What is it that makes us so happy when a man puts on a dress?
Some Like it Hot isn’t the first or the last of the man-in-a-dress movies. It’s a remake of a French film from the 1930’s, and it serves as a predecessor to films like Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage. But it is one of the funniest and most enduring.
The film opens in Prohibition-era Chicago, as Joe and Jerry, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, respectively, have a sweet gig in a band at a speakeasy. It’s all fun, booze and dancing girls until it gets raided by the cops. Somehow, our two stars manage to escape arrest (their knack for near-misses with danger will be an ongoing theme). Their lives get pretty sucktacular pretty damn quick as they lose their overcoats in a bet and are stuck wandering Chicago coatless in February lugging their instruments. Their luck almost changes when they secure a gig at a Valentine’s Day dance in Urbana, and head to a garage to borrow a car from one of the many women Joe has bedded in the recent past. This is where things go from sucktacular to whatever is much, much worse than sucktacular, when they happen to witness a fictionalized version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre orchestrated by mob boss Spats Colombo.
Escaping with only their lives and their instruments Joe does some quick thinking and puts in a call to an agent who was looking for a bass player and saxophonist, the two specialties of Joe and Jerry, except that it’s an all-girl band. Joe raises his voice a few octaves and swiftly secures the spots for himself and his fellow bandmate on the run. Joe and Jerry arrive at the train platform the next morning in full female form. Jerry’s make-up job looks not unlike the Joker from Batman, but it’s good enough to pull off for a few hours. One does wonder how the pair, broke and running for their lives could acquire the full monty so quickly AND learn how to walk in high heels, albeit not very well. And I don’t even want to think about how uncomfortable all that 1920’s underwear would be. Today’s gender-bending mob witnesses at least have the option of grabbing some Spanx at Target on their way out of Dodge. The plan is that they board the train, fall in with the band until they make it to Miami, and then scram.
And then, Sugar comes along walking “like Jell-O on springs,” and the plan all goes to pot. Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar has loved ‘em and lost ‘em, and is one flask away from losing her job as ukulele player and singer in Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators. Slack-jawed, Joe and Jerry board the train as Josephine and Daphne, and manage to make their way to Florida undetected. That’s where the true hijinks ensue as Daphne/Jerry pulls off swimming in the ocean while not destroying his make-up job, and Joe pulls off the even more improbably feat of courting Sugar while posing as an oil tycoon. In the end, everyone manages to find love, and manage more narrow escapes from Colombo and Co., who just happen to be having a mob shindig at the band’s hotel.
Some Like it Hot is more than just a man-in-a-dress flick, and this is part of what makes it endure. The dialogue is smart and the casting is strong. Monroe brings her typical gorgeousness, radiant smile and flawless skin, but also brings an undercurrent of vulnerability to her role. You really don’t want her to get screwed over again, but you can’t see how there are many other outcomes. Or maybe we’re just all too familiar with what happened to Monroe, and think seeing her happy on-screen will give her a happy ending in life. Curtis and Lemmon work together so seamlessly that they could have easily been a comedy team rivaling Lemmon and Matthau. The modern bromance owes a lot to this crew.
Some Like it Hot serves up helpings of mafia-intrigue, cynicism about prohibition, and romance. But its most obvious nod is to the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. According to the nice people at Turner Classic Movies, Director Billy Wilder planned to shoot the film in color, as required in Monroe’s contract. However, after seeing Curtis and Lemmon dressed as women, he felt black and white would be the better option. If you’re wondering just how bad those make-up jobs looked in color, you can get an idea here. This helps to give the film not just the fun of the 1930’s, but also the look of the era.
It is also probably the funniest of the “man in a dress” films. We always love it when a man puts on a dress, much like we always give Oscars to the actress who had to ugly-up for her movie. The cross-dressing theme was somewhat risque for the time, but it’s an old-school theme. It was already alive and well in Shakespeare’s day, and even goes back to Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, and it’s not going to go away. Something about the image of a man squeezing into pantyhose and stumbling in high heels is especially entertaining to us on a cellular level. Perhaps because it reflects how ridiculous so many aspects of womanhood are. High heels seem kind of silly and arbitrary after watching Lemmon and Curtis struggle down the platform in them.
If you’re still not convinced, keep in mind that this film was scandalous for its time. The cross-dressing is the obvious culprit, but then there’s also the possibility that Jerry will marry another man, Sugar kissing someone who looks like a woman, and Monroe’s dresses, which leave little to the imagination. Theaters in Kansas supposedly wouldn’t show it, and it didn’t receive approval under the Hays Code. The most fun scandalous rating comes from the National Legion of Decency, which gave it a C for ‘condemned’. If that won’t convince you to see it, I don’t know what will.