching Jerry and Joe what it feels like to be a woman. Daphne, in particular seems to take on her new role with considerable enthusiasm, a fact that will be crucial to the film’s famous ending. When they arrive at their hotel in Miami, they become very much aware that have, thanks to their gender disguises, become the object of the male gaze. Daphne even receives a butt-pinch in an elevator from an aging millionaire, who clearly believes that the combination of his gender and his wealth authorizes him to make such gestures. “Now you know how the other half lives,” Josephine suggests.

Coincidences abound in classic comedy, and this comedy is no exception. Soon after the band arrives in Miami, Colombo and his henchmen from Chicago arrive for a sort of gangsters’ convention at the same Florida hotel where the band is staying (and playing). To complicate matters further, millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), falls madly in “love” with Daphne, though one questions the exact texture of his emotional connection and whether he might simply have identified her as a target for acquisition. Meanwhile, Joe learns that Sugar is determined to catch a rich husband while they are among this abundant cache of millionaires, so he decides to pose as a millionaire in order to seduce her. Identity of all kinds (not just gender) is largely a matter of performance in this film, in which we see Joe perform alternative identities based on both gender and economic class.

He will cast off both those identities by the end of the film, becoming his “true” self so that he can presumably experience “true” love with Sugar. Everything else in the film, though, makes us wonder just how “true” these items might be. Meanwhile, Daphne finds herself in a more complex position because Osgood essentially refuses to allow her to revert to her Jerry identity at the end of the film. Revealing his biological gender to Osgood, Jerry is blithely assured that it makes no difference. “Nobody’s perfect,” the millionaire famously declares, and Jerry (lured by the promise of luxury and wealth) seemingly decides to play along, possibly now becoming a golddigger himself, though the absolute joy with which he sometimes revels in his new identity makes one wonder whether he has experienced some sort of (possibly unconscious) homosexual awakening. Again, this last line is included mostly for laughs, but it does serve the important function of indicating that gender is just one of many characteristics that define an individual’s identity. When choosing a partner, it is never possible (at least according to Osgood) to get everything one wants, so certain tradeoffs are necessary. For Osgood, gender is one of the many characteristics on which one can compromise if compensations are available.

In the Miami segment of the film, the screwball comedy aspect of the film kicks in in full force. Screwball comedy is a form of romantic comedy that depends largely on the progress of comical courtships made difficult by the fact that the two lovers involved seem completely mismatched, usually on the basis of social and economic class. For example, in the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), Cary Grant’s impoverished paleontologist and Katharine Hepburn’s wealthy society girl must overcome all sorts of obstacles in order finally to get together in the end. Indeed, Bringing Up Baby is an important forerunner to Some Like It Hot in a number of ways, perhaps most obviously in the moment when Grant’s character dons feminine clothing and then exclaims that he did it because he suddenly went “gay,” though no one seems to know for sure whether he really meant “homosexual.”

Grant’s status as a leading star of screwball comedy—he also appeared as the male lead in such classics of the genre as His Girl Friday (1940) and The Philadelphia Story (1940)—might be one of the key reasons why, when Joe undertakes an elaborate project to seduce Sugar by pretending to be a millionaire, the heir to the Shell Oil fortune, he also adopts a fake accent in which Curtis does a spot-on imitation of Grant throughout the procedure. He also wears glasses, because Sugar has confided in Josephine that she prefers sensitive men with glasses to the more conventionally tough masculine types. Indeed, Joe’s seduction of Sugar flips conventional gender expectations in a number of ways, perhaps most hilariously in the scene on Osgood’s yacht (which Joe pretends is his) in which Joe assumes a feminine role and plays hard to get while Sugar aggressively employs her full arsenal of Marilyn Monroe seduction tools to try to win him over, thus reversing the then-stereotypical notion that one of the effective seduction strategies for women was to similarly feign disinterest in or resistance to seduction.

As the problematic courtship between Joe and Sugar and the unlikely courtship between Osgood and Daphne proceed, the gangsters suddenly throw a monkey wrench in the works when they recognize the two musicians, causing the latter to decide to abandon their courtships and flee Miami immediately. Luckily, it turns out that Colombo and his men have been lured here so that “Little Bonaparte” (Nehemiah Persoff), the mob boss who is presiding over the meeting, can wreak revenge for the St. Valentine’s Day killings back in Chicago. Colombo and his men are promptly gunned down, saving the day. That this rival gang leader takes his name from Napoleon Bonaparte presumably suggests his lofty ambitions as an empire builder. But viewers back in 1959 would surely recognize that Persoff plays the mob boss, not in imitation of Napoleon, but as an overt imitation of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1885–1945), once again linking mob participation with Italian ethnicity—as does the fact that the group gathering for the mob meeting labels itself “Friends of Italian Opera.” And Little Napoleon’s resemblance to Mussolini is certainly no accident: not only does Persoff here quite strikingly imitate the theatrical gestures of the Italian dictator, but he did so well enough to be cast to play Mussolini in an episode of the classic Playhouse 90 television series only a few months after the release of Some Like It Hot.

Some Like It Hot and the Rhetoric of Pastiche

Among the many questions raised by Some Like It Hot is whether the continuous association between Italians and organized that runs through Some Like It Hot is an objectionable case of ethnic stereotyping. And it is certainly easy to see how some Italians might be offended by this association, though of course it is an association that runs throughout the gangster genre, both before and after Some Like It Hot. At the same time, one might argue that the depiction of Sugar as a stereotypical golddigger (albeit with a heart of gold) who flaunts her sexual charms in pursuit of a wealthy man might be offensive to women. The character of Sugar, in fact, is nominally problematic in a number of ways. We know, for example, that her heavy drinking has gotten her into trouble a number of times and threatens to disrupt her career as the band’s lead singer. However, the depiction of Sugar does not appear to have been widely regarded as offensive, partly because of the charisma with which Monroe performs the role as a sort of parody of the roles for which she had already become famous. In these roles (perhaps most clearly in The Seven Year Itch), Monroe plays a woman who is almost overwhelmingly attractive to men but who innocently fails to understand the nature and extent of her sexual power, which she then sometimes inadvertently yields in comically disruptive ways. What sets her performance as Sugar apart from such performances as her turn as “The Girl” in The Seven Year Itch is that, in Some Like It Hot, she seems a bit more worldly and a bit more understanding of her effect on men, partly because her character is a bit older and a lot more experienced than The Girl had been. Of course, Monroe—so widely known for her combination of projected vulnerability and pure sexual energy—might have been the only actress who could have pulled off this role without making Sugar seem cynical and unlikeable, because she is able to make Sugar seem like a parody of Marilyn Monroe, complete with several examples of Monroe’s famous breathless singing style.

However, the fact that, in Some Like It Hot, it is Monroe who is parodying Monroe suggests that her performance in the film is not to be taken as a serious critique of her earlier performance so much as a sort of sly wink to those performances. It is, in short, a pastiche of her earlier performances, as defined by Jameson in his discuss of the formal strategies of postmodern art in general. For Jameson, “pastiche,” is, “like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of any laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs” (17). Among other things, Jameson sees this reliance on the styles of the past as an indication of the particular kind of nostalgia that is one of the defining characteristics of postmodern art. In addition, this “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” reduces the past to a series of spectacles, a collection of images disconnected from any genuine sense of historical process (18).

There certainly does not seem to be any particular attempt to rewrite history in Some Like It Hot, which can riff on The Seven Year Itch while leaving that earlier film entirely intact. And Sugar is not the only character in Some Like It Hot whose identity is more a pastiche of other identities than a distinctive individual identity of its own. Indeed, Joe and Jerry spend almost the entire film taking on other identities, with Joe taking on not one, but two identities other than his own. These shifting identities, meanwhile, are particularly relevant to Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism because, for Jameson, the reason why postmodern artists borrow the styles of others is that, because they are themselves postmodern subjects, their own identities are so discontinuous and fragmented that they lack the stability to establish a distinctive personal style of their own.

I am reminded here of the eponymous protagonist of Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), who would seem to epitomize the kind of discontinuous postmodern subject described by Jameson. An outcast all his life and thus desperate to fit in and be liked, Leonard Zelig (played by Allen himself) has developed a chameleonlike ability unconsciously to take on the appearance and personality of those around him. He thus takes on an unending sequence of different identities but essentially has no real identity of his own. From scene to scene, he might be a white gangster, a black jazz trumpeter, an Orthodox rabbi, or a German Nazi. As Robert Stam puts it, specifically referring to Jameson’s work, Zelig’s “random cannibalization of the personalities of others turns his own into an aggregation of pastiches, a blank postmodern collage of available styles” (217). In the same way, Joe can be a struggling male musician at one moment, a female musician at the next moment, and a suave millionaire at the next.

Any adequate interpretation of Some Like It Hot must surely recognize the mode of pastiche in which virtually everything in the film is presented, including the identities of characters who do not literally take on disguises in the film. Spats and Little Napoleon are not authentic Italian gangsters but pastiches of Italian gangsters, borrowed from earlier movies (and from Mussolini). Sugar is not an authentic blonde bombshell but a pastiche of the type of bombshell that had by this time become a fixture in American popular culture. In this sense, she really couldn’t have been played by anyone other than Marilyn Monroe, who already epitomized this type; lending authority to her pastiche of it. Director Wilder deserves some credit here for recognizing this fact. As Peter Lev put it, “Billy Wilder was the director who best understood Marilyn Monroe’s movie persona” (225). And he certainly puts that understanding to good use in Some Like It Hot.

One of the best ways to understand the rhetoric of pastiche in Some Like It Hot is through a consideration of the film’s genre, which is, for Jameson, a key focus of postmodern pastiche. One of his key examples of nostalgic postmodern pastiche is the phenomenon of neo-noir film, in which contemporary films liberally borrow fundamental elements from the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. Given the overall comic tone Some Like It Hot, it is easy to see that the film’s engagement with the gangster film (and, to a lesser extent, film noir) is an example of pastiche. Certainly, no one would mistake Some Like It Hot for a genuine gangster film that seeks to break new ground in the genre—as would be done later in something like The Godfather (1972), a fundamentally modernist film that puts its own distinctive stamp on the gangster genre with very little engagement with predecessors in the genre. Both gangster films and film noir, of course, are a bit extreme with very distinctive and recognizable elements, so it is easy to borrow from them in a mode of pastiche without initiating any real critical engagement with them. But Some Like It Hot is also a pastiche of the romantic comedy, something that is less clear because, at first glance, it seems to be a fairly good example of that genre—possibly the best example in the entire 1950s. A closer look, though, suggests that the film actually plays with the conventions of the romantic comedy in ways that tilt the film toward pastiche of that genre as well.

The fact that Some Like It Hot is actually a pastiche of a romantic comedy can most clearly be seen in the film’s ending, which is an extreme version of the Hollywood happy ending that is presumably required of the genre. The assumption of various disguises and false identities has been a staple of comedy since the time of the ancient Greeks. However, in keeping with the drive toward resolution that has also long been central to comedy as well, these false identities are typically cast off by the end, with all norms restored. To some extent, the same is true for Some Like It Hot, perhaps calling into question just how subversive its representation of gender really is[4]. Joe throws off both his female identity and his millionaire identityby the end of the film but is still able to be with Sugar because she throws off her golddigger identity and reveals that what she really wants is love—she was only pretending to be a golddigger because she felt that true love was unobtainable.

The situation between Osgood and Jerry is a bit more complicated, however. Osgood ostensibly needs no restoration of his identity because he has been himself all along. The problem, of course, is that this identity is itself inauthentic. So protected by his wealth that he has almost no real contact with reality, Osgood has clearly never entertained the notion of a genuine relationship with Daphne. He instead regards her as a mere commodity for his consumption. And, of course, the central characteristic of all commodities is that they are interchangeable. With value determined entirely by exchange value rather than use value, $50 worth of one commodity has the same value as $50 worth of another, so that a $50 pair of shoes can be exchanged for $50 worth of bread, despite the radically incommensurate uses to which these two commodities can be put. Viewed in terms of Osgood’s tendency to think of other people as commodities that can be bought and sold at his whim, it makes perfect sense that he has no problem substituting Jerry for Daphne. Perhaps the most subversive (or at least the most interesting) aspect of Some Like It Hot is thus not its suggestion that gender identity is fluid and a matter of performance but its suggestion of the way American capitalism enables the rich to regard everyone else as objects for their consumption. And, of course, Sugar’s susceptibility to seduction by Shell Oil, Jr., suggests the way in which ordinary Americans are often perfectly happy to participate in this dynamic.

For Jameson, postmodernism is the kind of culture that is produced when essentially everything has been reduced to the status of a commodity—including culture itself. And it is the very interchangeability of commodities that enables pastiche to function so effectively as a postmodern formal strategy. Commodities are not marked by their own unique properties but by the very fact that they are not unique and can therefore be exchanged for any other commodity. One could certainly argue that Some Like It Hot resists this process because it foregrounds the process so visibly and thus calls attention to something that normally happens without being noticed. Ultimately, though, this is a good-natured film that pokes fun at conventional ideas about gender and genre without really posing much of a threat to any of those ideas.

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel So Strange. Greenwood Press, 2007.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Lev, Peter. The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950–1959. University of California Press, 2003.

Lieberfeld, Daniel, and Judith Sanders. “Keeping the Characters Straight: Comedy and Identity in Some Like It Hot.” Journal of Popular Film & Television, vol. 26, no. 3, Fall 1998, pp. 128–35.

Stam, Robert. Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Notes

[1] For a survey of the phenomenon of postmodern American film, see my Postmodern Hollywood.

[2] Robinson Jr. had only a minor career as an actor and was known primarily for his profligate lifestyle, of which his more famous father actively disapproved. The younger Robinson was also a friend and reputed lover of Marilyn Monroe.

[3] The other most famous early gangster film, The Public Enemy, is perhaps best remembered for a scene in which gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney) brutally smashes a grapefruit into the face of his girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke). This scene is also referenced in Some Like It Hot when Colombo threatens to smash a grapefruit into the face of one of his henchmen.

[4] See, for an example of such questioning, Lieberfeld and Sanders, who conclude that, in Some Like It Hot, “Unconventional transitional identities are ultimately cast aside as ludicrous or dangerous, and conventional ones are shown. To be mature, stable, and fulfilling” (135).