Nobody involved in the making of this movie thought it would be a classic. It was just a screwball comedy, in drag, with a supporting cast of gangsters, flappers and millionaire playboys; Billy Wilder, its director, producer and co-writer, called it "a combination of 'Scarface' and 'Charlie's Aunt.'" On its release in 1959 it made a lot of money but not much of a critical splash. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, but not Best Picture, nudged off the finalists' list by four inferior movies with serious subject matter (nuns, Nazis, rape, class anxiety you look 'em up) and by the ultimate winner, "Ben-Hur," one of the most turgid epics ever to take the top prize. The only Oscar it won was for Orry-Kelly's costume design, for which he clothed Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and semi-clothed Marilyn Monroe, in silly '20s frocks.
Yet "Some Like It Hot," like its three stocking'd stars, had legs. It was a TV and revival favorite; it spawned a 1973 Broadway musical (and another one due there next year). The film's ubiquity helped overturn a prejudice in certain critical circles against Wilder; as his esteem in academe grew, as the Life Achievement banquets and tribute books blossomed, so did an informed appreciation for his most agreeable, enduring comedy. In 1999, the American Film Institute selected "Some Like It Hot" as the best comedy of the century. All that remained was the publication of a weighty tome to commemorate the film's greatness.
Did I say weighty? The Taschen superproduction called "Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot" is as heavy as a gravestone, a Hupmobile, a gangster's birthday cake. It will lighten your wallet by $150, plus tax or shipping. If you can find it. Though the book has been widely reviewed, it is not readily available through amazon.com. You may, however, try amazon.co.uk., where the volume ranks a respectable 588 (much higher than "Germs," for example) and is "usually dispatched within 24 hours." The price 100 pounds sounds light for a Jazz Age chorine, steep for what is, at heart, the cinema's most elaborate souvenir book.
To some devout bibliophiles, Taschen is cherished as the publisher of such scholarly works as "1000 Nudes," "Eric Kroll's Fetish Girls" and "Exquisite Mayhem: The Spectacular and Erotic World of Wrestling." But maybe those are just the company's bill-payers. Certainly the Wilder book is handsomely produced, with a slipcase woven from shahtoosh, the film's title set in diamonds on a redwood cover, each word of text inscribed by Trappist calligraphers something like that. Edited by Alison Castle, from interviews by film scholar Dan Auiler (author of the helpful directorial dig "Hitchcock's Notebooks"), this swank objet du commerce contains the final script, comments by Wilder and the main actors, many color photographs (of a black-and-white film) and, inset into the inside back cover, a copy of Monroe's "prompt book" all of her character's dialogue with the star's poignantly diligent marginal notes.
As a kid, I loved "Some Like It Hot," and I've still got the soundtrack LP to prove it. I remember choking back laughs so I could hear the next line of dialogue. Like few other movies, it gave me pleasure whenever I saw it, every few years from boyhood till now. For me, that makes it a classic. And who knew? classical too. "Wilder crafted his movies in a classical and beautiful way," Ed Sikov notes in "On Sunset Boulevard," a sharp book-length summary of the writer-director's career. "They are structured, refined." Certainly, the Monroe movie is structurally refined: three characters, three settings, three songs, with virtually every shot and word contributing briskly to the elaborate tension of plot and character. It's a perfectly devised trap for laughter, a spider's web of a comedy.
Confusion of sexual identities is at the heart of this story about two Chicago musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) who witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 and go on the lam from Spats Columbo (Raft) and his murderous gang. Disguised as women named Josephine and Daphne, they join an all-girls' band whose vocalist is sad, sweet Sugar Cane (Monroe). They land in Florida, where Joe tries to seduce Sugar by dressing and speaking like a Shell Oil scion, while Jerry attracts to the attentions of a real millionaire, Osgood Fielding III (Brown). The gangsters show up and, fruitlessly, chase our girl-boys around the hotel a few times. Joe sees the lovelight and reveals his true ID to Sugar; Jerry ends up with Osgood.
It's also a movie that was old even when it was young. Viewers of the day would be expected to remember such venerable pop tunes as "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Down Among the Sheltering Palms," "By the Sea" and "Stairway to the Stars," all on the soundtrack. It was assumed audiences would understand references to the '20s names and phrases Valentino, Stokowski, marcelled hair, the Graf Zeppelin, Rudy Vallee, Johnny Weissmuller that pop up in the dialogue. Moviegoers of a certain age would also recognize a few old movie tropes, like the grapefruit that gangster George Raft starts to push in henchman Harry Wilson's face (as James Cagney did to Mae Clarke in "The Public Enemy") and the coin-toss mannerism that young punk Edward G. Robinson Jr. affects. When Raft sees him, he asks sarcastically, "Where did you pick up that cheap trick?" From the 1932 underworld classic "Scarface," where Raft did it. Big inside joke.
When the film was released, the top three stars were in their early 30s, but many of the featured players Raft, 73, Wilson, 61, Joe E. Brown, 66, Pat O'Brien, 59, and George E. Stone, 56 had been in movies since the early talkies. In 1929, the year the story is set, Raft made his first movie, Brown had just signed with Warner Bros. and O'Brien was starring in "The Front Page" on Broadway. And where was Wilder? In Berlin, helping to write the acclaimed "Menschen am Sonntag" ("People on Sunday"), a vignette film made by other four future luminaries of Hollywood: Fred Zinnemann ("High Noon"), Edgar G. Ulmer ("Detour"), Robert Siodmak ("The Killers") and his brother Kurt ("Bride of the Gorilla" all right, but three out of four ain't bad). It would take a few more successful screenplays, and Hitler, to get the Polish-born Jew to Hollywood.