(Picture from here.)
Television was different when I was a kid growing up in California.
It was early days. There wasn’t the vast backlog of material available that there is now. But there was the same need to fill dead air. Without reruns, reality shows, and made-for-TV or licensed-for-TV movies, the stations filled that dead air with old movies. Movies from the 30s or 40s—movies from the 50s were still too valuable to waste on mere television.
I watched a lot of television.
Plan 9 from Outer Space and Death Takes a Holiday were fun. His Girl Friday was terrific—what’s not to like about Rosalind Russell standing up and winning against Cary Grant? But Some Like It Hot was something very different.
If you haven’t seen SLIH, skip this entry and go watch it. This is one of those films that you don’t want spoilers.
Okay. This is going to be a wild ride.
Billy Wilder’s SLIH has an amazing cast: Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, Pat O’Brien, and many others. The central characters are played by Monroe, Curtis, Lemmon and Brown. Because of the cross dressing and differing names, I’m just going to use the names of the actors here. Otherwise, it gets too confusing.
A quick synopsis: Curtis and Lemmon are big band musicians in 1930s Chicago. Curtis plays the saxophone and Lemmon plays the string bass. They are inadvertently identified as witnesses to a mob massacre. To escape, they disguise themselves as women and join an all-women band touring in Florida. Many of the women in the band (including Monroe) are interested in finding and catching a rich man to marry.
In Florida, Curtis falls for Monroe but can’t act on it—he’s disguised as a woman. Brown is rich and vacationing in the hotel. He falls for Lemmon as a woman. Curtis persuades Lemmon to go out on the town with Brown while he disguises himself as rich and makes a play for Monroe. Hijinks ensue.
The movie was an instant success for all concerned. It was one of the nails in the coffin for the Hays Code—it was produced without Hays Office approval since it flirted with homosexuality and cross-dressing.
The main storyline follows Curtis and Monroe as their romance blossoms with a backdrop as the gangsters looking for the witnesses get ever closer. As would be expected, they end up together.
I was initially interested in it because of Joe E. Brown—I had been seeing 30s and 40s films all this time, remember. Brown was one of my favorites. He had a kind of genial grotesqueness that appealed to me. He had wide open smile that gave the impression if he stretched just a little wider, his upper lip would go clean over his head. So, it was not an accident I paid close attention him in the film when I first saw it and every time thereafter.
Because the film centers on the Monroe/Curtis romance, the Brown/Lemmon romance gets taken as buffoonery, on the same order as the cross-dressing comedies of Shakespeare. I think this is a mistake.
The Monroe/Curtis arc is important—Curtis goes from phallic missile to legitimate human being by the end. Monroe’s arc is less dramatic. It’s not entirely clear she’s not just falling for another saxophone player by the end but it’s emotionally satisfying, anyway.
But it’s the Brown/Lemmon romance that really drives home what I think is the theme of the film: you love who you love.
There are two critical scenes in the film that show this. The first is when Lemmon goes out on the town with Brown and comes back ecstatically happy: he’s forgotten he’s a man. He was happy with Brown. It’s Curtis that brings him down to realize that this romance can never be because Lemmon is a man.
The second is the final scene in the move which I will reproduce here:
Lemmon: We can’t get married at all
Brown: Why not?
Lemmon: Well, in the first place I’m not a natural blonde.
Brown: Doesn’t matter.
Lemmon: I smoke. I smoke all the time.
Brown: I don’t care.
Lemmon: I have a terrible past. For the last three years I’ve been living with a saxophone player.
Brown: I forgive you.
Lemmon: I can never have children.
Brown: We can adopt some.
Lemmon: You don’t understand, Osgood. <Takes off wig.> I’m a man.
Brown: Well, nobody’s perfect.
Brown’s character is often portrayed as oblivious to what Lemmon is saying. I think that’s wrong. Brown (Osgood) knows exactly what is going on here. But he’s accepted that the love he feels transcends those issues.
- Servant to master
- friend to friend
- parent to child
- spouse to spouse
- compulsive, uncontrollable love
The other kinds of love have the blessings of society but the fifth kind persists in spite of societal condemnation. The normal view of this would be love within an unsanctioned union—such as the love between two men here.
But I think this goes deeper.
It is clear in the context of the film that both Curtis and Lemmon are not gay. They do not condemn it but they are not part of it. To be authentic to themselves, they intend to be with women.
However, the relationship between Lemmon and Brown is also true. In order to be true to themselves, Brown and Lemmon must act on it—this is what is happening in the first scene between them to the point that Lemmon forgets his orientation when he is with Brown. Forgets, even, that he is a man.
This is the finest sort of conflict: the conflict between two authentic selves. Brown accepts it immediately—I am absolutely convinced that Brown’s character recognizes Lemmon for who he is at first glance. And accepts their love as authentic, even if it is in conflict with another side of himself. Brown is not a buffoon here but an enlightened being. He realizes that in order to be true to his higher self, other portions of his authentic self cannot be satisfied. He does it instantly and with joy to the point of proposing to Lemmon, who accepts.
Lemmon has a harder time of it—largely because his companion, Curtis, does not recognize this conflict as legitimate. Curtis acts as societal norm and immediately dismisses it: Lemmon’s self as a non-gay man is more important than love. (There’s a subsection in this scene where Lemmon tries to justify being married to Brown as a sort of confidence game, but to me his heart isn’t in it.)
It’s Brown, at the end, that confronts this conflict directly, leaving Lemmon with a clear choice: both of these authentic selves are important. Lemmon must choose which he will act upon.
My own feeling—and the feeling, I think, Wilder intended—is that Lemmon chooses love. This does not mean he discards who he is in favor of someone else’s vision, but that out of a set of authentic selves he can choose, he picks the one that fulfills him the most. He’s going to be opening himself to a dangerous life but he accepts that.
This is my extension of the Campbell’s illicit love. It’s not enough to fly in the face of society—the rebel is the American ideal, after all. At issue in societal condemnation is the individual’s perception that condemnation is legitimate and/or whether the individual can withstand the punishment. Both are external forces.
What’s more interesting—and what is explored in SLIH—is that internal conflict between two legitimate and honest interpretations of one’s self. Both are true: in SLIH Lemmon is both a heterosexual man and in love with Brown. Neither can be denied honestly. In order to act on his love and be authentic to himself, he must accept that both are true.
That fact that Wilder is able to explore this sort of thing in a romantic comedy is pure genius.