Named #1 Comedy by the American Film Institute
Regarded by critics as one of the finest American movies ever made, Some Like It Hot continues to delight audiences 50 years after it debuted in 1959; in fact, the American Film Institute named it No. 1 on their list of the 100 best comedies of all time.
Filmed in 1958, the United Artists movie was shot on location at the Hotel del Coronado, Southern California’s landmark Pacific resort. The Del’s iconic Victorian architecture made it the perfect backdrop for the film’s 1929 setting, along with acting icons Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Says author and scholar Laurence Maslon, who will release The Some Like It Hot Companion in September (published by Collins Design, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers in the US and Anova Books in the UK), “There have been a lot of movies shot on a lot of locations, but only a few marriages of celluloid and place can be considered truly legendary. Chief among those magical moments is the sight of Marilyn Monroe cavorting on the beautiful beach at the footsteps of the Hotel del Coronado.”
The Prohibition-era story follows the exploits of Lemmon and Curtis, out-of-work Chicago musicians who accidentally witness a gangland slaying. Making a run for their lives, the men disguise themselves as women and join an all-girl band traveling by train to Florida. Here, a ukulele-strumming singer, played by Monroe, catches the eyes of both men, but it is Curtis’ character who assumes still another identity – an unlucky-in-love millionaire – to successfully woo and win Monroe.
Lemmon’s cross-dressed character, meanwhile, is vigorously pursued by a bona fide millionaire, played by Joe E. Brown. The hilarious gender-shifting romantic romp is played out at California’s famed Hotel del Coronado, which director Billy Wilder found to be the perfect substitute for Florida in the Roaring Twenties.
Sunshine … California-Style
At least one Floridian was less than happy about Wilder’s decision to shoot the movie in San Diego. Miami Mayor Robert King High reportedly said it was “a sacrilege” to let Southern California play the role of Florida’s “Sunshine State.” This sour criticism was ably met by Coronado’s mayor, who wired back, “Some like it hot, but not as hot as Miami in September.” The mayor’s rebuttal also referenced Florida’s gnats, mosquitoes and hurricanes, none of which plagued the temperate island of Coronado.
An “Uproariously Improbable Set”
Like all American resorts, the Hotel del Coronado had endured some tough years during the Depression and World War II, but it was this period of benign neglect that helped preserve the resort, making it the perfect setting for Wilder’s 1929 story, which he co-wrote with I.A. Diamond. Said Wilder, “We looked far and wide, but this was the only place we could find that hadn’t changed in thirty years. People who have never see this beautiful hotel will never believe we didn’t make these scenes on a movie lot. It’s like the past come to life.”
Although at least one critic didn’t believe the hotel was real, describing The Del as “an uproariously improbable set.” The hotel’s 1888 Queen Anne Revival-style architecture does tend toward the fanciful, with rambling white clapboard, lazy verandas and red-turreted roofs, which an earlier writer had characterized as a cross between an ornate wedding cake and a well-trimmed ship.
Although only exterior scenes were filmed at hotel, the interior scenes do look very Del-like (right down to the placement of the lobby elevator and stairs). This probably explains why so many Some Like It Hot devotees – even after seeing the Hotel del Coronado for themselves – absolutely refuse to believe that the movie’s interior scenes were not filmed at The Del.
Only at The Del: The Stars Align
During filming, Marilyn Monroe was accompanied by her husband, esteemed playwright Arthur Miller (he made two special trips from the East Coast to join her at The Del). Also in Monroe’s entourage was acting coach Paula Strasberg, along with Monroe’s secretary and press agent. Coronado police officers were assigned to guard Monroe throughout her stay.
Meanwhile, Tony Curtis’ wife, Janet Leigh, was also on hand (Leigh was pregnant with their second child, Jamie Lee Curtis, at the time). Jack Lemmon’s future wife, Felicia Farr, also joined the troupe.
By almost everyone’s account, Monroe was very difficult to work with throughout the film’s production – her tardiness and inability to remember lines have become legendary. Interestingly, however, quite a few reports confirm that Monroe was “on her mettle” during the entire Coronado portion of filming.
In fact, in his book Conversations with Wilder (1999), writer/director Cameron Crowe addressed Billy Wilder about this aspect of the film, saying, “I grew up in San Diego [and] the legend is that the hotel was the most magical part of the filming … that Marilyn felt relaxed there.”
To which, Wilder replied, “Yeah, that was fun. We had a good time there. Marilyn remembered her lines … everything was going according to schedule.” Added Crowe: “Marilyn seems fully engaged in those scenes.”
According to another source, Wilder speculated that Monroe was inspired at The Del, where adoring spectators were plentiful because she preferred a live audience. Wilder later told Crowe that the Coronado fans were “screaming and yelling,” and then added that when he wanted the crowd to quiet down, he had her say, “‘Shhh’ … they listened to her.” In the end, Wilder probably characterized Monroe the best, calling her “a calendar girl with warmth, with charm.”
And a last bit of Del trivia: During her stay, a hotel chef reported that Marilyn fancied his cold soufflé vanilla pudding with egg-white decoration, which she requested daily.
Favored by the Fans, Overlooked by the Oscars
The movie was a box office success, grossing over $8 million initially and earning several million more over the next few years – somewhere between $10 and $15 million.
Monroe’s financial deal – she received between $100,000 and $300,000, as well as 10 percent of the film’s gross profits – was a very lucrative arrangement in its day, and Some Like It Hot turned out to be her most profitable venture.
The movie was also a critical success. Variety called it the biggest hit of 1959; Monroe received a Golden Globe for her performance, as did Jack Lemmon. The film itself also won a Golden Globe for “best comedy.”
In spite of its financial success and public accolades, the film received only one minor Academy Award for “Best Black and White Costume Design.” Today it is thought that Some Like It Hot was just too risqué for 1959, when the big winner that year was Ben-Hur(also in the running for various Academy Awards were the likes of Diary of Anne Frank, Room at the Top, Pillow Talk and Porgy and Bess).
The Some Like It Hot story line is racy, and Monroe’s costumes are incredibly revealing, even by today’s standards (though, according to Wilder, Marilyn was not interested in fashion … as long as the costumes revealed “something,” she was satisfied). Ahead of its time perhaps, present-day reviewers marvel that the movie still comes across as such a wholesome film; this was Monroe’s forte: she was sexy, but childlike.
Although this is the Monroe film most shown on television today, the actress reportedly never liked her performance.
Fun Film Facts
Writers Wilder and co-author I.A Diamond were inspired by another cross-dressing comedy, the 1932 German musical Fanfare of Love, and they deliberately set the story in the past because, as Diamond put it, “When all the costumes look peculiar to us, a guy in drag looks no more peculiar than anybody else.”
Much like The Del itself – which was designed as it was being built – the last 15 minutes of Some Like It Hot was being written and rewritten as it was being filmed.
The film was shot in black and white because Wilder thought that male actors in female make-up would look too ridiculous in color. The black-and-white format – which also suited the period style of the film – did not appeal at all to Monroe, who contractually insisted that all her films be shot in color. Wilder was able to convince her that the 1920s setting would look more authentic in black-and-white. Interestingly, Wilder (who chose to make many of his movies in black and white) later said that Some Like It Hot was the one movie that would have benefited from color.
Although Wilder hired one of the world’s most famous female impersonators to teach Lemmon and Curtis how to walk in high heels, Lemmon refused the help – he didn’t want his character to be that adept as a woman.
Monroe’s character, “Sugar Kane,” is supposed to be 25 years old, although Monroe was 32 when the movie was made.
After Some Like It Hot, Monroe and Curtis never worked with Billy Wilder again, but Jack Lemmon remained one of the director’s favorite actors, and they made six more films together.
What to Look For
At one of the previews, the first shot of Lemmon and Curtis dressed as women was such a crowd-pleaser that Wilder added in every other shot he had for that scene (and, if you look carefully, you’ll be able to see them walking by the same railroad car again and again). In addition, Wilder deliberately didn’t show the characters as they transformed themselves from men to women because he knew the comic impact would be greater if audiences were introduced to “the ladies” all at once.
Monroe was displeased at her initial entrance – also at the train station – and Wilder and Diamond concurred. They rewrote the scene so that Monroe’s entrance was punctuated by steam blasts from the train.
The film clearly shows The Del’s two original front entrances. When the resort opened in 1888, the hotel offered a combined men’s and women’s entrance and a separate “unaccompanied” women’s entrance, which afforded lone women travelers a discreet way to check in. Though the two entrances survived past the 1958 filming of Some Like It Hot, only one remains today.
In the scene where Curtis and Monroe run out to the yacht, it is supposed to be night, but it’s obviously not dark; Monroe’s frequent tardiness made it impossible to shoot the scene at night.
In the role of gangster Spats Colombo, George Raft parodies the gangster role he played in the 1932 film Scarface, in which his character repeatedly flipped a coin. In Some Like It Hot, Spats Colombo is very irritated when he sees someone else flipping a coin, demanding, “Where did you pick up that cheap trick?” Raft – who didn’t accompany the cast to Coronado – was at The Del in 1936, during the filming of Yours for the Asking.
When Lemmon’s female character is telling Curtis’ male character about his engagement to a real millionaire, he punctuates ever line with a flourish of maracas. Wilder anticipated the scene being so successfully funny that he wanted to allow “space” for the audience laughter, and the maracas were added to provide the appropriate pauses.
There were two scenes that supposedly gave Monroe the most trouble: The scene where she knocks on the door and says, “It’s me, Sugar” required 47 takes; another scene, where Monroe had to rummage through a dresser drawer for a bottle of bourbon, proved even more challenging, requiring 59 takes. In fact, Wilder claimed that after he put the cue inside one of the dresser drawers, Monroe couldn’t remember which drawer it was in.
The last line – uttered by Joe E. Brown when he says to Jack Lemmon, “Nobody’s perfect” – was never intended to remain the last line, but Wilder and Diamond couldn’t come up with anything they liked better, so it stayed. Ironically, it has become a classic last line.
In some publicity photos, including the film’s poster, Monroe just doesn’t look like herself. That’s because a body double was used for several publicity shots; it was Sandra Warren, an actress who appeared as one of Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators. Her body was uncannily like Monroe’s, although Monroe face was ultimately superimposed.
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