California Literary Review

Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion by Laurence Maslon


January 14th, 2010 at 11:31 am

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Some Like It Hot by Laurence Maslon
Some Like It Hot: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion
by Laurence Maslon
Collins Design, 192 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

A Fun Recounting of a Cinematic Classic

Stanley Kauffman, the longtime film critic for The New Republic, is surely not the only fan who has observed the delicious irony that “Nobody’s perfect” are the final words of a certain 1959 movie that just about is.

Perfect, I mean.

Although it seems like it’s been around forever, at the same time the movie is so fresh, so vigorous, so full of pep and life force — and so sly — that it’s hard to believe “Some Like It Hot” is now 50 years old.

But it is, and Laurence Maslon, an associate professor at the Tisch School of the Arts and author of several books about American musicals, comedies, and specifically “The Sound of Music” and “South Pacific,” has offered a pleasing coffee-table tribute to this one, cheap at the $35.00 cover price.

The writer-director and principal actors (all but Tony Curtis) are sadly gone, so it’s mildly startling to see that executive producer Walter Mirisch, apparently a spry 88 this year, has provided a Foreword. Mirisch’s contribution may not be particularly enlightening, but it’s lovely to see.

When a movie has become so familiar and venerable, it may be difficult to recall what a risk Mirisch and his brothers Harold and Marvin were taking with their brand-new production company’s first project, whose dramatic hook, early in the story, is a fairly straightforward recreation of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre:

According to Wilder’s interview with [Cameron] Crowe, Selznick responded, “Oh my God, you’re not doing a comedy with murder? They’re going to crucify you. They’re going to walk out in droves! It’s just going to be embarrassing.” (In retrospect, Selznick’s reaction seems based more on taste than showbiz precedent: Arsenic and Old Lace was about two spinsters who murder scores of old men and it was still the biggest Broadway smash of the 1940s.) But Wilder reasoned that “the brutal reality” was “what made the picture. The two men were on the spot, and we kept them on the spot until the very end.”

However as a writer, Maslon observes, Wilder believed that getting his characters into a big mess was only a beginning:

All great drama revolves around conflict: Do I sleep with the girl or not? Will I kill the guy before he kills me? But, for Wilder, the best stories were those where conflict was only the starting point. Wilder loved stories where the hero was caught “in a jam”—between a rock and a hard place—a situation in which, either way, the hero (or character) loses. The dramatic question becomes which choice costs him least and what, if anything, he might learn while tending to his wounds. There is no easy redemption in Wilder’s films and nary a dollop of sentimentality, which may explain why critics label the films as “cynical,” though a more accurate description would be “sophisticated storytelling.”

Maslon’s book is simply divided into chapters about the writing, casting, shooting at the MGM lot, location work at the Del Coronado hotel in San Diego (standing in for a luxury Miami resort), further shooting at Goldwyn Studios, post-production, and “Legacy.” That last includes an abortive 1961 TV series, with a prologue in which Lemmon and Curtis graciously cameo’d and pretended to get plastic surgery to continue their escape from the gangsters, and thus paved the way for replacement actors Dick Patterson and Vic Damone as Jerry and Joe; and the 1972 stage musical, Sugar, starring Tony Roberts and Robert Morse (and 1974 and 1992 revivals — the last with Tommy Steele, and Tony Curtis taking Joe E. Brown’s old role of puckish millionaire Osgood Fielding III).

Along the way, however, Maslon inserts two- to four-page commentaries on topics of tangential interest: Fanfare d’amour and Fanfaren der Liebe, the 1935 French and 1951 German cross-dressing films that inspired Some Like It Hot; the 1929 Chicago gang setting; Orry-Kelly, the dress designer on the film (who won an Oscar for his work); a brief history of men-in-drag plots in film and TV; Florida in the Roaring Twenties; the Del Coronado; Chicago jazz; film scorer Matty Malneck; and the ingenuities of the script.

Maslon dismisses the longtime red herring that Tony Curtis was the slightest bit serious when he told an interviewer that kissing Monroe was “like kissing Hitler.” It was clearly not true (the two had had a brief affair 10 years before), yet Monroe was hurt and lashed back in the press, and Curtis has had many years to regret the crack. There’s plenty about Monroe, of course — her perpetual lateness to the set, her entourage (especially acting coach Paula Strasberg’s hovering and kibitzing), nervous visits from hubby Arthur Miller because of her pregnancy with a child that would miscarry, and so on. She overdosed on sleeping pills the first week of shooting. And apparently she could be very inconsistent about nailing her lines. She did the upper-berth scene with Lemmon in a single take, and most of the beach scenes with Curtis with the same dispatch. But other times:

[Lemmon and Curtis] would wager on how many takes it would require before Monroe could produce something usable. For example, Curtis might say, “I smell a thirty-take coming on” and Lemmon would wager that she would come in at fifteen. He’d lose his five dollars, and then raise the number to twenty—and lose another five dollars to Curtis. And so on. Since his career as a gambler was going quickly down the toilet, Lemmon kept his sanity as an actor by adopting a simple credo: “There was only one thing to do. Be ready on Take One. And be ready on Take Fifty. And I mean Fifty. You don’t know. There’s no way of knowing.”

Mirisch reports, “Jack Lemmon once told me … ‘I wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat, and I’ve dreamt that we are on take fifty-five and Marilyn has gotten her lines right and I blew it.”

There’s a temptation to assume that Maslon’s book could never measure up to the book about “Some Like It Hot” edited by Alison Castle, with interviews by Dan Auiler, and published by Taschen in 2001. It’s a big one: 384 pages, with covers that measure 10-1/4 by 16 inches, and weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of nine and a half pounds.

Surprisingly, there’s not that much overlap. Maslon quotes from the Taschen book, clearly, but his volume has a more analytical approach. There are some identical stills, but not a few are different images (say, of Lemmon and Curtis getting their feminine makeup applied) from what are obviously the same sessions. The Taschen volume expends a good part of its bulk on the first draft and shooting script, with scads of black-and-white stills from the film (it also has many pages of memorabilia, such as posters from foreign screenings), while Maslon’s book has more publicity stills, off-camera shots, and background material. So they don’t compete or clash as much as you’d expect.

Unlike nearly every other film that makes my list of top 10 absolute favorites — the movies I’d take with me to a desert island — I know the precise date on which I first saw “Some Like It Hot.” It was February 15, 1980.

I know because I saw it projected on a small movie screen in a college dining hall, went straight back to my dorm room, and wrote in my journal: “There are times when I feel like anything I want to do in my little world is possible. This is one of those times. I have just seen ‘Some Like It Hot’ for the first time.” I went back and saw it again the following night.

In its inaugural year of 1989, The Library of Congress’s U.S. National Film Registry selected “Some Like It Hot” as one of the most outstanding films of all time. In 2000, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 List named “Some Like It Hot: as the Best Comedy of the century.

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