I first watched Some Like It Hot what, — ten? fifteen years ago? Somewhere around there. Even then, “comedy from the 1950s about cross-dressers” sounded a bit iffy. I remembered being surprised by it back then, but I approached it this weekend with a bit of trepidation. Many of us, myself included, have had our understanding of gender fundamentally reshaped in the last decade. Would Some Like It Hot seem… offensive? Would it even seem funny, now that non-binary or fluid gender expression has become more commonplace?
As far as the “offensive” question is concerned, I will have to leave that judgement to people with more grounds to be offended. Some Like It Hot does remain funny, however, in large part because the humor and the story never depended on “look at those men wearing dresses” for the bulk of its humor. In fact, Some Like It Hot stays away from a lot of the common cross-dressing-man tropes.
I’ll give you an example: neither Joe (Tony Curtis) nor Jerry require a great deal of persuasion to dress up and join a women’s jazz band. There is also not a montage sequence showing the men trying to figure out all the women’s clothes, or trying to learn how to impersonate women. The decision is made, and then in the very next scene they are perfectly dressed and walking down the train platform.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, let me set it up a bit. Joe plays sax, Jerry plays a double bass. (“Bull fiddle,” they call it, a term I’ve never heard anyplace else.) It is Prohibition in Chicago, so they’re playing at a speakeasy. The speakeasy is raided, but they manage to sneak out the back. Desperate for paying work, they head to a garage to borrow a car from one of Joe’s many girlfriends. There, they witness a gangland-style massacre — fallout from the speakeasy raid. Joe and Jerry both get away, but the mobsters have already clocked them.
The next available out-of-town job is a several-week engagement in Miami, which is great, but it’s for an all-female jazz band… which is a problem. Joe decides on the names “Josephine” and “Geraldine,” but when its time for introductions, Jerry has become “Daphne” instead.
“Daphne?!” says Joe.
“I never did like the name ‘Geraldine,’” says Jerry.
There’s historical precedent. Curtis and Lemon were both coached by famous 1920s female impersonator Barbette. Barbette was a circus performer and aerialist who worked as one half of the Alfaretta Sisters. One sister had died, and the other recruited Barbette on the condition he would work in a woman’s costume. After making a name for himself, Barbette had a popular stage show where he performed in both male and female dress.
On the train, Josephine and Daphne meet the band’s singer / ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe). Sugar, a borderline alcoholic fleeing a string of bad relationships with sax players, becomes close friends. But Joe and Jerry are both smitten. The love-triangle is interrupted, however, when the Mafia holds an annual convention in the same hotel the band is playing in.
Some Like it Hot is a funny, light-hearted movie that still manages to make some fairly trenchant observations on how women are treated both as sex-objects and children. Jerry, dressed as “Daphne,” gets almost immediate and unwelcome attention from a millionaire suitor — Osgood Fielding III — vacationing at the hotel. Osgood (Joe E. Brown) is tenacious, and while Daphne tries to duck him throughout the film, Josephine keeps throwing Osgood in Daphne’s way.
Joe E. Brown has an enormous mouth. He was a popular comic in the 1930s and 1940s. He did both vaudeville and Shakespeare. Some Like it Hot was one of his last roles and his last movie credit where his character has a name.
English actor Harry Wilson is one of the Mafia goons. He called himself “The World’s Ugliest Man,” and he’s certainly distinctive. He was a character actor who worked a ton of uncredited roles throughout his career. I think I saw him relatively recently in Frankenstein’s Daughter, where he plays Frankenstein’s monster. While he plays a character only identified by his role (“Thug”), he has quite a few lines. He’s the most important unimportant character in the movie.
You can’t have a movie about jazz musicians without having a few musical numbers. Marilyn is supposed to be a ukulele player, but she’s entirely unconvincing for the brief moment she mimes strumming the instrument. Her performance of the jazz standard “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” on the other hand, is iconic. The song is no anachronism; it was released in 1928 and was a huge hit for Helen Kane, “Boop-oop-de-oop” and all. It’s a perfect song for Sugar Kane, and song is arguably more closely associated with Marilyn than it is Helen.
Some Like It Hot did not seek (and did not get) certification from the Motion Picture Production Code (“Hays Code”). The Code would have absolutely forbidden the cross-dressing. They may have had a lot of complaints about how much alcohol is swished around, and how much unpunished criminality there is. They’d probably have been bothered by how fast the double-entendres come. This is a story that could not be told under code guidelines, so the studio bypassed them. The entire plot was verboten.
I also suspect the Code would have had something to say about Marilyn Monroe’s costumes. Even though most of them are high-necked, Monroe always seems on the verge of falling out of her dresses.
Here’s the thing: the Production Code was not mandatory, nor was it federal law. The Code was the industry’s self-censorship, intended to avoid federal action in the 1930s. What enforced the code was that you couldn’t get into major theaters without approval. But Some Like It Hot had enormous star power… and it was very, very good. Theaters booked it anyway. It was a significant blow to the Code, which was already starting to show some chinks in its armor.
As far as modern gender politics are concerned, it’s not my place to comment on whether or not Lemon and Curtis’s performances have become generally offensive. They certainly ruffled conservative feathers at the time. Some Like it Hot reflects gender norms of both the era in which it is set and in which it was filmed, but it does not do so without comment.
Furthermore, the un-apologetic gold-digging of the female (identifying) characters might seem like an offensive stereotype, but it was a necessary survival tactic in a time where women were not allowed to apply for loans or credit cards. Women were not allowed to get credit cards or open a bank account on their own until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974.
A new adaptation of Some Like It Hot is currently on Broadway. Jerry’s role is played by non-binary actor J. Harrison Ghee. Ghee won a Tony for this performance in 2023, making them one of the first two openly non-binary actors to win a Tony. (The other, Alex Newell, won in 2023 for their role in Shucked.)
The first time I watched this movie it was a blu ray release; the copy I watched this time was the 4K release from Kino Lorber. It is astonishing to me how great this sixty-five year old movie looks. If you think 4K is only for new movies, this might be one to change your mind.