Billy Wilder: Some Like It Hot

The USPS recently issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors. In this post LR Simon discusses Some Like It Hot (1959).

Sex comedies produced before the demise of the Hays Code may seem quaint by modern sensibilities, but that’s largely because of the Code; writers and directors like Billy Wilder pushed the Code’s limits on a regular basis. Wilder had been pushing the Code’s limits since his American directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, but he hadn’t released a film without the Production Seal of Approval until 1959’s Some Like It Hot.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play struggling jazz musicians, Joe and Jerry, who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929; they’re spotted by the murderous gangsters, including “Spats” Colombo (George Raft), so they have to flee. They do this by disguising themselves as women and joining Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators, an all-woman band heading to Miami. Joe becomes enamored of the band’s frontwoman, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), while Jerry (as Daphne) receives unwanted attention from the band’s male manager Mr. Bienstock (Dave Barry) before attracting more attention from Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). Joe persuades Jerry to keep Osgood occupied so he, as Junior, another alter ego, can entertain Sugar on Osgood’s yacht. As things become increasingly complicated, Joe and Jerry realize they have to leave the band, but they come to this decision as a convention of the Friends of Italian Opera opens at the hotel where they are staying. Among those attending the convention are Spats and his cohort who recognize Josephine (Joe) and Daphne as the witnesses to the massacre.

Some Like It Hot challenged several rules of the Hays Code, including scenes that imply sex between unmarried men and women, blurring of sex roles (Joe and Jerry’s transvestitism), Bienstock’s sexual harassment of “Daphne,” and the suggestion that there might not be anything wrong with homosexuality, as implied by the film’s final line.

While “Junior” was seducing Sugar, Osgood proposed to Daphne, who accepted. In the film’s final scene, Daphne tries to get out of the engagement by listing any number of her faults (she smokes, she can’t have children, etc.), leading to Osgood’s famous last words: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Wilder relates the story behind one of the most famous lines in cinema:

“Diamond and I were in our room working together, waiting for the next line—Joe B. Brown’s response, the final line, the curtain line of the film—to come to us. Then I heard Diamond say, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ I thought about it and I said, Well, let’s put in ‘Nobody’s perfect’ for now. But only for the time being. We have a whole week to think about it. We thought about it all week. Neither of us could come up with anything better, so we shot that line, still not entirely satisfied. When we screened the movie, that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater. But we just hadn’t trusted it when we wrote it; we just didn’t see it. ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ The line had come too easily, just popped out.”



USPS Director Stamps: Billy Wilder

The USPS recently issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next few weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses the career and influence of Billy Wilder.

Like the other directors featured in this series, Billy Wilder started his film career as a writer. He had worked as a journalist in Berlin before becoming interested in film and writing screenplays. He wrote the screenplay for Emil and the Detectives (1931), and then moved to Paris as Hitler came into power. He made his directorial debut in France with Mauvaise Graine (1934), moving to Hollywood before its release. His first big American hit as a writer came in 1939 with Ninotchka, and he made his American directorial debut with The Major and the Minor in 1942. He would go on to direct Double Indemnity (1944), arguably the best noir film; Some Like It Hot (1959), one of the best-loved comedies in film history; and Stalag 17 (1953), one of the best prisoner of war films.

Because he was a writer, Wilder believed that films were at their best when the script was honored. He became a director in large part to protect his scripts from misinterpretation. Once a director, he began to tailor scripts for actors, because he thought all actors have limits; this, however, did not keep him from casting against type—Fred MacMurray was not a likely choice to play a scheming insurance salesman in Double Indemnity, for example.

Wilder had great admiration for directors who were also writers, such as John Huston and Akira Kurosawa, but also for directors who respected the writers, such as Ernst Lubitsch, for whom he wrote several screenplays. Wilder learned much about directing from Lubitsch—not only how to respect the script and the medium, but also “to do things as elegantly and as simply as possible.” Despite directors’ having much more influence on set than writers (during the studio era, writers were not allowed on set), Wilder did not subscribe to “auteur theory”:

Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.

Wilder’s influence on cinema extends beyond the technical—many of his films pushed the limits of what was acceptable under the Hays Code. Double Indemnity centers on marital infidelity, a topic that the code made almost impossible to treat honestly on film. Some Like It Hot features transvestitism and a nod to homosexuality, and was released without a Production Code Seal of Approval; it was a huge critical and box-office success, and may have been the single most important film in terms of ending the power of the Hays Office.

While Wilder’s legacy of expanding acceptable content in films is important—invaluable, even—some of his attitudes are less honorable. For example, Wilder was never blacklisted, but he had no sympathy for those who were, and he held some blacklisted artists in disdain. Of course, nobody’s perfect.