I like It Hot

 

When George Raft read the script, he sighed and buried his head in his hands. It was, after all, another gangster role and he had already turned down White Heat, Double Indemnity, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and a rake of other great pictures, because, in spite of his shady past, he was tired playing guys on the wrong side of the law. This was different, though. There were financial considerations (a lack of funds) and he had a sneaking admiration for the comic aspect of the character.

As luck would have it, the film turned out to be Some Like It Hot. Directed by Billy Wilder, it stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two musicians who happen to witness the St Valentine's Day massacre and are forced to go on the run for fear of assassination. Dressed in drag, they join an all-girl band and what ensues is one of the most daring pieces of work on gender identity since Shakespeare's As You Like It.

The film also boasts a beautiful performance from Marilyn Monroe as the naive and voluptuous ukeleleplaying Sugar Kane. Even the train hisses with excitement when she passes. All her sumptuous sexiness cannot obliterate the sadness that she radiates and watching the film again put me in mind of something she said somewhere along the line: "Hollywood's a place," she said, "where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul."

Tony Curtis was not too enamoured with Monroe, though. "Kissing Marilyn Monroe" he said, "is like kissing Hitler." Curtis is a revelation in the film. Two years previously, he had re-invented himself in The Sweet Smell Of Success playing Sidney Falco, the sleaziest agent in town, surely one of the greatest screen performances of all time. His performance in Some Like It Hot follows far behind.

Curtis in his female persona of Josephine befriends Sugar Kane (Monroe) - she thinks she's a she, of course. The man in him, however, wants to take her in his arms and one night he disappears and returns disguised as a yacht-owning millionaire. With great comic flair, he does an impersonation of Cary Grant: "I guess some like it hot," he says to a besotted Monroe, "but I prefer classical music." Cary Grant would later complain that it was not an accurate impression. "I don't speak like that," he said. But he did.

Meanwhile Jack Lemmon masquerading as Daphne is wooed and pursued by the wonderful Joe. E. Brown, until eventually he succumbs to the flattery and comes home one night to tell a disgusted Tony Curtis that he has just got engaged.

THE script, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is based on an old 1932 UFA picture with a German setting. In the original story, two unemployed musicians put on a series of costumes to get different jobs. They black their faces to play with an all-black band, they wear ear-rings and bandanas to form a gypsy outfit and they dress up as girls to join an all-girl band known The Alpine Violets. The gags, of course, are broad and vulgar - a man in a dress shaving, a cigar smoking dame, being kissed by men and so on, with heavy-handed lesbian, transvestite and sadist references.

Billy Wilder shot Some Like It Hot in black and white, mainly because he hated colour, but also because he was afraid that colour would turn it into a "flaming faggot picture". He set it against a gangster backdrop for that very reason, too, contrary to David O. Selznick's advice - he warned him that "blood and jokes don't mix."

Billy Wilder was part of the artistic exodus from Europe to America in the 1930s along with other European film makers such as Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger. These Europeans, on the run from Hitler, were to have a profound effect on US cinema, bringing with them the intelligence and sophistication and wit of the old world to a new, over-optimistic Hollywood. Throughout his career, which ranged from satire to thriller to romance to comedy, Wilder proved to be a brilliant exponent of film noir and a deft and subtle master of the allegory and the metaphor. Some Like It Hot is probably his best-loved film. George Raft, by the way, puts in a fine performance, almost parodying himself and all the gangster movies he made. In a scene with a young, two-bit punk who keeps spinning a coin as he lips the deadpan Raft (a habit he must have picked up from watching too many gangster pictures), Raft suddenly whips the coin from under his nose and barks: "Where did you learn that lousy trick?"

The film ends swimmingly, of course, with Curtis and Monroe head over heels in love, as Jack Lemmon tries to let Joe E. Brown down nice and easy, in a scene which has one of the most famous last lines since Marlene Dietrich said: "He's some kind of man."

"I'm not a natural blonde," Lemmon tells Brown.

"It doesn't matter."

"I smoke. I smoke all the time."

"I don't care."

"I have a terrible past. For two years, I've been living with a saxophone player."

"I forgive you."

"I can never have children."

"We can adopt some."

"I'm a man."

"Nobody's perfect."

Some Like It Hot will be shown on Sunday, March 8th, at UCI Coolock at 7.30 p.m.

Billy Roche is a playwright, and is currently writer-in-association at Druid Theatre