Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft
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All films age, and comedies age the worst. I will happily watch films made in all times and all languages, but I have to say, it’s a rare event that I am recommended a comedy from much before the 1970s or 1980s (Chaplin and Buster Keaton notwithstanding).
This might be something to do with how comedy progresses in society. Jokes are more susceptible to being “of their time” than a painting or a piece of music might be. Comedy, over time, becomes muted and incomprehensible because our attitudes toward what’s funny just seem to change so rapidly. In the 1950s, Henny Youngman, “the king of one-liners”, was the pinnacle of hilarity. Today, I don’t think he’d make your average audience laugh.This makes it all the more impressive that I laughed my way through a first watch of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot recently.
The plot of the film is slick and simple, and mainly serves as an engine to take us from gag to gag over its two-hour runtime. In Prohibition-era Chicago, musicians Joe and Jerry find themselves scrabbling to get work in illegal speakeasies and dive bars. Joe and Jerry accidentally witness a mob hit - supposedly inspired by the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre - and flee the city. They join a band bound for Miami to wait for things to cool off. The band, however, is strictly all-female. So, naturally, Joe and Jerry become “Josephine” and “Daphne”.
Many believed Some Like It Hot to “promote” homosexuality and crossdressing at a time when both were far from socially acceptable. As such, it was highly controversial at release, and is believed to have played a big part in the downfall of the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). It also starred the heartthrob of the hour, Marilyn Monroe, in a role that redefined on-screen sexuality. So how can a film so momentous for its time, so era-defining, so of its time, still make audiences today laugh?
I’m not entirely sure why, and I think there are audiences today that would debate the political correctness of the film’s subject matter, but its dialogue remains top-notch. I watched Billy Wilder’s follow-up to Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, for the first time a few weeks ago, and there’s a similar timelessness about both the dialogue and the plot there, too. Wilder’s characters seem to be able to get themselves into troubles and binds that are still sympathetic, hilarious, and bizarre to this day.
This film breezes from scene to scene without a care and it never feels like a chore to watch; save for its lack of on-screen colour, it never feels old or bogged down in Hollywood semantics. It is a joyous, wonderful little cinematic milestone that I think audiences of today will still find funny despite their preconceptions about the film.
And of particular note, I think, are two scenes, both of which take place inside the film’s closing ten minutes (spoiler alert). The first is the assassination of Spats Colombo, which remains one of the best mob hits ever to grace the big screen (a bold statement for a comedy). The second is its ending proper, which makes sure the film remains charming and hilarious until it cuts to black. And that’s not a worthwhile testament to just how much this film is dedicated to making people laugh and smile, irrespective of age, time, and belief, then I don’t know what is.