The Hotter the Better
Gehring, Wes D., USA TODAY
PART OF THE REASON great films work on a number of levels is that they often are part of multiple genres. For instance, such recent award-winners as "The Blind Side" (2009) and "The King's Speech" (2010) were poignant populist pictures that especially resonated with people because they also were biography films--these unlikely feel-good underdog stories actually happened.
One of the best examples of this multiplicity factor is Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot' (1959), a movie the American Film Institute selected as the greatest comedy ever made. However, merely calling the film a comedy is like saying Charlie Chaplin simply was a comedian. First, "Hot" is an inspired personality comedy, with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown creating (thanks to that great script) some of the most memorable movie characters the screen ever has known. Lemmon and Curtis as a team are a prototype for Wilder's later brilliant use of Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a series of screen classics, starting with "The Fortune Cookie" (1966, for which Matthau won an Academy Award). Curtis and Lemmon provide a wonderful interpretation of an old formula--the huckster and his patsy pal; they are a younger version of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope dynamic in all of those Road Pictures.
Monroe's standard persona of sexy innocence, half child but not the half that shows, was the hot in "Some Like It Hot." Her winning performance here as "Sugar" is rivaled only by her one other Wilder film, Tom Ewell's voluptuous upstairs neighbor in "The Seven Year Itch" (1955). In contrast, Brown's wealthy, dirty old man plays against the comedian's normal characterization of a robe as squeaky clean as Disney's Mickey. Wilder's reasoning for this against-type casting was in order to defuse any potential public distaste for Brown's sexual enthusiasm over Lemmon in drag--or anything in a skirt. "Zowie!" was the expression he uttered when his erotic meter was registering. Wilder guessed correctly that Brown's long career of being a nice guy--on and off the screen--gave his character a pass to make passes as a reward for years of wholesomeness.
"Hot" also works as dark comedy. In fact, the picture almost did not get made because Wilder's catalyst for the narrative is the most infamous bloodbath in mobster history--the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre, where gang war breaks out in a Chicago garage. Musicians Lemmon and Curtis witness the killings and attempt to elude the mob by joining an all-girl band going to Miami. Curtis said Wilder described the picture as a "combination of [the celebrated 1932 gangster film] 'Scarface' and 'Charley's Aunt,'" in which Jack Benny is in drag. This was a premise that traditional Hollywood--such as Wilder's friend, David "Gone With the Wind" Selznick--felt would not play to audiences. How wrong they were.
Given the movie's gangster foundation, the film also is a parody of early sound film crime pictures. In fact, the iconic gangster star of the film is played by George Raft, whose tough guy career was launched by "Scarface. …