In Some Like it Hot, Marilyn Monroe gives her trademark “dumb blonde” performance with good humor. Monroe’s Sugar Kane is a hard drinking singer and ukulele player. Given the manner of Monroe’s death, Sugar’s drinking takes on a more ominous tone. You might say Monroe was perfect for the part.
It’s worth a watch based solely on the jazz and swing music and other ballads featuring Monroe’s adroit vocal stylings. The film is set during prohibition in mob-era Chicago with hidden speakeasies, and the out of control violence which surrounded the illicit booze industry. Filmed in 1959, the prohibition era was still in living memory, which allowed for such a vivid depiction of both its convivial atmosphere and its violence.
Sugar Kane is avaricious, yet she states her desire to marry a rich man with such directness that it is merely amusing. This ambition to marry a rich man is no longer politically correct. Nevertheless, Monroe exudes an eternal femininity which I dare say makes her more affable than our more modern iterations of womanhood.
The tipsy Sugar was an appropriate role for Monroe, given her increasingly unreliable conduct. During the filming of Some Like it Hot, she developed a reputation for showing up two to three hour late and messing up her lines. Meanwhile, her marriage to playwright Arthur Miller was unraveling. Tony Curtis later commented on Monroe’s conduct, hinting at the truth, while desiring to protect Monroe’s legacy:
“Marilyn she was all ok. But in the beginning, she had her problems. And we all had to put up with it. I didn’t find it any problem.”
Like the character she played, Marilyn Monroe herself was a mess, by this point using drugs and even suffering a miscarriage towards the end of the film.
The movie begins with a car chase– the police are following and firing on the car of gangsters transporting liquor in a coffin, which is interesting symbolism. Next, undercover cops scope out a “joint” run by gangster Spats Colombo, a character loosely based on Al Capone. The speakeasy is hidden behind a secret door in a funeral parlor.
The speakeasy scene is the most lively scene of the film, even though Monroe’s character has not yet made her entrance. It successfully conveys the abandon with which people rebelled against prohibition in the ‘20s. In the band is Joe on sax and Jerry playing the bass. The party is quickly broken up by a police raid.
The film establishes that Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are having grave money troubles which are only exacerbated by Joe’s gambling on dog races. This sets up their state of desperation for what follows. They learn of a job for three weeks in Florida for a sax player and a bass player. The only catch is it’s for a female band. They’re told:
“The instruments are right, but you’re not.”
For some reason, Jerry is fixated on the concept that they could dress up as women in order to take the gig in Florida. Joe dismisses the ludicrous idea. Something of a ladies’ man, Joe is the leader in the friendship.
The two jazz musicians find themselves in trouble after a run-in with some mob figures who have just carried out a hit. The gangsters in overcoats and fedoras have their machine guns trained on a group of men, one of whom Spats believes to be a snitch. They kill the man and all his associates. When Joe and Jerry are spotted, they explain to Spats, “We’re just a couple of musicians.” But Spats Colombo doesn’t want to leave any witnesses, so they plan to dispose of the musicians.
Joe and Jerry narrowly escape, but are now cognizant of the fact that they are not safe in Chicago. “We got to get out of town,” they resolve. At this point, Joe finally warms to Jerry’s concept of posing as female musicians to take the job in Florida with the female jazz band. Joe becomes “Josephine” and Jerry becomes “Daphne.”
By the standards of transgendered women in 2023, they are not particularly attractive. Their working class accents are meant to show a contrast in terms of how unfeminine these men are. As he was raised in New York City, this working class accent was Curtis’ natural speech. When they affect their female voices the result is more disturbing than anything else. Lemmon, who uses a ridiculous falsetto to become Daphne, revealed years later that they had a professional female impersonator work with him and Curtis. At first, Lemmon himself struggled mightily with the role.
They meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a singer and ukelele player, on the train to Florida. Sugar seems loopy, as she sips from her flask. Monroe’s Sugar assures them:
“I don’t want you to think I’m a drinker. I can stop anytime I want to, only I don’t want to, especially when I’m blue.”
Like Monroe’s Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it is Sugar’s frank desire to find a rich man. Preferably a millionaire with a yacht. After all, she’s almost reached the ripe age of 25, so it’s time to think about a husband.
Indeed, there are a bunch of millionaires in Florida, a whole line up of them sitting on the patio of the hotel in fedoras reading The Wall Street Journal among the palm trees. One of them, Osgood Fielding III, implausibly takes an interest in Daphne. Though for obvious reasons Daphne does not encourage him, Osgood doggedly persists.
Once in Florida, Joe/ Josephine adds another identity to his repertoire: he pretends to be a millionaire heir to Shell Oil in order to seduce Sugar. He affects what Daphne describes as a “phony accent.” He’s able to take the info that Sugar gave him as Josephine to pose as the perfect man for her, based on her stated preference for the type of millionaire that she would like. Furthermore, he deftly uses a reverse-psychology tactics on Sugar, claiming that woman “leave me cold,” hence provoking her to initiate more contact with him.
The ploy works swimmingly with the gold-digger Sugar. The only problem is his having to switch back and forth between his assumed identities. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote in a review back in 1959, the persona of the Shell Oil heir gives Curtis an “opportunity to be manly.” It is a much needed opportunity, as the drag act wears thin at this point in the film.
The comedy in the first half of the film falls flat and feels a bit dated. Yet the irony of Daphne gladly being courted by Fielding still lands comedically even after all these decades have passed. Daphne eventually feels flattered and even considers Fielding’s proposal. Either Fielding is pretty undiscriminating in his taste in women, or he rather savors a trans person (ahead of his time, really). Daphne, while initially horrified, seems to grow to rather enjoy Osgood’s attentions, absurdly. When they dance the tango, Daphne starts to embracing his female experience, with his extravagant dance gestures. He later laments to Joe, ironically:
“I’ll never find another man that is so good to me.”
When, in the final scene, Fielding learns that Daphne is indeed a man, he says flippantly:
“No one’s perfect.”
Spats Colombo and his gang arrive (improbably) at the same hotel, at which point Joe & Jerry know it’s time to abscond. During their dramatic escape (in drag), Joe on a whim decides to smack Sugar with a kiss in the middle of her appearance, in what appears to others scandalously as a woman on woman romance. When Sugar realizes that it is Joe, and hence Josephine is Joe, she is surprisingly unperturbed. Then again, this is consistent with Sugar’s airheaded persona. “I told you, I’m not very bright,” she explains.
Monroe seems to have lost a bit of shine of her luster in this film as compared to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Sure, she’s still young and beautiful, and her singing voice is excellent. But in her performance, she seems dazed and dead-eyed, presumably from drug use and alcohol (again, not unlike her character, Sugar).
Yet Monroe’s “dumb blonde” routine and her breathy voice still works. “Josephine” asks Sugar, as she’s illicitly preparing a drink:
Josephine: “What’s the matter with you anyway?”
Sugar: “I’m not very bright, I guess.”
Josephine: “I wouldn’t say that, just careless maybe.”
Sugar: “No, just dumb.”
It’s a comedically successful moment . Some will say Monroe is not dumb, that she was actually smarter than everyone. Her humble and endearing acknowledgement of her own intellectual limitations is frankly something that men like. This is what is interesting about Monroe’s continued appeal, especially in contrast to the 2023 iteration of female representation on screen (no dumb-blondes to be found, all smarter than you, don’t you know?). Additionally, Monroe delivers some funny lines in Some Like It Hot.
Secret Meaning in Some Like it Hot?
Edge Media Network opines that there is a “gay subtext” to Some Like it Hot, and that the film permeates “homoerotic tension.” Elsewhere, there has been heady analysis claiming the film is making bold statements about “sexual identity.” I must have missed that. Instead, the film itself was produced in a time of what is annoyingly referred to as “heteronormative.” This is to say that when the default is heterosexuality, a man dressing as a woman is understood to be a gag, a joke. As Tony Curtis said in a later interview in regards to homosexuality or transgenderism:
“That was a period of time in which men in dresses didn’t get guesses. We just didn’t talk about that stuff.”
By this he means that the notion that men might dress up as women in earnest was not even on the radar, and one senses this in the attitude of the actors to their farcical task. To read more into the film than that would be highly speculative and even foolhardy.
Some Like it Hot. Directed by Billy Wilder. performances by Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis, Mirisch Company, 1959.