Some Like It Hot joins the ranks of such classics as A Place in the Sun, Touch of Evil and The Big Combo as bona fide masterpieces whose significantly superior demonstration of filmmaking expertise was overlooked by the so-called experts voting for Oscar’s Best Picture of the Year. Four decades later, the American Film Institute did its best to correct the mind-blowing oversight in the case of Some Like it Hot by placing it at the top of their list of the 100 best American comedy films of the past 100 years.
Labeling this cross-dressing masterwork by writer-director Billy Wilder the best American comedy ever still somehow manages to feel empty. For Some Like it Hot is more than a funny film. The story of how two down-on-their-heels jazz musicians try to escape the clutches of 1920s Chicago mobsters after accidentally witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre by dressing up as women and joining an all-girl band manages somehow to pull off the holy grail of the comedy genre: it actually gets funnier with each successive viewing. The list of films that can make the same claim can fit on an index card with titles written down by John Hancock.
Censorship is a dirty word for most people working in the creative arts…but Some Like it Hot is proof enough that placing limitations upon what is possible sometimes has the paradoxical effect of enhancing creativity. Forced to deal with a script positively dependent upon humor related to not just sexuality, but cross-dressing and dirty old men chasing after hot young things and hot young things seducing dirty old men for the sake of economic security without the freedom to address those issues explicitly, Some Like it Hot becomes a film capable of delivering subtle jokes not dependent on the baser quality of surprise the second time around…and even into the third and fourth time around and beyond.
Repeated viewings are sure to under the more subtle verbal double-entendres permeating the script like pebbles of gold suddenly making their presence known when held at a certain angle to the sun. Younger viewers may not fully appreciate the humor when the Jack Lemmon berates the distinctive British accent that the Tony Curtis characters adopts to seduce the Marilyn Monroe character by asserting about his phony accent: “Nobody talks like that!” until a repeat viewing that comes after their initial exposure to the films of Cary Grant. One of the keys to the almost magical power of Some Like it Hot to make you laugh harder with each repeated viewing is its now rather quaint expectation of the intelligence of its audience.
For instance, consider the film’s single finest example of how raunchy humor can be derived without resorting to raunchy humor. Osgood is one of those dirty old men who make the yearly pilgrimage to the warmth of the South during February looking for the kind of women who make the same pilgrimage looking for the kind of dirty old man that is Osgood. An indication of his own particular idiosyncratic personality is that despite the gaggle of much more attractive—and real—women spilling out of the same bus, Osgood sets his sights on Daphne, the female person that Lemmon’s jazzman has adopted to escape detection by the mob. Not one to be ahead of his time in understanding that no means no, Osgood follows the distinctly uninterested Daphne right into the elevator. The camera remains focused on the elevator even after the doors close before panning up to train its lens on the old-fashioned arrow indicator showing which floor the compartment is currently on. The smoothly moves from a completely horizontal position next to the 1 of the representing the lobby to a nearly fully upright position somewhere between an angle of 45 and 90 degrees. Then suddenly it stops, flops back and forth a little bit and then slowly deflates back to its original flat position when revealing the elevator has made its return trip back down to the lobby. The doors open and Daphne exclaims, “What kind of girl do you think I am?” While the details of exactly what transpired between Daphne and Osgood in the elevator is left to the imagination, the symbolism of the arrow as a metaphor for a certain appendage of Osgood capable of rising and falling is exactly as explicit as it could possibly have been or ever needs to be.
The title Some Like it Hot has come to act as sort of commentary on the quality of the humor in this comedic masterpiece. As if sensing that he making the kind of comedy that would soon become a thing of the past, Wilder at times seems to imposing even censorship upon his story that might have been expected as a result of the challenges already being made to the Hays Code. The title refers to the jazz music which is at the center of the narrative—some like it hot and some like it cool—but it equally well apply as a definition of comedy. Some like their sex comedies to be so feverishly hot that no attempts at censorship can withstand the temperature. While others prefer their sex comedies to be a little cooler…a little more subtle…a little more reliant on jokes targeted toward the mind rather than jokes targeted to lower regions of the body. The descendants of Some Like it Hot are not the anything-goes sex comedies like Porky’s or American Pie, but contemporary comedies made under conditions of self-imposed censorship like Napoleon Dynamite or The Sasquatch Gang.