1 Year, 100 Movies #22 Some Like It Hot (1959)

by Trey Hock on April 25, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

As I started to work on today’s column for #22 “Some Like It Hot,” I encountered two difficulties. The first, how do I choose only a handful of scenes from a film that is overflowing with classic, iconic, hilarious moments. I usually try to choose between five and seven scenes to reference, but my list of clips kept creeping into the double digits. I have refined it down to seven clips, but know that I could have easily shown that many more and still not given you the full depth of the comedic brilliance that this film offers.

My second difficulty is a headier, theoretical one. In “Some Like It Hot,” director Billy Wilder employs the classic comedic device of cross-dressing men in his farcical romp.

Men have been dressing as women for humorous effect as long as theater has existed, but in a world that includes 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s incarnations of feminist discourse, it becomes impossible to look at “Some Like It Hot” without at least touching on gender issues and sexuality.

I sifted through theory that discussed whether “Some Like It Hot” simply reinforces heterosexual gender roles and the patriarchal system in which they are learned. I found some critics who claimed the Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) dressed as Josephine and Daphne actually critique of heteronormativity within a dystopian male dominated world. Oh my goodness.

Is “Some Like It Hot” a feminist piece or a non-feminist piece? I found articles that came down on both sides of the issue, and I really don’t think that it’s either, which is one of the reasons that the film still holds up. Unlike “Tootsie,” a film, which tries to make a point about gender, “Some Like It Hot” uses gender and cross-dressing as a way to move the story and develop character, because Wilder draws no gendered lines in the sand, the discussion of gender roles stays ambiguous and compelling.

So to heck with the theory (at least for now), let’s get on to the film.

“Some Like It Hot” is the story of Joe and Jerry, two out of work musicians struggling to scrape by in Chicago during prohibition. The speakeasy they were working at was broken up in a raid. They find out about a job in Florida, but it turns out that it’s an all female band. So instead they take a gig for one night outside of town, but when they go to pick up their friend’s car at the Southside garage, things get even worse.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Urbana.”

This type of dialogue play runs throughout the movie. Almost every line is as quotable as the next.

With Spats (George Raft) and his lackeys on their tails, Joe and Jerry come up with a plan to get out of town. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)

This is the only time that Wilder lets dialogue fall into an overt discussion about the differences between men and women, which is pretty remarkable since there is at least one person, and more often two people, in drag for over half the film.

The rest of the time the fact that Josephine and Daphne are really men is like a funny secret between Jerry and Joe and the movie viewers. Jack Lemmon is brilliant at this sort of understated “wink and a nod” type of humor.

Just take this scene, which shows Jerry as Daphne and Sugar “Kane” Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) throwing a little afterhours party in Jerry’s sleeper bunk. (Sound starts at 6 seconds.)

From Jerry’s mention of the “surprise party” to the woman’s offer of salami, this scene is packed with giggle inducing innuendo. This is perfect comedic suspense. A viewer is tense the entire time about the possibility of Jerry or Joe being found out, but instead of inducing panic or worry, it creates laughter.

This scene also illustrates why “Some Like It Hot” passes the Bechdel Test. For those who are unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple way of determining the presence of female characters in a movie. To pass the test the movie must have two named characters that are women, who talk to each other about something other than a man. Passing the test doesn’t mean the film has a feminist slant. It only shows whether or not there is a female presence in the film.

For more on the Bechdel Test check out the Bechdel Test Movie List or the totally rad Anita Sarkeesian, and her website Feminist Frequency.

I find it fascinating that a film released in the 50s, about cross-dressing male musicians, has enough named female characters who tell dirty jokes, talk about drinking and food and are well developed enough to pass the Bechdel test.

Jerry and Joe make it to Florida undetected, but once at the resort, the precariousness of their situation becomes even clearer. The wealthy Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), struck by Daphne’s alluring qualities, pursues Jerry/Daphne with a smarmy relentlessness. The sexual ambiguity is wonderful.

Jack Lemmon is one of only a very few actors that has eight Academy Award nominations in one of the two actor categories. One may not always place Lemmon in the same company as Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Jack Nicholson, or Paul Newman, but watch his performance in “Some Like It Hot” or “The Apartment,” another Wilder/Lemmon collaboration which made the list, and you’ll see why he’s one of a very few with so many Oscar nods.

Lemmon isn’t the only standout member of the cast either. Tony Curtis gives a solid performance opposite Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe, well maybe we should take a moment to talk about Monroe.

Much is made of her figure and her sex appeal. Monroe’s image has grown and evolved in the years since her death, transforming her into an odd mythic figure. Few people who have her pictures pasted on their dorm room walls will have ever seen one of her films, but Monroe is a whole lot more than an attractive and curvy woman. She is a really smart and really funny actress.

Just watch this scene, which has Joe out of his dress and impersonating a millionaire to attract the attention of Sugar, who happens to be looking for gold to dig. All the while Jerry plays on the beach with the other women. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)

“Do you play the market?”

“No the Ukulele.”

Her timing is impeccable. It wouldn’t take much to make an even slightly shaky performance look like a train wreck in between Curtis and Lemmon. Monroe doesn’t just hold her own, she gives us a well-rounded, thoughtful, intelligent, flawed character, who also happens to be really sexy. Though she was never nominated for an Academy Award, Monroe did take home the Golden Globe for her performance as Sugar.

Joe, disguised as the heir of Shell Oil, secures a date with Sugar, and Osgood, with some pushing from Joe, gets Daphne/Jerry to go dancing with him. These two dates allow for one of the most memorable comedic montages in American cinema. (Sound starts at 7 seconds.)

Joe and Jerry return to their hotel room, each thoroughly excited about their date. Joe sees potential with Sugar, but frets over how to reveal that he’s also Josephine and not a millionaire. Jerry tells Joe that Osgood proposed to him, to Daphne, last night and he, Daphne, happily accepted. Jerry seems sincerely happy about the offer of marriage, which makes the situation all the more humorous.

Joe shakes Jerry out of his love stupor, and the two find out that Spats and his cronies are in town for a national mob family meeting and are staying at the same hotel.

The unlucky duo witness another mob hit, and are pursued yet again by a group of gangsters. Joe and Jerry have planned an escape with the help of Osgood, which leads to the final moments of the film and it’s most referenced moment.

The double entendre about altering the wedding gown or Jerry’s man parts and Jerry’s reaction makes me burst out laughing every time. Osgood’s goofy grin couldn’t be more perfect and wonderfully ambiguous.

It is hard to watch this scene and not see some playful critique of heterosexuality as the only normal. The willingness to complicate these characters make this moment engaging and really really funny.

Whether you watch it to bring down the patriarchy that prizes heteronormativity, or you watch it to see two funny musicians, who get themselves into loads of trouble, because they dress like women, just watch “Some Like It Hot.”

You’ll laugh your balls off, which is entirely appropriate.

Up next #21 “Chinatown” (1974)

1 Year, 100 Movies #23 The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

1 Year, 100 Movies #24 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

1 Year, 100 Movies #25 To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

1 Year, 100 Movies #26 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

1 Year, 100 Movies #27 High Noon (1952)

1 Year, 100 Movies #28 All About Eve (1950)

1 Year, 100 Movies #29 Double Indemnity (1944)

For links to #30-39, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #30 Apocalypse Now (1979)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rosie April 26, 2011 at 9:53 am

Trey you’ve definitely convinced me that “Some Like it Hot” belongs on this list. My memory of it was that it was a silly comedy full of easy jokes about men in pantyhose. But re-watching those clips you’ve posted I realised that all these jokes are actually quite clever and seamlessly inserted into the story. I also really love how timeless this movie is, and how the issue of crossdressing and other gender issues are acknowledge and then dismissed.
Great review.

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2 Trey Hock April 26, 2011 at 10:52 am

Rosie – I think you’ve nailed it. It’s both a silly comedy about dudes in dresses, and a smart sophisticated comedy that offers subtle critique without being heavy-handed. Billy Wilder just knocks it out of the park with this one.

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3 Xavier April 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I think the bechdel’s test is complete bs. You rightly pointed out that the test doesn’t necessarily lead to a film that has good female character’s or is positive towards females but that does seem to be the pretense for the list. I would also argue that a film not passing doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a large and equal female presence. Are they really saying that a film like blue valentine doesn’t have a female presence? That film has two characters a male and a female so the presence is equal. The fighter also doesn’t pas the test and that has a very strong female presence.

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4 Trey Hock April 27, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Xavier – A feminist film could fail the Bechdel Test, and a completely misogynistic film (“Sucker Punch,” anyone?) could pass it. It’s not a gauge of ideology or whether a film’s a good film, just for the presence of named female characters. I do think it’s an important, if not definitive, measure in regards to certain films. So the Bechdel Test isn’t B.S., but is just a limited measure of a specific aspect of a film.

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5 Xavier April 27, 2011 at 11:22 pm

As I said though something like blue valentine fails the test but the test is completely irrelevant for that film because there are essentially only two named characters with both male and female roles sharing basically even screen time.

Also if Inglorious Basterds were to pass the test then it would do so barely because there are only two female roles and I don’t think they converse with one another, yet you can hardly argue that either of those roles are insignificant or not equal to the male characters. They also completely kick ass without being fetishized, sort of like the anti-suckerpunch.

What I’m really saying is that as you pointed out the bechdel’s test doesn’t mean that a film is feministly inclined or not, but I’m saying that it even fails on the second part in order to determine female presence based on my examples above.

I also think that a film may not have a significant female presence and still pass the test all it would require is two minor female characters to have a short scene together where they don’t talk about men, then the rest of the film could otherwise feature almost all men (I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head but I’m pretty sure they would exist).

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6 Xavier April 27, 2011 at 11:25 pm

sorry three minor characters not talking about men in one scene

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7 Trey Hock April 28, 2011 at 5:32 am

Xavier – Your hatred of the Bechdel Test amuses me. It’s almost like hating a weather vane for telling you which way the winds blowing, but not how fast it’s moving. It really isn’t a measure of quality, but with a huge number of films that can’t even pass a test like the Bechdel Test, to me that’s an interesting observation.

Of course in a situation like “Blue Valentine” or “Inglorious Bastards” you could say that though they fail the Bechdel Test they still give us a significant female character, that is well developed and complex, and that’s fine. In a war movie during WWII that makes sense. In most other scenarios, it’s puzzling why there aren’t more women in the stories.

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8 tim April 28, 2011 at 6:26 am

Xavier, as Trey points out, the Bechdel Test reveals that it is a systemic problem. Sure, you can find movies that don’t pass the test but still have a female presence, or that could even be considered a feminist film. But the sheer number of movies that fail (but do have 2 or more men etc) is what is revealing.

Trey, I’m really enjoying this series. I watched this movie some years ago and was quite surprised how good it was, and how funny Marylin was.

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9 Xavier April 28, 2011 at 7:02 am

I agree that there are a number of movies that the lack of female presence is puzzling, but I can’t help but think that people are being duped by the test. I think the test is pretty useless and that analyzing whether a film is misogynistic, a feminist film, or even whether the female characters are significant or complex cannot be quantified by following a simple 3 step check list.

I think the weather vane analogy falls down for me in that it does what it says its going to do whereas its not clear what the bechdel’s test is supposed to be. It seems to me that it is trying to highlight the films that hollywood makes that are favorable towards women (which a quick visit to some of the discussions confirms or at least confirms that this is how a large number of people are interpreting it) which it fails at, but it also fails to provide a list of films where there are significant female characters (and no indication of complexity of those characters). So I guess my main gripe is that it is pointless at establishing what it appears to set out to.

Also the caveat that because the female characters talk about men they aren’t complex, strong or independent is false. I don’t get annoyed that in High Fidelity the male characters largely (except for a few conversations about records) talk about women and it doesn’t mean that they aren’t complex characters and realistic representations of men.

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10 Xavier April 28, 2011 at 7:09 am

Sorry I’m sort of rambling but I think that my main problem is actually that the bechdel’s test seems to provide support and something to point to for people saying that hollywood is just misogynistic and doesn’t write proper female roles (perhaps something that you could argue successfully on different grounds), but the problem is with the test not necessarily the films put to that test.

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11 jess April 28, 2011 at 11:33 am

I think the point of the Bechdel test is to point out how many films that feature women, i.e. ‘chick flicks’, contain roles where their focus is on men, marriage, and babies, and that it’s difficult to find many movies that feature the three qualifications. The movies you mentioned may have strong female characters, but they are one or two characters out of large casts of men. Movies that feature large casts of women are usually based around weddings and babies, and try to project that this is all women talk about or want to watch, which is far from the truth. Male-centered movies can be focused around anything from war to Wall Street, sports, political events, Armageddon….you get the picture. Please give me some examples of those types of movies that feature more than 2 women as the main characters. Conversely, it’s difficult to find a movie about marriage with men as the main characters where they talk about marriage as something positive, the way it’s presented in female-centered rom-coms.

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12 jess April 28, 2011 at 11:48 am

Also, I found this off the Anita Sarkeesian site Trey posted earlier:

http://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

It might explain the need for the Bechdel test more clearly.

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13 Xavier April 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I don’t disagree with any of your points about how female centred movies too often are focused solely around getting the guy, getting married and having babies, nor the article you linked to, but I still think the Bechdel’s test is poor at pointing that out and that many of those relationship driven rom com type movies are sometimes more likely to pass the test than those in which the female characters are strong and are not focused on those things. All it takes is the characters to have 1 short conversation (which is likely to occur at least one time in a chick flick as something like hair, makeup, their job will probably be mentioned).

Although Inglorious Basterds which I mentioned did have a lot of male characters (a lot were military characters in WW2 so it is understandable) the female characters had more screen time than most of the male characters (brad pitt and christoph waltz had about the same as the two female characters). There are also a lot of films like Blue Valentine that have very small casts of named characters which is what the list specifies and so having 3 named females is not always likely and may not be expected in films that have casts of less than 6. I think that if the movie would also fail a bechdel’s test for the male protagonists then it shouldn’t be put to the test. The list also only mentions talking about men but not in what capacity so someone sharing feelings about their parents or referring to an annoyance with a coworker would not count if the person happens to be male. For instance One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest doesn’t count because although the nurses are talking about patients that are in their care, they happen to be male so for the purposes of the list it doesn’t count.

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14 jess April 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm

The point of the test is that female characters are *usually* only important in movies if they are in a supporting role, talking about the male lead (See: Inception, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, etc). If women are the stars in a non-rom-com (ha), they are *usually* operating alone (See: Alien, Terminator). Look at the nominees for the 2011 Best Actress. All save one focus around family matters to some degree. The nominees for Best Actor? Zero. In “Some Like It Hot”, the two male characters walk into a female-oriented world, where the women are interested in boozing it up and having a good time while playing music with other women, and they have to become women in order to join them. Even though the women are just talking about vermouth and sausages, the fact that there are numerous women together is something in itself – which is a sad, but still true point in Hollywood even today.

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15 Trey Hock April 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Xavier – Are you currently writing a series of male centric screenplays? Are you concerned that the obvious interest in and power of a tool, like the Bechdel Test, will derail the system that prizes the 19 year old male over pretty much anyone else, be they old, the owner of a vagina, or someone with non-pale pink skin?

Really I’m just joking with you. I think that your irritation about the Bechdel Test is a little weird, and kinda funny, but your point that it doesn’t offer a definitive answer on whether the film is misogynistic or hmm let’s say gynophilic (vagina loving? I don’t know, my Latin’s rusty) is true. I don’t think Tim, or Jess or I have said otherwise.

The Bechdel Test tests only for whether there are two or more female characters that are developed enough to have a conversation about something other than men. Sucker Punch passes the test, and that’s Zach Snyder’s angry fist to the face of women everywhere. So you are right the Bechdel Test is not perfect, or definitive, but that is not to say that it’s not useful.

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16 Xavier April 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Ha I’m definitely not writing any male centred screenplays, I’m a choreographer and I love creating physically demanding pieces for my female dancers because there is nothing quite as good as watching strong female dancers.

I haven’t disagreed that there are too many male centred films or that the female centred ones aren’t often revolved around finding the right man. I’m not against one of these tests existing and in fact I thinks its important and a positive thing but if as jess says the “point” is to show that females are only supports for the male characters then this particular test utterly fails to do that.

I know you are saying that the Bechdel’s test is not definitive but I’d go further in saying that its completely worthless in showing us anything about the nature of women in films. The fact that the nature of the conversation about men, screen time, size of cast and the nature of interactions of the females with the males in the film is not taken into account means that its just an arbitrary list of criteria with no focus on the big picture. We may as well make a test where women have to be seen eating a steak, going to the library and riding a bike in a film, it would give us about as much of an overall picture as the criteria for the Bechdel’s test.

By the way I really enjoyed the article that jess posted and I’m not against the thoughts and intent behind the test but the execution of the idea is very poor.

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17 Eric Melin April 28, 2011 at 11:01 pm

This is a great discussion, and the test, as flawed as it may be, serves its point–I love the fact that it is at least a way of pointing out to people that love these formulaic romcoms that they aren’t as female-centric as advertised!

My favorite test was the Gene Siskel litmus test for star-studded movies and I still refer to it to this day: Is the film you just saw more interesting than a documentary of its actors having lunch together would be?

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18 Xavier April 29, 2011 at 8:12 am

I like siskel’s test and I do love discussions like these I think they’re important to have even if an agreement can’t be reached

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19 Xavier April 29, 2011 at 8:27 am

also I think that with trey’s latin query before gyno is just a prefix referring to female and andro being the male, hence the term androgyny.

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