The only comedies that have stood up as agelessly as Some Cast It Hot are the works of Chaplin and Keaton, and they have the benefit of the universality of silent film. Billy Wilder's farce never lets up; even its deceptively action-packed opening is absurd (and proof of the director's capacity for visual humor in addition to his written wit), and every shot has something funny in it. The men-in-drag comedy has become an overplayed trope in the decades since the film's release, but Wilder's still stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Unlike so many who followed in his footsteps, Wilder does not accept the premise as a joke so funny it needs no further work to make an audience laugh. Instead, he layers double- and triple-meanings into numerous lines, resorts to callbacks to make sure the crowd is paying attention and always parlays the easy joke of the hysterically transparent drag duo of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (Curtis looks better, if only because he's placed next to Lemmon's side-splitting hag) into a far craftier gag.
Those opening shots of a bootlegging hearse being chased by cops lead to the humorous image of liquor seeping out of a bullet ridden coffin and a host of funeral puns when the mobsters arrive at a converted funeral home. We then briefly meet musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), who see that one of the patrons is taking out a badge and silently pack their instruments to make an escape before the raid comes crashing through the door. Later, they inadvertently witness the same gangsters who hired them gun down rival mafiosos in a garage, prompting the saps to run away from freezing, crime-ridden Chicago to sunny Miami by hiding among an all-girl band of musicians.
Lemmon and Curtis are, even by their standards, a scream. Curtis plays Josephine with a constant pout, as if the words "Well I never!" are constantly on "her" lips. In contrast, Lemmon interacts with people as Daphne with such braying, overbearing loudness it's a miracle he isn't discovered. Lemmon, who must have looked in a mirror after being dressed up as a woman, saw what a hideous creature he made and decided to go whole-hog. His wheezing laugh and toothy grin make Daphne vaguely off-putting (Lemmon kind of looks like the Joker from Batman when he smiles as Daphne), yet it's his deadpan frustration with Joe in private that makes for the funniest facial language. The faces Lemmon makes when he tells Curtis "You tore them" several times in rapid succession are so funny I continue to laugh until I have to wipe tears from my eyes.
Yet both Curtis and Lemmon nearly meet their match in Marilyn Monroe. Sugar, a ukulele player and singer, captivates both of the men to the point that they both nearly blow their covers trying to woo her. Monroe was reportedly a nightmare during production, but all one sees on-screen is that overpowering innocence peppered with sexual knowledge that made her such a knockout. She brilliantly uses Sugar's own dysfunctional sweetness to drive the men wild, perfectly positioning her body to lean in for sisterly whispers with "Josephine" and "Daphne," also subtly shoving her chest closer to them at every turn. Code limitations and Wilder's own intelligence prevent the now-requisite close-ups of the breasts, which makes the joke all the more funny; we know damn well what Joe and Jerry are really thinking, and watching Curtis and Lemmon try to keep their tongues from flopping to the floor makes for much funnier stuff than shot/reverse shot of cleavage and bug eyes.
Some Like It Hot works because, like all great broad comedies, it gets progressively zanier and more ridiculous as it goes. Wilder doesn't halt his film to get across some message, nor does he blow his best gags early: as funny as the train ride is, with its sexual tension between the two men and unsuspecting women swarming all over them in sororal friendliness, things go off the rails in Miami. Seeking to play to Sugar's dreams of marrying a kind millionaire, Joe adopts the persona of the heir to the Shell Oil fortune, speaking with a devastatingly funny and accurate Cary Grant impersonation. Meanwhile, Jerry finds himself the object of a lecherous old playboy's (Joe E. Brown) affections, despite how obviously mannish Daphne looks and how openly Jerry disdains this Osgood Fielding III. In the film's best sequence, Wilder moves with increasing tempo between Joe and Sugar on their date and Jerry and Osgood on theirs as both leads play hard to get. Of course, Joe does it to drive Sugar wild; Jerry does it to get this old man off him.
I love how everything in this film is blatantly contrived and silly, yet Wilder still takes the time to set up something as clever and well-paced as that oscillation between Joe's and Sugar's blossoming love and the lunacy of Jerry actually getting into his date with Osgood. The unmissable gags (the cross-dressing, Osgood's oblivious groping, the return of the mobsters under the guise of meeting for a society of Italian opera lovers) lose none of their luster over the years for the more low-key, sly comedy sprinkled throughout. For instance, I love that Wilder does not call explicit attention to the uselessness of Prohibition even though he shows everyone in the film constantly within reach of some kind of alcoholic beverage. I also wondered if Wilder was being a bit naughty when one of the musicians butts into a conversation Daphne and Sugar are having in Jerry's bed on the train by asking "Is this a private clambake or can I join?"
Some Like It Hot notably features as the AFI's pick for the funniest film of all time, and it seems every current evaluation of the film weighs it against that standard. It is to the film's credit that it continues to hold up under such scrutiny. I don't know that I would say it's the best comedy ever; for my money, Wilder's own The Apartment is the best-written film ever made. But, pound for pound, it may be funnier than Wilder's masterpiece. Not a single scene fails to make me laugh, either through a callback, a visual cue, a razor-sharp exchange or the terrific body language of the actors*. Culminating in perhaps the finest of Billy Wilder's treasure trove of indispensable last lines, Some Like It Hot is a farce for the ages, the best distillation of Wilder's early days as a screwball writer for other directors into the directorial craft he'd by then honed through his noir work. I don't return to the film as often as I do Wilder's more cynical works, perhaps thinking in the absences that the movie won't hold up as well upon a repeat viewing. Yet whenever I sit down with this film, I laugh as hard as I did the first time. Forget about the film's remarkable lack of dated material (especially given the clichéd, stereotypical pitfalls of the premise); the fact that it gets funnier with every viewing is the greatest testament to its legacy.
*For me, the best bit of physical acting comes when Jerry, who earlier seriously entertained the idea of dressing in drag to get the Florida job to offset his and Joe's crippling debts, realizes that Joe is finally agreeing to the plan after they witness the murders and need to escape. The slack, hungry and confused look on Lemmon's face slowly tightens, his face pulling in thirds. First, the eyebrows go up in surprise, then the cheekbones raise in understanding. Finally, the mouth upturns in approval and satisfaction with Joe's solution to their problem.