Big band music plays as the credits roll. The boisterous music transitions us suddenly into the rear of a hearse, and we see men sitting around a coffin in the back of a car. As a siren blares, the two men in the front of the hearse look at one another and then back at two men sitting in the rear with the coffin. The men look back at the police car coming towards them and the man in the front passenger seat nods for the driver to turn off the road slightly to evade the cops. The policemen begin shooting at the hearse, breaking the glass in the windshield. The two men in the rear of the hearse pull down guns from the ceiling and begin shooting at the cops, eventually hitting the front light of the police car and sending it flying into a nearby gate. The men in the hearse escape. When the men in the backseat look at the coffin, they notice that holes have been blown into it and it is leaking liquid. When they open the coffin, we see dozens of liquor bottles as a supertitle lets us know that we are in Chicago in 1929.
The scene shifts and the hearse pulls into a funeral parlor called “Mozzarella’s Funeral Parlor,” a front for a speakeasy. As somber organ music plays, the gangsters pull the coffin out of the back of the hearse and bring it into the parlor. The car full of policemen then pulls up and a number of cops get out, looking at the funeral parlor. Two men, an investigator and an informer, get out of one of the cars, and one asks the other who runs the joint that they are raiding. The man informs him that the speakeasy is run by “Spats Columbo” and that the password to get in is “I come to grandma’s funeral.” The informer, whose name is Toothpick Charlie, says he has to be going or else Spats Columbo will have him killed, as a police officer approaches the two of them. The investigator dismisses Toothpick Charlie and tells the officer that he’s preparing to raid the speakeasy, before going in.
Inside, an older gentleman plays the organ and a man who introduces himself as Mr. Mozzarella greets the investigator, who uses the password. Mr. Mozzarella has an assistant escort the investigator to “pew number 3,” and the investigator follows him through a small door next to the organ into a brassy, bustling, smoky speakeasy, filled with people. “Well, if you gotta go, that’s the way to do it,” he says. A group of flappers dance in the front of the room in front of a brass band. A waiter takes the investigator’s order, a “scotch coffee,” and the investigator asks if he can be seated not so close to the band, pointing out another table, but the waiter informs him that that’s “reserved for family.” A drunken man watches the dancing girls nearby as a group of gangsters enter the bar. When the drunk accidentally spills his drink on the leader’s shoe, the men stare at the drunk menacingly, before dragging him off kicking and screaming into a backroom. The leader of the gangsters sits down at a nearby table as the investigator watches the scene uneasily.
As the waiter brings him his drink, the investigator tells him, “Better bring the check in case this place gets raided,” and when the waiter assures him that it’s a funeral home, the investigator fires back, “Some people got no respect for the dead!” Onstage, two musicians, a saxophonist and an upright bass player, play and watch the dancing girls in front of them. We see a close-up of the girls’ feet as they dance, and the bassist asks the saxophonist, whose name is Joe, if they are supposed to get paid that night. The saxophonist is concentrating on the dancing girls, but tells him that it is indeed payday. Joe then reveals that the two men have been out of work, which is why they are working as musicians in a speakeasy. When the bass player says he wants to get a filling at the dentist, Joe looks at him like he’s crazy, reminding him that they owe money to the delicatessen and every dancing girl in the line, and they’re behind on rent. Joe then tells the bass player that he wants to bet their earnings on a dog race the following day. The bassist is upset with Joe, but Joe assures him that they will likely have their jobs as musicians for a while. As Joe lists all the things that might happen to them and the world before they have to pay off their debts, the bassist notices the investigator lighting his cigar and notifies Joe, who looks over at him suspiciously. Silently the musicians begin to pack up their things, as the investigator looks down at his watch and counts down, waiting for the raid to begin.
As he counts down to “1,” we see one of the windows being knocked in as the police begin raiding the joint. The patrons of the speakeasy begin screaming and running out of the room. The investigator stands and announces that the raid is taking place and they are all under arrest. As people fight and scream, the two musicians sneak out. The investigator approaches the table where Spats Columbo and his cronies are sitting and informs them they are under arrest. When Spats feigns ignorance, the investigator tells him that he knows that “Mozzarella’s just frontin’ for ya!” Spats Columbo asks the investigator if he got his information from Toothpick Charlie, but the investigator says he never heard of him, before picking up Spats’ milk to smell it. He orders the gangsters to stand, as all chaos breaks out. The scene shifts to outside the speakeasy, where patrons are being ushered into cop cars. The camera moves upwards towards a fire escape where we see the two musicians hiding and narrowly escaping arrest. The musicians climb down from the fire escape and hide out in a nearby alleyway. The bassist, whose name we learn is Jerry, sarcastically suggests that their problems are solved for them now, since they’re not going to get paid at all. The friends argue about whether to sell their overcoats.
Later, the two men get off the train as it snows and the wind blows loudly. It is a cold winter night and Jerry is still frustrated with Joe and his impractical plans. The men go into a nearby office for a talent agency, and inside ask if there’s any work available. A woman drinking at her desk responds that there’s nothing and they continue down the hall, where they open another door. Yet another woman is inside downing an alcoholic beverage, and tells them there’s nothing. When Jerry complains about their situation, Joe begs to let him use their money to bet on the dog races, but this only exasperates Jerry more. Joe and Jerry open yet another agent’s door and she calls them in. The agent, whose name is Nellie, scolds Joe for standing her up for a date, and he begs for forgiveness. He whispers in her ear, “As soon as we get a job I’m gonna take you to the swellest restaurant in town.” Jerry grows impatient at this display and asks Nellie if she has any work.
To Jerry and Joe’s delight, Nellie tells them that someone is looking for a bass and saxophone, and winks at the other girl in the office, who winks back. When they ask what the job is, Nellie tells them it’s at the Seminole Ritz Hotel in Florida and that all expenses are paid. The men are delighted to hear this and rush towards the door to get more information, but Nellie stops them, telling them that they will have to wait their turn and looking knowingly at her fellow agent. In the next room, a loud agent speaks authoritatively into the phone about the Florida gig. Hanging up the phone, the agent expresses exasperation about the fact that no one is available for the Florida job, as the woman coordinating the gig bemoans the fact that their saxophonist “ran off with a bible salesman, and the bass fiddle gets herself pregnant!” The woman turns to the man sitting next to the agent, a man named Bienstock, and scolds him for having let this happen. Defensively, he reminds her that he’s “the manager of the band, not the night watchman.” The agent calls another potential instrumentalist, but she’s otherwise engaged. The woman (the bandleader) and Bienstock go to leave, telling the agent that they need two instrumentalists with them when they leave town. The woman and Bienstock storm out, saying goodbye to the agent, whose name is Sig. As the manager and the bandleader leave, Jerry and Joe rush into Sig’s office and ask to talk.
When they excitedly tell Sig that Nellie told them about the Florida job, Sig looks at them incerdulously and tells them to “Get outta here!” Confused, Joe and Jerry confirm that they indeed need a bass player and a saxophonist, to which Sig responds, “The estimates are right, but you’re not,” as he calls the William Morris Agency on the phone. When Jerry asks what’s wrong with them, Sig tells them that they are “the wrong shape.” When Joe again asks why they cannot have the job, Sig informs them, “You gotta be under 25…you gotta be blonde…and you gotta be girls.” While this revelation immediately deters Joe, Jerry thinsk they could make it work, and wants to talk it over. Jerry is perfectly willing to try drag in order to book the job, and tries to sell the idea to Sig, who looks at him skeptically. Jerry doesn’t back down though, reasoning with Joe that the gig is only three weeks and that they can just “borrow some clothes from the girls in the chorus.” As Joe drags Jerry out of the office, Sig offers them a gig at a nearby college for the night, $12. Joe takes him up on it, but Jerry thinks it isn’t worth it. When Jerry tries to let Sig know that they would be willing to take the Florida gig if no one comes through, Joe ushers him along, mockingly calling him “Geraldine.” Outside Sig’s office, Jerry gets angry at Joe for taking the college gig, which is 100 miles away in the snow. On their way out, Joe asks Nellie if she has any plans for the evening. When she tells him she doesn’t, that she’ll be home eating cold pizza, he tells her, “Good! Then you won’t be needing your car!” Nellie becomes overwhelmingly upset at the realization that Joe is using her, but he quickly wraps his arms around her, pacifying her, as Jerry shrugs and turns towards the camera, exasperated.
The scene shifts to Joe and Jerry walking outside in a blustery snowstorm. Jerry scolds Joe, saying, “We coulda had 3 weeks in Florida, all expenses paid!” The two men then enter a smokey garage, where a group of men in fedoras gamble around a table. As Joe and Jerry approach, the men stand abruptly, as Joe assures them that they are there to pick up Nellie’s car. A man leads the duo over to the car and gives them some gas. Suddenly another car speeds into the garage and a group of gangsters jumps out and hold up the men at the gambling table. Joe and Jerry hide behind the car before the gangsters can see them, as one of the gangsters invites the man pumping their gas to join the men at the gambling table. Spats Columbo then emerges from the gangster car and greets Toothpick Charlie, who is among the men who were gambling at the table. Joe and Jerry watch from the shadows as Spats says goodbye to Charlie before having him and his friends shot by the gangsters.
Suddenly, the gas hose pops out of Nellie’s car and the gangster’s turn to see who is there. Spats Columbo calls for Joe and Jerry to come out, which they do reluctantly, holding their instruments up in the air. “We didn’t see anything,” says Joe, and Jerry agrees, adding, “Besides, it’s none of our business if you guys wanna bump each other off!” Spats walks towards them and asks how he knows them. Joe assures him that they are only musicians who are picking up Nellie’s car, and the musicians begin to sidestep out of the garage. “You’re not goin’ nowhere!” Spats yells, informing Joe and Jerry that he’s going to have his men bump them off. As one of the gangsters inches towards him, Toothpick Charlie, who is still alive, reaches for a phone behind the gangsters, but it falls to the ground, giving him away. The gangsters turn around abruptly and Spats kills Charlie himself. Seeing their only opportunity for escape, Joe and Jerry run out of the garage just in time. Police sirens begin to blare and Spats orders his men to run away from the police, saying they will take care of Joe and Jerry later.
The film wastes no time in establishing itself as an action-packed film about crime, but also a comedy. The contrast between the two subject matters and the rapid tonal shifts are part of the film’s charms. After the credits roll over a brassy big band score, which reflects the film’s setting in the 1920s and lighthearted tone, the scene abruptly shifts to the inside of a hearse, and we see a coffin being taken somewhere. This abrupt shift signals to the audience that the film is not simply a comedy, but one which deals with some darker themes. We soon learn that the coffin is not carrying a dead body at all, but a large stock of liquor. It is the 1920s, and the prohibition has made alcohol illegal, so the hearse is merely a cover for carrying liquor to a secret speakeasy. The secretive nature of the speakeasy makes way for more abrupt tonal shifts that highlight the inherent comedy of the film. Later, when the investigator uses the password and asks to be taken to the speakeasy, the man posing as the funeral parlor director orders an assistant to take him to the “third pew,” as mournful funeral music is played on a nearby organ. When the assistant opens the door to the speakeasy, however, jubilant big band music pours out. The stark contrast between raucous speakeasy and quiet mournful funeral parlor reveals that the film takes a rather irreverent approach to its subject matter, that things are often not what they seem, and that comedic contrasts will be used throughout.
It is not until ten minutes into the film that we meet its protagonists, simple musicians, Joe and Jerry. They are a saxophonist and an upright bass player, respectively, who are just looking to get paid and have a little fun. This plan gets derailed, however, when they get embroiled in a corruption scandal at the speakeasy they are working at, and narrowly escape the joint before it’s raided. Like the big band music itself, Joe and Jerry are happy-go-lucky and light-hearted, which strikes a comic contrast with the corruption and violence surrounding them. Part of the pleasure of watching Joe and Jerry have to figure out how to earn livings is their clueless quality and their innocence in the whole affair. What better unassuming protagonists than a pair of earnest musicians who just want to have some fun? Played endearingly by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, Joe and Jerry are at once likable and highly comedic. The two musicians are just trying to make rent while they are out of work, but through happenstance wander into a much more complicated situation than they gambled for. Bumbling but sincere, Joe and Jerry are the perfect objects of the viewer’s sympathy and alignment, as they struggle to piece together their lives.
The dynamic between the two musicians only adds to the comedy. While Jerry is the practical, more anxious one, Joe is calm, but more impractical. Joe initially wants to spend their paycheck on a dog race, in the hopes that they can double their earnings. By contrast, Jerry wants to visit a dentist, a much more sensible use of their money. When they escape the police raid at the speakeasy, Joe wants to sell their overcoats for money, but it is winter in Chicago, and the men will undoubtedly freeze to death if they do so. Joe is a wide-eyed dreamer, who has a hard time grappling with the reality of a situation, while Jerry is anxious and easily agitated by their hardship, and regularly scolds Joe for his half-baked ideas. Therefore, there is not only a contrast between the duo and the high-stakes crime-addled world around them, but between the two of them as well, which heightens the comedy and adds tension to the screwball storyline.
Joe and Jerry switch roles, with Jerry taking the imaginative leap and Joe feeling deterred by reality, when the job in Florida becomes a possibility. Jerry wonders why they couldn’t go to Florida and pose as women, while Joe is completely deflated by their anatomical limitations. For once, Joe the dreamer cannot imagine how they would pull that off, but Jerry seems sure that they could make it work, and that it would mean an all-expenses p3-weekweek vacation to Florida. While Joe doesn’t think that it would be suitable for them to pose as women, Jerry doesn’t see it as a huge limitation and is willing to do whatever it takes to get out of town, even if that means going undercover in drag for a week. Thus, another screwball element is introduced into the plot as the men debate whether to dress up as women for a job.
While it had seemed that the innocent musicians Jerry and Joe had escaped the world of corruption and crime when they managed to wriggle out of the police raid, the gangster underworld is not far behind. Joe and Jerry seem to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and this is especially true when they wander into the garage where Nellie’s car is kept. There, they run into Toothpick Charlie, the man who gave Spats Columbo up to the police. When Spats soon arrives and kills Charlie and his friends, Joe and Jerry become witnesses, their own lives endangered by what they have seen. Wide-eyed and frightened, Joe and Jerry only escape certain death when it turns out that Charlie is not in fact dead, and the gangsters become momentarily distracted. Suddenly, the stakes have risen: not only are Joe and Jerry broke, but they are on the run from one of the most heartless gangsters in Chicago.