As a rule, I don’t like comedies. Inevitably, it seems, comedy turns into a bully. It laughs at the stooge and when it laughs loud enough and long enough, everyone else will join in. A dream fails, smothered beneath a rude trombone note. A character, offering her whole heart for justice, any bit justice, and find it outweighed by a feather light bit of slapstick. Comedy often regards human dignity as something small and scuffed and common place as a penny on the road, that it can pick up at its leisure and pay with for a cheap laugh. They say comedy is tragedy plus timing. If tragedy treats its characters cruelly, comedy can be just as cruel, but more thoughtless, abstract in its punishment. Tragedy at least affords a dignity in empathy. By inviting us to laugh at people, comedy can turn an audience into monsters.
I had reservations about watching Some Like It Hot. Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard demanded my respect for him as a director, and I didn’t want to watch this comedy and find myself disappointed with Billy Wilder. I was willing to write the whole thing off as rare a flight of fancy in a man whose mind I had come to regard as a deadly house of mirrors. Wilder tells tragic tales, about dreams as bright and cheap as sequins and the odds and ends of humanity who stood and reached and fell for them, and now lay shattered in dim corners. The men in his stories have sold their dignity so many times that they’re as thin as the layer of pomade shining in their hair. They don’t have enough dignity to question what they’re doing when they burn themselves up catching a dying star for a few extra bucks. The women in his films tend to look half drunk and agreeably desperate or lost. They drift through hallways of their own illusions. Stupidity is a survival mechanism they’ve learned. They wear a look on their faces that makes men want to batter them, and they’re fine with that, because he might stay a little while afterwards.
Nobody’s perfect, I told myself, shrugging. If I had paid attention, I would have realized that Wilder makes an excellent candidate for a comedian. The man makes noir and underside of comedy is black.
Some Like It Hot begins in a funeral parlor in prohibition Chicago, where Jerry and John moonlight in the “coffee house” that serves booze in the back. Jerry plays the base and John the sax and sometimes he plays the secretary at the office they get work from. The cops raid the coffee house and the duo dodge the raid but they still owe everyone a lot of money. On the way to making that money, they run into Spats Columbo, the owner of the booze house, dishing up revenge to the man who tipped the police. Jerry and John dodge their fate by a narrow margin. You’ll notice a theme here. They are professional dodgers – of obligations, checks for dinner, commitments with women, and even death. With one last hand to play, they dress in drag as Joanna and Daphne, hop on a train to Florida with an all female band, and hope for the best.
On the train, John and Jerry meet the battered but irresistible and breathy Sugar, played by Marilyn Monroe. Up until now, John and Jerry have vied for the spot light. John is dark and tall and good at getting what he wants from women. Jerry is the voice of cynicism and the guy with all the ideas he doesn’t want to carry out. We identify with him reluctantly as John bullies him into one thing and the next, taking a car he steals from a girlfriend to Indiana, dressing up as women. In the end, Sugar decides the protagonist. John harbors no interest for her at first, perhaps sensing she is trouble. He has his eye on the prize money. He doesn’t conceive of an interest in Sugar until she admits to him that she has a thing for sax players but they always leave her in a rut. She has issued a challenge to the worst side of John and he takes it up.
The movie alternates between the mishaps of “Joanna” and “Daphne” – the obvious difficulties of two men on a train full of women, misguided attention for them from rich men – and movements of the mobsters who do the work of the plot. However, beneath the palm leaves, puttering in the sun, and eager innuendos of Jerry and John, a darkness lurks.
Fragile things wear a premonitory halo about them, a promise they will be broken that illuminates like St. Elmo’s fire. Humor lives in this nervous awareness, in the giddiness of waiting for the wine glass to shatter, in the strained threads that hold a button to a jacket, or the moments of hush that preserve an honest feeling. A crash will come, we know, and humor is the laugh that arises from us while we endure the unbearable wait.
We feel a moral vertigo from watching two very fallible characters balance on a guide wire over pitch black consequences. John and Jerry, of all the characters, made me the most nervous. They inherit trust and confidences from other characters we don’t ever fully believe they deserve. They have an entire train load of women convinced of their authenticity, and when the women change into their nighties, the duo begin to look like two wolves dressed in cotton balls.
But Some Like It Hot never makes the fatal decision to laugh at its characters or shrug off the moral unease with which we watch them go about attempting to love one another. John impersonates a millionaire to seduce Sugar and Sugar impersonates a high society girl to seduce a man that doesn’t exist. While talking about their fake lives he catches her retelling a story that he used for his other alias, Joanna. I notice that its rare for a man in a movie to deceive a woman so baldly, with the audience aware the whole time of her ignorance. Sugar is the type of woman who ends up being the butt of a lot of life’s jokes, the kind of woman who is easy to treat badly because, as she says, “I’m stupid.” Yet, John never makes the unforgivable choice, and while lies build upon lies but the camera never turns its eye from what these two people are doing, wheeling and dealing their way to something better. The scenes between John and Sugar disclose a revealing innocence.
An odd sort of sympathy welled up in me as I watched these characters attempt to navigate their own lies to a better life. Like people, they are prey to their own illusions, especially when those illusions take the shape of a road to what they want. John and Sugar romance each other behind a series of tattered masks, and yet their feelings for each other remain pure. People in this film might wear shabby ambitions, and battered masks of lies, but beneath their vanities and faults, but they all want something good.
I never felt at ease in this movie. It leaves you all too aware of people’s faults, of their tendencies to harm when its the easiest way out. And yet it examines them with a forgiving eye, like a garden of bruised apples after a storm. It ended up being the most warm hearted comedy that I’ve seen in years and by the end, I wasn’t waiting for them to fall, or the next bit of slapstick, or for a storm of humiliation to come. The film never treats its bruised and clumsy characters with anything but gentle hands. It remains always vigilant around its character’s desires, their weaknesses, without giving in to the same weaknesses, and so in this movement it is a very human film, always struggling for something better. It examines, forgives, and hopes, and reminds us what we should be doing to ourselves.
Besides. Nobody’s perfect.
The Good: I actually laughed out loud at several scenes. If you don’t know me, this is a feat of human comedic engineering.
The Better: Watching Marilyn Monroe’s portrayal of battered floozie is like finding a bird with a broken wing.
The Best: A warm, warm, good hearted comedy.