And some like it sweet. Hard to believe, perhaps, but I had never seen this movie. (Perhaps less hard to believe: I didn’t get that it was a reference to jazz, where “hot” was used to refer to improvisational riffing on the tune, and “sweet” meant playing it as written. Although for a guy who’s as in to Paul Whiteman like I am, it’s pretty hard to believe!) Men in dresses fall into two categories: The kind who are trying to be funny, and the kind who aren’t. The latter (in film) give me the heebie-jeebies. (As Cynthia Yockey @conservativelez said on Twitter, they trigger the “uncanny valley” feeling.) The former—well, I typically don’t find them funny (pace Monty Python), and I don’t find the premise inherently amusing as some do. Also, I never “got” the whole appeal of Marilyn Monroe (a sentiment The Flower shared with me).
Well, this movie changed our minds. Bigly.
It’s so, so funny. And Marilyn is so, so sexy.
It’s based in 1929, during prohibition, when a couple of Chicago musicians (hurting in the post crash, hard-times-for-musicians winter) find themselves witness to a mass murder by a vicious mob boss. (I said this was a comedy, right?) In order to escape the boss’ unwanted attentions, they put on dresses and flee to Florida with a girl’s band. The lady killer of the two falls in love with dumb, sexy vocalist of the group, and poses as the sort of wealthy gentleman she imagines she wants, while the other fends off an elderly romeo of his own. The shenanigans come to a head when the gangsters, attending a—I dunno, a gangster-con?—end up in the exact same hotel as our girl’s band.
What are the odds?!?
It’s been done so many times, of course, and mostly not well. I expected to like the film okay, but I didn’t expect to love it—which I did. Same with The Flower. (The Boy was putting off to the next date so he could see it with His Girl, but they ended up missing the movie.) I was particularly surprised at how daring the movie was. Granted, this was 1959, and the world was beginning its descent into smut, but this managed to be as charmingly unsubtle as Marilyn Monroe.
Who is brilliant in this. For her small role in All About Eve, she was famously “difficult” to work with, it was apparently due to nerves and wanting to get it just right when acting alongside of Bette Davis—and who could blame her? This time, she was at least as hard to work with, but in this case, it’s her “personal life” (i.e. “drug addiction”) that made her a huge liability. Fortunately, that liability was Billy Wilder’s problem and not ours, and Monroe does an unparalleled dumb blonde that reminds one how sublimely difficult that can be to pull off. I mean, a few women have pulled off “funny dumb blonde” transcendently (like Gracie Allen), and quite a few mostly forgettable women have done the “sexy dumb blonde” thing. Not very many can pull off the sublimely funny and also irresistibly sexy thing. Now, add to the “sexy” and “funny” her secret ingredient: a kind of vulnerability (even sadness) that makes her sympathetic and elicits a protective nature in the audience (and not just men). Amazing.
The cast is perfect overall. Tony Curtis, doing an amusing impression of Cary Grant when he poses as the rich man, plays well off the apparently exhausting Monroe, but his chemistry with Lemmon is better. (Probably because of the fewer takes needed for them.) Lemmon is fabulous as the guy who’s too much a guy to be a convincing girl, but then learns to embrace the financial opportunities it presents him. Of course, if you look this up today, you’ll get lots of side hits for “LGBT” movies which this most assuredly is not: The very concept is played for laughs at every turn. Indeed, that’s why the movie works.
That said, another reason it works is because it’s not homophobic. One could reasonably expect a strong aversion to the advances of men on our faux-women, especially given their own libidinous natures, but Lemmon’s whole subplot (with the sublime Joe E. Brown as a genuinely rich suitor with a thing for showgirls) is premised on keeping him entertained while Curtis does his Cary Grant schtick on Brown’s character’s boat. This is what you call “subverting expectations”. Remarkably, it still works.
Another amusing angle on the issue is the fact that the boys quickly discover they dislike being the objects of predatory ’50s-era males, and rather than giving them empathy for women, their primary goal is to go back to being the predators. Because of course. Wilder himself was more of the playboy type, and (if his movies are any indication) was basically a live-and-let-live libertine.
And a brilliant director, perhaps at the height of his career, even the low points of which seem much better in retrospect. The timing is perfect. Even if a lot of the jokes are missed because, honestly, how many these days are going to remember George Raft gangster quirks (like coin-flipping) or that James Cagney grapefruit bit. I mean, I do, but it’s sort of like Shakespeare: You don’t get all the jokes, because they’re references to contemporary things, puns for words that no longer carry the meanings they did, and so on. But they can still be hilarious. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
I know and love the music, of course, with “I’m Through With Love” and Marilyn’s iconic rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved By You” being the most obvious among them. The composer of the former, Matty Malneck, was the composer of said song, and the song supervisor on this. Malneck was the composed only one musical score: Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. And to tie it all back together, Malneck was a “hot” jazz violinist with, you guessed it, Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.