Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is such a beloved movie – in 2000 it was named the best Hollywood comedy ever in an American Film Institute poll – that few remember that the critics disliked it and that the studio didn’t want to make it.
That it got made – and became a classic – is largely due to Wilder, a German Jew who fled to American and directed some of the most memorable films of his time: Sabrina, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Apartment.
The screenplay is an adaptation of a 1935 French film about a couple of struggling musicians who disguise themselves in order to land jobs with a variety of ensembles – including an all-girl band.
Wilder and his writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, set their story in the Roaring Twenties and made it the tale of two musicians who witness an underworld rubout (based on the Valentine’s Day Massacre) and join a female band to hide from pursuing gangsters.
Wilder originally envisioned Frank Sinatra in one of the leading roles. But when the temperamental singer/actor failed to show up for a lunch meeting, Wilder took it as a sign and instead signed Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Meanwhile he was battling studio bean counters who maintained that you couldn’t start a movie with a mass murder and then turn it into a drag comedy. They only way they could see it succeeding was if it had a star so big that everyone would buy a ticket even if the movie stank.
And the biggest star around was Marilyn Monroe.
Wilder was appalled. He was planning on offering the role to Mitzi Gaynor. More importantly, he had worked with Monroe on The Seven Year Itch and had sworn he’d never do it again. She was a neurotic mess who kept dozens of actors, extras, and crew members waiting while she underwent mini-breakdowns in her trailer. And then when she finally did show up hours late, she would flub her lines over and over again.
But Wilder also knew that when Monroe delivered, she was unlike any other star in films.
(Years later he joked that the Directors Guild should issue him a purple heart as the only member to work with Monroe twice.)
His worst fears were realized. Monroe showed up with her acting coach, Paula Strasberg (wife of acting guru Lee Strasberg); together the women would spend hours analyzing every scene, every line of Monroe’s dialogue. Strasberg would often suggest additional takes if she felt Monroe had not yet found the essence of a scene.
Wilder feared he was losing control of his movie. Finally at the end of one take he turned not to his camera crew but to Strasberg and asked, “Was that good for you, Paula?”
She took the hint and thereafter kept a low profile.
But Monroe remained a trial. While Lemmon and Curtis showed up on time and in costume, Monroe kept everybody waiting. Wilder finally provided Lemmon and Curtis with footbaths so that while cooling their heels they could ease sore toes scrunched by women’s high-heeled shoes.
It took more than 40 takes for Monroe to successfully deliver the line: “Now, where’s that bourbon?”
When asked what it was like to do love scenes with Hollywood’s sexiest woman, Curtis reportedly shot back: “It’s like kissing Hitler.”
But then Monroe surprised everyone by executing her most demanding scene – a long exchange of dialogue with Lemmon in the cramped berth of a Pullman sleeper car – on the first take. Wilder, who had anticipated hours of shooting and reshooting, was so relieved he sent everyone home early.
Monroe’s delaying tactics had at least one upside: They gave Lemmon and Curtis plenty of time to perfect their female impersonations. Wilder knew they were ready when he sent them in full costume to use the ladies’ room at the studio commissary and nobody raised an eyebrow.
He also made the decision (dismaying the studio) to film in black and white after realizing that color stock revealed the men’s five o’clock shadows. With black and white they could wear thicker makeup to hide their beards.
Its pure entertainment value aside, Some Like It Hot is legendary for its homosexual subtext at a time when the movies rarely acknowledged that gay people existed.
It all boils down to the final scene in which Lemmon as Jerry/Geraldine whips off his wig and confesses to Joe E. Brown’s millionaire suitor that they can’t get married because he’s a man. The lovestruck millionaire shrugs and says: “Nobody’s perfect.”
“No one is 100% male or 100% female,” Wilder explained. “We’re all a mixture of both.”
The reviews for the film were lukewarm at best. The critics found the film’s humor to be crass and lowbrow.
During its first week in release, Some Like It Hot tanked. But then the public caught on and word of mouth provided a potent antidote. Made for less than $3 million, the movie would go on to sell $20 million in tickets and become a classic.
The series Make ‘Em Laugh features films voted the best American comedies of all time by the American Film Institute.
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About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.