Some Like It Hot (1959) is one of the greatest comedies of all time.
This classic has just about everything going for it: a perfectly crafted screenplay, the genius director Billy Wilder, and a star-studded cast, including Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, George Raft, and our Star of the Month, Joe E. Brown.
But as fans of the film know, what happened behind the camera is almost as legendary as the film itself.
Let’s go through the plot. Then I’ll cover all the behind the scenes drama and fun.
It’s February 1929, Prohibition Era Chicago. Musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are working at gangster Spats Columbo’s (George Raft) speakeasy when the joint is raided by the police.
Joe and Jerry manage to escape, only to walk into something even worse: they witness Spats Columbo and his crew murder Toothpick Charlie, the police informant responsible for tipping off the cops to Spats’ speakeasy.
A Genius Plan
So now the Chicago mob wants Joe and Jerry dead. And the boys most certainly will be dead if they don’t think fast and get out of town.
Luckily, a perfect opportunity to leave town arises: a job playing with a band in Florida.
Oh, but there’s one complication. The Band, Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators, is an all girls band:
“You gotta be under 25! You gotta be blonde! And you gotta be girl!”
But desperate times call for desperate measures, so Joe and Jerry do what they have to do.
Yes, they become Josephine and Daphne, graduates of the Sheboygan Conservatory of Music, and they get on that train to Florida!!
Falling for Sugar
Things get complicated really fast (because they weren’t already) when both Joe and Jerry fall for Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the band’s flask-toting ukulele player.
When they arrive in Florida, Joe gets the upper hand in the conquest of Sugar when he dons yet another disguise, that of Shell Oil heir and millionaire, Junior. He wears glasses and talks like Cary Grant, so naturally, Sugar falls for him on sight.
Quick side note: the Cary Grant accent was Tony Curtis’ original contribution to the film. Director Billy Wilder asked him to do some sort of hoity-toity accent for the Junior character, and Tony suggested his fabulous Cary Grant impersonation. Wilder was, understandably, ecstatic with the result.
Not to worry, Jerry as Daphne acquires her own admirer in Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), an actual millionaire who falls so hard for Daphne, he proposes.
A Serious Turn of Events
All the fun in Florida takes a serious turn when “The Friends of the Italian Opera,” a front for America’s mob families, has a convention at the very hotel that Joe and Jerry are staying at. Once they see Spats Columbo and his henchmen in the hotel lobby, the boys don’t feel so safe in their female disguises anymore…
And they panic.
Spats and his guys put two and two together, realize those “broads ain’t broads,” and the chase to kill the two witnesses to their Chicago crime is ON.
Jerry/Daphne uses Osgood to get him and Joe out of Florida by yacht, the one means of escape not currently being patrolled by mobsters, or police, for that matter.
Some Like it Hot: A Classic Ending
But Joe’s having a hard time saying goodbye to Sugar, and he can’t resist kissing her on the bandstand in his female disguise just before he and Jerry hightail it down to the dock to meet Osgood.
Now Sugar puts two and two together. She realizes that Josephine and Junior are one and the same, and follows the boys down to the dock to join them in their escape.
The film ends with Joe, Sugar, Jerry (still as Daphne), and Osgood motor boating out to Osgood’s yacht, with Jerry/Daphne attempting to convince Osgood they shouldn’t get married.
Jerry makes all kinds of excuses, like a bad smoking habit and an (obvious to us, but not to Osgood) inability to have children. When Osgood continues to insist that these things don’t matter, Jerry finally takes off his wig and blurts out,
“You don’t understand Osgood, I’M A MAN!”
But even this doesn’t daunt Osgood. He brushes Jerry’s revelation off with one of the most classic comedy lines ever put on film:
“Well, nobody’s perfect.”
And that’s the end of the film.
The Genius of Billy Wilder
Director Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wrote the screenplay for Some Like It Hot. The Wilder and Diamond script was inspired by the German film, Fanfaren der Liebe (1951), in which two musicians don various disguises for their work, including dressing as women. Wilder and Diamond saw comedy potential in this particular thread of the story, moved the action to 1929 Chicago, and the premise of Some Like It Hot was born. With such an intriguing script idea—Wilder and Diamond actually continued to write the script as they filmed Some Like It Hot—Wilder set out to find the perfect cast.
After considering a slew of other actors for the roles of Joe/Josephine and Jerry/Daphne (including Frank Sinatra), Wilder decided on Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. But he still needed a really big name star for the film.
Enter Marilyn Monroe.
Sugar was not a large role, but Marilyn, married to Arthur Miller at the time, was in need of cash after a two-year break from films. As Marilyn told a friend:
“Someone needs to bring some money in this house.”
With money as the motivating factor, Marilyn reached out to Billy Wilder and said she’d absolutely love to work with him again. (Their previous pairing produced the 1955 classic, The Seven Year Itch.)
It was a bit of dream casting Wilder hadn’t anticipated, and he quickly told Marilyn the role was hers.
Marilyn Out-Earns the Boys on Some Like it Hot
Even though she had significantly less screen time than Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, as the biggest star in the cast, Marilyn got top billing and the best payment plan: for Some Like it Hot, Marilyn earned $200,000 plus 10 percent of the film’s gross over $4 million.
This all irked Tony Curtis, who complained to Wilder that his name, as per his contract, needed to be in larger print. But the tight-pants wearing, pretty-boy Curtis was in for a surprise when the acid-tongued Billy Wilder replied:
“The trouble with you, Tony, is that you’re only interested in little pants and big billing.”
Always great with a quick retort, that Billy.
Billy Wilder has got to be one of the most quotable characters from Classic Hollywood.
Tony & Jack: Getting Into Character for Some Like it Hot
To help Tony and Jack make the transformation to Josephine and Daphne, Billy Wilder brought in the renown female impersonator, Barbette, to train the boys in how to walk, move, and pose like a woman. Apparently, Tony was a model pupil, but Jack so angered Barbette by putting his own somewhat clumsy and still masculine spin on things that Barbette packed his bags and went home.
Despite Barbette’s insistence that he change his ways, Jack Lemmon firmly believed he did the right thing with his somewhat masculine Daphne:
“The goof I was playing wouldn’t be very proficient at walking in heels. I needed to be barely good enough to look like a clumsy woman.”
Jack Lemmon certainly had the right idea.
What makes the transition of Joe and Jerry to Josephine and Daphne so entertaining and believable is that Tony and Jack each transform into their female counter parts in ways we believe their male characters would have: we’d expect Joe, the polished ladies man, to make his Josephine more sophisticated and feminine than Jerry’s Daphne, for Jerry is a more conservative minded, anxiety-riddled character.
It just fits.
Some Like it Hot: "A Nut On The Plane"
Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder. Now here’s an interesting relationship.
Wilder knew from working with Marilyn on The Seven Year Itch (1955) that she could be difficult, even frustrating to direct. Yet in Wilder’s opinion, the performances Marilyn turned in onscreen were worth the behind-the-camera difficulties.
At least until her shenanigans on Some Like It Hot.
Things started off well enough, with Wilder even announcing to the press when filming began in August of 1958 that Marilyn—famous for her tardiness—was so professional, she arrived on set 3 hours early.
But the bliss didn’t last long. As Billy Wilder later put it:
“I knew we were in mid-flight and there was a nut on the plane.”
Again, you have to appreciate that acerbic Wilder wit.
The Trouble With Marilyn
By September 1958, Marilyn’s hazy pill and alcohol induced state was seriously affecting filming.
Her co-stars, particularly Tony Curtis, were fed up with her unprofessionalism. Marilyn frequently showed up three hours late, and then sometimes refused to leave her dressing room. Once she was on set and ready to film, it was still a game of Russian roulette to see if Marilyn could get a scene shot in one take or ninety-nine.
Marilyn’s line flubbing was so bad, it reportedly took her 47 takes to say three words,
“It’s me, Sugar,”
in the correct order. In another scene, all she had to say was:
“Where’s that bourbon? Oh, there it is.”
Take after take, Marilyn couldn’t get it right, while her co-stars Tony and Jack, also in the scene and wearing high heels no less—had to remain consistent with their performances while waiting for Marilyn to get her simple words right.
It’s debatable if Marilyn ever did get it right, for in the film, her back is to the camera while she says this line, leading many to speculate that her voice was dubbed in later.
“Like Kissing Hitler.” Yes, He DID Say It.
It’s pretty safe to say that Tony Curtis’ annoyance with Marilyn’s behavior on set at least in part sparked his infamously cruel comment that kissing her was “like kissing Hitler.”
Yes, he actually said that.
Tony later insisted that his comment was mostly made out of irritation at even being asked such a silly question:
“What was I supposed to say, ‘It was like skiing down a snow-covered mountain and being launched into the air by a ski jump and then floating to earth on gossamer wings?’ C’mon, kissing the most desirable woman in the world and then being asked repeatedly what it was like is a no-brainer and it began to annoy me. Whether the Hitler comparison came out as irony or sarcasm, which is the way I meant it, the press preferred the sound-bite and refused to print the whole story.”
It was a harsh and inexcusable remark to be sure, but if you’re like me, and have a tendency to take Marilyn’s side in just about any situation, it’s good to hear Tony’s side of this notorious story. He makes valid and logical points.
Marilyn From Jack Lemmon's Insighful Perspective
Jack Lemmon, as you’d probably expect from the actor who was known to be as normal and nice off screen as he was genius-ly talented on screen, was much more patient with Marilyn’s behavior than Curtis or Wilder, and attributed Marilyn’s antics not to any sort of malice, but selfishness:
“I don’t think it was ‘temperamental.’ It was just selfish. It was totally about her. She would stop take after take after take. You’d be doing a long scene…and she kept stopping the take when she didn’t like it—not waiting for Billy.”
Marilyn From Billy Wilder's Perspective
By the end of filming, Billy Wilder didn’t want to see Marilyn ever again, let alone work with her. He didn’t even invite her to the cast party. But hey, Marilyn’s behavior had cost the film an estimated $200,000, so Wilder had his reasons.
Shortly after filming ended, Billy was asked by the press if he’d ever work with Marilyn again after the horror of Some Like It Hot:
“I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I’m too old and too rich to go through this again.”
HARSH. But understandable.
After the film premeired, and it was clear Some Like It Hot was a masterpiece, Billy’s words and feelings towards Marilyn softened a bit, and he said of Marilyn that:
“She is a very great actress. Better Marilyn late than most of the others on time.”
Behind Marilyn's Behavior on Some Like it Hot
So why was Marilyn Monroe’s behavior on Some Like it Hot so bad?
To begin with, as we touched on earlier, Marilyn was frustrated that her husband, Arthur Miller, wasn’t contributing an adequate household income. Marilyn didn’t want to be working, at least not as the family breadwinner.
Second, Billy Wilder told her at the start of filming that she needed to lose some weight. Eight pounds was the magical number Wilder decided on. Then Orry-Kelly, the costume designer on the film, brought Wilder’s weight loss request home by telling Marilyn that Tony Curtis had a better rear than she did!
Being told you need to lose weight for a movie can’t feel good. Poor Marilyn. And as we all know, that woman was beautiful at any size.
The Main Reason for Marilyn's Behavior
The main reason for Marilyn’s terrible behavior on the set of Some Like It Hot can really be traced back to the ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage she suffered in August of 1957, almost a year to the day before Some Like It Hot went into production.
As any woman, particularly mothers—and even more so, women who have dealt with infertility—know, a miscarriage can bring major psychological consequences. And for Marilyn, a woman who desperately wanted a baby (a girl, specifically), and whose emotional state was already fragile, the miscarriage pushed her over the edge.
A relative of Marilyn’s recalled that it was after the 1957 miscarriage that Marilyn’s pill and alcohol consumption really got out of control. Another friend insisted that Marilyn was never the same after the miscarriage.
So when Some Like It Hot began filming in August of 1958, Marilyn brought with her to the set her emotional turmoil, feelings of failure from the miscarriage, and her alcohol and pill problem. Booze and pills may have been Marilyn’s coping mechanism for her emotional pain, but her addiction to both unfortunately dulled her ability to focus on set or remember her lines.
With Marilyn in such a state, there was no way Some Like It Hot could have been anything other than difficult for everyone involved.
Poor Marilyn. Her behavior during the filming of Some Like It Hot was terribly unprofessional, but there’s no denying she was going through some pretty intense times in her personal life. And through it all, Marilyn did deliver one stellar performance, which is what she’d ultimately been paid to do.
Tragic side note: if you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Marilyn, she suffered yet another miscarriage in December of 1959, shortly after filming of Some Like It Hot ended on November 6.)
Joe and George! Hollywood’s Old Front on Some Like it Hot
We’ve covered the three leads of Some Like it Hot. But the film also owes its classic status to a strong supporting cast, namely our Star of the Month, Joe E. Brown, and George Raft.
Joe and George were big stars of the previous era—the 1930s and 1940s—and their respective roles in Some Like It Hot were largely spoofs of their offscreen personas, and the characters they each played onscreen in their heyday.
These two gentlemen were also incredibly helpful on the Marilyn front: regularly, without a word of whining, they’d pick up Marilyn’s slack on the days she couldn’t bring herself to the set. Billy Wilder knew that if Marilyn didn’t show up, he could always rely on George and Joe to be ready to film one of their scenes.
The mark of true professionals, indeed.
George Raft, the quintessential, suave, devastatingly handsome gangster of such 1930s classics as Scarface (1932), channeled his gangster roots in Some Like It Hot. Though he was sixty-three by the time of filming, Raft’s Spats Colombo is as perfectly tailored and handsomely menacing as his characters from the 30s and 40s.
If you remember from my Scarface article, Raft was the first film gangster to toss a coin repeatedly, and this bit of business—though used by Raft to control his nerves on camera—became a classic move for gangsters both on screen and off.
In Some Like It Hot, Raft pokes fun at his association with the coin toss when he sees a young hood (played by fellow gangster great Edward G. Robinson’s son) flipping a coin at the “Friends of the Italian Opera” Convention and asks him:
“Where’d you learn that cheap trick?”
For those familiar with George Raft’s film persona, the scene is one of the most satisfying moments in Some Like it Hot.
If you thought George Raft couldn’t get any cooler, the man was also an extraordinary dancer. We’re talking Fred Astaire caliber style and moves. So naturally, it was George, who could still do a mean tango at age sixty-three, who taught Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown how to tango for their big dance scene in the film.
As for our Star of the Month Joe E. Brown, no other actor could have infused the character of Osgood Fielding III with such likability.
You don’t have to think too hard to realize that Osgood really is, as Daphne says in the film, “a dirty old man.” He’s been married to several younger women, and continues to chase them. But because of Joe E. Brown’s palpable humor and likable smile, aided by the fact that we know he was such an amazing human being off screen, Joe’s Osgood never comes off as lecherous, just sweetly obnoxious.
Key reasons, no doubt, why Billy Wilder cast Joe in the role.
In addition to getting the plum last line of the film—
“Well, nobody’s perfect,”
which Joe delivers flawlessly—Joe has one more very memorable catchphrase in Some Like It Hot:
“Zowie!” was actually an original word invented by Joe. The word was part of his early comedy routines, and in Some Like It Hot, Joe had the chance to use his famous catchphrase to great effect. It’s an incredibly memorable element of the Osgood character that Joe so perfectly crafted.
Some Like it Hot: An Undeniable Classic
Some Like it Hot certainly had its issues behind the scenes. But ultimately, the off camera drama just adds to the fascinating legend of the film.
This, coupled with the extraordinary talents of its one of a kind cast, make Some Like it Hot an undeniable classic that won’t be forgotten.